Topics: History, Physics, Philosophy, Science
Scientism: It's an old word, so old it has to be added to your online dictionary almost everywhere you might type it. It also at first glance sounds reasonable, and in my own oft-used urban descriptor: "science-y."
This description at the beginning of the article from The American Association for the Advancement of Science is instructive and concise:
Historian Richard G. Olson defines scientism as “efforts to extend scientific ideas, methods, practices, and attitudes to matters of human social and political concern.” (1) But this formulation is so broad as to render it virtually useless. Philosopher Tom Sorell offers a more precise definition: “Scientism is a matter of putting too high a value on natural science in comparison with other branches of learning or culture.” (2) MIT physicist Ian Hutchinson offers a closely related version, but more extreme: “Science, modeled on the natural sciences, is the only source of real knowledge.” (3) The latter two definitions are far more precise and will better help us evaluate scientism’s merit.
A History of Scientism
The Scientific Revolution
The roots of scientism extend as far back as early 17th century Europe, an era that came to be known as the Scientific Revolution. Up to that point, most scholars had been highly deferent to intellectual tradition, largely a combination of Judeo-Christian scripture and ancient Greek philosophy. But a torrent of new learning during the late Renaissance began to challenge the authority of the ancients, and long-established intellectual foundations began to crack. The Englishman Francis Bacon, the Frenchman Rene Descartes, and the Italian Galileo Galilei spearheaded an international movement proclaiming a new foundation for learning, one that involved careful scrutiny of nature instead of analysis of ancient texts.
Descartes and Bacon used particularly strong rhetoric to carve out space for their new methods. They claimed that by learning how the physical world worked, we could become “masters and possessors of nature.”(4) In doing so, humans could overcome hunger through innovations in agriculture, eliminate disease through medical research, and dramatically improve overall quality of life through technology and industry. Ultimately, science would save humans from unnecessary suffering and their self-destructive tendencies. And it promised to achieve these goals in this world, not the afterlife. It was a bold, prophetic vision.
From the seeds of this formed the basis for utopia: H.G. Wells was the first science fiction writer to tackle it; Utopia was written I think before the genre was invented by Mary Shelly ("Frankenstein," fairly dystopian to say the least). Star Trek and the proclivities of Gene Roddenberry (an atheist) embodied it in Mr. Spock and the planet Vulcan: human contact with an entire species of beings supposedly led fully by logic and reason. The Earth - post Armageddon - surviving its own hubris and learning to cooperate beyond borders, languages, religions and the previous things that separated the human tribe and made "Mutually Assured Destruction" (M.A.D.) possible in a hopefully fictional Trek timeline.
New Thought: It apparently started in the 19th century originating from Phineas Parkhurst Quimby - imitated ad nauseum by opportunistic others, branching into several realms via modern communications (radio, television, Internet) from faith healers, prosperity gospel, pseudoscience and general quackery. As the link indicates, the enduring appeal is humans feeling empowered in an unpredictable and often cruel cosmos. Many traditional, non denominational, modern and/or New Age gurus have cashed in on this uncertainty quite lucratively. You can see its sustained and prosperous modern incarnations with a simple exercise of channel-surfing.
I would say scientism in its modern expression would be (a representative off-the-top-of-my-head trio) Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Neil deGrasse Tyson. They ARE scientists, but have made a lucrative living speaking and writing about the virtues of science; how if we all thought more rationally we wouldn't have to wait for heaven on Earth: we could design it ourselves. Sociologist Jeffrey Guhin in New Scientist challenged the idea that Tyson forwarded of a nation totally run by logic, reason and science (sounds familiar? \\//_). He posits the very simple question that gives one pause: what does "rational" mean? Things that "sounded" rational and science-y like Eugenics was used for wholesale discriminatory behavior by Hitler's Third Reich (you know: concentration camps and gas chambers). If we just "follow-the-data" of standardized test scores, then the often debunked thesis behind "The Bell Curve" sounds rational, because one does not have to take into account generations of poverty vis-à-vis slavery; sharecropping (a word that is a contradiction in terms on its own); racial terrorism; Jim Crow; De Facto and De Jure segregation; bank red lining; differentiated education (for me, torn and outdated books supplemented by xeroxed copies my teachers purchased at their own expense) and no career opportunities to climb the economic ladder to a better life. The better correlation is wealth of parents and guardians to academic achievement, most of which happens to be the dominant culture.
The National Science Foundation (I think) was right to commission a study on Science Literacy and the public good, as more than anything that will determine the outcome of nations as we share and contest resources on this Earth, or prepare as a species to inhabit other worlds to extend us beyond the fate of the dinosaurs.
The broad brush of "all we need is science" is the proportional equivalent to its antithesis: "all we need is (fill in the blank): Buddha, Chia Pets, Gaia, Jesus, Odin, Mood Rings, Mood Rocks, Positive Thinking, Possibility Thinking, Prayer Cloths, Quantum Physics (since we travel < c, highly doubtful), Holy Water; Thor."
What we could all use is a return to actually teaching civics to our respective populations, and leave proselytizing to family units. Methinks both camps need to step back and consider a true "separation of church and state" (& science). It will benefit both camps better to stay in their lanes, without either one harmfully denigrating the other. We need to survive together as a species, or in the words of Dr. King "perish together as fools." The Earth does not need us to circumnavigate the sun, and the universe if we were so foolish wouldn't blink at our hubris...or departure.