The Scientism Virus
The perception that science is an “objective and verifiable” approach to knowledge, free of bias and beholden to no philosophy is flawed. That scientists have a firm grip on the physical world is not in dispute. But just what it is they are grasping remains unknown, given the necessity of reducing everything to quantifiable data that must fit the given frame of reference.
Tailoring data to suit a given aim has a nasty way of endowing nonscientific agendas with false “authenticity.” This is how evolution theory becomes evolution fact, how environmentalism turns into “climate change mandate,” how theology becomes an asset of politicians… the list of abuses of science to gain advantage and control is long.
It is not that science needs to be put down, but that science not be deified or endowed with an authority it cannot possess, a too common belief among the technocrats and academics of our day. Scientific activity that improves the human condition will always be welcome, and in that capacity may be regarded as “authoritative.” But scientific activity that feeds the will to dominate over one’s human beings is a corruption of the role of science and, need it be said, dishonest.
The abuse of science for nonscientific ends is a quick definition of scientism. The Merriam-Webster dictionary gives this definition of scientism: “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).”
We need to let science be science – a mode of acquiring knowledge that allows the world to yield to human needs of body and mind. The operative word “human” in this context stands to convict leaders and rulers who engage in “science” to lord over people. That science must remain a tool of knowledge is a truism that got lost during the Enlightenment and is headed for replacement as a tool of power. Lest we be carried away like the Sorcerer's Apprentice, it must be understood that truly intelligent action toward human progress is grounded in what it means to be human, which is quite out of the range of science.
Though few can see it, scientists have become the collective witch doctors of contemporary society. They have spooked the public with a dazzling array of amazing feats that would indicate an infinite power to play with the world and alter our lives. This overlooks the fact that the world has also been profoundly altered by nonscientists like Confucius, Plato, Christ, the originators of our musical scale, Michelangelo, Gandhi, Hitler, Marx.
It is not easy for a proud species like ours to admit, let alone accept the fact that the world, including Homo sapiens, is at root unknowable in perfectly rational terms. Putting the entire world into a single container may yield consistent, logical, even useful models of the world. But is such a forced projection of the world the real world? More important, is it a world fit for human habitation?
During my boyhood explorations of the American Museum of Natural History, I was enthralled by an ivory figurine in the Drummond Collection of a monkey holding a baby of its own species in one hand and peering at it through a lens in the other hand. It hit me at once that the joke was on us. I saw this as a metaphor for the mind that probes too far past wonder, too far beyond the need to adapt to reality, so as to lord over its own species.
The mind that starts its approach to reality by assuming that only science qualifies for the job sets a major obstacle in its way. A world image consisting solely of what science can see keeps eluding such scrutiny, even as the tools and methods grow in sophistication. It is not that science is lifting more and more of the veil from the facts of the universe, but that science is constantly reshaping what it examines to accommodate its current understanding and mode of research. That this way of learning about the world is extremely useful is beyond dispute. But that it is the only or the best way ignores the vastness of human experience.
Belief that science is solver of all problems and instrument for all that is best is a feature of scientism that is incompatible with real science. The late John Silber, a former president of Boston University, warned: “Scientific programs that are powerfully effective in understanding and controlling largely isolated data in such fields as physics, have been applied crudely, reductively, and disastrously in the humanities and social sciences. Discipline after discipline has succumbed to the dogma that only the quantifiable is true.”[i]
There are questions that need to be asked. Does the public know that the real nature of the world has been considered a meaningless concept by scientists for over a century? Do they know that the idea that science can be “settled” is nonsense? Do they know that the notion that science is “the last word on everything” is unscientific – that “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)” is a definition of scientism [Merriam-Webster dictionary]?
It is this exaggerated trust in the effectiveness of scientific methodology that impels social engineers to program unrealistic futures for the inhabitants of Earth. Can they really be that smart – or have they lost their minds and don’t know it?
The quest for true knowledge is incompatible with scientism, a stance that leads to the formation of cults parading as “science.” When skepticism, wonder and exploration – assets of real science – give way to political pressure, science ceases to serve humanity.
Image credit: Pikrepo
[i] From correspondence I had with John Silber in 1989.