Science is not the only form of knowledge but it is the best

‘Philosophy is dead,’ Stephen Hawking once declared, because it ‘has not kept up with modern developments in science, particularly physics.’ It is scientists, not philosophers, who are now ‘the bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge’. The response from some philosophers was to accuse Hawking of ‘scientism’. The charge of ‘scientism’ is meant to convey disapproval of anyone who values scientific disciplines, such as physics, over non-scientific disciplines, such as philosophy. The philosopher Tom Sorell writes that scientism is ‘a matter of putting too high a value on science in comparison with other branches of learning or culture’. But what’s wrong with putting a higher value on science compared with other academic disciplines? What is so bad about scientism? If physics is in fact a better torch in the quest for knowledge than philosophy, as Hawking claimed, then perhaps it should be valued over philosophy and other non-scientific fields of enquiry.

Before we can address these questions, however, we need to get our definitions straight. For, much like other philosophical -isms, ‘scientism’ means different things to different philosophers. Now, the question of whether science is the only way of knowing about reality, or at least better than non-scientific ways of knowing, is an epistemological question. Construed as an epistemological thesis, then, scientism can be broadly understood as either the view that scientific knowledge is the only form of knowledge we have, or the view that scientific knowledge is the best form of knowledge we have. But scientism comes in other varieties as well, including methodological and metaphysical ones. As a methodological thesis, scientism is either the view that scientific methods are the only ways of knowing about reality we have, or the view that scientific methods are the best ways of knowing about reality we have. And, construed as a metaphysical thesis, scientism is either the view that science is our only guide to what exists, or the view that science is our best guide to what exists.

Without a clear understanding of the aforementioned varieties of scientism, philosophical parties to the scientism debate are at risk of merely talking past each other. That is, some defenders of scientism might be arguing for weaker varieties of scientism, in terms of scientific knowledge or methods being the best ones, while their opponents interpret them as arguing for stronger varieties of scientism, in terms of scientific knowledge or methods being the only ones. My own position, for example, is a weak variety of scientism. In my paper ‘What’s So Bad about Scientism?’ (2017), I defend scientism as an epistemological thesis, which I call ‘Weak Scientism’. This is the view that scientific knowledge is the best form of knowledge we have (as opposed to ‘Strong Scientism’, which is the view that scientific knowledge is the only knowledge we have).

According to Weak Scientism, while non-scientific disciplines such as philosophy do produce knowledge, scientific disciplines such as physics produce knowledge that is superior – both quantitatively and qualitatively – to non-scientific knowledge. It is important to note that ‘knowledge’ does not refer to justified true belief (or any other analysis of knowledge, for that matter). Rather, ‘knowledge’ means disciplinary knowledge or the research produced by practitioners in an academic field of enquiry. All academic disciplines are in the business of producing knowledge (or research) in this sense. The knowledge of each academic discipline is what we find in the academic publications of the practitioners of an academic discipline. Proponents of Strong Scientism would deny that non-scientific disciplines produce ‘real knowledge’, as Richard Williams puts it in the introduction to the anthology Scientism: The New Orthodoxy (2014), whereas proponents of Weak Scientism would grant that non-scientific disciplines produce knowledge but argue that scientific knowledge is better than non-scientific knowledge along several dimensions.

Now, whether any of these epistemological, methodological and metaphysical theses – weak (‘best’) or strong (‘only’) – is true should be a matter of debate, not definition by fiat. Each claim needs to be put forward, examined, criticised and debated. It can’t be what some have unfortunately sought to do, which is to make scientism a misguided view by definition. Take the psychologist Steve Taylor who wrote in 2019:

One of the characteristics of dogmatic belief systems is that their adherents accept assumptions as proven facts. This is certainly true of scientism. For example, it is a fact that consciousness exists, and that it is associated with neurological activity. But the assumption that consciousness is produced by neurological activity is questionable.

Here, Taylor asserts that scientism is a dogmatic belief system. But why is that? None of the epistemological, methodological and metaphysical theses mentioned above is dogmatic. These theses can be questioned, of course. However, if merely being questionable were sufficient to make a belief dogmatic, then many if not most of our beliefs would be dogmatic. To see why, consider my (and, in all likelihood, your) belief that there is an external world, a world that is there independently of our minds. Our belief in the existence of an external world is notoriously difficult to prove, as any epistemologist will tell you, but that doesn’t mean that our belief in an external world is nothing more than mere (religious) dogma.

Likewise, in her book Defending Science – Within Reason (2003), Susan Haack asserts that, by definition, scientism is ‘an exaggerated kind of deference towards science, an excessive readiness to accept as authoritative any claim made by the sciences, and to dismiss any kind of criticism of science or its practitioners as anti-scientific prejudice’. But this runs into the same problem above. None of the epistemological, methodological and metaphysical theses mentioned above are exaggerated or excessive. To have an exaggerated deference toward something is misguided, and to have an excessive readiness to accept as authoritative any claims made by some source is foolhardy. After all, that’s just what the words ‘exaggerated’ and ‘excessive’ imply.

Instead of condemning scientism by definition, opponents need to show what is wrong with it

To assert that scientism is merely a dogmatic belief, as Taylor does, or an inherently misguided attitude, as Haack does, is to weaponise it, not to argue against it. There is an important history here. In the mid-20th century, theologians and religious scholars weaponised scientism in an attempt to defend their academic territory from what they perceived as a threat of scientific encroachment. In their book Roadblocks to Faith (1954) James Pike and John McGill Krumm distinguished science from scientism and claim that the latter is ‘a threat to the humanities no less than to religion’. Around the same time, in his paper ‘The Preacher Talks to the Man of Science’ (1954), H Richard Rasmusson characterised scientism as ‘a cult that has made a religion out of science’. These religious scholars weaponised scientism out of a concern that science is encroaching on areas of enquiry that presuppose the existence of the very things whose existence they take science to be questioning or denying, such as God, the supernatural, and the like. That is why, according to Ian Barbour, ‘it is [considered] scientism when Richard Dawkins says that the presence of chance in evolution shows that this is a purposeless universe,’ for this claim is taken to be questioning the belief in a providential God.

Some philosophers are now playing a similar game, that is, using scientism as a weapon in the fight against scientists who are critical of academic philosophy. Philosophers who level the charge of ‘scientism’ typically identify prominent scientists, such as Hawking and Neil deGrasse Tyson, as exhibiting this kind of misguided attitude toward science; the philosopher Ian James Kidd called them mere ‘cheerleaders for science’. The problem with thinking of scientism as these philosophers do – as exaggerated deference toward science – is that it is a persuasive conception of scientism. To assert that scientism is ‘putting too high a value on science’ or ‘an exaggerated kind of deference towards science’ is to express disapproval of what could, after all, be a reasonable view to hold.

In argumentation studies, definitions that are intended to transfer emotive force, such as feelings of approval or disapproval, are known as persuasive definitions. To say that scientism just is ‘putting too high a value on science’ is akin to saying that abortion is murder – the definition is overloaded with emotional force. Just as pro-choice advocates would object to saying that abortion is murder, since it expresses disapproval of abortion, advocates of scientism would object to saying that scientism is ‘putting too high a value on science’ since it expresses disapproval of scientism. Instead of condemning scientism by definition, as Sorell and Haack do, opponents of scientism need to show precisely what is wrong with it.

In their introduction to the anthology Scientism: Prospects and Problems (2018), René van Woudenberg, Rik Peels and Jeroen de Ridder agree that scientism should not be weaponised when they write: ‘no one will accept this notion of “scientism” as an adequate characterisation of their own views, as no one will think that their deference to science is exaggerated, or their readiness to accept claims made by the sciences is excessive.’ In fact, in the paper ‘Six Signs of Scientism’ (2012), Haack herself observes that, before it was weaponised by those who sought to defend religion and philosophy from science trespassing on their territories, ‘the word “scientism” was neutral.’

Unlike pejorative conceptions of scientism, Weak Scientism – the view I defend – is a neutral framing according to which scientific disciplines, when compared with non-scientific disciplines, such as philosophy, are better along several dimensions. Briefly, the argument runs as follows. One thing can be said to be better than another thing either quantitatively or qualitatively. Scientific knowledge is quantitatively better than non-scientific knowledge because scientific disciplines produce more knowledge, and the knowledge they produce has more impact than the knowledge produced by non-scientific disciplines. This claim is supported by data on the research output (that is, number of publications) and research impact (that is, number of citations) of scientific and non-scientific academic disciplines. These data show that scientific disciplines produce more publications, and those publications get cited more than the publications of non-scientific disciplines.

In their paper ‘Humanities: The Outlier of Research Assessment’ (2020), Güleda Doğan and Zehra Taşkın use publication and citation data in 255 subjects on the Web of Science from 1980 to 2020 to find that the distribution of publications is such that ‘81 per cent were published in three main pure sciences categories: natural sciences (33 per cent), medical sciences (27 per cent), and engineering and technology (21 per cent)’, and that ‘[t]he total number of humanities publications was almost similar to a relatively small pure science area’, namely, agricultural sciences. As far as the distribution of citations is concerned, the ‘[h]umanities had only 0.52 per cent of whole citations in the dataset, while natural sciences had 44 per cent, medical sciences had 30 per cent, engineering and technology had 17 per cent, social sciences had 6 per cent, and agriculture had 1.5 per cent.’ When compared with the natural sciences, engineering and technology, medical and health sciences, and social sciences, the humanities have the lowest values of research output (measured by publication counts), with the exception of agricultural sciences, and research impact (measured by citation counts), without exception. While most scientific publications are cited, only 16 per cent of publications in the humanities are cited. Within the humanities, philosophy, ethics and religion have the highest percentages of uncited publications.

Scientific knowledge can be said to be qualitatively better than non-scientific knowledge because scientific knowledge is explanatorily, predictively and instrumentally more successful than non-scientific knowledge. This is the sort of success that philosophers of science talk about, as they often do, when they say that science is successful. Consider, for example, Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity. The theory is explanatorily successful insofar as it provides a comprehensive explanation for phenomena that would otherwise seem mysterious, such as gravity, planetary orbits, black holes, electromagnetism, and more. The theory is instrumentally successful insofar as it allows us to intervene in nature as when we use GPS to navigate our world and gravitational lensing to look for new worlds. The theory is predictively successful insofar as it makes novel predictions that are borne out by observation or experimentation, such as the perihelion precession of Mercury, the deflection of light by massive objects, the gravitational redshifting of light, the relativistic delay of light (also known as the Shapiro effect), gravitational waves, and more. One would be hard pressed to find a non-scientific theory that is as explanatorily, instrumentally and predictively successful as the theory of relativity.

This argument for Weak Scientism is not meant to be the final word on the question of scientism. There may be other arguments for and against the varieties of scientism mentioned above, which is exactly what we should want. What we do not want is for scientism to be weaponised. Unfortunately, the ‘scientism’ charge is already being used in the war against science as it is fought on the internet and social media. Anti-vaxxers use it to create mass doubt and disbelief regarding any claim about the COVID-19 vaccines made by public health officials and organisations, such as the World Health Organization. Climate change deniers use it to sow seeds of doubt about the scientific consensus on the anthropogenic climate crisis.

For example, when the tennis player Novak Djokovic posted on Twitter that he would not be going to the 2022 US Open because he is not vaccinated for COVID-19, the actor Rob Schneider quoted his Tweet and wrote: ‘Because science… And by science, of course I mean the religion of scientism, which is the opposite of science.’ Since then, Schneider’s Tweet was deleted, and for good reason. That is because Schneider had used ‘scientism’ as a weapon against the recommendation of public health officials to get vaccinated for COVID-19. His use of ‘scientism’ is meant to imply that the United States Tennis Association has no good reasons to require tennis players to get vaccinated for COVID-19 before they can compete in the US Open. It is meant to suggest that the requirement to get vaccinated for COVID-19 is mere dogma that is not supported by scientific evidence.

Academic philosophers who weaponise ‘scientism’ are playing a dangerous game

Similarly, the law professor John O McGinnis uses ‘scientism’ as a weapon of science denial in his essay ‘Blinded by Scientism’ (2020), when he writes:

The mantra of ‘follow the science’ [which he labels ‘scientism’] is not unique to the politics of the virus [namely, the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2]. Politicians offer a similar justification for policies on climate change. Just as the science about COVID-19 ‘justifies’ lockdowns, the science of climate change is used to support spending and regulatory policy that will deliver zero net emissions.

This is another example of the use of ‘scientism’ as an anti-science weapon. McGinnis’s use of ‘scientism’ is meant to raise doubts about the scientific consensus over anthropogenic climate change. It is meant to imply that policymakers and lawmakers have no good reasons to enact any policies or legislate any laws that are informed by the science of climate change.

For these reasons, academic philosophers who weaponise ‘scientism’ are playing a dangerous game. In their valiant attempt to defend academic philosophy from the criticism of some celebrity scientists, such as Hawking, they may be providing ammunition to science deniers. Not only philosophers but also scientists seem to occasionally fall into the trap of weaponising scientism, thereby enabling science deniers to use ‘scientism’ as an anti-science weapon of doubt and disbelief. In the article ‘What Is Scientism, and Why Is it a Mistake?’ (2021), the professor of astrophysics Adam Frank quotes the Google definition of ‘scientism’ as ‘excessive belief in the power of scientific knowledge and techniques’ with approval, and then goes on to say that scientism

is a mistake […] because it is confused about what it’s defending. Without doubt, science is unique, powerful, and wonderful. It should be celebrated, and it needs to be protected. Scientism, on the other hand, is just metaphysics, and there are lots and lots of metaphysical beliefs.

Of course, there are many metaphysical beliefs. There are also many scientific beliefs, just as there are many religious, perceptual, testimonial and other kinds of beliefs as well. The mere fact that there are many beliefs of a certain type doesn’t necessarily mean that some beliefs of that type cannot be said to be better than other beliefs of the same type. The question is whether belief in the power of science to produce knowledge (or some other epistemic good) is justified, warranted or reasonable.

Now, philosophers who weaponise ‘scientism’ tend to find scientism threatening to non-scientific academic disciplines. Again, Haack is a case in point. In her paper ‘The Real Question: Can Philosophy Be Saved?’ (2017) she claims that ‘the rising tide of scientistic philosophy […] spells shipwreck for philosophy itself.’ However, there is a continuum between a dogmatic acceptance of science, or ‘science worship’, which is often mistakenly referred to as ‘scientism’, and a dogmatic rejection of science, or ‘science denial’. If a dogmatic acceptance of science is an epistemic threat, as academic philosophers who weaponise ‘scientism’ tend to claim, then a dogmatic rejection of science is an epistemic threat, too. In fact, a dogmatic rejection of science is a bigger epistemic threat than a dogmatic acceptance of science. Why? Because science is the most successful epistemic enterprise human beings have ever had, as almost all philosophers of science agree.

Neutral conceptions of scientism cannot become anti-science weapons of doubt and disbelief

As Anjan Chakravartty puts it in his entry on scientific realism for the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, it is a ‘widely accepted premise that our best [scientific] theories are extraordinarily successful: they facilitate empirical predictions, retrodictions, and explanations of the subject matters of scientific investigation, often marked by astounding accuracy and intricate causal manipulations of the relevant phenomena.’ In other words, the flip side of dogmatic ‘science worship’ is dogmatic ‘science denial’. Surely, both are misguided. But the latter is a much riskier mistake to make than the former.

Rather than conceive of scientism in ways that could be weaponised, then, we should think about it along the lines I have proposed above. Epistemological scientism is the view that scientific knowledge is superior to non-scientific knowledge either because scientific knowledge is the only form of knowledge we have, and so non-scientific knowledge is not really knowledge at all, or because scientific knowledge is better than non-scientific knowledge. Unlike pejorative conceptions of scientism, these neutral conceptions cannot be weaponised, and thus cannot become anti-science weapons of doubt and disbelief in the hands of anti-vaxxers, climate-change deniers, and others who harbour anti-science sentiments. This would allow us to keep the following question open and up for debate: what sort of attitude or stance should we have toward science? As far as this question is concerned, the term ‘scientism’ is a useful term, and it would be a shame to let this live and important debate get derailed by pejorative conceptions of scientism that do nothing but provide ammunition to science deniers.


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