Stephen Novella – neuroscientist, president and co-founder of the New England Skeptical Society – summarises “scientism” as:

…the belief that science can and will discover the answers to all questions, that there are no inherent limits to the ability of science to solve all problems. In my experience it is a trait rarely seen in working scientists, but often accused of, as a way of dismissing scientific criticism.

Not surprisingly, the scientism straw man is one that is being widely criticised online in various blogs and forums.

This blog post is a collection of commentary on that straw man:

Evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne is a frequent target of the charge of scientism by Christian apologists, creationists, intelligent design advocates, and accomodationists. In a blog post titled ‘Can we apply science to the supernatural?’, he responds to one of his critics, as follows:

Okay, let me get one thing clear at the outset.  I do not believe, nor have I ever asserted, that science provides us with all the answers that are worth having.  Some answers worth having involve subjective taste:  which bistro should I eat at tonight?  Should I go out with Sue or with Megan? Is Joyce’s The Dead truly the best story ever written in English? (The answer to that, by the way, is “yes”.)  Why does Beethoven move me to tears while Mozart leaves me cold?  And there are the moral questions, such as “Is abortion wrong?”

Now some of these questions are at least potentially susceptible to empirical investigation and falsification (I may find, for example, that I first heard Beethoven during a really good time of my life, and that this somehow conditioned my neural response to the music.)  But science certainly can’t “do everything.”  It can’t relieve the tears of a bullied child; it can’t bring civil rights to blacks and gays; it can’t bring peace to Israel and Palestine. Still, many of the answers to these questions can be informed by scientific analysis.  If our answer to the question about abortion involves knowing whether a fetus can feel pain, well, that can—in principle—be studied scientifically.

Dawkins, too, is not immune to the blandishments of art and literature, as you can see by simply reading his books.  I suspect that both Richard and I are advocates of “scientism” only to the extent that when questions are amenable to logic, reason, and empirical investigation, then we should always use those tools.  If that’s “scientism,” then so be it.

Astronomer Phil Plait of the blog Bad Astronomy wrote a blog post titled ‘Science IS imagination’ in which he responds to an article written by a creationist who was accusing scientists advocating for evolution of scientism, and that this scientism leaves no room for imagination. Part of Plait’s response reads:

First off, there is no such thing as scientism. What he is describing is simply science, because science by its very nature is an attempt to explain all things using natural processes. And he seems to think science has no imagination.

That’s insane. Without imagination, all we can do is categorize the world. Assigning names and numbers, statistics and categories. And while that sort of thing is important in the scientific process, it’s not science itself. Without imagination, science is a dictionary.

And in fact the opposite of what Todd is saying is true. It takes no imagination at all to insert a supernatural explanation in some spot where you don’t understand the process. It’s all too easy to say "the bacterium flagellum could not have evolved," or "The Big Bang theory doesn’t explain why the Universe is homogeneous everywhere," and therefore "God did it." But it takes imagination, soaring, incredible, wonderful imagination, to look beyond the limitations of what’s currently known, and see what could possibly be… and even more imagination to make sure this venturing beyond current understanding still stays within the bound of reason and known rules of science.

He concludes by saying:

It’s all too easy to poopoo science, and to say that scientists are black and white automatons who go through the motions of the scientific method, rejecting anything with sparkle or color or surprise. But that conclusion itself lacks imagination. Science is full of wonder, of surprise, of leaps of imagination. If it were anything else, we wouldn’t have probes orbiting other worlds, we wouldn’t have vaccinations capable of wiping out scourges like smallpox, we wouldn’t have digital cameras, the Internet, ever-faster computers, cars, planes, televisions. We wouldn’t be able to feed ourselves, support our population, or look ahead to see where our decisions are taking us… and to see if these decisions are the right ones, and what to do to make them better.

Without imagination, even after all these centuries, we’d have learned nothing.

Science is imagination.

Stephen Novella responded to the same creationist’s article (the one that Phil Plait critiqued above) in his blog post titled ‘The Scientism Straw Man’. Novella writes:

What scientists argue is that the methods of science are the only way to generate scientific knowledge of the universe. Yes – that statement is self-referential, because science is a system and only claims knowledge within its system. Science does not claim objective ultimate metaphysical truth of reality – only that: 1) its methods, when properly employed, give results that are internally consistent, 2) these results are useful and powerful because they make predictions about how the world will behave.

Insights from the arts, literature, mythology, dreams, music are legitimate for what they are – they are just not science. Philosophy is different, because part of philosophy is logic, which is a necessary tool of science. Psychology is a scientific discipline, so its inclusion in the list is not appropriate.

Todd argues that scientists feel insights from these other disciplines are “irrelevant” – but he misses the point, that they are irrelevant to science. Science is a collection of methods to empirically test ideas about how the world works through observation and experimentation. Other intellectual activity, like aesthetics and value judgments, are simply not part of science, even though they may provide other kinds of insights and wisdom.

There is a wonderful discussion of ‘scientism’ at the blog OPEN PARACHUTE in a post called “Scientism” in the eyes of the beholder.

In the comments section, a commenter called Iapetus said:

So, the patented “scientism” accusation has been hurled out because someone wishes to shield certain beliefs from rational, scientific investigation. Furthermore, the usual suspects come out and bleat their “Self-refuting! Self-refuting!” mantra. A familiar start to the New Year…

Ha ha ha…

A little further down in that same comment entry he says:

..both scientists and philosophers of science worth their salt recognize and continuously stress the preliminary nature of our scientific knowledge, models and theories and furthermore the fact that we can never be absolutely certain of being in possession of THE TRUTH. Thus, all scientific results and conclusions are incessantly tested and critiqued, while always being open to amendment or even outright abandonment.

The outcome is a body of interwoven knowledge which is based on intersubjective corroboration as well as ceaseless mapping against reality; Popper called this the “regulatory idea of truth”. Due to this method, said knowledge deserves a very high confidence value.

Now, this does not mean that only science can produce true or at least approximately correct beliefs about the physical world. As Heraclides already mentioned, one might stumble upon a piece of true knowledge by pure luck or a stroke of genius or simply by going about one’s daily routine. However, the only way we have developed thus far to increase our confidence in said knowledge is by making it amenable to intersubjective corroboration and testing against reality. Lacking this possibility and/or willingness (*cough* – religious dogma – *cough*), any such claims deserve a low confidence value.

I will keep updating this blog entry with snippets of interesting online commentary on “scientism”, as and when I find those that I think are worth sharing.

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