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Old 05-18-2012, 03:01 AM   #1
Aaron W.
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The trouble with scientism

I'm stumbling into all sorts of random readings these days....,0

(This is just a teaser... it's a somewhat long essay.)

It is so easy to underrate the impact of the humanities and of the arts. Too many people, some of whom should know better, do it all the time. But understanding why the natural sciences are regarded as the gold standard for human knowledge is not hard... To derive one’s notion of human knowledge from the most striking accomplishments of the natural sciences easily generates a conviction that other forms of inquiry simply do not measure up. Their accomplishments can come to seem inferior, even worthless, at least until the day when these domains are absorbed within the scope of “real science.”


As the budgets for humanities departments shrink, humanists see natural scientists blundering where the truly wise fear to tread. Conversely, scientists whose projects fail to win public approval seem to envision what John Dupré has called the “Attack of the Fifty-Foot Humanist,” a fantasy akin to supposing that post-modernist manifestos are routinely distributed with government briefing books. We need to move beyond the stereotypes and discard the absurd visions that often maintain them.
I'm still mulling this essay over a bit. There are lots of ideas put forth. I'm actually mostly curious to see a response from someone who subscribes to scientism (at least in the form that the empirical/experimental sciences stand as a "higher" form of knowledge compared to the social sciences and humanities -- I'd rather not diverge into a discussion of what scientism is).
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Old 05-18-2012, 11:09 AM   #2
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Re: The trouble with scientism

I don't even know what to respond to. It's a steaming pile of nonsense and unsupported assertions. If you rank knowledge based on the inferential value of the supporting evidence, then of course physics and chemistry are going to come out on top. The idea that social sciences are mocked because they're social sciences, and not because their evidence is lower-class (of less inferential value), is just silly. Medical studies are mocked all the time for the same reason and basically nobody doubts that medicine is useful in toto.
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Old 05-18-2012, 03:30 PM   #3
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Re: The trouble with scientism

I'm more or less in Tom's camp here. Part of the confusion, to me, is that I think he's arguing against a bit of a strawman:

The conflict between the Naturwissenschaften and the Geisteswissenschaften goes back at least two centuries, and became intensified as ambitious, sometimes impatient researchers proposed to introduce natural scientific concepts and methods into the study of human psychology and human social behavior. Their efforts, and the attitudes of unconcealed disdain that often inspired them, prompted a reaction, from Vico to Dilthey and into our own time: the insistence that some questions are beyond the scope of natural scientific inquiry, too large, too complex, too imprecise, and too important to be addressed by blundering over-simplifications. From the nineteenth-century ventures in mechanistic psychology to contemporary attempts to introduce evolutionary concepts into the social sciences, “scientism” has been criticized for its “mutilation” (Verstümmelung, in Dilthey’s memorable term) of the phenomena to be explained.
This doesn't strike me as a critique of science, it strikes me as a critique of bad science. Scientists do love to model things mathematically, but the flipside of that is that they often have a better sense for when the model sucks. Economics is an obvious example, and generally I get the impression that tons of physicists have been happy to point out the shortcomings of Walrasian economics over the years.

As another example from the first page that jumps out at me:

The emphasis on generality inspires scientific imperialism, conjuring a vision of a completely unified future science, encapsulated in a “theory of everything.” Organisms are aggregates of cells, cells are dynamic molecular systems, the molecules are composed of atoms, which in their turn decompose into fermions and bosons (or maybe into quarks or even strings). From these facts it is tempting to infer that all phenomena—including human actions and interaction—can “in principle” be understood ultimately in the language of physics, although for the moment we might settle for biology or neuroscience. This is a great temptation. We should resist it. Even if a process is constituted by the movements of a large number of constituent parts, this does not mean that it can be adequately explained by tracing those motions.
But this is a cartoonish view of the goals of science. No mature scientist is going to argue with the last part. There is a substantial body of physics (statistical mechanics) developed to elaborate exactly this line of argument but showing that you can still get quantitative information out anyway.

He makes some good, non-controversial points but then seems to ignore them when inconvenient for his argument. To wit: he mentions that science is not a monolithic entity ("The enterprises that we lump together are remarkably various in their methods, and also in the extent of their successes") but then says a couple paragraphs later that historical linguistics and paleontology have similar evidential standards, ergo natural science and social science are totally on the same footing. Hrm.

Anyway, I started skimming at the end because I wasn't finding much of particular interest.

EDIT: If we define scientism in the way Aaron suggests, then I'd say I subscribe to some form of it. While I'm not convinced that Popper's ideas are the be-all and end-all of science, I do think that falsification is an important idea. And that's where I think science beats the humanities in terms of knowledge - it's a lot easier to demonstrate that scientific ideas are wrong than it is in the humanities or social sciences. This isn't to say there's no value in those other things, but whatever value there is should probably be not thought of in terms of knowledge.

Last edited by gumpzilla; 05-18-2012 at 03:36 PM.
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Old 05-25-2012, 03:03 AM   #4
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Re: The trouble with scientism

Comparing the standard of proof in social science to the standard of proof in hard-science is a little like comparing the standard of proof in religion to the standard of proof in social science.

So although social science is highly useful/practical, on the criteria of accuracy/standard of evidence, it just does not compare. Whether you believe in scientism is thus mainly a matter of how highly you rank - standard of evidence - over other criteria, such as practicality and personal interests. I would say that I subscribe to scientism/post positivism, and that's primarily the result of me rating high standards of evidence above all else.
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