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Scientism is the idea that natural science is the most authoritative worldview or aspect of human education, and that it is superior to all other interpretations of life.[1] The term is used by social scientists such as Friedrich Hayek,[2] or philosophers of science such as Karl Popper, to describe what they see as the underlying attitudes and beliefs common to many scientists, whereby the study and methods of natural science have risen to the level of ideology.[3] The classic statement of scientism is from the physicist Ernest Rutherford: "there is physics and there is stamp-collecting."[4]

The term is used in either of two equally pejorative directions:[5][6]

  1. To indicate the improper usage of science or scientific claims[7] in contexts where science might not apply,[8] such as when the topic is perceived to be beyond the scope of scientific inquiry; or there is insufficient empirical evidence to justify scientific conclusions. In this case it is a counter-argument to appeals to scientific authority.
  2. 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,"[6] with a concomitant "elimination of the psychological dimensions of experience."[9][10] It thus expresses a position critical of (at least the more extreme expressions of) positivism.[11][12]

For sociologists in the tradition of Max Weber, such as Jürgen Habermas, the concept of scientism relates significantly to the philosophy of positivism, but also to the cultural "rationalization" of the modern West.[3]


[edit] Overview

Reviewing the references to scientism in the works of contemporary scholars, Gregory R. Peterson[13] detects two main broad themes:

  1. It is used to criticize a totalizing view of science as if it were capable of describing all reality and knowledge, or as if it were the only true way to acquire knowledge about reality and the nature of things;
  2. It is used to denote a border-crossing violation in which the theories and methods of one (scientific) discipline are inappropriately applied to another (scientific or non-scientific) discipline and its domain. An example of this second usage is to label as scientism any attempt to claim science as the only or primary source of human values (a traditional domain of ethics) or as the source of meaning and purpose (a traditional domain of religion and related worldviews).

According to Mikael Stenmark in the Encyclopedia of science and religion,[14] while the doctrines that are described as scientism have many possible forms and varying degrees of ambition, they share the idea that the boundaries of science (that is, typically the natural sciences) could and should be expanded so that something that has not been previously considered as a subject pertinent to science can now be understood as part of science (usually with science becoming the sole or the main arbiter regarding this area or dimension). In its strongest form, scientism states that science has no boundaries and that all human problems and all aspects of human endeavor, with due time, will be dealt with and solved by science.[citation needed] This idea has also been called the Myth of Progress.[15] Stenmark proposes the expression scientific expansionism as a synonym of scientism. E. F. Schumacher criticized scientism as an impoverished world view confined "solely to what can be counted, measured and weighed".[16]

[edit] Relevance to the science and religion debate

Gregory R. Peterson remarks that "for many theologians and philosophers, scientism is among the greatest of intellectual sins".[13] In fact, today the term is often used against vocal critics of religion-as-such.[17] Psychologist and parapsychologist Charles Tart has described scientism as being, from a psychological point of view, a form of belief.[18] The Persian scholar Seyyed Hossein Nasr, commented that in the West, many will accept the ideology of modern science, not as "simple ordinary science", but as a replacement for religion.[19]

Meanwhile, in an essay that emphasizes parallels between scientism and traditional religious movements, The Skeptics Society founder Michael Shermer self-identifies as "scientistic" and defines the term as "a scientific worldview that encompasses natural explanations for all phenomena, eschews supernatural and paranormal speculations, and embraces empiricism and reason as the twin pillars of a philosophy of life appropriate for an Age of Science."[20] The philosopher of science Daniel Dennett responded to criticism of his book Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon by saying that "when someone puts forward a scientific theory that [religious critics] really don't like, they just try to discredit it as 'scientism'".

[edit] Rationalization and modernity

Max Weber's major works in economic sociology and the sociology of religion dealt with the rationalisation, secularisation, and so called "disenchantment" that he associated with the rise of capitalism and modernity.[21] In sociology, rationalization is the process whereby an increasing number of social actions become based on considerations of teleological efficiency or calculation rather than on motivations derived from morality, emotion, custom, or tradition. In this sense it is a central aspect of modernity, manifested especially in Western society; as a behaviour of the capitalist market; of rational administration in the state and bureaucracy; of the extension of modern science; and of the expansion of modern technology. The philosopher Jürgen Habermas is critical of pure instrumental rationality. "Scientism" may be used to described a process where scientific-thinking is raised to a level of ideology itself. For theorists such as Zygmunt Bauman, rationalization as a manifestation of modernity may be most closely and regrettably associated with the events of the Holocaust.

[edit] Range of meanings

Standard dictionary definitions include the following applications of the term "scientism":

  • The use of the style, assumptions, techniques, and other attributes typically displayed by scientists.[22]
  • Methods and attitudes typical of or attributed to the natural scientist.[23]
  • 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.[24]
  • The use of scientific or pseudoscientific language.[25]
  • The contention that the social sciences, such as economics and sociology, are only properly sciences when they abide by the somewhat stricter interpretation of scientific method used by the natural sciences, and that otherwise they are not truly sciences.[26]
  • "A term applied (freq. in a derogatory manner) to a belief in the omnipotence of scientific knowledge and techniques; also to the view that the methods of study appropriate to physical science can replace those used in other fields such as philosophy and, esp., human behaviour and the social sciences." [27]
  • The belief that scientific knowledge is the foundation of all knowledge and that, consequently, scientific argument should always be weighted more heavily than other forms of knowledge, particularly those that are not yet well described or justified from within the rational framework, or whose description fails to present itself in the course of a debate against a scientific argument. It can be contrasted by doctrines like historicism, which hold that there are certain "unknowable" truths.[28][not in citation given]
  • As a form of dogma: "In essence, scientism sees science as the absolute and only justifiable access to the truth."[29]

[edit] See also

[edit] References

  1. ^ Sorell, Tom. Scientism: Philosophy and the Infatuation with Science. Routledge, 1994, p. 1ff.
  2. ^ Hayek in "The Counter Revolution Of Science: Studies on the Abuse of Reason". Liberty Fund Inc. June 1, 1980.
  3. ^ a b Outhwaite, William (1988) Habermas: Key Contemporary Thinkers, Polity Press, second edition 2009, p. 22.
  4. ^ Crane, Tim. The mechanical mind: a philosophical introduction to minds, machines and mental representation, Routledge 2003, p. 5.
  5. ^ 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)" definition from: Ryder, Martin. "Scientism." Encyclopedia of Science Technology and Ethics. 3rd ed. Detroit: MacMillan Reference Books, 2005.
  6. ^ a b Scientism: "Pejorative term for 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.
  7. ^ After reviewing the usage of the term by contemporary scholars, Gregory R Peterson concludes that "the best way to understand the charge of scientism is as a kind of logical fallacy involving improper usage of science or scientific claims." (p.753). From: "Peterson, Gregory R. (2003) Demarcation and the Scientistic Fallacy. Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science 38 (4), 751-761. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-9744.2003.00536.x"
  8. ^ Scientism by Martin Ryder - University of Colorado. (Accessed: July 05 2007)
  9. ^ Robert Bannister, "Behaviorism, Scientism and the Rise of The "Expert"
  10. ^ Haack, Susan, (2003). Defending Science Within Reason: Between Scientism and Cynicism. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books
  11. ^ Rey, Abel. "Review of La Philosophie Moderne." The Journal of Philosophy, Psychology and Scientific Methods 6.2 (1909): 51-53.
  12. ^ cf. Abraham Maslow: "There are criticisms of orthodox, 19th Century scientism and I intend to continue with this enterprise." Toward a Psychology of Being, Preface to 1st edition
  13. ^ a b "Peterson, Gregory R. (2003) Demarcation and the Scientistic Fallacy. Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science 38 (4), 751-761. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-9744.2003.00536.x"
  14. ^ As described by Mikael Stenmark, author of the article about the topic of Scientism in: J. Wentzel Vrede van Huyssteen (editor). Encyclopedia of science and religion, 2nd ed. Thomson Gale. 2003. (p.783)
  15. ^ G. Monastra, M. M. Zarandi, Science and the Myth of Progress, 2004.
  16. ^ E. F. Schumacher, A Guide for the Perplexed, ISBN 0-06-090611-1
  17. ^ Robinson, Marilynne. "Hysterical Scientism: The Ecstasy of Richard Dawkins."Harper's Magazine Nov. 2006.
  18. ^ C Tart, video lecture
  19. ^ Chittick, William (2007). The Essential Seyyed Hossein Nasr. Bloomington: World Wisdom. ISBN 1933316381. 
  20. ^ Shermer, Michael. "The Shamans of Scientism." Scientific American June 2002.
  21. ^ Habermas, Jürgen, The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity, Polity Press (1985), ISBN 0-7456-0830-2, p2
  22. ^ Random House Dictionary of the English Language. 1987.
  23. ^ Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary. 1983. Cf. "Scientism" definition 1, Oxford English Dictionary web edition, accessed October 16, 2009
  24. ^ Webster. 1983.
  25. ^ Webster. 1983. Definition #3 for Scientism.
  26. ^ Webster. 1983. Definition #2 for Scientism.
  27. ^ "Scientism" definition 2, Oxford English Dictionary web edition, accessed October 16, 2009
  28. ^ The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language: Fourth Edition. 2000. Bartleby.com
  29. ^ "Scientism" - PBS.org. Faith and Reason.

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