Bo and Ben Winegard start their Quillette essay (thanks to K.A. Rodgers for the tip) “In Defense of Scientism” by saying “Truth is always provisional”.
Is that proposition true, or merely provisional?
They also say, “In science, the jury is always out. This is because science is a methodological approach to the world, not a set of inflexible principles or a catalog of indisputable facts.”
Not indisputable? Walk into a coven of biologists and say, “I dispute the neo-Darwinian theory of evolution.” You will very soon learn the meaning of indisputable.
Science flatters itself by saying its inflexible principle of the scientific method is somehow unique among intellectual endeavors. It is not. Every subject—theology, philosophy, mathematics (math is not science), history, even—adapts to new evidence. Science, too.
Science is always presented as Whig history. The world was dark and formless. On day two Francis Bacon said, “Let us have control!” And science was born. It never appears to occur to scidolators to consider that before the scientific revolution the reason for the absence of (much) science was because few thought it was needed. Men believed there were more important matters.
Incidentally, it follows, and I imagine the Winegard Two would agree, that if no scientific theory is true then all scientific theories should be doubted. Even in those sciences that are “settled”. We need more Uncertainty.
“Oh, so you’re going to be negative. Briggs, science has ‘conquered deadly diseases’.”
It did, too. Yet have the increased lifespans of men done them more, or less, spiritual good? All medicine has side effects, which can sometimes be worse than the disease.
“We don’t care about your spiritual good. For science has ‘eradicated oppressive superstitions. ‘”
Except for its own superstitions. Funny, though, that those suffering under “oppressive superstitions” rarely thought themselves burdened. Just as we do not think we are suffering under the oppressive superstition that science has the answer to all or to the best questions. Which is scientism.
Winegard2‘s scientism definition at first sight appears different.
The version of scientism we will be defending here is the version advocated by Pinker, Harris, Dawkins, and [Neil DeGrasse] Tyson; the simple contention that we, as a society, should use the principles of science—skepticism, experimentation, falsification, and the search for basic explanatory principles—to determine, however clumsily and slowly, how the world works and what the best and most effective social policies are.
They advocate “‘science-based social policy’ (SBSP)”. There are two problems with this, one philosophical, one practical. (Three, if you include falsification, which is a philosophical dead end.)
The philosophical problem is this: science can never tell us what questions to ask, what subjects to investigate, nor can it rank questions in importance. This knowledge has to come from outside science. Once a subject has been identified as important, science can assist in answering questions about it—a practice to which no one anywhere objects.
The practical difficulty is what counts as evidence is itself only partly scientific, partly political, partly metaphysical. There would be no dispute about any subject to which all agreed on the importance and its consequences, but which was merely lacking measurements to best categorize uncertainty in the subject. Theories decide what facts to look for; facts which do not fit a theory aren’t seen. We have many disputes in many subjects in which we have massive amount of measurements, proving science cannot answer ultimate questions.
In short, science can only be a handmaiden to policy. It can never drive it.
Weingard Deux present and answer four objections to their version of scientism. Let’s take each in turn.
“1. Scientism Will Lead to an Unaccountable Tyranny of Scientists”
“Many intellectuals and pundits who have assailed scientism have argued that it would lead to a tyranny of bespectacled elites promoting a dangerous brand of bloodless rationalism. They associate SBSP with other failed experiments in top-down utopianism such as the French and Russian Revolutions.”
There is a large body count to back these fears. We now have (some) scientists and physicians telling us men can be women. We have others saying sodomy is “healthy”. To argue against these conclusions is to be a science denier. A tyranny of scientists is a live possibility.
To their credit, Weingard-Weingard are not blank-slaters. Yet they say “Today’s most preposterous policy proposals…usually come from those who are ignorant of or willfully deny the conclusions of modern evolutionary psychology.” This criticism is spot on in those theories which are based on Equality & Diversity.
It is easy to willfully deny the absurd, which applies to some conclusions of modern evolutionary psychology apart from Equality. That subject produces the absurd, when it does, in part because of its reliance on materialism, itself a form of scientism. If the material is not all there is, the science must be lacking.
In both cases the error arises from the metaphysics (philosophy), and not so much from measurement (though evolutionary psychologists are overly fond of Just-So stories).
“2. Scientism Has Been Responsible for Terrible Crimes in the Past and Scientists Are Often Wrong”
“Opponents of scientism …eugenics and white racial superiority…Social Darwinism, for example, wasn’t really a science, and it wasn’t based on the weight of the evidence; it was a social philosophy that incorporated a crude version of natural selection.”
Ahem. It certainly was a science, and was based on the weight of evidence. It was the theory that determined the evidence to look for. Here they are identifying the curse of scientism: that it cannot determine the importance of the consequences of any theory. And they are showing a philosophy must be behind any science; here, they do not like the philosophy, but not liking it does not make it not a philosophy.
“3. Scientism Cannot Determine Values and Therefore Is a Poor Guide to the Good Life”
The is/ought argument is almost exclusively scholastic [they mean academic], because in reality most people agree on an underlying value, and this helps us to bridge the gap between “is” and “ought.” As Sam Harris has argued in The Moral Landscape, the underlying value most people agree upon is that some form of human flourishing or satisfaction or well-being or happiness is an intrinsic good and ought to be promoted. That is, most modern people in the West agree, despite sometimes showy protestations to the contrary, that human well-being ought to be the goal of social policy and morality.
This is the Voting Fallacy, that because a (possibly weighted) majority agree that X is moral or good, therefore X is moral or good. Most people may now agree about “human flourishing” or, Lord help us, “satisfaction”, but this does not bridge the is-ought gap. That can only be done, and is done, via metaphysics, not science.
“Once we have identified a desirable end—human flourishing—we can and should use science to discover and promote the policies that encourage it. Put another way, science can and absolutely should tell people how to live.”
Put it this way, scientism has just been proven false by Twice Weingard. For agreeing—or rather deciding, and therefore avoiding the Voting Fallacy—on a desirable end is admitted not to be a scientific question. And nobody has ever disagreed with finding proper measures once the end has been decided.
“4. Scientism Attempts to Cannibalize Other Fields and is Disrespectful of Other ‘Ways of Knowing.'”
Critics of scientism frequently express the fear that science is encroaching on the turf of the humanities, devaluing once noble human endeavors such as music, painting, and literature. But this is simply a category error. Humans don’t value art because it provides empirical knowledge about the world; they value it because it offers an enjoyable and often thought-provoking experience.
If there were ever a passage more indicative of scientism, I’d like to see it. Of course we value art, music, literature, philosophy because they provide empirical knowledge about the world! Forget the dreadful images conveyed by the desire for “experience”, and look to their “thought-provoking”, which makes their contention self-refuting.
They insert a joke about poetry failing to tell us of “the relation between calories and weight gain”, which as regular readers know is Type I scientism, which is the bombast by which scientists inform people of what the people have always known; here, that eating too much makes you fat. And then it isn’t true poetry is silent on this subject.
One word more, I beseech you: if you be not too
much cloyed with fat meat, our humble author will
continue the story, with Sir John in it, and make
you merry with fair Katherine of France, where, for
anything I know, Falstaff shall die of a sweat, unless
already he be killed with your hard opinions; for
Oldcastle died a martyr, and this is not the man.
–Shakespeare, Henry IV, Part 2, Epilogue
Would you like fries with your scientism?
“So then what about philosophy? Many of those accused of promoting scientism, such as Dawkins and Harris, have written or said dismissive things about philosophy…But it’s clear, if one is charitable when interpreting these thinkers, that they don’t dislike or disparage philosophy per se, but rather a kind of esoteric and self-referential philosophy that has been mocked and belittled by many.”
Rot. The claim from some of these men is that science can replace philosophy. As above, it cannot: science relies on philosophy. They have the causal arrow turned upside down.
However, “adherents [of scientism] are admittedly impatient with some of the logic-chopping, yawn-inducing, and obscurantist varieties [of philosophy] practiced at elite institutions.” That such philosophy exists is true, much of the result of publish-or-perish; i.e., academics who have nothing to say but who are forced to say something and then say it at great length.
If all Weingard+Weingard mean by scientism is that, when it can, science should be used to assist answering certain questions, then you will not find one sober man who disagrees. They place science is too high a regard for such humble tasks, though. That’s where their scientism becomes false.