The Dire And Depressing Implications Of Science As Scientism: Two Introductions

A long introduction…

Scientism is the fallacy that all that is known and all that can be known, can only be known through scientific methods: that which is testable is all that counts. It is the false belief that all areas of inquiry can and should be subject to scientific, i.e. empirical, inquiry.

A prime, and maybe even the sole, reason that some people give for the belief in scientism is that science has been so good at prediction, that prediction has been steadily improving and broadening in scope, and that therefore it is rational to suppose that it will continue to do improve and broaden.

This is quite lovely because it contains two nuggets of truth, but it is these nuggets that lead to the fundamental error. And this is because the scientismist (who may or may not be a scientist) substitutes the truth of these nuggets for the truth of the entire statement. The first nugget is “science has been so good at prediction, that prediction has been steadily improving and broadening in scope, and that therefore it is rational to suppose that it will continue to do improve and broaden.”

It is rational to believe that scientific progress will continue. It however is irrational to believe that because science has progressed that it always will or that it will progress into areas which are not scientific, i.e. that are empirically testable. It is a small and understandable mistake to suppose that science will always progress, especially when we hear that the iPhone 6 (or is it 7?) is in the works, but it is a major error to suppose that science will be able to answer all non-scientific questions. And it is another offense to say that non-scientific questions do not exist because science can only answer scientific questions: this of course begs the question.

The second nugget of truth, perhaps slightly more subtle, is the appeal to “goodness” of prediction or explanation. Why is it good that predictions match reality? It is good; that is, it is true that it is a good that scientific predictions closely match reality. It is also true that this closeness is also a good reason for us to believe in the truth of the scientific theory which makes the good prediction. That is, it is true that prediction closeness is a reason to believe in the truth of a theory. Lots of truths swimming around here: enough to suggest that since all these parts are true, the parts joined together are true, i.e. that scientism is true.

But to say that closeness of prediction is good or that closeness is a good reason to believe in a theory are both non-scientific statements. We can’t know that prediction closeness is a good by appealing to any empirically testable thing. These are metaphysical beliefs. They may be axiomatic or they may be derivable from simpler axioms, but they are not prone to measurement.

This is only a small proof why scientism is false and that faith in scientific progress is often misplaced. And, as suggested from the beginning, it is only a long-winded introduction to a series of meaty, masculine, must-read posts by Edward Feser as he reviews Alex Rosenberg’s uber-scientistic The Atheist’s Guide to Reality, perhaps the best tract in support of scientism that exists.

David Stove often praised certain philosophers for being wrong and for making mistakes so clearly. Feser says as much about Rosenberg whom he praises for understanding the implications of the radical scientism and atheism he preaches, the major one of which is “nice nihilism”. Of course, Feser will explain better than I can that the desire to be “nice”, nihilistically or not, is a moral concept, and so Rosenberg defeats himself as he steps into the ring.

Feser’s 10-part series cannot be missed (and I’ll know if you have, for there will be homework in future posts). Incidentally, probably in June, I’ll be reviewing his other must-have work, The Last Superstition.

The second part of the introduction is for Michael Flynn, a science-fiction author and blogger at The TOF Spot. Flynn was kind enough to link to our post yesterday, where we began the Official New Mismeasure of Man list. Flynn has some interesting things to say about the progress and hope for progress in science, and just what this means in terms of scientism. He comes to the conclusion that “Modern science is under attack, not by creationist outsiders but by academic insiders.

Get reading!

33 Comments

  1. “…it is a major error to suppose that science will be able to answer all non-scientific questions.” And a major error to suppose that science will be able to answer all scientific questions. Worse yet, it may not answer all answerable scientific questions, e.g., the prediction of future climate change (assuming that this is answerable). Why not? Because as Flynn says, “Modern science is under attack, not by creationist outsiders but by academic insiders.”

  2. I have never understood any of the definitions of scientism. They all just seem to be backdoor criticisms of science itself in favour of a beloved mysticism. Surely any such definitions should include examples of knowledge not determinable by scientific study. The various “scientific methods” also need to be delineated if one is claiming a limit to their applicability. Are you claiming that the misuse of science or statistics for political ends is scientism?

  3. I don’t see anything wrong with attempting to apply scientific methodology everywhere. The hallmark of the method is testability. M. Flynn made a comment that seems to disagree but perhaps I misunderstand: The reaction began with Karl Popper, whose subversion of the scientific program was so successful that today even scientists themselves talk of his ‘falsification’ thesis as the very hallmark of science. Something testable is also falsifiable which is what I believe Popper meant.

    As you’ve mentioned, the heart of testable is prediction. The problem comes when testable isn’t feasible yet theory is proffered as proof.

    Oddly, there are many areas considered to be science where testability is problematic. Astronomy is one. Physics seems to be approaching that point.

  4. But to say that closeness of prediction is good or that closeness is a good reason to believe in a theory are both non-scientific statements. We can’t know that prediction closeness is a good by appealing to any empirically testable thing. These are metaphysical beliefs. They may be axiomatic or they may be derivable from simpler axioms, but they are not prone to measurement.

    Yes. It is equally false to declare the “truth” of a derivation when the truth of the underlying axioms is unknown. All that can be said is the derivation is true assuming the truth of the axioms. The dirty secret is that the truth of axioms is largely unprovable. They effectively amount to definitions — nothing more than common agreement. (homework: what is “x=x+0” really saying?)

    So, yeah. Scientific methodology is not universally applicable. Neither is deductive reasoning. This shouldn’t surprise anyone. Frankly, what does comes as a surprise is that anyone would write a book about it.

  5. William Sears: I don’t agree that the cirticisms are in favour of mysticism– my take is that it’s the opposite.

    Much of what gets touted as science these days is philosophy in disguise. Take String Theory, for example. The entire field is almost exclusively confined to mathematics. The ‘experiments’ exist only in the imagination and are, as far as I know, untestable in the real world. This is the opposite of physical observation.

    That’s only one side of it. If the purpose of science is to search for the truth then it is imperative that one consider as many alternative explanations to experiment as possible. Statistics (thanks Briggs… this is all your fault. *kidding*) has been working against us here. The p-value is taken as ‘evidence for’ a hypothesis.

    I doubt any one of us could count the number of times we have seen the p-value used as confirmation for a theory. Some folks seem to have abandoned the scientific method in favor of confirmation bias.

    Too many people are getting in to the fortune telling business without having to pay the price of making bad predictions.

  6. Affirming the consequent is the heart and soul of natural science. When Popper blew up the old positivist worldview it was largely because, logically, no number of individual confirmations ever add up to absolute certainty. However, that does not mean that inductive reasoning has no value and deductive reasoning is the cat’s meow. The posterior analytics are as useful as the prior analytics; and, anything substantial consisting of both matter and form, formal logic goes hand in hand with material logic.
    + + +
    @Mr. Sears.
    Scientism is the belief that the scientific method is the only valid way of knowing. It is often coupled with a disparagement of philosophy; which is ironic because scientism is a philosophical position, not a scientific conclusion. (Which also makes it logically self-defeating.) It is a form of mysticism.

    It takes more than dressing up in a white lab coat and calling a questionairre an “instrument” to make a science. Natural science deals with the abstracted metrical properties of physical being. Whatever is non-physical or non-metrical — religion, love, justice, numbers, et al. — is beyond the scope of natural science as it is practiced in our age.

    An example of human endeavor that is not conducted using the scientific method is mathematics. No amount of measurements of round physical objects will ever produce a circumference and diameter whose ratio is irrational. Other examples include justice, art, music, literature, etc.

  7. noahpoah,

    Not if you accept that Briggs actually was thinking prediction then NOT disbelief ==> belief. Under the scientific method, prediction can only disprove. And many successful predictions increases the probability of truth. This is an awkward mouthful to repeat for the obsessive pedantic. Likewise, a single bad prediction doesn’t necessarily disprove an hypothesis either because it is known mistakes have occurred in the past so they can’t be a priori dismissed.

  8. I don’t believe that either Will or Ye Olde Statistician have properly replied to my concerns. Both have treated mathematics as being somehow opposed to science. Mathematics is one of the methods of science. Will’s concerns seem to be about the misuse of scientific methods and although this is a valid concern it does not address the definition of scientism. Ye Olde gives examples of endeavours that are often considered to be outside of science but does not say what truths or knowledge has been discovered by them that is beyond the pale of science. Music, by the way, is a very poor example of this point. I also see a tendency to mention only one or two of the many (possibly unlimited) methods (techniques) of science and then to conclude that because a particular field of study does not use these methods that the charge of scientism is correct. If the claim was simply that not everything can be explained or determined by the methods of physics (to use an example) I would have no objection. However, physics is not the only scientific approach. So I ask again, what is scientism? I believe that it relies on straw man arguments and a misrepresentation of the full scope of science.

  9. Mathematics is no more “opposed” to science than justice, love, or religion is; but mathematics is not itself natural science (“science” in the modern sense). The conclusions of mathematics are not known via the scientific method. They are known by deduction from axioms, not by induction from empirical facts. Mathematics does not concern itself with material bodies (e.g., basketballs), but with ideal bodies (e.g., spheres) — or for that matter: numbers, topological spaces, rings, etc., things that do not exist physically.

    Modern science uses mathematics, certainly. But then a chemist may use glassware without claiming the glassblower is a chemist.

    Music is an excellent example. Like everything sensible, it has material aspects and nonmaterial aspects. Science can tell us about some of the material aspects. But anyone who thinks that the Moonlight Sonata is fully understood when one has mastered the physics of vibrating strings does not know music. A much better case could be made for wedding music and mathematics.

    The scientific method in illuminates some aspects of nature — the metrical, controllable aspects — just as a streetlamp illuminate some parts of the street. But that doesn’t mean that nature has no other aspects. There’s a difference between light frequencies and the experience of redness. And while the light under a streetlamp may help when looking for something you dropped, don’t assume there might not be other places where you might look for it.

  10. Scientism is the fallacy that all that is known and all that can be known, can only be known through scientific methods: that which is testable is all that counts. It is the false belief that all areas of inquiry can and should be subject to scientific, i.e. empirical, inquiry.

    God forbid a scientist try to find something scientifically in a field where your judgement tells you he Shouldn’t! Of course, you offer nothing in evidence for this “falsity”. You just claim it. It’s your faith, your religion, your theory. You’re too in love with it and that’s where you fall.

    The real problems with the “scientismicities” you’ve been collecting (and rightly so!) are not because of the inherent belief that the subject matter they are studying are scientifically studiable (does that word exist?), but because of the relentless bad reasonings, bad methodologies, biases, etc that they show on and on and on. It’s a collection of studies coming from people who, like you, “know” the truth in their “gut”, and by god they will convince everyone they are right. And the method they choose is p-value.

    The correct method is to be totally honest. It’s hard. It’s tough. And it will mean that you will find many times that the answer to a study is “I just cannot come to any conclusion here”, which may be hard to sell to journals. The correct method is *not* to just give up and declare that there “are things that science cannot study”. This is the method of the weak minded, the cowards, those who will be long forgotten.

    YES, you are right in proclaiming that it is not rational to expect science to “always” prevail. But that’s like saying we are right in proclaiming that all that is good may not survive in the long term, that any advances in our societies are not for granted. OF COURSE they are not. Our job is to recognize this and FIGHT this decay, a relentless struggle against entropy, not to declare it the “winner” and declare science as a loser.

    But to say that closeness of prediction is good or that closeness is a good reason to believe in a theory are both non-scientific statements. We can’t know that prediction closeness is a good by appealing to any empirically testable thing. These are metaphysical beliefs. They may be axiomatic or they may be derivable from simpler axioms, but they are not prone to measurement.

    Exactly the opposite: “closeness is a good reason to believe the theory” is part of the scientific methodology. To say that scientific methodology is not “science” is engaging semantical quibbles of the worst sort. And a lie. Scientific methodology is something that has evolved with its own insights. A sort of a boat that is being built as it is being driven towards its goal. Multiple historical evidences of this fact, and you ignore them at your peril (remaining ignorant of them). For instance, the positivistic take of science has only arrived @ the 20th century with the insights of Einstein and Heisenberg.

    You are trying to judge Science with the eyes of an Absolutist and declare it incompetent. This is your mistake. Science opposes absolutism. It should be judged with different insights.

  11. Under the scientific method, prediction can only disprove.

    People still cling to these Popperian myths. It’s simply untrue, or at least, obsolete. There are so many counter-examples to this “insight” it’s not even funny. And they are not even recent – I recall a famous example, where Einstein was told just after submitting his Theory of gravity, that his theory was “falsified” by numerous empirical tests which seemed to disprove his theory. His answer? “It will all go away”. By your reasoning, people should not take him seriously. But alas, it did go away.

  12. So I ask again, what is scientism?

    To me, scientism can be summed up to lack of proportion. Sometimes, people just grab the wrong conclusions from a set of experiments or scientific ideas that seem to have “some” mustard. This lack of proportion isn’t a terrible thing, I have little problems with somewhat crazy scientists. It’s frightening spark happens when it is coupled with badly proportioned politics, i.e., when those crazy scientists think they should do something to the greater society based on their findings.

    Examples abound. Republicans are stupider than Democrats and unwilling to believe in the obvious truth. We should do something about that. Global Warming will be Thermageddon and people just aren’t taking this seriously. We should do something about that. Eugenics. Etc.

    It’s a real problem. And it’s nothing like what mr Briggs is exposing here. Which annoys me greatly.

  13. People still cling to these Popperian myths

    And yet, it is rumored that Einstein said (more or less): “No amount of experimentation can ever prove me right; a single experiment can prove me wrong.” Wonder what he could have meant if he said it.

  14. Even geniuses are wrong some of the times, DAV, that’s the correct insight you should take from that one. I’m not even being facetious, if you want let’s look at that sentence.

    Imagine that sentence is absolutely true. Imagine further that one guy makes an experiment and disproves GR (one does not even have to, you just have to remember the OPERA drama). Does GR goes kaboom? No. There’s also the fallibility of the experiment itself that one must take account of. OTOH, lots of experiments have proven GR “right”, in the non-absolutist sense. That is, if you just abandon this old-fashioned absolutism that Briggs continues to wave, then in all accounts GR is as right as any theory *can* possibly be. And that’s just good enough.

    So in both accounts he was wrong. But that’s because he was still battling absolutism’s thinking in that sentence.

  15. Luis,

    I don’t think he meant any old experiment. He meant one that really tested theory. IOW: done correctly the results of a single experiment could bring the whole thing into question.

  16. But that’s the problem, innit? How do you know beforehand that the test was done “correctly” at all? People really look into an experiment and say “I’m pretty sure I’ve done every possible thing to make sure it’s as “correct” as it can be”. But they may well be wrong. On a variant, people might criticize the experiment wrongly, because they alledgedly find a “problem” that isn’t, because they are not thinking “right”, but they think they are.

    You are viewing the problem from the omniscient perspective. Try to see it from down below here, where you have no clue whether the experiment was done “correctly” or not. Why were people so dismissive of OPERA’s findings? Because they trusted the theory more than the experiment. And rightly so. So people went to trouble to find the error in the experiment, not the theory.

    Even when you say “could bring the whole thing into question”, you are admitting that you don’t believe in falsifiability, or else you’d just say “would throw it to the garbage can”.

  17. It helps to distinguish hard science from soft science. The soft sciences and pseudo sciences have ridden the coattails of the hard sciences.

    *Hard* science has made astounding predictions, but the softer you get, the worse the track record. This cast doubts on the ability of science to effectively expand far beyond its traditional boundaries.

  18. Luis,

    Nonsense. The first step should be to examine for flaws in the experiment and that includes verifying it does indeed test the theory. Of course there will be doubts about the experiment and rightly so but if no flaw can be found at some point it would become obvious and that single experiment might even be held up as definitive refutation. OTOH, no experiment or even sets of experiments will ever be definitive proof of correctness of theory. The point is: the results of a single experiment can bring a theory down.

    Nobody said it would happen instantaneously.

  19. The point is: the results of a single experiment can bring a theory down.

    They can but that’s not a given. That’s what I am saying. Yes, the process isn’t “symmetrical”, in the sense that falsification is stronger than validification, but that is not a “given” too. This factoid stems from basic statistical probabilities. The off chance that a theory might predict things with a very high degree of precision without any “fudging” is extremely low. If this theory is able to do so, then it is validated and confidence sharply rises. If the theory does not agree with it, the chance of it being wrong (that is, that “other possible theories” might be “righter”) vs the chance of the empirical observations being wrong are much higher.

    But this is merely one bit of an insight. It’s not general, in the sense that it only applies very well to very very rigorous sciences (physics), and even there, not everywhere. In more “soft sciences”, where Bayesian reasonings must take hold, it’s not even applicable (where it is pretty much a given that all models are wrong but some are useful). I argue that this is mostly everywhere in science, and is only an exception in physics because of its high level of precision.

  20. Does anyone else thinks Luis kinda dislikes Dr Briggs a bit too much? I think it may be love.

  21. God forbid a scientist try to find something scientifically in a field where your judgement tells you he Shouldn’t!

    Actually, it’s that logic tells us that natural science cannot draw scientific conclusions about objects whose very identification is already a matter of interpretation and judgment involving values and meanings. (Natural science boasted long ago of having abolished “meaning” from the physical universe.) A questionnaire is not an “instrument,” a question is not a “stimulus.” When Harris claims to have “measured” with these “stimuli” whether a “subject” is a “committed” “Christian” his errors are more than simply methodological. When Dennett makes up a “just-so” story to explain that “religion” is an “evolutionary adaptation,” he glosses over the question of whether “religion” can even be identified as an objective thing the way, say, oxygen or motion can. “Republican” (or “Democrat,” for that matter) is not a scientific genus any more than “religion” or “justice” or “beauty.”

  22. Andy,

    Let me say sincerely that I love Luis and I hope he sticks around. We’ll bring him back in the end.

  23. Briggs says: “Scientism is the fallacy that all that is known and all that can be known, can only be known through scientific methods”.

    The scientific method is based on two logical fallacies. But neither require abandoning logical consistency. ***And that is the crucial point.***

    One fallacy, affirming the consequent, is mentioned in the comments above.

    The other fallacy, an appeal to authority, is from the assumption that all scientific knowledge must be be independently verified and validated (repeated experiments, peer review, etc.).

    Perhaps is would be more productive to think of scientism as an assumption that the scientific method is the best error management technique currently known. We are not all Platonic mathematicians after all.

  24. Ye Olde Statistician,

    I believe that we are writing past each other, but I will make one final comment. I do not believe that it is possible to make such a clean separation between math and science as you propose. Science has its own axioms and the models used to describe the world do not physically exist either. The glass blower may not be a chemist, although many are, but the discipline of glass blowing is a scientific one and it is certainly not scientism to describe it as such.

    The question is not whether science completely understands the moonlight sonata or redness but whether any other approach does any better. Remember we are discussing scientism.

    I still claim that the term scientism is often invoked to disparage science when one has a deep emotional (often mystical) attachment to a subject. I am not claiming that this is what W.M. Briggs is doing but only that the terms pseudo-science, junk-science, or pathological science would be a more apt label. Pace Briggs but I find myself agreeing with Luis Dias on this one, at least as far as I understand his comments.

  25. Does anyone else thinks Luis kinda dislikes Dr Briggs a bit too much? I think it may be love.

    If I disliked him, I wouldn’t be around. Just like I don’t hang around mr. Romm’s blogs, or Watt’s, or Gavin’s… you get the picture.

    William, the problem I see here is that mr Briggs recognizes a big problem in society: There’s a ton of junk being fed into our “scientific building”, which in turn is used by hacks and activists and other very opinionated people as gospels on why the people that disagree with us are scientifically stupid and other illuminated truths, which in turn may be used in very nasty and variable ways (from name-calling to wretched policies to outright crimes).

    However, his diagnosis is wrong. The problem is not that science cannot study these things. Hell, is mr. Briggs actually saying that we cannot study the climate because we have produced so much junk in the past years? Of course not. He cherry picks studies about human behaviours and say “This is why science should not study these matters, this is scientism!”, but the problems inherent in these studies are pretty much generic and shared with other fields where even mr Briggs would acknowledge science’s capability to study them.

    So the problem is not about science studying taboo stuff. The problem is overreaching. By the studies, by the researchers, by the news “journalists”, by the outrageous bloggers and writers who want to punch everyone who dares to disagree with them.

    Personally, I very much like mr Briggs and I really do not want to punch him at all. 😉

  26. FWIW astronomy is indeed predictive. Evolution is not.

    Somewhat. Evolution predicts that you cannot find rabbit fossils in Pre-Cambrian rocks. And alas, no one ever did. And lots of stuff like that.

  27. “Evolution predicts that you cannot find rabbit fossils in Pre-Cambrian rocks. And alas, no one ever did.”

    As this is an Internet blog someone surely should say, “You can’t prove a negative!” More likely that rabbit fossils in a rock stratum will be taken as proof that they are not pre-Cambrian.

  28. Well, ok Rich, how about this? Darwinian evolution predicts species will evolve and differentiate themselves in two different paths if you divide the population. And then at some point, the difference is so large they can no longer copulate. This has been already observed in the laboratory. Is that good enough?

  29. Now that I think of it, you draw that “Evolution does not make predictions” straight from Popper, don’t you? He was fond of that silly line saying that Evolution was a metaphysical concept or something like that. Just one more evidence the guy was very silly in many aspects.

  30. A true theory is a theory which BY DEFINITION will only make true predictions. Hence a false theory is a theory which will make at least one false prediction. A very simple axiom, I would say.

    Not an axiom one must accept, but it works even for metaphysics.

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