Scientism is the application of the scientific method and tools to situations that are inappropriate for such an approach and technique. It also includes the view that all of the cosmos and everything in it animate or otherwise can eventually be unravelled by science. It grants undeserved authority to those who claim to be speaking in the name science even when they address issues outside of their area of competence. Such “expert advice” is the opposite of Beethoven’s declaration, “That away from my music I am no different from anyone else.” Scientism is both the source and spawn of ignorance.
Science is the study of nature by observations which can be reproduced and which leads to theories which themselves can be tested and falsified. I’m using Karl Popper’s approach to science. It is determined by data, not majority vote. The majority of both scientists and and their theories typically turn out to be wrong or in need of major modification. Even the great Newton needed correction and updating. The argument that something is true because a majority of scientists declare it so is beyond foolishness.
To the displeasure of many, science does best when the question it seeks to answer is concise. The larger the problem the more likely that science will at best chip away at it. Complex systems usually provide approximate and statistical answers when observed. Indeed, the basis of science becomes increasingly statistical the smaller the field of observation.
An example of scientism – the attempt to use science to answer whether humans, or for that matter other sentient animals, have free will. An important question that, as of today, science has nothing to offer. The opinion of a molecular biologist on the subject carries no more weight than that of a philosopher – probably less.
Another example of scientism is the decision on how to respond the the current viral epidemic based solely on the advice of an epidemiologist or infectious disease specialist. Such an opinion is of course useful in formulating a plan to combat the outbreak. But the appropriate response involves more than a sub-branch of medicine. The course of action must consider the economic, psychological, societal, political impact, and and lot more that will be influenced by whatever decision is made. You can be sure whenever you hear someone declaim that science requires a favored action, usually at high volume, that science is far from the declarant’s mind. Mencken’s For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong, requires constant and frequent repetition.
Inchoate fear seems to have taken total hold of the minds of at least half the population of the previously liberal democracies. This fear of the dark seems most pronounced in the English speaking countries. There appears to be a direct relationship to the level of liberty that existed in a society prior to the appearance of the virus and the draconian intensity of its response to it. Australia previously held to be an exemplar of freedom and individual rights has lost its collective mind and is doing so in the name of science. Politics and erratic science in the Antipodes (New Zealand is just as crazy) have produced a species of scientism as toxic as the venom the inland taipan a native of the island continent.
The damaged supply chains now threatening the world’s economy, were predicted by those who warned that unfocused lockdowns were part of an economic poison that was worse than the disease that caused their use. The long term ill effects of the epidemic are almost certainly the needless consequences of not doing a cost-benefit analysis before acting. Ready-fire-aim may be common, but is always ill advised. The mask mania and vaccine passports that only half the country uses and which seems to have no discernible effect on outcomes are other examples of poor behavior that seems beyond even scientism. In New York City you need proof of vaccination to enter a restaurant, but not to use the subway. The NYC police have even stopped enforcing the subway mask mandate. Where is the science behind this conduct? If you’ve been in a New York subway during rush hour you know that the seating arrangement in any restaurant is as spacious as the Gobi Desert by comparison.
Another scientific field riddled with scientism is climatology. It’s a real science, but when a teenage girl become a leading spokesman for the discipline all hope of reasoned discourse is discarded. Asking sage advice from a teenager is akin to seeking wisdom in a tattoo parlour. The long term effects of human activity on the planet’s climate is an incredibly complex one. Acting rationally in the face of alarmists, opportunists, politicians, and all around ignoramuses convinced they’ve solved the problem is a certain path to societal disintegration. Anytime you hear someone proclaim that the meteorological fate of the Earth is “settled science” walk away as you’re in the presence of a closed mind. Science is never settled. It’s always provisional and subject to alteration with the accumulation of new information.
The assertion that climate change is an existential threat and the world’s number one problem is poppycock. Also ridiculous is claiming that any one climate event – eg, a flood or hurricane – is evidence of a prolonged change in the planet’s temperature. If the earth is getting warmer a single hurricane today is not evidence for such a change. If we are to spend trillions of dollars on tomorrow’s problem using today’s methods, surely a detailed cost-benefit analysis is first required. The climate is always in flux. Teasing out how much of any change is due to human activity is complex and exceedingly difficult. It is telling that those most vocal in their desire to limit carbon emissions are likely to be strongly against using nuclear energy to achieve the goal. Today’s atomic reactors are cheap, safe, and carbon free. Regardless of how pressing the problem is considered the solution does not lie in crippling the world’s economy by imposing rigid restrictions on trade and production – measures that will impact those benighted parts of the world least able to bear their costs. The rational course is to research those technologies that will address the problem while allowing productivity and development to proceed at increased levels.
The sciences provide strong tools for examining nature in its many guises. They have made the world a much better place. Like any human endeavor they have their limits. Today’s insipid educational edifice allows its graduates to emerge almost totally ignorant of the nature of the sciences, both as to their utility and limitations. There are disciplines that claim to be a branch of science that in reality have little to do with science. Much of psychology is beyond the constraints of science. Political science is obviously a contradiction in terms.
A person has no claim to be well educated who has no familiarity with the history and workings of science. Such knowledge does not have to be at the professional level, but it must sufficient to differentiate science from scientism.