The Problem with Scientism

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“In these days of crisis in the humanities, as well as in the social sciences, it is crucial to distinguish valid from ill-founded criticism of any academic effort.”

This article was first published on January 25, 2018, on the Blog of the APA and is reprinted here with permission.

Science is unquestionably the most powerful approach humanity has developed so far to the understanding of the natural world. There is little point in arguing about the spectacular successes of fundamental physics, evolutionary and molecular biology, and countless other fields of scientific inquiry. Indeed, if you do, you risk to quickly slide into self-contradictory epistemic relativism or even downright pseudoscience.

Massimo Pigliucci: Philosophy of Pseudoscience: Reconsidering the Demarcation Problem.

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That said, there is a pernicious and increasingly influential strand of thought these days — normally referred to as “scientism” — which is not only a threat to every other discipline, including philosophy, but risks undermining the credibility of science itself. In these days of crisis in the humanities, as well as in the social sciences, it is crucial to distinguish valid from ill-founded criticism of any academic effort, revisiting once more what C.P. Snow famously referred to as the divide between “the two cultures.”

There is a pernicious and increasingly influential strand of thought these days — normally referred to as “scientism” — which … risks undermining the credibility of science itself. 

First off, what is scientism, exactly? Sometimes it pays to go back to the basics, in this case to the Merriam-Webster concise definition: “An exaggerated trust in the efficacy of the methods of natural science applied to all areas of investigation (as in philosophy, the social sciences, and the humanities).” But surely this is a straw man. Who really fits that description? Plenty of prominent and influential people, as it turns out.

Let me give you a few examples: Author Sam Harris, when he argues that science can by itself provide answers to moral questions and that philosophy is not needed (e.g., “Many of my critics fault me for not engaging more directly with the academic literature on moral philosophy … I am convinced that every appearance of terms like ‘metaethics,’ ‘deontology,’ [etc.] … directly increases the amount of boredom in the universe.”)

Science popularizer Neil deGrasse Tyson (and physicists Lawrence Krauss and Stephen Hawking, science educator Bill Nye, among others), when he declares philosophy useless to science (or “dead,” in the case of Hawking) (e.g., “My concern here is that the philosophers believe they are actually asking deep questions about nature. And to the scientist it’s, what are you doing? Why are you concerning yourself with the meaning of meaning?” — N. deGrasse Tyson; also: “I think …

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