Scientism and Paths to Knowledge, Understanding, and Truth

Quilette may suck but I think you’re really missing the mark with the “scientism” angle that you’re taking here.

AIDS denialism didn’t flourish in the UK because of over-deference to non-medical scientists, it clung on in the Broadsheets because they were owned by reactionaries with deep anti-gay prejudices, and largely staffed by people whose backgrounds were in anything other than the physical and medical sciences. The idea that the British establishment is stuffed with science and engineering types is laughable when you see the total stranglehold that law, politics and business have on the corridors of power. The arts and the Sciences are both locked out of power and influence by a third culture.

More generally, allegations of so-called “scientism” are typically nothing of the kind. The word generally gets used as a catch-all snarl word aimed at anyone who has the temerity to ask for evidence when the user makes an inconveniently testable claim about objective reality.

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It’s not about deference to scientists (or to say that there aren’t reactionaries running the presses) but about how ideas are posed in scientific language and assumptions. And how that is distinctive of a UK/commonwealth media mindset, addressing a more secular audience than is assumed in the U.S.

But I also want to note how this has become a delivery system for bigotry that is now successful in the U.S., for uncanny but obvious reasons: the internet delivers.

(I removed the line about the Sunday Times’ AIDS denialism, though, because it didn’t really belong)

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Those I’ve encountered who use the term scientism, whether embracingly or disparagingly, do so in its actual meaning, the notion that science can objectively determine values. This belies a fundamental misunderstanding about what science is (a methodology) and what values are, and plays to those who seek to dismiss science as a belief system.

Anti-enlightenment thinkers (AKA conceited edgelords who style themselves the “Dark Enlightenment” :roll_eyes:) like Claire Lehmann do this in a vain attempt to claim their own reactionary naval-gazing amounts to objective reality.

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Pretty much the only people who use the word “scientism” are people who believer vaguely that there can be “other ways of knowing” besides science, yet they never seem to clarify what those methods are and how their claims can be evaluated.

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No, the whole point is that scientism isn’t science. The scientific method is the “way of knowing.” Scientism is yesterday’s effort turned to stone, scoffing at the latest papers and avoiding its continuing education classes.

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History isn’t a science. Fiction writing is not a science. Poetry, philosophy, painting, making music, etc, none of those are “sciences” and are often great ways to explore complex aspects of morality and human life that aren’t so easy to pin down. So no, science is not the only way to arrive at new ways of understanding or thinking about the world that’s entirely legitimate.

Let’s not forget that science has been used by actual scientists to do horrific things to people. Eugenics was once considered a serious science, which is easy to wave away now, but it was studied seriously as a science.

We also got plenty of “useful” knowledge of all kinds out of Nazi scientists. That doesn’t make it remotely moral. Murray’s co-author on The Bell Curve was a harvard psychology prof with a god damn phd. He clearly participated in the writing of an amoral book full of half-truths and outright distortions, in part because they believed that it was moral to defend the status quo.

Scientists are human beings and are as prone to making bad moral judgements and letting their biases sneak in as anyone of us. Morality isn’t the same as scientifically derived knowledge because there is often not clear cut answers to moral questions.

Anyways, from that hotbed of anti-science thinking checks notes the American Association for the Advancement of Science, here is a clearly anti-science screed against scientism full of lies, half-truths, and superstitious nonsense…

https://www.aaas.org/programs/dialogue-science-ethics-and-religion/what-scientism

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History (at least the evidence based parts of it – “the historical method” is a subset of the scientific method) is very much a science as I’m sure you are aware. Philosophy is a grab bag of various fields. There are forms of philosophy dealing with logic and the like that could reasonably be grouped in with science, but the parts that claim to have insight into “morality” are no more scientific than religion.

Poetry, painting, music, etc. are fine endeavors, but they can’t generate knowledge. Many of them can popularize and spread knowledge (like how the Renaissance artists spread knowledge of human anatomy to those who had never seen cadavers themselves, but they were based on the scientific ), or promote ideologies as Christian and Soviet art did, but that’s not the same thing.

Let’s not forget that science has been used by actual scientists to do horrific things to people. Eugenics was once considered a serious science, which is easy to wave away now, but it was studied seriously as a science.

And religion was and is being used by actual clerics to do horrific things to people, The difference is science can (and does) say that things it did in the past were wrong, but even generally well meaning clerics like Pope Francis can’t do that with his religion because once a religion admits it was wrong, it’s done for.

Scientists are human beings and are as prone to making bad moral judgements and letting their biases sneak in as anyone of us. Morality isn’t the same as scientifically derived knowledge because there is often not clear cut answers to moral questions.

Yes, but that’s largely because “moral questions” aren’t knowable things. They are just opinons, like “Chocolate ice cream is the best!”.

Anyways, from that hotbed of anti-science thinking checks notes the American Association for the Advancement of Science, here is a clearly anti-science screed against scientism full of lies, half-truths, and superstitious nonsense…

No. That was published in Science magazine as an editorial, but is in no way the official position of the AAAS (as mentioned). The author works for the John Templeton Foundation, which if you don’t know, is an organization that is trying to promote religion among scientists. It really stunk up the issue of Science to see such stuff there, and it got many angry letters in response.

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The essay begins with the following disclaimer:

Disclaimer: The author’s views do not necessarily represent those of AAAS or DoSER

and ends with a biographical note:

Thomas Burnett is the assistant director of public engagement at the John Templeton Foundation etc etc.

The Templeton Foundation is infamous for endowing a prize in spirituality more richly than the Nobel prizes.

An interesting view, perhaps, but not one that is necessarily congruent with the aims of AAAS.

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Howso?

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If I paint a picture of a fire-breathing dragon or write a story about one, or sing a song about one, that isn’t evidence for dragons existing. If I go on an scientific expedition and bring one back, that is. As is finding a skeleton of one, although that is a slightly weaker form of evidence because I may be misinterpreting a dinosaur skeleton or something.

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That seems like a pretty limited understanding of what art is and how it functions though. There’s more to life than proving things do or don’t exist after all. If I hear a song I’m having a sensory reaction to it, a physiological phenomenon is happening as a result, perhaps I’m experiencing a shared moment with people in a sort of liminal space created by that shared experience. And that is something one can learn from. Not to mention it takes real knowledge and understanding to pull it off too let alone grasp how and why it works.

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if I hear a song I’m having a sensory reaction to it, a physiological phenomenon is happening as a result, perhaps I’m experiencing a shared moment with people in a sort of minimal space created by that shared experience

Maybe. but understanding if that’s the case and how the physiological phenomenon works isn’t possible through the art itself, but only by scientific investigation.

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A random article I pulled up:

I thought it worth reading, but I’m a magpie.

Hietanen, Johan ; Turunen, Petri ; Hirvonen, Ilmari ; Karisto, Janne ; Pättiniemi, Ilkka & Saarinen, Henrik (2020). How Not to Criticise Scientism. Metaphilosophy 51 (4):522-547.

Abstract: This paper argues that the main global critiques of scientism lose their
punch because they rely on an uncharitable definition of their target. It focuses on
epistemological scientism and divides it into four categories in terms of how strong
(science is the only source of knowledge) or weak (science is the best source of
knowledge) and how narrow (only natural sciences) or broad (all sciences or at least
not only the natural sciences) they are. Two central arguments against scientism,
the (false) dilemma and self-referential incoherence, are analysed. Of the four
types of epistemological scientism, three can deal with these counterarguments
by utilizing two methodological principles: epistemic evaluability of reliability and
epistemic opportunism. One hopes that these considerations will steer the discus-
sion on scientism to more fruitful pastures in the future. For example, there are in-
teresting methodological considerations concerning what evaluability or reliability
and epistemic opportunism entail

The concept of scientific imperialism was broached, which seems to be a more rigorously defined version of

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No amount of analysis can derive ought from is, and the belief that it can is the heart of scientism.

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Absolutely. It is hard to not get inundated with a classist view of science as holder of objective truth and the one true, rational, path to understanding. The idea that science is the only path to understanding the world is complete hogwash, as is the idea that science vs. non-science is an objectively definable distinction.
I’ve never seen a scientism type argument about how science is the singular path to truth that didn’t boil down to the person’s own irrational belief in their own rightness and their desire for others to validate that belief

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And thus the climate crisis was never solved.

Wait, is this the thread about the suckiness of Quillette?

Animated GIF

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This seems like a good place for this:

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Not anymore.

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Actual historians debate whether or not it is a science, even though it’s modern roots are in the scientific revolution. Marx very much wanted it to be a science, to create a template that historical evidence could be read through… there were obvious flaws in his methodology, though, such as taking into account the irrationality of human beings, and our limited ability to understand the motivations of others. Marx’s theories all stemmed from the POV that the economy shapes all and while a powerful lens to think about the past, people are motivated in far different ways than just by economic structures. Foucault made a pretty good argument for how power and the desire to control, for example, shapes human events as well.

Given how difficult it is to actually pin down events in the past, even the recent past, I argue against it being a science in the traditional sense. It is much more of an art that seeks to know the truth. The degree of disagreement and debate even the most well-established events cause and how new ideas and new facts cause ever more uncertainty, it’s far more an art of interpretation than a science. History generates knowledge about the past, but it’s always up for debate and it’s always changing with new ways of thinking about the world.

Well, that’s bullshit. Sure they can. Often when people make a work of art, they come out with a better understanding of the intangible things about the world.

We can get the knowledge of the inner world of the people who wrote or composed a work. We can gain knowledge and understanding of ourselves by how we react to a work of art and how it can change our view of the world. That’s a kind of knowledge, understanding of others and our selves.

Except religious people have done that, too.

No. Not really. I think we can KNOW that some things are moral and others aren’t.

Right? And more to knowledge than just pinning down facts.

Eugene Levy Shrug GIF by Vanity Fair

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