The term scientism is a relatively newly coined word that refers to certain epistemologies based on science. It is important to note that different people use this word in a variety of ways:
- Scientism is sometimes used to mean the acceptance of scientific theory and scientific methods as applicable in all fields of inquiry about the physical, natural world. This definition is functionally equivalent to scientific naturalism.
- Scientism is more often used to mean the acceptance of scientific theory and scientific methods as applicable in all fields of inquiry about the world, including morality/ethics/art/religion/etc. Many people (and perhaps most scientists) argue that this definition, and the critiques that follow from it, are wrong-headed because (a) Science limits itself to inquiry about the physical, natural world; (b) Most of those who take such a position do so implicitly, without much reflection. As such it is difficult to criticise many of those who such a view since they have not carefully considered it.
- Scientism is sometimes used to refer to humanism and enlightenment values informed by science. In this use of the word, scientism is "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." (Source: Michael Shermer, The Shamans of Scientism, Scientific American, 2002)
Recent philosophic manifestos by literary deconstructionists, radical feminists, and opponents of science generally (eg, religious, cultural, political, ...)have concentrated on what is claimed to be an unhealthy link between science and the humanities. The majority of these writers using the term scientism use it in a pejorative fashion, stressing the alleged unhealthy linkages or a claimed suppression by 'science' of other viewpoints. These writers typically view science as little more than a socially constructed ideology, neither having nor deserving any privileged position in comparison to others. In this view, scientists "bully" non-scientists with "oppressive" words such as logic, experiments, objectivity, etc.
Many people (and certainly many scientists) believe this to be basically 'science envy', essentially anti-scientific, and having little to do with science itself and much more to do with cultural fears, political difficulties, and unfortunate social histories. Michael Shermer writes:
- One manifestation of science-envy is the mathematical (or logical) pseudo-rigor with which much recent philosophical writing is afflicted. This, to speak bluntly, is a kind of affected obscurity. Not that recourse to the languages of mathematics or logic never helps to make a philosophical argument or thesis clearer; of course, it does. But it can also stand in the way of real clarity by disguising failure to think deeply or critically enough about the concepts being manipulated with [an] impressive logical sophistication. And it has come to be, too often, what Charles Sykes calls "Profspeak" -- using unnecessary symbols to convey a false impression of depth and rigor. Science-envy is manifested also by those who -- hoping to enhance their prestige by close association with the sciences -- contort themselves in attempts to show that this or that philosophical problem can be quickly settled by some scientific result, or to displace philosophical problems in favor of scientific ones. The result is at best a covert change of subject, at worst a self-undermining absurdity. No scientific investigation can tell us whether science is epistemologically special, and if so, how, or whether a theory's yielding true predictions is an indication of its truth, and if so, why, and so on; yet, unless these were not only legitimate questions, but legitimate questions with less-than-skeptical answers, it is incomprehensible how one could be justified, as the most ambitious style of scientism proposes, in doing science instead of philosophy. (Source: Science, Scientism, and Anti-Science in the Age of Preposterism, Susan Haack, Skeptical Inquier Magazine, 1997.)
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