Wednesday 31 October 2012

Pro-scientism or Anti-scientism? Yes!

Adam Kotsko has an interesting post on the "hottest new trend in continental philosophy", namely "scientism."

The question of scientism is an interesting one and it's not an easy question to resolve, despite the 'with us or against us' way that most people deal with it.  There are two things I have to say about it:

Firstly, I am a fully subscribed Latourian insofar as I see science as one kind of knowledge practice among others, albeit one that is tied into very peculiar and massively powerful networks and perhaps one that has its own modes of reference and so on.  So, I don't accept that on the one hand we have science and the other we have all other kinds of knowledge or that scientific knowledge is necessarily better in any given instance.  Science is itself a plurality and while it is quite different to other practices (politics, religion, pseudo-science etc.) these are differences within a plurality, not a duality.  So I'm rather anti-scientistic in how I specifically and explicitly cognise scientific practice -- I'm anti-scientistic, intellectually speaking.

But, then, secondly, am I not quite naively scientistic in my everyday practices?  Do I believe in evolution, global warming, atoms?  Of course I do.  When I get sick do I follow medical science or voodoo?  The former, of course.  Do I accept the claims of geocentrism just because it's just one cosmology among others?  Of course not, I accept whatever I understand of the prevailing scientific consensus is, however complex and processual I understand such consensus to be.  Insofar as science has a widely accepted answer for a question of fact I basically accept it (this probably isn't absolutely true but it's true enough).

So, I actually feel slightly dishonest when I repeat the Latourian/Foucauldian, etc. slogans about science .  I preach these lessons and I hold them to be true but don't I practice a whole different kind of truth, generally?

Of course the Latourian pluralism with respect to scientific knowledge qua practice that I describe above isn't actually *incompatible* with this kind of naive, 'grade school' scientism that I otherwise assume but nor are the two things really harmonious.  They're not irreconcilable but nor do they sit easily together.  I do experience some cognitive dissonance between the two -- why is this?  I don't know.

Science is one kind of knowledge among others, yes.  But am I prepared to give other kinds of knowledge an equal hearing on questions of fact?  Hardly.  Am I anti-scientism or pro-scientism?  Both!

Just a thought rather than an argument but hopefully people can see where I'm coming from.  For the time being I think that scientism makes for a more interesting open question than it is a debating topic with sides pre-decided, as if anyone has all the answers.  We should take its contradictions as indication that no one has adequate answers yet.