Sunday, 16 June 2013


Terence Blake and Mohan Matthen have had a bit of a to and fro on the subject of scientism.

Scientism, like any -ism, is no one thing - it's more complex than a list of properties - but here are some defining beliefs, from my experience:

Epistemically, there are only two categories: there's science and then there's everything else - everything else is homogeneous compared to science, which is sui generis.
Science is knowledge, everything else is belief.
Only scientific knowledge can be genuinely true.  Everything else is false, uncertain or epistemically meaningless.
Science can potentially solve all our problems.  Therefore, all other epistemic forms must defer to science whenever possible.
Where scientific knowledge is inconsistent with naive experience, that experience must be rejected as illusory.
Those with knowledge of science automatically have greater political and epistemological authority than those without.
Although there are disagreements in science, these are circumstantial and temporary - the result of not yet knowing.  Scientific truth speaks with one voice.

Not all of those statements are true of any given instance of 'scientism' and not all are made explicit in any iteration but I think they are all evident somewhere or other.

Scientism is also rooted in a deeply pre-sociological or pre-anthropological view of science (I temporalise by saying 'pre' because I think the anthropological and sociological literature on science produced since the late 1970s is strong enough to constitute such a periodisation - like pre-Socratic or pre-Newtonian).  Scientism believes in 'ready made science' as Latour put it, as opposed to 'science in action.'  Scientism tends to ignore or elide the social, collective characteristics of science; like the versions of history that deal exclusively with kings, castles and battles, it honours winners and ignores the everyday aspects; it fixates exclusively on end products and is disinterested in processes.  It uses 'science' as a trump card without really understanding it.  It's a reactionary view of science that's common sensical to those who've never asked difficult questions about it.

It's actually quite an un-scientific, non-empirical view of science that relies upon the highly politicised self-reflections of scientists.  It's like if you understood politics exclusively through the memoirs of retired politicians - you'd end up believing that politics was exclusively composed of boot strapping, hard nosed, selfless types who earnestly just try to do the best they can in the circumstances they are afforded.  The politicians may genuinely believe in that image of their lives but we'd be foolish to take such images at face value.  Yet in the case of science just such abstract, post hoc reflections are granted unquestioning authority.

The alternative view of science derives from this basic insight: scientists know how science works much better when they're doing it than when they're thinking about it.  So, scientists do know best how science works but only as long as you don't ask them 'how does science work?'  If you ask that then all you'll get is confirmation bias.  The root of scientism is just such misty-eyed mysticism.  That it parades itself as a celebration of the most unflinching, square-jawed rationalism imaginable only heightens the irony.

I should add, none of the above criticism takes anything away from the objectivity or brilliance of science.  It isn't that science isn't objective or true, it's just that the versions of objectivity and truth implicit or explicit in scientism are hopelessly misguided.