Scientism and Paths to Knowledge, Understanding, and Truth

Scientism is more specifically about people imitating the acts of the scientific method or of a specific science (ex. phrenology or economists trying to use physics to explain social phenomena of the macro/micro structures in the economy) without giving a legitimate argument for their reasoning or the conclusions they’ve derived. More importantly, many things that come under scientism often can be seen as tautological as well as they don’t have means to experimentally be tested against a null hypothesis. Also, I hate that conservatives constantly misuse the term as a means of deflection for their own scientism or tautological nonsense since it devalues the use of the term in public discussion.


I mean, sounds like religion to me! If you can’t test it… :woman_shrugging: :grinning_face_with_smiling_eyes:


You don’t have to go all Marxist and claim that history is predictive and has a set plan to say it is a science though. The fact that historical beliefs are based on evidence, and that these beliefs can (and are) changed when new evidence is found means it is absolutely a science in the broad sense. It may not be an experimental science, but neither are things like geology and paleontology either.

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.

What are “intangible things about the world”?

We can get the knowledge of the inner world of the people who wrote or composed a work

I don’t think we can. It’s practically a cliche, but people all the time write to authors saying “I know what you meant by this work” and they respond that that wasn’t it at all. People are really bad at reading each other’s minds.

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.

This is changing the meaning of the word “knowledge” though. There is nothing testable about such subjective “knowledge”

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

Morality is a mixture of things that are instinctual (many animals avoid incest and cannibalism, for example, but only humans think these are “immoral”), and things that are useful, but ultimately arbitrary, conventions (murder and theft are considered wrong because people don’t want to be murdered or robbed themselves). We can say uplifting things like “We all know murder is immoral” but that ignores that in many traditional societies murder is only a crime/sin if one kills a member of their own group. Arguably that’s kind of true even in modern societies given things like warfare where killing the “enemy” is completely acceptable by non-pacifists.

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

Personally, I’ve never seen an argument against “scientism” (really just a slur word for science in general) that didn’t boil down to religion, which is really the only alternative to science as a “way of knowing”, even though there’s no evidence that religion can tell us anything. But even religious people are getting embarrassed to admit they are religious, so they hide behind such “think tanks” like the John Templeton Foundation or the Discovery Institute which to the casual observer don’t seem to be religious fronts.

Wait… Knowledge isn’t necessarily testable. If you mean verifiable evidence then say that instead of knowledge.


Then how is it knowledge? You can only know something if you have evidence of it.

A historian is interpreting evidence, and to pretend like you can look at that evidence and KNOW exactly what it means with no debate is just wrong. The same set of evidence can turn up vastly different interpretations. See for example, the debate over the dropping the bomb at the end of world war 2 or better yet, the Goldhagen-Browning debates about the holocaust - literally based on the exact same documents with vastly different conclusions about the meaning of those facts. Who you agree with depends on your subjective position to a large degree. Neither get the basic facts WRONG, but it’s the MEANING of those facts, which is the part that matters for historical analysis. Something like Newtonian laws are not up for the same interpretive debate.

As such, I don’t think it’s “science” because even when you pin down facts and re-interpret via new evidence, it’s still far more subjective and as hard as one tries to be about objectivity, what evidence MEANS relies on an interpretive framework which is not based on science.

I think you know what I mean… things that are not physical. People’s emotions, for example are very REAL, but not physically tangible. You can’t touch an emotion… well, except via art in a way. Morality is intangible, but very real. Concepts like justice and fairness are intangible. Just because you can’t hold it doesn’t mean it’s not real or less of value.

Except some artists are explicit about what something means and some works of art are pretty obvious. Now the experience someone else has can be different when listening to that.

The word existed prior to the enlightenment and the enlightenment changed how we think of it.

Except plenty of societies that condone some kinds of murder still have a moral code around it, meaning that morality shapes it and there is agreement that some, if not all murder is wrong.

That is literally not it’s original meaning, which people have told you here several times. Can it be used that way? Sure. Is it always? No. The context matters. No one here is using it as an anti-science slur. I’m not sure how you can spend any time here and think that most of us are anti-science types.


Knowledge can be any information that one aquires. If I practice a guitar for twenty years I gain knowledge about how to play a guitar. If I train for a sport I gain knowledge about my body. If I listen to my spouse sympathetically I gain knowledge about improving our relationship etc. None of these things have a hypothesis to prove nor are they falsifiable but they definitely are included in the standard definition of knowledge.


Just a quick reminder to everyone (@Mindysan33, I know you know): Germanophones don’t make the distinction between sciences and humanities, and it shapes their view of Wissenschaft, as a whole.

The scientism debate here seems to have cultural specifics, as well. I don’t have the energy to dive in, but I find it interesting that there seems to be a difference between the UK and the US. I will watch this place later, mayhaps, to get enlightened. (SCNR.)


I don’t understand your use of the term “tautological”. Can you provide an example of something that is scientistic and also bad because it is “tautological nonsense” as you put it?

I’m aware, but it’s a good reminder. I’ll also remind people how much of our university system here in the states was influenced by the German academy from the 19th century on. But the French have been more influential in recent years (since the 60s), as have movements like post-colonial studies and the like that have attempted to decenter the white male European traditions of the academy more generally.

Im Out Amy Poehler GIF by FOX TV


An ironic rejoinder to Bloom

Ironically, the dogma that has been so detrimental to field taxonomy is known as Bloom’s taxonomy. University lecturers are told to apply an educational theory developed by Benjamin Bloom, which categorises assessment tasks and learning activities into cognitive domains. In Bloom’s taxonomy, identifying and naming are at the lowest level of cognitive skills and have been systematically excluded from University degrees because they are considered simplistic.

The problem is that identifying a plant or insect is not simple at all. Not only do you need to know which features to examine (nuts, leaves, roots, spines, eye stripes or wing venation), you need to adopt a whole vocabulary of terms designed to provide precision in the observation of specific traits. Examining the mouthparts of insects requires knowing the difference between a mandible, maxilla and rostrum. Hairs on a leaf can be described as glaucous, glabrous, or hirsute.

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There has been a series of discussions on that (and general shortcomings in UK education) on Radio 4 this week

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Things that we are still trying to grasp at but don’t have a solid theory of. Like heat in ancient Greek times. The thing that we currently describe as “heat” in contemporary terms affected the lives of ancient people and they grasped for ideas that would let them live with and control it. Those ideas were all less useful and predictive of how heat behaves than modern theories. But without the development of technologies that allowed heat to be studied and described, it was the best that could be done at the time.

That’s an unfounded assumption. What if we the thing we describe as “morality” was us grasping for something that is really real? I mean, I have morals, you have morals, those are clusters of neurons and connections between neurons in our brains, they have mass and volume. We communicate about those ideas through ink on pages, compression waves in the air, arrangements of magnetic fields in digital storage. That, taken together, is a large, real thing that at least sorts ideas that are about morality from ideas that are not about morality and may also be sorting those ideas into those that more closely resemble actual morality (whatever that is) and those that don’t. It’s possible we really mean something and we are in a big collective endeavour to find out what that thing really is the world. That’s how heat turned out (fun fact, people made the same “it’s all subjective” argument about heat in the past).

People built bridges way before science. Science is a relatively recent (and successful in terms of productive results for us) way of sorting true things from false things. It may one day be replaced by an even better method that we can’t conceive of any more than an ancient Greek architect could have conceived of the scientific method while building their buildings that would go on to stay up for hundreds of years.

Science is not the only way to develop knowledge. We built science out of other knowledge we had already developed through other methods.


Are you saying that the reason you would paint that picture would be in order to generate such evidence?
I mean, if you are able to paint a dragon, then it is because you have knowledge of what a dragon should look like. Which doesn’t mean that dragons are real animals which also does not mean that dragons aren’t a thing.
If dragons only exist in stories, pictures and songs then isn’t painting a picture of a dragon evidence of dragons existing?

What do you mean by knowledge?


If dragons only exist in stories, pictures and songs then isn’t painting a picture of a dragon evidence of dragons existing?

The wonderful Simpsons episode parodying both the X-Files and Nimoy’s “In Search Of…” show had Nimoy himself deal with this kind of argument:

“The following tale of alien encounters is true. And by true, I mean false. It’s all lies. But they’re entertaining lies. And in the end, isn’t that the real truth? The answer is no.”

What do you mean by knowledge?

Evidence of a something or some phenomenon existing in the real world.

@Humbabella people built bridges way before science. Science is a relatively recent (and successful in terms of productive results for us) way of sorting true things from false things

Science in the narrow sense of the Western scientific revolution is a indeed a relatively recent way of knowing, and I certainly don’t want to underestimate its importance because it was the first (to our knowledge) universal system of evaluating evidence, but in particular subfields various cultures did develop more-or-less scientific ways of evaluating evidence and applying it.

We have surviving works from the Romans and Ancient Chinese on architecture, astronomy, and so on. Yes, there’s plenty of mysticism in these works, but also practical suggestions on how to make measurements, construct instruments, where to place columns, and so on. How did they learn such things? By trial and error, noting what worked and what didn’t, and iterating. That’s science.



Singal’s lamentations elicit a very particular weariness among trans readers. His logic is circular, and obsessive. In returning to the subject repeatedly, Singal seems intent on cracking some truth about the trans experience that is not accessible to him, as if provoked by that very inaccessibility. And this is the epistemological challenge that trans culture lays at cis culture’s doorstep: You must trust me to know my own identity . To extend full humanity to trans citizens means marking the limits of cis knowledge.

One of the reasons that trans skeptics get so riled by this demand is that it implies that their empathy and their intellect have borders. It also denies the universality of human experience, and undermines the notion of a pure discourse where only reason prevails. Ironically, nothing makes those borders starker than the Singals of this world patrolling the edges of a culture war, demanding that their opponents meet them at the fence for a healthy conversation.

Texas began its special legislativesession today.

Texas lawmakers kicked off a special session on Thursday to consider a range of Republican-backed measures, including voting restrictions that Democratic members previously blocked in a dramatic legislative walkout.

Republican Governor Greg Abbott has also instructed state lawmakers to consider bills that would block transgender students from competing in athletics that correspond with their gender identity, fund arrests of immigrants living in the country illegally, restrict abortion access and limit teaching about the role of racism in the United States.

The language of these charades — “consider”, “hold hearings”, “debate”-- suggests careful deliberation-- but the reality is that one side has decided to act, for political advantage, on matters that they know nothing about.

There are fields of human endeavour where the scientific approach is the correct one, but try to remember armchair speculation and amatueriism are rarely exact enough to be called science.


Well, if we define all human discovery as science then all knowledge comes from science. But that means babies staring at their hands as their fingers move are doing science. A person who gets blackout drunk to deal with their depression is doing science. A dog that faces north when it poops is doing science (it works!).

It strikes me a bit like confusing evolution and husbandry. In some grand sense they are the same, but in any common usage there is a difference between: a) having different ideas, some of which end up sticking around because they serve some purpose vs. b) having a system by which you select ideas that serve a certain function for the people doing the selection.


No amount of analysis can derive ought from is

John Searle begs to differ.

Although, the use of science to decide questions that were hitherto political leads to two difficulties.

If the science calls for a certain policy, it deprives the ordinary person of power,


if the science cannot be verified by the ordinary person, it becomes subject to attack, which can make it less useful to society.


I’m aware. And I disagree with him. My reasons are too extensive for an internet forum, but I’m a kind physicalist, of which he is also a kind. Unlike Searle, I’m a moral constructivist.

Searle’s a thoroughly respectable advocate for the countervailing position, but I believe he makes errors categorical, epistemic and semantic.

Scientists are ordinary people.


Well, if we define all human discovery as science then all knowledge comes from science. But that means babies staring at their hands as their fingers move are doing science

Exactly! We can improve the discovery process by formalizing things, as modern science does, but people instinctively learn by trial and error and looking at the evidence. But when people claim that “science isn’t the only way of knowing” they are implying that there are alternative ways to discovery, like “faith” or “gut feeling” that don’t need evidence.

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