Sunday, January 30, 2011

Philosopher offers six signs of "scientism"

Non-materialist neuroscientists must often deal with the claim that their work is “unscientific,” despite the fact that, for example, the placebo effect, for example, is one of the best attested effects in medicine and the fact that there Is mounting evidence for researchable psi effects. The problem arises because, as Susan Hack puts it, "scientism" enables assessors to avoid evaluating evidence in favor of evaluating whether the evidence "counts as science". Here are her six signs:

1. Using the words “science,” “scientific,” “scientifically,” “scientist,” etc., honorifically, as generic terms of epistemic praise.
And, inevitably, the honorific use of “science” encourages uncritical credulity about whatever new scientific idea comes down the pike. But the fact is that all the explanatory hypotheses that scientists come up with are, at first, highly speculative, and most are eventually found to be untenable, and abandoned. To be sure, by now there is a vast body of well-warranted scientific theory, some of it so well-warranted that it would be astonishing if new evidence were to show it to be mistaken - though even this possibility should never absolutely be ruled out.
Always remember that Ptolemy’s model of the solar system was used successfully by astronomers for 1200 years, even though it had Earth in the wrong place.

2. Adopting the manners, the trappings, the technical terminology, etc., of the sciences, irrespective of their real usefulness. Here, Hack cites the "social sciences", quite justifiably, but evolutionary psychology surely leads the pack. Can anyone serious believe, for example, that our understanding of public affairs is improved by the claim that there is such a thing as hardwired religion or evolved religion? No new light, just competing, contradictory speculation.

3. A preoccupation with demarcation, i.e., with drawing a sharp line between genuine science, the real thing, and "pseudo-scientific" imposters. The key, of course, is the preoccupation. Everyone wants real science, but a preoccupation with showing that a line of inquiry is not science, good or bad - apart from the evidence - flies in the face of "The fact is that the term “science” simply has no very clear boundaries: the reference of the term is fuzzy, indeterminate and, not least, frequently contested."

4. A corresponding preoccupation with identifying the "scientific method," presumed to explain how the sciences have been so successful. " we have yet to see anything like agreement about what, exactly, this supposed method is." Of course, one method would work for astronomy, and another for forensics. But both disciplines must reckon with evidence, to be called "science".

5. Looking to the sciences for answers to questions beyond their scope. One thinks of Harvard cognitive scientist Steve Pinker's recent claim that science can determine morality. Obviously, whatever comes out of such a project must be the morality of those who went into it.

6. Denying or denigrating the legitimacy or the worth of other kinds of inquiry besides the scientific, or the value of human activities other than inquiry, such as poetry or art. Or better yet, treating them as the equivalent of baboons howling for mates, or something. It discredits both arts and sciences.

Here's Hack's "Six Signs of Scientism" lecture: .

Denyse O'Leary is co-author of The Spiritual Brain.