I came across this article, “Six Signs of Scientism,” by philosopher Susan Haack from 2009. I think I’m in general agreement with Haack’s views—science has made amazing progress over the centuries but “like all human enterprises, science is ineradicably is fallible and imperfect. At best its progress is ragged, uneven, and unpredictable; moreover, much scientific work is unimaginative or banal, some is weak or careless, and some is outright corrupt . . .”—and I’ll go with her definition of “scientism” as “a kind of over-enthusiastic and uncritically deferential attitude towards science, an inability to see or an unwillingness to acknowledge its fallibility, its limitations, and its potential dangers.”
But I felt something was wrong with Haack’s list of the six signs of scientism, which she summarizes as:
1. Using the words “science,” “scientific,” “scientifically,” “scientist,” etc., honorifically, as generic terms of epistemic praise.
2. Adopting the manners, the trappings, the technical terminology, etc., of the sciences, irrespective of their real usefulness.
3. A preoccupation with demarcation, i.e., with drawing a sharp line between genuine science, the real thing, and “pseudo-scientific” imposters.
4. A corresponding preoccupation with identifying the “scientific method,” presumed to explain how the sciences have been so successful.
5. Looking to the sciences for answers to questions beyond their scope.
6. Denying or denigrating the legitimacy or the worth of other kinds of inquiry besides the scientific, or the value of human activities other than inquiry, such as poetry or art.
Yes, these six signs can be a problem. But, to me, these six signs are associated with a particular sort of scientism, which one might call active scientism, a Richard Dawkins-like all-out offensive against views that are considered anti-scientific.
I spend a lot of time thinking about something different: a passive scientism which is not concerned about turf (thus, not showing signs 1 and 3 above); not concerned about the scientific method, indeed often displaying little interest in the foundations of scientific logic and reasoning (thus, not showing sign 4 above); and not showing any imperialistic inclinations to bring the humanities into the scientific orbit (thus, not showing signs 5 or 6 above). Passive scientism does involve adopting the trappings and terminology of science in a thoughtless way, so there is a bit of sign 2 above, but that’s it.
A familiar examples of passive scientism is “pizzagate”: the work, publication, and promotion, of the studies conducted by the Food and Brand Lab at Cornell University. Other examples include papers published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on himmicanes, air rage, and ages ending in 9.
In all these cases, topics were being studied that clearly can be studied by science. So the “scientism” here is not coming into the decision to pursue this research. Rather, the scientism arises from blind trust in various processes associated with science, such as randomized treatment assignment, statistical significance, and peer review.
In this particular manifestation of scientism—claims that bounce around between scientific journals, textbooks, and general media outlets such as NPR and Ted talks—there is no preoccupation with identifying the scientific method or preoccupation with demarcation, but rather the near-opposite, an all-too-calm acceptance of wacky claims that happen to be in the proximity to various tokens of science.
So I think that when talking about scientism, we need to consider passive as well as active scientism. For every Dawkins, there is a Gladwell.
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