Scientism as a Case of Pseudoscience

Published 2016-04-25

When we talk about pseudoscience, one usually thinks about religion-related examples like creation science or astrology. However, pseudoscience is often generated by scientists themselves when they try to make universal implications of their particular scientific knowledge. As an example, let me use scientism, which is the idea that all kinds of problems, including social, ethical and metaphysical problems, can be solved by means of scientific method.

To be more precise, Merriam-Webster dictionary defines scientism as:

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)

Scientism is based on a correct empirical observation that science has already helped us with a lot of issues, for instance, we learned how to cure a lot of diseases, to produce more food through new agricultural technologies, and made human life longer. Because of that, scientism claims, the scientific method (variously understood) should be assigned a privileged position and we should seek to apply it in all areas of human activity. This second claim, however, is a typical case of non sequitur: successes of sciences in solving some problems does not necessarily presume its ability to solve all other types of problems we face.

Scientism systemtically avoids all kinds of counter-arguments and usually chooses to ignore problems associated with the scientific progress. For example, when one points out that science also created a number of completely new and even much more dangerous challenges such as a possibility of a nuclear war that can wipe out the humanity, proponents of scientism would answer that the problem is in politics or military decisions and not in the science itself. Similarly, when one points out that science might not be particularly helpful in solving, for example, complex ethical issues (such as what is justice and how can we create a just society), proponents of scientism would often dismiss these questions as nonsense.

From the point of view of Popper’s falsificationism, therefore, scientism effectively avoids “potential falsifiers” and can be regarded in the same group with theology or creation science. Of course, falsificationism itself has its issues and was criticized in the course of the twentieth century by Kuhn, Lakatos, and others. So, let us try demarcation criteria proposed by different authors, for example, by Thagard (see: Thagard P. Why Astrology Is a Pseudoscience?) who formulated his criteria in a more accurate fashion. According to him, a pseudoscientific theory is (1) less progressive than its alternatives and (2) faces many unsolved problems, while its practitioners make little to no effort to develop the theory towards solutions of the problems and are selective in considering confirmations and disconfirmations.

When it comes to scientism, both of these criteria work. Although we cannot be sure if scientism, formed in the late eighteenth century, is in any sense more progressive then possible alternatives, we can be sure that its practitioners who believe that scientism is a necessary part of science often are highly “selective in considering confirmations and disconfirmations” of the theory. Specifically, they tend to focus on successes of science and underplay its falures and problems that it created blaiming them on external factors (political, economical, religious, and so on).

Of course, I should also mention that scientism can also be considered as non-scientific belief, and in this case it would not be a pseudoscience, of course. It can be regarded as a pseudoscience if and only if in is considered by its practitioners as a scientific fact or theory.

Today one can observe a rise of scientism in religious studies, and some authors even proclaimed the strictest versions of scientism which include such metaphysical claims as naturalism (see e.g.: Davidsen M.A. What is Wrong with Pagan Studies?). However, every time one says about the need of scientific study of religion or esotericism I have a lot of doubts because it seems like these people insist on necessity of scientific methodology in humanities, which is a variant of scientism, which, in turn, seems to be a non-scientific belief.

Therefore, instead of saying something like we should use scientific approaches in the study of esotericism, or we should use empirical approach in the study of esotericism, why do not say that we can use those approaches to provide a new perspective. But also we can try to use phenomenology of religion as methodology or, say, Hegelian idealism, Kantean transcendentalism or James’s “radical empiricism” and “pragmatism” – and see what new perspectives would be provided by those approaches.

The reason why humanities are so fascinating is that they are less rigid and more pluralistic than the sciences trading off precision for imagination, and it is important to keep them this way.

REFERENCES

  1. Davidsen M.A. What is Wrong with Pagan Studies? 2012.
  2. Thagard P. Why Astrology Is a Pseudoscience? 1978.

On van Fraassen’s Constructive Empiricism

Published 2016-10-15

Constructive empiricism is a theory proposed by Bas van Fraassen (born 1941) in the book The Scientific Image, published in 1980. It is based on the idea that to hold a theory it is enough to agree that the theory is empirically adequate and it is not necessary believe that it describes the world as it actually is.

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