Let’s Stop Using the Word “Scientism”


Sean Carroll in Preposterous Universe:

The working definition of “scientism” is “the belief that science is the right approach to use in situations where science actually isn’t the right approach at all.” Nobody actually quotes this definition, but it accurately matches how the word is used. The problem should be obvious — the areas in which science is the right approach are not universally agreed upon. So instead of having an interesting substantive discussion about a real question (“For what kinds of problems is a scientific approach the best one?”) we instead have a dopey and boring definitional one (“What does the word `scientism’ mean?”).

I don’t know of anyone in the world who thinks that science is the right tool to use forevery problem. Pinker joins Alex Rosenberg, who has tried to rehabilitate the word “scientism,” claiming it as a badge of honor, and using it to mean a view that “the methods of science are the only reliable ways to secure knowledge of anything.” But even Alex firmly rejects the idea that science can be used to discover objective moral truths — and others think it can, a view which is sometimes labeled as “scientism.” You can see the confusion.

Someone might respond, “but `scientism’ is a useful shorthand for a set of views that many people seem to hold.” No, it’s not. Here are some possible views that might be described as “scientism”:

  • Science is the source of all interesting, reliable facts about the world.
  • Philosophy and morality and aesthetics should be subsumed under the rubric of science.
  • Science can provide an objective grounding for judgments previously thought to be subjective.
  • Humanities and the arts would be improved by taking a more scientific approach.
  • The progress of science is an unalloyed good for the world.
  • All forms of rational thinking are essentially science.
  • Eventually we will understand all the important questions of human life on a scientific basis.
  • Reductionism is the best basis for complete understanding of complicated systems.
  • There is no supernatural realm, only the natural world that science can investigate.

The problem is that, when you use the word “scientism,” you (presumably) know exactly what you are talking about. You mean to include some of the above supposed sins, but not necessarily all of them. But if you aren’t completely explicit about what you mean every time you use the term, people will misunderstand you.

Indeed, you might even misunderstand yourself.