The Folly of Scientism

By Austin L. Hughes
The New Atlantis

‘When I decided on a scientific career, one of the things that appealed to me about science was the modesty of its practitioners. The typical scientist seemed to be a person who knew one small corner of the natural world and knew it very well, better than most other human beings living and better even than most who had ever lived. But outside of their circumscribed areas of expertise, scientists would hesitate to express an authoritative opinion. This attitude was attractive precisely because it stood in sharp contrast to the arrogance of the philosophers of the positivist tradition, who claimed for science and its practitioners a broad authority with which many practicing scientists themselves were uncomfortable.

The temptation to overreach, however, seems increasingly indulged today in discussions about science. Both in the work of professional philosophers and in popular writings by natural scientists, it is frequently claimed that natural science does or soon will constitute the entire domain of truth. And this attitude is becoming more widespread among scientists themselves. All too many of my contemporaries in science have accepted without question the hype that suggests that an advanced degree in some area of natural science confers the ability to pontificate wisely on any and all subjects.’

‘The positivist tradition in philosophy gave scientism a strong impetus by denying validity to any area of human knowledge outside of natural science. More recent advocates of scientism have taken the ironic but logical next step of denying any useful role for philosophy whatsoever, even the subservient philosophy of the positivist sort. But the last laugh, it seems, remains with the philosophers—for the advocates of scientism reveal conceptual confusions that are obvious upon philosophical reflection. Rather than rendering philosophy obsolete, scientism is setting the stage for its much-needed revival.

Advocates of scientism today claim the sole mantle of rationality, frequently equating science with reason itself. Yet it seems the very antithesis of reason to insist that science can do what it cannot, or even that it has done what it demonstrably has not. As a scientist, I would never deny that scientific discoveries can have important implications for metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics, and that everyone interested in these topics needs to be scientifically literate. But the claim that science and science alone can answer longstanding questions in these fields gives rise to countless problems.’

‘Of all the fads and foibles in the long history of human credulity, scientism in all its varied guises — from fanciful cosmology to evolutionary epistemology and ethics — seems among the more dangerous, both because it pretends to be something very different from what it really is and because it has been accorded widespread and uncritical adherence. Continued insistence on the universal competence of science will serve only to undermine the credibility of science as a whole. The ultimate outcome will be an increase of radical skepticism that questions the ability of science to address even the questions legitimately within its sphere of competence.’

Austin L. Hughes is Carolina Distinguished Professor of Biological Sciences at the University of South Carolina.

Excerpts reblogged with permission from The New AtlantisView original post


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16 responses to “The Folly of Scientism

  1. The criticism is of scientism, not science.


  2. Here are some more good arguments against scientism.


  3. Hi Tim, I finally found time to read Hughes’ essay. Lots of food for thought, particularly about the opinions of scientists being priveleged in areas outside their own discipline.
    Personally, I struggle to perceive a scientific basis for ethics, and I probably would regard metaphysics as by definition outside the purview of science.
    Which probably goes to show the best thing I can do (for myself) is to just keep on reading.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Mel

    Can someone please help me understand Hughes article? What exactly is scientism?


  5. Mark Peacock

    Well this is just a hoax along the same lines as any other attempt to demean science by misrepresentation. The scientists do not make the claims they are being criticised for. Elementary skepticism reveals the ‘critiques of scientism’ to be essentially just a rather unpleasant and dishonest straw man.


    • On the contrary, it is scientism that undermines the credibility of science by claiming that science can do things that it can’t – for instance Sam Harris’ claim that science can answer moral questions (see the above full article under the heading ‘The Eclipse of Ethics’).


    • Mark, I don’t know what your background is, but you seem to be seeing the IFLScience brand of science rather than the warts and all version. Scientism is a real thing, even if not the woo-peddlers version that has them crying foul for being debunked.

      Science is often used, especially by those on its fringes, as a way of pushing agendas and ideologies. Sam Harris’ supposition that science can answer moral questions is itself troublesome, since it is only true in a few instances, and extending it beyond that – which Harris appears wanting to do – is scientism. Especially considering that morality is a shifting set of goalposts, science being more about truth/fact/evidence.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. “Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.”
    Albert Einstein


    • I’m not sure of the relevance of this quote to scientism. Critics of scientism are not necessarily religious. In any case, there is some doubt as to Einstein actually meant by this quote: Einstein’s famous quote about science and religion: what did he mean? « Why Evolution Is True


      • True, there are definitely better quotes to choose from, but I do think it’s relevant.
        The scientific method is, undeniably, a fantastic technique for understanding the Universe.

        In my opinion: Science will provide the answers, but other study will help ask the questions, or explain the answers to others.

        Science without anything else cannot move forward, and without science, everybody would just wander around aimlessly (ex. we wouldn’t be able to have this nice discussion on the web!).

        For example, without literature or language, how can we hope to convey the importance of science to a young human who has never heard the word before?


  7. Pingback: Scientism. – Constructive Undoing

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