The Corner

Science and Scientism

Jonah and Yuval:  Hey thanks. At the risk of looking a gift horse in the mouth, though, I’m going to take mild exception to Jonah’s charge that I flirt with scientism.

“Scientism” is a dodgy word, really best avoided. Look at the dictionaries. The pejorative sense of the word is defined as:

a thesis that the methods of the natural sciences should be used in all areas of investigation including philosophy, the humanities, and the social sciences: a belief that only such methods can fruitfully be used in the pursuit of knowledge.

                 — Webster’s 3rdthe belief that the investigative methods of the physical sciences are applicable or justifiable in all fields of inquiry.

                 — American Heritage 4ththe belief that the assumptions, methods of research, etc., of the physical and biological sciences are equally appropriate and essential to all other disciplines, including the humanities and the social sciences.

                 — Random House, 2009

All three lexicographers assume that there is some identifiable set of methods peculiar to the natural/physical/biological sciences, a thing that has been seriously doubted. (I don’t doubt it myself, but that’s one guy’s opinion. It has been seriously doubted.) They then assume that there are areas of inquiry in which those methods should not be applied; but they differ as to what areas dwell in the exclusion zone. The American Heritage definition would seem to declare the biological sciences as outside the scope of scientific method. Both Webster’s and Random House put the social sciences beyond its reach.

That’s objectionable. Social scientists, for example, seem to do their best to adhere to scientific principles: careful observation, repeatable experiments, rigorous classification and quantification, open debate and peer review . . . Certainly the social sciences are unlike the physical sciences in important ways, but they are empirical enquiries with modest predictive power, and I can’t see why Webster’s and Random House are sniffing at them.

So dictionaries don’t seem to be much help here. Prescription having failed, let’s try description. I seem to hear the word “scientism” used by two broad groups of speakers in two broad senses:

•  By people in the sciences and humanities to mean: “Unjustified faith in scientific explanations, claiming explanatory and predictive power similar to what the laws of physics yield, in fields like history or psychology.” So adherence to the Marxist view of history, which falsely claimed to have uncovered large general laws of social and political development, would be an instance of scientism. What we are talking about here is pseudosciences, and “scientism” in this sense is a synonym for “adherence to some pseudoscience.” I can’t see that the word “scientism” adds much to the discussion of pseudosciences, which are best dealt with one by one rather than in generality, as there are nontrivial issues of demarcation between science and pseudoscience, plainer in some cases than others.

•  By conservative strategists to mean: “The fault of being too keen on science, and liable thereby to tick off the anti-science segment of the conservative base.” Having no enthusiasm for, or interest in, political strategizing, I’ll leave this to those who know. It does seem to sail a bit close to heresy-hunting, though — “You can’t be a True Conservative if you’re that keen on science …” — and I take the aforementioned mild exception on those Orwellian (in the attitudinal sense) grounds.

If someone thinks I really have ventured “too close to the cause of scientism” in the first of the above senses, please supply chapter and verse.

John Derbyshire — Mr. Derbyshire is a former contributing editor of National Review.

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