In defense of scientism

On this 48th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, I want to talk a little bit about science, and how it, in principle, can apply to nearly every subject in life.

The word science is derived from Latin scientia, and earlier scire, which means “to know.”  I am, as you might have guessed, a huge fan of science, and have in the past even been a practitioner of it.  But science is not just a collection of facts, as many have said before me.  Science is an approach to information, and more generally to reality itself, a blend of rationalism and empiricism that calls on us to apply reason to the phenomena which we find in our world and to understand, with increasing completeness, the rules by which our world operates.  Personally, I think there are few—and possibly no—areas into which the scientific method cannot be applied to give us a greater understanding of, insight into, and control of, our world and our experience.

This attitude is decried, in what are loosely called intellectual circles, as “scientism,” and it is denounced as a sin of sorts.  Like many of the dogma of academia, it is assumed without argument that this denunciation is valid, simply because it is said loudly, repetitively, and passionately.

But the suffix “-ism” is described as just meaning “a distinctive practice, system, or philosophy, typically a political ideology or an artistic movement.”  Thus, scientism would just be the distinctive practice, system, or philosophy of science, which is to say the distinctive practice, system, or philosophy of knowing.  What could be wrong with that?

Maybe I don’t have the definition quite right as it’s commonly used.

According to the very first line of the Wikipedia entry on the subject, “Scientism is a term generally used to describe the cosmetic application of science in unwarranted situations not covered by the scientific method.”

But according to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary, scientism is:

  1. 1:  methods and attitudes typical of or attributed to the natural scientist
  2. 2:  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)

There is a notion, popular in the post-modern world*, and among “New Agers,” that scientism is a great moral and/or spiritual failing.  Rationalists of all stripes, especially ones who make comment on political and social issues, are often attacked as falling into scientism, as though this were an insult.  Science, we are told, does not apply to everything, and is not all of life.  You don’t need science to appreciate a symphony, or a poem, or to have a spiritual life, and so on.  And this is true, in a trivial sense.  Clearly, science—and a scientific understanding of our world—is not needed for a human life, even for a reasonably fulfilling life, let alone for life in general.  We have evidence of this truth laid out for us throughout history and back to before history was written.  Most humans who have ever lived, and even a great many of those who live now, know no more about the scientific description of the world than your average cocker spaniel, and some—perhaps many—have been able to find fulfillment…at least until disease, predation, starvation, or other natural events cut their lives short.

This doesn’t make it better for us not to understand, though, even if the understanding of a thing doesn’t directly impinge on the subjective experience of it.  For example, one does not need an understanding of the science of acoustics, of the equations describing the vibration of the plucked or bowed string, to appreciate a violin concerto, or a guitar solo.  Yet, understanding these things, far from reducing our experience of the world, enhances it, and increases our store of wonder exponentially.  It can also open up surprising and wonderful new means to produce music, which never would have been imagined otherwise.

Richard Feynman gave a famous rebuttal to an argument made by his artist friend, who said that scientists ruin the beauty of a flower by taking it apart and looking at it at ever smaller levels.  Feynman made it clear that, far from this being the case, the one who understands the flower on deeper and more complex levels than just the immediate experience gets vastly more pleasure from it, and can find in it an even greater source for awe than can the most effusive poet.

I think that essentially all areas of life—and of non-life—are subject to scientific understanding, and in most cases, a scientific understanding will give us greater appreciation for the beauty of our world.  There is a science even to poetry:  an explanation for how it came to be that humans developed language as we did, and why we like to use rhymes and rhythms and florid figures of speech in expressing ideas and emotions.  This is no doubt rooted in the structure and function of our brains, shaped by our environment and the laws of nature.  Far from leading us to lose our appreciation for the experience of poetry, understanding it will enhance it, much as understanding exercise physiology improves our ability to get the most out of our workouts.  There will still be great poets and not-so-great ones, as there are still better and worse athletes, but the great can be greater if they understand the whys and wherefores of their art, and the lesser can still be better than they might otherwise have been, increasing the overall amount of poetic beauty in the human experience.

Who could not wish that politics and human judicial systems were approached more scientifically, that in them we respected reason and evidence above gut feeling, reaction, and bias, that we recognized, in principle, that all our conclusions are subject to be altered by new evidence and argument?  Who could not wish that new laws were approached as experiments, with carefully tailored and objective measurement of outcomes, to the best degree possible?  Who could not wish that politicians, law enforcement officials, administrators, managers—and, indeed, everyone else—would commit themselves to keeping their stated and held certainties to scale with the quality of the logic and evidence behind them?

Even if there were found to be something we would call “the supernatural,”** it would surely have its own internal structure, patterns, tendencies…laws, if you will.  If it did not, it would merely be a system of random chaos, and seems unlikely ever to produce effects that would, in principle, be noticeable or recognizable.  A truly chaotic and unordered magic is more or less the same as no magic at all.

Science, and the scientific method, are not all there is to life.  Nevertheless, there is little doubt in my mind that the world, and every individual human, would be better off if we could all commit—individually and culturally—to applying the principles of science, of rationalism and empiricism, of reason and logic, to matters in our everyday lives, and especially to matters that are important and non-obvious.  We do not have to be emotionless automatons to recognize that understanding our emotions, for example, will give us greater insight into them and control of them, making them our beneficial servants rather than our capricious and often destructive masters.

Feynman once said, when addressing nascent scientists at a graduation ceremony, “The first rule is not to fool yourself…and you are the easiest one to fool.”  After that, he pointed out, all you need is a more ordinary form of honesty.  Science is, in a sense, just that:  the art of not fooling ourselves, of ruling out that which is not true about the world.  As Sam Harris says, “I don’t want to be wrong any longer than I need to be.”  To say this implies the recognition that one may, in fact and in principle, be wrong about any conclusion at which one has arrived.  The commitment to exploring ideas and conclusions, to testing them, to subjecting them to inquiry, and to discarding those that fail the test—and by doing so coming ever-so-slightly closer to a truer and fuller understanding of reality—is the hallmark of science.  Being wrong about reality can obviously have practical consequences, and these can mean the difference between health and illness, between life and death.  Even without those stark alternatives, though, knowledge is simply better than ignorance, all other things being equal.  This is partly an aesthetic judgment and partly a philosophical statement.

The specific tools of physics are rarely going to be useful in the science of politics.***  But one can approach neuroscience, psychology, sociology, politics, and even the humanities, with tools targeted to the natures of those endeavors, and which allow us better to understand all these areas.  A “science of the humanities” is not necessary for us to appreciate the humanities, but what might we learn about ourselves if we could understand, at some deep level, just how it is that Shakespeare’s plays are so much more riveting and powerful than most other literature of his own time or since?  We cannot know what we would learn until we look with a balanced, reasoning, and ruthlessly self-critical eye.

I could go on and on about this, giving example after example and analogy after analogy, but I think the point is clear.  Science is simply what happens when we apply our strictest and best tools to understanding the nature of any phenomenon or set of phenomena.  As such, it can’t detract from a thing, it can only broaden our appreciation of it, or perhaps show us that our previous appreciation was unwarranted.  This is a good thing.  With that in mind, I am proud to declare that I am, philosophically even when not professionally, a scientist.


*whatever the Hell that could possibly mean

**a contradiction in terms, in my judgment, since anything that actually exists is part of nature, but let’s leave that aside

***though there have surely been surprising crossovers of function and understanding between such disparate fields in the past, and we cannot know ahead of time what such a crossover might be


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