Imagine you knew someone who was truly enthralled with aspirin, so much so that they constantly advocated aspirin as a wonder drug capable of treating all illnesses. You could agree that aspirin has been very helpful to humanity, where it not only relieves headaches, joint pain, and fevers, but also seems to help prevent unwanted blood clots from forming. But you simply can’t agree that aspirin treats all disease. So when the aspirin enthusiast publicly proclaims that aspirin should be used to treat Alzheimer’s disease, you speak up, noting there is no evidence aspirin helps to treat this disease. Then, when the aspirin enthusiast publicly proclaims that aspirin should be used to treat ulcers, you speak up even more loudly, as you argue that aspirin actually makes ulcers worse.
The aspirin enthusiast then responds. He can point to some anecdotes where aspirin seems to have helped some Alzheimer’s patients. As for ulcers, he insists more research is needed. He then argues that given aspirin has a track record of treating various ailments, it’s only a matter of time before researchers discover how to use it to treat illnesses such a ulcers and Alzheimer’s.
You again acknowledge aspirin’s benefits and successful uses, but try to explain that just because aspirin has been useful with some ailments is no reason to think it will be able to treat all diseases. That’s just a hasty generalization.
At that point, the aspirin enthusiast starts to accuse you of being “anti-aspirin” and opposed to finding ways to help cure and treat illnesses. You point out that you are not “anti-aspirin,” in fact, you even use it when you have a headache or fever. It’s just that it has never helped your near-sightedness. In fact, you point out that his advocacy of aspirin smells like pseudoscience and refer to it as aspirinism.
This makes him angry.
Now, imagine further that you live in a society where aspirin is the only medicine. That is, other than home remedies (that work on some people, but not others), aspirin is the only drug with a track record of success when it comes to treating large populations. In this case, the proponent of aspirinism begins to argue, “When it comes to headaches, do you have something better than aspirin?” “No,” you say. He responds, “When it comes to treating Alzheimer’s or ulcers, do you have something better than aspirin?”! Once again, you say no. “Well,” he huffs and puffs, “since there is nothing better than aspirin, perhaps you should keep your anti-aspirin ideas to yourself and let the researchers figure out how to use it!” When you object to the faulty logic and also cite the evidence that indicates aspirin seems to make ulcers worse, he dismisses that evidence as an improper application of aspirin and then suggests the reason you are “anti-aspirin” is because you are trying to protect your favorite home remedy.
Now, I trust that most of you can recognize the aspirin enthusiast in this analogy is behaving irrationally. His attempts to turn a useful medicine into a Wonder Drug, his attachment to aspirin use, and his methods of defending his positions, are all common among those who advocate pseudoscience. Yet here is the thing: aspirinism is really no different from scientism. The analogy is striking. So maybe its time to consider the possibility that scientism is itself a form of pseudoscience.