Friday, 14 June 2013

Scientism

I stand accused of scientism.  I’m only rarely accused of it directly, but by association I am pretty much accused on an on-going basis – via the accusations levelled at people with similar views on the world to mine.

Most of these accusations are meaningless, made by people who don’t understand science and who therefore cannot distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate applications of science.  I do, however, have a vicarious sense of indignation over the accusation of scientism levelled by Professor Ian Hutchinson, a nuclear physicist who also happens to be a theist.

I’d like to look at this accusation in a rigorous scientific way in order to ascertain whether I am in fact a “scienterrist”.  To do this I have to propose a hypothesis and test it against the evidence.

Hypothesis – neopolitan is a scienterrist

Before go any further, I should clarify my terms:

The being “neopolitan” is me, I am not talking about various misspellings of “neapolitan” or any other person who might coincidentally have the moniker “neopolitan”.

A “scienterrist” is a person who practices, holds to or can otherwise be justifiably accused of “scientism”.  The term “scienterist” is also used, but it is not as amusingly close to George W Bush’s mispronunciation of “terrorist”.

The meaning of “scientism” varies depending on who you are talking to.  We will use Hutchinson’s definition, but first let’s look at some of the other definitions.

WLC describes scientism as “the view that we should believe only what can be proven scientifically. In other words, science is the sole source of knowledge and the sole arbiter of truth”.

Humble Don uses a definition that he ascribes to WLC and JP Moreland, “the view that science is the very paradigm of truth and rationality. If something does not square with currently well-established scientific beliefs, if it is not within the domain of entities appropriate for scientific investigation, or if it is not amenable to scientific methodology, then it is not true or rational. Everything outside of science is a matter of mere belief and subjective opinion, of which rational assessment is impossible. Science, exclusively and ideally, is our model of intellectual excellence.”  As such, “there are no truths apart from scientific truths, and even if there were, there would be no reason whatever to believe them.”

In Humble Don’s own paraphrasing, scientism is held by “skeptics who appeal to the scientific method as evidence against Christianity” and “suggests that all valid knowledge must be empirically verifiable; there should be physical evidence to back it up”.

These are strong versions of scientism, effectively saying “it’s either science or it’s not true and it isn’t worth knowing”.

Michael Shermer, on the other hand, espouses a weak version of scientism, writing that scientism “is a bridge spanning the abyss between what physicist C. P. Snow famously called the ‘two cultures’ of science and the arts/humanities” and the Wikipedia entry on scientism has Shermer describing it as “a worldview that encompasses natural explanations, eschews supernatural and paranormal speculations, and embraces empiricism and reason”.  This is quite a positive definition of the term and if this was what Hutchinson meant by it, I would have to agree that I am a scienterrist by nature.

Critical definitions are not limited to apologetically inspired versions such as those crafted by the likes of WLC, Moreland and Humble Don.  To quote Wikipedia again, there are two pejorative uses of the term scientism:

  1. To indicate the improper usage of science or scientific claims.   This usage applies equally in contexts where science might not apply, such as when the topic is perceived to be beyond the scope of scientific inquiry, and in contexts where there is insufficient empirical evidence to justify a scientific conclusion. It includes an excessive deference to claims made by scientists or an uncritical eagerness to accept any result described as scientific. In this case, the term is a counterargument 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," or that "science, and only science, describes the world as it is in itself, independent of perspective" with a concomitant "elimination of the psychological dimensions of experience."

While I might be overstretching myself if I were to criticise the veracity of Wikipedia, I do think that the first use of scientism is wrong.  This might be because people use the term incorrectly, of course, but the improper use of science or scientific claims is perhaps better described using reference to either pseudoscience or the formal logical fallacy “appeal to (scientific) authority”.

The second use of scientism, according to Wikipedia, seems to accord closely with the ideas of WLC, Moreland and Humble Don – although there is no mention of scientism lining up with the specific complaint that science is sometimes used to discredit the claims of Christianity.

However, since the charge of scientism was levelled by Hutchinson, we should see what he meant by the term.

Hutchinson addressed the topic at length in “Monopolizing Knowledge” and more briefly on the Biologos Forum.  In the former (quoted in the header to the latter), he defines scientism as “the belief that science, modeled on the natural sciences, is the only source of real knowledge”.  In the forum article, he describes scientism as “a philosophy of knowledge. It is an opinion about the way that knowledge can be obtained and justified. However, scientism rapidly becomes much more. It becomes an all-encompassing world-view; a perspective from which all of the questions of life are examined: a grounding presupposition or set of presuppositions which provides the framework by which the world is to be understood. In other words, it is essentially a religious position.”

O-kay … in so much as having a presupposition is a religious position, if scientism becomes a gounding presupposition or a set of presuppositions then it becomes a religious position.  Gotcha.  But let’s talk about what scientism is, rather than what Hutchinson claims that it becomes.  (I’ve already addressed the notion of the null hypothesis: the only valid presupposition is the presupposition of nothing and nothing makes for a very insubstantial framework.)

Reframing the hypotheses in light of Hutchinson’s definition of scientism:

Hypothesis – neopolitan holds that science, modelled on the natural sciences, is the only source of real knowledge

Now we need to know what “modelled on the natural sciences” means.  If you read the first instalment of Hutchinson’s contribution to the BioLogos Forum, you will note that he wishes to distinguish between two meanings of “science” – the classical understanding derived from scientia being the Latin for “knowledge” and the modern usage meaning “the study of the natural world”.  Therefore “modelled on the natural sciences” is merely a clarification that science is being used in the modern sense, not the classical sense.  Taking this under advisement, we may strike the containing clause from the hypotheses.

Hypothesis – neopolitan holds that science is the only source of real knowledge

If we skip over the word “real”, the claim that science is only source of knowledge seems implausible.  If that were the case, then the vast majority of people would know nothing and even those who use the scientific method would only know that which has been the subject of personally conducted experiments.  This would be a ridiculous claim, most likely linked to an overly zealous restriction on the use of the term “knowledge”.

However, Hutchinson is guilty of placing a restriction on the use of the term “knowledge”.  He’s talking about “real” knowledge.  We might be tempted to think of “real knowledge” as referring to knowledge about the natural world, or empirical knowledge, but then this is precisely the sort of knowledge that science, as Hutchinson defines it, deals with.  This turns his claim into “scientism is the belief that the methods by which you obtain knowledge about the natural world are the only methods by which you obtain knowledge about the natural world” – which is a sloppy form of tautology.  I’m willing to give Hutchinson more credit than that.

However, it remains unclear what Hutchinson means by “real knowledge”.  So far as I can see, he does not provide a definition – if anyone out there has seen one, please let me know.

There are, however, hints as to what Hutchinson might mean.  First, he’s a nuclear physicist so I doubt that he is restricting himself to material facts.  Second, there’s this extract from his Biologos Forum article:

Science requires reproducibility. But in many fields of human knowledge the degree of reproducibility we require in science is absent. This absence does not in my view undermine their ability to provide real knowledge. On the contrary, the whole point of my analysis is to assert that non-scientific knowledge is real and essential, just not scientific.

Sociologists today acknowledge that sociology does not offer the kind of reproducibility that is characteristic of the natural sciences. Even so, they feel they must insist on the title of science, because of the scientism of the age.

History is a field in which there is thankfully less science envy. Obviously history, more often than not, is concerned with events in the past that cannot be repeated. History is crucial knowledge but cannot be made into a science.

The study of the law (jurisprudence) is a field whose research and practice that cannot be scientific because it is not concerned with the reproducible. The circumstances of particular events cannot be subjected to repeated tests or to multiple observations.

Economics is a field of high intellectual rigor, but the absence of an opportunity for truly reproducible tests or observations and the impossibility of isolating the different components of economic systems means that economics as a discipline is qualitatively different from science.

Politics is a field, if there ever was one, that is the complete contradiction of what scientists seek in nature. It seems a great pity, and perhaps a sign of the scientism we are discussing in this series, that the academic field of study is referred to these days almost universally as Political Science.

These disciplines do not lend themselves to the epistemological techniques that underlie natural science's reliable models and convincing proofs. They are about more indefinite, intractable, unique, and often more human problems. In short, they are not about nature.

The problem with this (apart from the fact that he says that knowledge about humans is not knowledge about nature, as if humans were somehow set apart from nature – something that might be true in his theology, but is not actually true) is that Hutchinson has just set up another tautology.  Science, according to Hutchinson, is about reproducibility and “Clarity” (Hutchinson’s capitalisation) and “real knowledge” includes fields that he claims involve unreproducible facts.  Therefore, of course science – using his definition – is not going to be valid in other fields which – via his definition – aren’t scientific.  What he’s claiming, without clarifying it (proving that his argument is not scientific in his own terminology), is that science is purely “hard science” (“natural science”) and nothing else – and that real knowledge encompasses everything, up to and including soft science (sociology, economics, politics), scholarship (history, law) and maybe even art.

So, rephrasing the hypotheses again:

Hypothesis – neopolitan holds that hard science is the only source of real knowledge, including knowledge that arises only from soft science, scholarship and art

I suspect that I have, at this stage, some evidence against the hypothesis.  I fully comprehend and accept that it is not possible to source all “real knowledge”, where “real knowledge” is knowledge that arises from hard science, soft science, scholarship and art, if I use only hard science.  I can even use a Venn diagram to see that the hypothesis is invalid:

 

Therefore, the hypothesis must be rejected and, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I am thus not guilty of the charges of scientism as laid by Professor Ian Hutchinson.

That said, I might be guilty of the more gentle scientism as defined by Michael Shermer, but that’s another thing altogether.

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