Scientism Under the Microscope

Austin L. Hughes is Carolina Distinguished Professor of Biological Sciences at the University of South Carolina. He has written an excellent essay entitled, The Folly of Scientism.
He begins by noting:

When I decided on a scientific career, one of the things that appealed to me about science was the modesty of its practitioners. The typical scientist seemed to be a person who knew one small corner of the natural world and knew it very well, better than most other human beings living and better even than most who had ever lived. But outside of their circumscribed areas of expertise, scientists would hesitate to express an authoritative opinion. This attitude was attractive precisely because it stood in sharp contrast to the arrogance of the philosophers of the positivist tradition, who claimed for science and its practitioners a broad authority with which many practicing scientists themselves were uncomfortable.
The temptation to overreach, however, seems increasingly indulged today in discussions about science. Both in the work of professional philosophers and in popular writings by natural scientists, it is frequently claimed that natural science does or soon will constitute the entire domain of truth. And this attitude is becoming more widespread among scientists themselves. All too many of my contemporaries in science have accepted without question the hype that suggests that an advanced degree in some area of natural science confers the ability to pontificate wisely on any and all subjects.

Indeed. For we don’t need to take Hughes word on this. Thanks to that fact that a good number of his contemporaries in science like to blog or write articles for web sites, it is plainly obvious that many do NOT hesitate to express an authoritative opinion outside of their circumscribed areas of expertise.
Hughes’ analysis breaks down as follows:

There are at least three areas of inquiry traditionally in the purview of philosophy that now are often claimed to be best — or only — studied scientifically: metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics. Let us discuss each in turn.

In it, he raises many thought-provoking points, complete with a skillful skewering of Sam Harris.

 

He concludes as follows:

The positivist tradition in philosophy gave scientism a strong impetus by denying validity to any area of human knowledge outside of natural science. More recent advocates of scientism have taken the ironic but logical next step of denying any useful role for philosophy whatsoever, even the subservient philosophy of the positivist sort. But the last laugh, it seems, remains with the philosophers — for the advocates of scientism reveal conceptual confusions that are obvious upon philosophical reflection. Rather than rendering philosophy obsolete, scientism is setting the stage for its much-needed revival. (emphasis added).

And ends with a warning:

Of all the fads and foibles in the long history of human credulity, scientism in all its varied guises — from fanciful cosmology to evolutionary epistemology and ethics — seems among the more dangerous, both because it pretends to be something very different from what it really is and because it has been accorded widespread and uncritical adherence. Continued insistence on the universal competence of science will serve only to undermine the credibility of science as a whole. The ultimate outcome will be an increase of radical skepticism that questions the ability of science to address even the questions legitimately within its sphere of competence. One longs for a new Enlightenment to puncture the pretensions of this latest superstition.

Wise words.

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4 Responses to Scientism Under the Microscope

  1. Excellent words of advice there. Ultimately I think the shortcomings of scientism are pretty well summed up in this oldie but goodie:

    Don’t agree with Craig on a number of things but in the context of what he said in that video I think he was dead on.

  2. Tim Lambert says:

    “When I decided on a scientific career, one of the things that appealed to me about science was the modesty of its practitioners. The typical scientist seemed to be a person who knew one small corner of the natural world and knew it very well, better than most other human beings living and better even than most who had ever lived.”

    I don’t disagree with what he’s saying entirely, but I find this alittle odd. As if humility was a mainstay in science prior to the positivistic ideal.
    I’m quite certain from simply knowing the condition of man, that the tendency to overreach and speak beyond circumscribed areas of knowledge was well alive back when Austin Hughes decided on a scientific career.

  3. Bilbo says:

    Thanks for the video, Jeffrey.

  4. Hoo says:

    If Hughes values humility and sticking to one’s own subject, what business does he have railing against “fanciful cosmology?” He understands none of it. Shouldn’t he practice what he preaches?

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