My Breakfast With “Scientism”

By Neuroskeptic | December 17, 2012 9:16 am

One morning, I awoke convinced that science was the only source of knowledge. I had developed a case of spontaneous scientism.


The first challenge I faced was deciding what to eat for breakfast. Muesli, or cornflakes? Which would be the more scientific choice? I decided to go on the internet to look up the nutritional value of the different cereals, to see which one would be healthiest.

My computer was off. So first I’d need to turn it on – but how? From past experience, I suspected that pressing the big green power button on the front would do it – but then I remembered, that’s merely anecdotal evidence. I needed scientific proof.

So I made a mental note to run a double-blind, randomized controlled trial of “turning my computer on” tomorrow.

Lacking nutritional data, I decided to pick a cereal by taste. I like muesli more than cornflakes. At last, a choice! Muesli it is, I thought – until I realized that I didn’t actually know which one I preferred more. I had a gut feeling I liked muesli, but that’s not science. What if, in fact, I hated muesli? Science couldn’t tell me, at least not yet.

Another mental note: conduct cereal taste preference study, day after tomorrow. No breakfast for me, today.

By now, I was hungry, confused and annoyed. “This is getting ridiculous!”, I tried to exclaim to no-one in particular – but then I realized – I could not even speak because I knew next to nothing scientific about the English language.

Sure, I had vague intuitions about how to put words together to express meaning, but that’s just unscientific hearsay that I’d picked up as a child (no better than a religion, really!) In order to communicate, I’d need to study some proper science about semantics and grammar… but, oh no, how could I even read that literature?

Faced with the impossibility of doing anything whatsoever purely guided by science, I decided to go back to bed… yet with no scientific basis for controlling my own muscles, I collapsed where I stood, bashing my head on the breakfast table as I fell. 

Luckily, the bump on the noggin cured me of my strange obsession, and I lived to tell the tale.

Many people will tell you thatscientism“, the belief that science is the only way to know anything, is a serious problem, a misunderstanding that threatens all kinds of nasty consequences.

It’s not, because it doesn’t exist – no-one believes that. If they did, they would end up like the unfortunate narrator in my story.

Everyday, we make use of many sources of information, from personal experience and learning to simply looking at things, whether they be right in front of your eyes or on TV. This is knowledge, and no-one thinks that we ought to replace it with “science”, if that were even possible.

“Scientism” is a fundamentally unhelpful concept. Scientists are often wrong, and sometimes they’re wrong about things that other non-scientists are right about. But each such case is different and must be judged on its own merits.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: funny, philosophy, science
  • anon
  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06647064768789308157 Neuroskeptic

    OK:

    It has been defined as “the view that the characteristic inductive methods of the natural sciences are the only source of genuine factual knowledge…”

    To refer to “the belief that the methods of natural science, or the categories and things recognized in natural science, form the only proper elements in any philosophical or other inquiry,” or that “science, and only science, describes the world as it is in itself”

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12498653879153240121 Alice

    Mmmm, all for strawman checking and agree this is often used lazily, but that doesn't mean a tendency towards scientism isn't something to warn against and think about. Just because the idea of scientism is used as a strawman doesn't mean some of the critiques against scientism aren't worth listing too.

    I find this with a lot of strawman puncturing (even those I have a lot of respect for, e.g. a lot of David Edgerton) – I wonder if you are also strawmanning the strawmanners – leaves me wanting to roll my eyes at the lot of you in the hope that someone, somewhere will credit others with some bloody nuance.

    BTW, you read the Logic of Modern Science (1931), by Percy Bridgeman?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06647064768789308157 Neuroskeptic

    There are certainly plenty of cases where scientists over-extend their ideas and end up in error. However I don't think it's useful to introduce “scientism” into that discussion, it's just being wrong. Lots of people are wrong, in many different ways & for diverse reasons.

    If a scientist is wrong in a certain case then we should explain why they're wrong. Then that's that, and “scientism” is nowhere to be seen.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12835021279108929371 Callum Hackett

    In order to understand the issue properly, I think it's important to acknowledge two varieties of supposed scientism that are often conveniently conflated:

    1) Science is a useful lens for everything, e.g. choosing breakfast cereal. There is literally nothing that science can't do.

    2) Science is the only method for producing reliable facts regarding the function of the universe.

    Typically, the fallacious argument against scientism goes: scientism type 1 is patently ridiculous, ergo there are other methods of knowledge production (type 2). This is obviously a bad argument.

    Of course scientism type 1 is ludicrous, and I think that's the type you tackle here, and which you rightly state no one actually believes. But, as misleading as the word “scientism” is, I would consider myself a proponent of scientism type 2. Throughout human history, there simply have been no other methods of reliable knowledge production, and as much as philosophers and religious individuals can ramble about the limits of science in this area, they are yet to actually demonstrate a single example of a non-rational process creating a coherent, trustworthy fact. The only way that they have been able to mount a half-convincing case is by using some rather suspicious conceptions of the word “truth”, e.g. truth in the beauty of art.

    For more on this, I would recommend some detailed posts by Jerry Coyne:

    http://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2012/05/12/the-trouble-with-the-trouble-with-scientism/

    http://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2012/05/30/philip-kitcher-and-i-discuss-scientism/

  • Mordatar

    Great post.
    I can think of a potentially fair use of the word “scientism” which is different from just being wrong.
    “Scientism” could be the application of the scientific methods to solve problems which would be much more productively solved through intuitive expertise. It can happen.
    My brother, for example can be a “scientismist” (now that's a nice word) in choosing a playlist for a party. He overrationalizes it, makes it unpleasant and we end up arguing. At the end, the result, which is having a good time, is worse.
    But even in this broader sense, “scientism” is extremely rare.
    Kahneman has mastefully outlined the conditions for intuitive expertise: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19739881
    If you read the document, you can see that it is far, far, more common for people to apply intuition when the scientific method would work better than the other way around.
    In my experience, when people complain about “scientism”, they are just nagging about science itself.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06647064768789308157 Neuroskeptic

    Anonymous: Comment removed because it's off topic. Stick to the psychiatry posts for that kind of thing.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/14316501618006695088 JoeDuncan

    I agree completely with Callum.

    If the scientific method is not the only (strong) or best and most reliable (weak) way to establish truth about reality, then please explain to me how some basic fact like the speed of sound in the atmosphere at sea level can be determined *without* resorting to science.

    I don't see how you can do it. Any non-science method you can come up with basically boils down to “guessing”.

    The same thing goes for any other truth about reality, unless, as Callum mentioned you twist yourself into a philosophical pretzel redefining “truth”.

  • Dawdle

    I think that there is a problem with people having 'faith' in claims made by scientists and researchers, even when the evidence which supports those claims is not very good. As many of the blog posts here show, this is not a good idea.

    Also, it's difficult to define what the boundaries of 'science' are. Should economics be considered a science? One problem with privileging 'science' over pursuits of truth like moral philosophy, is that it pushes society towards pragmatism, and this can often serve to favour those who start with social power and authority, both because of the influence they can have over the research being done, and because outcomes will be measured in the societies which they have significant influence over.

    Extreme eg to clarify the point: Putin claimed that those protesting against his election were disturbed, and certainly, by a range of measures those who embraced the corrupt nature of Russian society will be more functional than those whose cognitive biases compel them to pursue freedom and justice. A less extreme example would be research which can be used to argue that science shows certain 'positive' distortions are a 'good' thing.

    The recent biopsychosocial reforms to UK disability benefits seem to be heavily influenced by spun research which serves to weaken the position of the sick and disabled (much of it coming from those with connections to the insurance industry and DWP). Government ministers have argued that reforms were necessary to account for our new understanding of disability, but much of this 'understanding' is ideologically driven, with poor supporting evidence. Politicians do not seem to have a firm understanding of that, but instead, make important moral and political judgements based on the assumption that they can trust the 'science'.

    There are absurd claims made about 'scientism', but there are also problems with the way in which science can be manipulated, trusted, shape our societies, and affect the way in which people are treated.

  • Stanley Holmes

    I find it meaningful to use scientism to point at the people who are embracing the pursuit of some scientific knowledge for its own sake, without needing to regularly justify or rejustify (at least to themselves) why they are doing it. The question of 'why' is more of a philosophical or religious question than an empirical question.

    As an example, anybody using a variant of 'if it weren't for politics, we could do science more serenely' is flirting with scientism. Same for people considering philosophy or any form of spirituality as a waste of time.

    If you have never seen such variations in thinking (even as some kind of continuum with science-as-an-end-in-itself as an extreme), I understand why you would consider the concept of scientism meaningless.

    That said, I agreed with you most of the usage of the term is at the same time inappropriate, pejorative, and unhelpful.

  • http://davenussbaum.com Dave Nussbaum

    Where I find “scientism” troubling is in instances where there's a dogmatic insistence that no understanding of a phenomenon, besides a scientific one, is valid.

    I realize that this is essentially the same as saying that science is the only way to understand the world, but I think that framed in this way I see many more, reasonable-seeming, examples of it happening.

    The breakfast example is amusing, but falls short to me because even dogmatic rejectionists of non-scientific explanations would readily acknowledge that there is no obligation for all beliefs to be arrived at by one's own scientific study.

    However, framed in a slightly different way, the breakfast example is, I believe, revealing. That is, even though I personally may not have scientific knowledge of what I should eat for breakfast based on my own data, an adherent to scientism (presumably) would argue that the answer to the question is in fact knowable, and can be determined by science (and science alone).

    But I would contend that my choice could be usefully informed by science (what's nutritious, what's poisonous, etc.) but it will also be determined by a broad range of things which science has a limited means to determine, like the balance of how much I should value tastiness over nutrition, or what happens to be in my fridge that I like based on accidents of history like the spice trade in the 16th century.

    Once you frame the question, science has a decent chance at giving you a good answer, but very often science isn't all that good at telling you what question you should be asking.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06647064768789308157 Neuroskeptic

    “However, framed in a slightly different way, the breakfast example is, I believe, revealing. That is, even though I personally may not have scientific knowledge of what I should eat for breakfast based on my own data, an adherent to scientism (presumably) would argue that the answer to the question is in fact knowable, and can be determined by science (and science alone).”

    But I don't think anyone would say that. At least I've never met anyone who would, and I've met a lot of people who critics would accuse of 'scientism'… hence this post.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06647064768789308157 Neuroskeptic

    As to dogmatic insistence on a scientific understanding of something – that certainly does happen, but I think it's just an instance of being wrong. Such people have a pet theory that they're unwilling to admit isn't very good – and maybe they'll rationalize that by calling opponents unscientific. So they should be criticized. That's all fine, I just don't see that “scientism” adds much…

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01057560988134579735 pyl

    But here there is a confusion between knowledge and praxis. Science could be good enough for getting knowlegde about the world, but never about the decision a person or comunity must take, that is praxis or ethical question. The problem is to ignore the distinction (or to use the scientific rhetoric to claim for any practical decision).

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/08801634278850835168 MikeSamsa

    Neuroskeptic said: “There are certainly plenty of cases where scientists over-extend their ideas and end up in error. However I don't think it's useful to introduce “scientism” into that discussion, it's just being wrong. Lots of people are wrong, in many different ways & for diverse reasons.

    If a scientist is wrong in a certain case then we should explain why they're wrong. Then that's that, and “scientism” is nowhere to be seen.”

    I agree and disagree.

    I see what you're getting at and, at the end of the day, all that really matters is finding where the person went wrong, explaining why it's wrong, and correcting them.

    On the other hand, when these mistakes are commonly made, and often manifest in the same basic shape, it can be useful to give a name to these concepts. For example, the use of the term “publication bias” doesn't tell us anything either and it would be far more productive to just explain why it's wrong to only publish positive results, but it's still helpful to give the problem a name. At the very least, it's a shortcut that helps us talk about the same problem rather than describing all the details of the problem every time we want to discuss it.

    The same applies to scientism. There are many people, some famous, who adamantly believe that science will one day answer the question of morality – that it will tell us what we should value. I agree that we shouldn't attempt to disprove their position by simply accusing them of “scientism”, but I believe it is helpful to accurately describe their position as scientism and then explain why it is wrong to adopt that position.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11060672095299509742 Chaorder Gradient

    I agree with Dave here. One facet of sciencism comes in where there are questions trying to be scientific and definitive in a realm where it cannot be answered scientifically. The biggest place this occurs is in the “social” sciences, where you try to get an idea of permanent pure facts through science in areas that are transient, or limited by impossible sampling constraints. This comes from things such as socially and culturally biased studies.

    The dogmatism of sciencism is also hurtful to science itself, because it directly opposes the asking of questions where the “science is settled” so to speak.

    A 3rd problem i would say is an offshoot of these where certain kinds of concepts(consciousness for example, or even justice or morality) are denied existence merely because it cannot be defined in a scientific manner. This isn't necessarily tied to sciencism, but the thoughtstyles commonly come hand in hand.

    Typically though, the bigger problems of sciencism are more common in lay-people because they aren't fully exposed to the limitations of science.

  • http://www.1boringoldman.com Mickey Nardo

    The strength of the term scientism as a criticism seems to me similar to the modern use of the term dogmatism. Originally, The Dogmatists were the group who believed in and sought absolute truth. The counterpoint to the Dogmatists were the Skeptics [Pyrrho of Elis] who believed that all truth was relative, a best approximation. The author of this blog has incorporated the distinction into his nom de plume. Science is at its best when it follows the along the path of Pyrrho.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/17412168482569793996 Eric Charles

    Excellent Post!

    It is a bit ironic that this is same line of reasoning is also fatal for extreme rationalism, one of scientism's natural enemies. “Descarte claims to doubt everything… but I'm pretty sure when he got out of bed he put his feet firmly on the ground. So much for his doubt!”

    By the way… as a psychological scientist you should know full well that we don't need absolute certainty. All we really want is “I prefer Muesli, p < .05" ;- )

  • DS

    Neuroskeptic

    I truly do not understand what your post is about.

    I ask myself: What do I feel like eating for breakfast? And what ever that is it is a fact. Aren't facts part of science?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06647064768789308157 Neuroskeptic

    DS: You're absolutely right. We know many facts (like we like for breakfast) in our everyday lives. Such facts are not, however, included in the common definition of 'science' (although I've argued that they could be).

    The point being that if someone says “You only believe things that science can prove”, they are setting up a strawman, because no-one believes that, we all manage to eat breakfast without the help of science.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06647064768789308157 Neuroskeptic

    MikeSamsa: Fair point. But on the “science will answer moral questions” issue, I suspect that most such people are not even espousing scientism, they're just confused as to what “moral questions” are i.e. they have some personal, implicit standard of morality – utilitarianism, most often – and they assume that's beyond question; in which case the only thing that remains to be answered is how best to achieve the ends of that morality, and in that regard, science is indeed the best bet.

    I don't see that as scientism, it's just a basic philosophical confusion…

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/08801634278850835168 MikeSamsa

    Neuroskeptic said: “But on the “science will answer moral questions” issue, I suspect that most such people are not even espousing scientism, they're just confused as to what “moral questions” are i.e. they have some personal, implicit standard of morality – utilitarianism, most often – and they assume that's beyond question; in which case the only thing that remains to be answered is how best to achieve the ends of that morality, and in that regard, science is indeed the best bet.

    I don't see that as scientism, it's just a basic philosophical confusion…”

    For a lot of people, perhaps. But in my experience, suggesting to someone that philosophers are better equipped at dealing with moral issues results in them reacting as if you've suggested that moral values can only come from god (even after explaining and clarifying fundamental aspects of morality).

    I think maybe I've just been hanging out in unrepresentative circles because the people I've interacted with certainly meet the criteria for scientism in this situation, rather than it being a simple philosophical confusion.

  • DS

    Neuroskeptic wrote:

    “The point being that if someone says “You only believe things that science can prove”, … “

    But what exactly are you calling “science” and what does “prove” mean? Proof is really a mathematical term and not one that concerns observation – the foundation of science. I don't think the problem with such a statement is that it is a strawman. I think it, as stated, is nonsensical – not because it's wrong but because it lacks sufficient meaning. It's a statement that sometimes people make out of frustration when discussing matters of importance with wishful thinkers.

  • DS

    Neuroskeptic also wrote:

    “Such facts are not, however, included in the common definition of 'science' …”

    Um, yes they are. What people like and dislike, want or don't want are facts and are treated as such by scientists.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/17412168482569793996 Eric Charles

    DS…. what people “like and dislike” or “want and don't want” are no more factual than anything else one might be interested in studying. When someone makes a claim regarding their own desires or preferences, they are stating an investigatable hypotheses, not a “fact”. People are not infallible indicators of their own likes and desires.

  • DS

    Eric

    Huh?!@#$%^&*()

    Nothing is infallible. What somebody says they want, need or like is as much a fact as a measured position, acceleration, energy …..

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/08801634278850835168 MikeSamsa

    DS said: “Huh?!@#$%^&*()

    Nothing is infallible. What somebody says they want, need or like is as much a fact as a measured position, acceleration, energy …..”

    The problem that Eric is alluding to is the fact that people are very, very poor at knowing what they want or like. As such, when somebody says, “I like cornflakes”, the scientific fact is the verbal report of liking cornflakes. The fact is not that they like cornflakes.

    Conflating the two resulted in many wasted years in psychological history, and since distinguishing between the two the field has made leaps and strides forwards.

    I know it might seem counterintuitive to think that people are bad at determining what they like, but it's true.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/17412168482569793996 Eric Charles

    DS,
    You are, I think, conflating two things. That someone said they want X may be a fact. I agree. That what they said is accurate is not a fact, it is a testable hypothesis. Because a more thorough reply would be a bit long for a blog comment… lets take this outside…

  • DS

    Eric and Mike

    What people say they want and need is still a fact. You may think that it does not correlate with some objective measure of what they want and need but is still a fact.

  • Sam

    Scientism, a better story:

    I agree, as an individual goes to choose breakfast, we and they are not going to run a scientific analysis to make sure the food they intake is perfect. This organism, me, will choose a breakfast based on a combined genetic programming with a cultural/social/environment programming and on the present availability, including the option to skip breakfast. For now, we rely on the programming of genes and environment, that is self-programming, to get the job done. We rely on the fact that we will be machines that take in at least adequate carbohydrates and minerals and water. But the reason why this programmed machine does this is all sitting within a physical realm that is explicable only by empirical study and modeling, if we choose to understand such. If we abstain from trying to understand such, and simply reach for the cornflakes, it is because we trust, and have to trust given the insufficiency of our science or our daily possible calculations, that the previous programming will be good for the organism, for me. –I see this as the only plausible story.

    Claiming “scientism is wrong” is akin to saying “Just trust the programming and social world and the present self that you find.” Right now and on a daily basis we are going to put faith in the programming of biological and cultural evolution, as opposed to shady scientific theories, to sustain our bodily and social needs. That will slide in time as we incorporate scientific findings into social reproductions; in the past this has probably just been a trial and error process. But no there is not a realm to the world or life, including all human behaviors, that science will not touch or could not understand. There is not “knowledge” that is ascertained some other way that is not dually capable of being understood by some kind of scientific analysis. If our culture or our self is parsing the environment in some helpful, “knowledgeable” way, that idea or concept or behavior will be chaseable by science, into the human brain in time, as anything that happens in this world surely is.

  • Dan

    You've done well here to prove the necessity of the criticism by missing its point by such a distance.

    All the examples you give are of activities where a 'scientific' approach could conceivably be taken – measuring temperature, testing the validity of anecdotal memory, assessing nutritional information etc. The reason you don't go to the ludicrous lengths described is that you weigh the importance of retesting that information against your other priorities and decide that you are confident enough in your existing knowledge to act upon it. This a judgement that could loosely be called 'moral' – in that you are deciding what is right to do against some principle – and it is in moral judgements rather than others that you do get the genuine, if varying influence of 'scientism' that many authors have recently decried. None of them are suggesting that there is a problem with people trying to adapt scientific methods to everyday life, they are pointing out that there is a small but growing malign influence on cultural and social life of a philosophy that pushes the idea that we can find answers to all problems, including moral ones, purely through the ('objective') assessment of scientific evidence. The reason this is a problem is firstly that it is an absurdly simplistic philosophy – of course you need evidence, but you still need moral principles to judge this against. More importantly though, dubious 'scientific' philosophies are often used as cover or justifications amoral actions – the worst of course being eugenics, though I would also argue that the neo-darwinian pretenses of free market fundamentalism could be categorised in the same way. These sorts of attempts to justify moral actions through science can be usefully identified as scientism, and as such it is a useful term.

  • Sam

    Dan,

    To continue the story. Going back to some simple creature, if it propels itself away from dangerous salt-water that will destroy its organism, it does this because past evolutionary processes has encouraged it do to so, something that can only be mapped or “known” through empirical study, not that science would ever perfectly calculate such, the paths of evolution have been absurdly complex and such mapping would not be useful to the bettering of our selves (with bettering just being the things our organisms presently are structured to care about). The simple organism’s movement away from salt-water and the ongoing evolution that ensues after such interactions are not “right” or “moral.” There is not something moral or right at this level, or any level.

    If we move away from water that is salty or away from some social structures and certain kinds of selves, it is not because we are doing the “moral” thing or the “right” thing. We do so for the same kind of reasons (ultimately) that the simple organism does. The contingent biological and cultural history that have made our brain and society the way it is at the present moment is why our selves and society will choose what comes next. Our society does not choose because it has latched onto some “moral” rule. Though societies and individuals will use such phrases, language and concepts will break down in the same way any informational system can be tracked. Now, no doubt we represent our selves and the world in far more complex ways and we can understand how changing this or that within our society or within our beings will effect what our future selves and societies look like. But ultimately, the pictures of the world we “represent” and the reason why we find certain reasons or thoughts appealing about what we want rests within the brains that have been structured by its biological and cultural history. The scientific mapping of why this brain “chooses” this way and uses language in the manner that it does should be equally empirical as understanding why a simple organism’s cell body is devastated by too salty of water and understanding the mechanisms it uses to “represent” “salt-water” and move its body away from such.

    No matter how advanced humans become they will not escape that dynamic, they will not latch onto a moral order or do the “right” thing, nor will they “choose” their future in some incomprehensible way.

  • http://indigomoodrhythms.wordpress.com/ indigorhythms

    Someone accused me of 'scientism' in an MBTI group when I questioned the theory. In that case it seemed like the person was just being evasive.

    There are many ways to pursue truth but in the end the scientific method appears to be best when trying to understand more complex phenomenon.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/17412168482569793996 Eric Charles

    If someone says “I want X” then it is a fact that they said “I want X”. It is not thereby established that he does, in fact, want X. Again, see this post here: http://fixingpsychology.blogspot.com/2012/12/you-dont-know-what-you-want.html

  • Dan

    Sam,

    Good example of scientism. If you want to deny that there are any such things as individual consciousness, free will, morality, personal responsibility, and by logical extension any existing reality at all, then you can tell just so stories like the one you have and believe that evolutionary biology has the answers to everything.

    Read a bit more and you'll realise that serious people understand the huge difference between the automatic actions of a simple creature and the conscious decisions of a human being. Science hasn't come close to explaining away this difference, so claiming that it has is as good an example of scientism as could be asked for.

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Neuroskeptic

No brain. No gain.

About Neuroskeptic

Neuroskeptic is a British neuroscientist who takes a skeptical look at his own field, and beyond. His blog offers a look at the latest developments in neuroscience, psychiatry and psychology through a critical lens.

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