‘Scientism’ wars: there’s an elephant in the room, and its name is Sam Harris

Oliver Burkeman in his blog at The Guardian:

Sam-Harris-008Science: has it gone too far? This sounds like one of those vox-pop questions from The Day Today (readers who don't know what I'm talking about should click here). But if you follow these matters, you'll know that it's been the topic of a fractious recent debate among scientists and philosophers. The accusation – made, for example, in Curtis White's book The Science Delusion, and elsewhere – is that we're living in an era of rampant “scientism”. This is a vague term that refers, broadly, to scientists overstepping their boundaries, applying scientific forms of thinking where they don’t apply.

The opposing case got a major boost this month from Steven Pinker's essay in The New Republic, entitled Science Is Not Your Enemy; scientism, he argued, was “more of a boo-word than a label for any coherent doctrine”. The whole concept, he strongly implies, is a straw man, “equated with lunatic positions, such as that 'science is all that matters' or that 'scientists should be entrusted to solve all problems'. Nobody really thinks science can tell us how to live. (“When I hear people accused of scientism, they’re not trying to determine the moral law with particle accelerators,” adds Scott Alexander at Slate Star Codex, echoing this point.) The reliably, um … forthright Chicago University evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne calls scientism a “canard” – as evidenced by “the failure of 'scientism' critics to give examples of the sin.”

I don't intend to wade into this debate too far. (My colleague Steven Poole wrote an excellent response to it all at the weekend.) But one point does need adding. Scientism may well not be a particularly widespread problem, and I agree with Sean Carroll's argument that it's probably an unhelpfully blurry word. But to imply that it's pure invention is demonstrably wrong. We should acknowledge that there's an elephant in the room. The elephant's name is Sam Harris.

More here.