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Over-reliance on Science

Sounds Sciencey

Sharon Hill

July 26, 2013

Science is great, one of the best processes humans have come up with. It has everything to do with how we live long, productive, healthy lives. It is not, however, the be-all and end-all method of how to solve every problem.


I am unabashedly a fan of science. I wholeheartedly recommend it. But lately I've been feeling a bit uneasy when science cheerleaders pronounce, “Science will solve everything!,” i.e., just apply science and all will be fixed. Because, SCIENCE! YAAAAYY.

I may get myself into trouble with this post, but as an advocate of science, I still say there is more to thinking and knowing than the scientific method. People who advocate fanatical reliance on science—where all competing methods of gaining knowledge are illegitimate—are practicing scientism.

Just Throw Science At It

The “just apply science” plan is an overly simplistic solution that not everyone will automatically buy into. There are other, also valid ways of evaluating problems. All the world's problems cannot be solved by throwing science at it. At least not now (probably never).

Lately, this position has been disputed. There is an ongoing debate in the science/skeptical community regarding philosophy. Is it dead? Does science need it? How does it inform us (if at all)? Can we discuss morals via a scientific basis? You will see heated exchanges about these questions crop up in publications, blogs and in conference discussions. You will also see science placed above the fields of the humanities. Should it be? It's worth thinking about. So I have been. I assume I'll be thinking it through for a while because it's weighty stuff. But, at some point, you have to stop collecting data and taking notes and finally write things down.

For a start, scientism has utility problems. If we need to justify everything with empirical evidence, and then justify that evidence with evidence, and so on, not only do we get bogged down in minutiae, we end up in a scientistic loop which we can't resolve. There must be a point where we accept a premise as a given - that reality is real, that we aren't being fooled by a devious creator. See this Peter S. Williams video.

Philip Kitcher writes in a May 2012 piece called The Trouble with Scientism, that it is folly to think everything human can be reduced to a scientific explanation:

“…it is tempting to infer that all phenomena―including human actions and interaction―can “in principle” be understood ultimately in the language of physics, although for the moment we might settle for biology or neuroscience. This is a great temptation. We should resist it. Even if a process is constituted by the movements of a large number of constituent parts, this does not mean that it can be adequately explained by tracing those motions."

He notes that “…human inquiry needs a synthesis, in which history and anthropology and literature and art play their parts.” (In a fair critique, Jerry Coyne notes that Kitcher's view of science may be too narrow in that the fields he sites also use an evidence-based methodology. That is a hazard with this kind of discussion that I noticed during my research—people start with different presumptions and the argument spins in another direction. In general, I think the issue is how much to exclusively or honorifically use science and potentially overemphasize its worth.)

I'm going to treat this subject broadly, as in the way "scientism" as a word is currently thrown about in our circles. It's similar to what I did with "pseudoscience" here.

Kitcher advocates for a good relationship to be forged between those non-science areas for the greater good of society. I accept that. Over-enthusiasm for science can mask the attention that should be paid to human social issues that are too complex for science to solve neatly and swiftly. For example, if science says that a fetus will be born with a serious debilitating condition that will result in a less than full life, these facts are possibly not the only deciding factors for whether a child is carried to term. If science says that this food item is devoid of nutritional value and can even cause deleterious health effects, should we ban it? It has other value that I might miss were it to disappear.

Look at our laws. Many are informed by science (cigarette restrictions, driving after alcohol consumption, environmental regulations) but are tempered by other human interests such as personal pleasures, social norms and economic considerations. Is there science to support those other human interests? I'm not sure—if you expand science and dig in for a while, perhaps. But I'm pretty sure there won't be one worldwide culture anytime soon that flattens all individual feelings about the items. Or that scientific inquiry will get to the core of every issue in the world.

Something is Missing

Hard-line scientism, while often suggested, is actually rare in practice today due to ethical standards in experimentation. Extreme real-world examples of scientism manifested in social eugenics (scientific racism) and Nazi science where experimentation was done without concern for human suffering and death. Science advocates today see all the good science has brought but we should acknowledge that science has limitations and can be dangerous, corrupt, boring, and counterproductive. To non-scientists, even mild scientism (such as demanding application of science to big questions) can feel cold and unethical, as if something distinctly human is missing.

A hint of scientism creeps into our conversations when we marginalize philosophy and religious thought and state no other form of inquiry or evaluation EXCEPT a scientific one is acceptable. Self-described skeptics may go so far as to reject certain subjects out-of-hand because "science" has already declared them to be nonsense, so they think. That approach limits human understanding and acceptance. Science looks to the outsider like a religion whose tenets MUST be followed.

When we overly indulge our science bias in informing decisions, such as in the realm of policy, the risk of making an unpopular guidance or rule increases. The book, Misunderstanding Science?: The Public Reconstruction of Science and Technology (Irwin and Wynne, 2004) provides case studies of how we mess up when we use the scientific hammer at the expense of other tools and when we shut out the non-scientific views.

Not all questions are fit for a purely scientific approach and some decisions make little sense when they are solely dictated by the science. It's fine to talk about the science of kissing, why we dress a certain way, or the physiology of falling in love or sacrificing for our children—there is a scientific basis for the way we act and react. But is it practical or useful to the public to understand these activities as scientific? There's more to it when it comes to finding human meaning. Scientism can turn people off. That's why I dislike it—scientism, not science, that is. I'm going to stick with the conservative view and say we have not outgrown the need for philosophy and that some questions will not be answered satisfactorily by solely scientific means. Just as with other societal issues, the problems and answers are not black and white but complicated.

Undoubtedly, there are some things to which science is aptly applied that we should not water down with weak thinking. A recent flurry of accusations of scientism appeared as TED, a nonprofit that arranges conferences and broadcasts talks, was criticized by the scientific community for giving the stage to what were deemed to be "pseudoscientific" researchers Rupert Sheldrake and Graham Hancock. As I wrote previously about pseudoscience, caution is needed when labeling. Just like with pseudoscience accusations against the non-mainstream researchers, the pejorative volley was returned by citing scientism. Predictably, it turned into a name-calling exercise that went nowhere. Scientism, again like pseudoscience, is not cut and dried, and is useful in some cases as a word to describe a category that the user defines for his/her own purposes. Mainstream science is not very accepting of Hancock and Sheldrake’s ideas for various reasons. In this case, citing poor science is not scientism.

New age purveyors, proponents of fringe ideas, spiritual gurus, and religious advocates may decry a scientific view as a rejection of soul, spirit, imagination, and whatever magical ideas they are promoting, to compensate for lack of rigor and sound evidence. Science is the emotionless establishment, the machine that denies the unknown and unweaves the rainbow.

That's nonsense. Science is an awesome thing. It has well-deserved respect in our society because it's damned reliable compared to other ways of finding out. Because of those qualities, it's easy to overreach and attribute problem-solving capabilities to the scientific method alone. It's too simple for the non-science viewpoint to fail to appreciate a clinical, serious approach to wondrous, awe-inspiring things.

Am I guilty of scientism? Several people have accused me of it when I ask for rigorous and sound evidence about the paranormal and alternative medicine and reject metaphysical excuses. If you ask a question about nature that should be answered objectively by scientific methods, requiring solid evidence is a fair demand to make. That's not scientism—that's looking for a way to get the best answer. I can comprehend that a single, inflexible approach is not suitable for every problem. Science doesn't know everything. Apply science and other tools of inquiry as needed.


Sharon Hill can be contacted at shill@centerforinquiry.net

Sharon Hill

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Sharon Hill specializes in issues of science and the public and runs the Doubtful News website. Sharon can be reached at shill@centerforinquiry.net.