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Third, scientistically-oriented people tend to display an obsession with demarcating science from pseudoscience. Here I think Haack is only partially correct, as my observation is rather that scientistic thinking results in an expansion of the very concept of “science”, almost making it equivalent with rationality itself. It is only as a byproduct that pseudoscience is demarcated from science, and moreover, a lot of philosophy and other humanistic disciplines tend to be cast as “pseudoscience” if they somehow dare assert even a partial independence from the natural sciences. This, of course, is nothing new, and amounts to a 21st century (rather naive) version of logical positivism:

The criterion which we use to test the genuineness of apparent statements of fact is the criterion of verifiability. We say that a sentence is factually significant to any given person, if, and only if, he knows how to verify the proposition which it purports to express — that is, if he knows what observations would lead him, under certain conditions, to accept the proposition as true, or reject it as being false. — A.J. Ayer (Language, Truth, and Logic)

The fourth sign of scientism has to do with a preoccupation with identifying a scientific method to demarcate science from other activities. A good number of scientists, especially those writing for the general public, seem blissfully unaware of decades of philosophical scholarship questioning the very idea of the scientific method. When we use that term, do we refer to inductivism, deductivism, adbuctivism, Bayesianism, or what?

The philosophical consensus seems to be that there is no such thing as a single, well-identified scientific method, and that the sciences rely instead on an ever-evolving toolbox, which moreover is significantly different between, say, ahistorical (physics) and historical (evolutionary biology) sciences, or between the natural and social sciences.

Here too, however, the same problem that I mentioned above recurs: contra Haack, proponents of scientism do not seem to claim that there is a special scientific method, but on the contrary, that science is essentially co-extensive with reason itself. Once again, this isn’t a philosophically new position:

If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion — David Hume (An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding).

Both Ayer’s verifiability criterion and Hume’s fork suffer from serious philosophical problems, of course, but to uncritically deployed them as a blunt instrument against in defense of scientism is simply a result of willful and abysmal illiteracy.

Next to last, comes an attitude that seeks to deploy science to answer questions beyond its scope. It seems to me that it is exceedingly easy to come up with questions that either science is wholly unequipped to answer, or for which it can at best provide a (welcome!) degree of relevant background knowledge. I will leave it to colleagues in other disciplines to arrive at their own list, but as far as philosophy is concerned, the following list is just a start:

In metaphysics: what is a cause? In logic: is modus ponens a type of valid inference? In epistemology: is knowledge “justified true belief”? In ethics: is abortion permissible once the fetus begins to feel pain? In aesthetics: is there a meaningful difference between Mill’s “low” and “high” pleasures? In philosophy of science: what role does genetic drift play in the logical structure of evolutionary theory? In philosophy of mathematics: what is the ontological status of mathematical objects, such as numbers? The scientific literature on all the above is basically non-existent, while the philosophical one is huge. None of the above questions admits of answers arising from systematic observations or experiments. While empirical notions may be relevant to some of them (e.g., the one on abortion), it is philosophical arguments that provide the suitable approach.

Lastly, a sixth sign of scientism is the denial or denigration of the usefulness of nonscientific activities, particularly within the humanities. Saying that philosophy is “useless” because it doesn’t contribute to solving scientific problems (deGrasse Tyson, Hawking, Krauss, Nye), betrays a fundamental misunderstanding (and let’s be frank, simple ignorance) of what philosophy is. Ironically, the scientistic take could be turned on its head: on what empirical grounds, for instance, can we arrive at the value judgment that cosmology is “more important” than literature? Is the only thing that matters the discovery of facts about the natural world? Why? And while we are at it, why exactly do we take for granted that money spent on a new particle accelerator shouldn’t be spent on, say, cancer research? I’m not advocating such a position, I am simply pointing out that there is no scientific evidence that could settle the matter, and that scientistically-inclined writers tend, as Daniel Dennett famously said in Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, to take on board a lot of completely unexamined philosophical baggage.

In the end, it all comes down to what we mean by “science.” Perhaps we can reasonably agree that this is a classic example of a Wittgensteinian “family resemblance” concept, i.e., something that does not have precise boundaries, nor is it amenable to a precise definition in terms of necessary and jointly sufficient conditions. But as a scientist and a philosopher of science, I tend to see “science” as an evolving beast, historically and culturally situated, similar to the in-depth analysis provided by Helen Longino in her book, Science as Social Knowledge.

Science is a particular ensemble of epistemic and social practices — including a more or less faulty system of peer review, granting agencies, academic publications, hiring practices, and so on. This is different from “science” as it was done by Aristotle, or even by Galileo. There is a continuity, of course, between its modern incarnation and its historical predecessors, as well as between it and other fields (mathematics, logic, philosophy, history, and so forth).

But when scientistic thinkers pretend that any human activity that has to do with reasoning about facts is “science” they are attempting a bold move of naked cultural colonization, defining everything else either out of existence or into irrelevance. When I get up in the morning and go to work at City College in New York I take a bus and a subway. I do so on the basis of my empirical knowledge of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority system, which results — you could say — from years of “observations” and “experiments,” aimed at testing “hypotheses” about the system and its functionality. If you want to call that science, fine, but you end up sounding pretty ridiculous. And you are doing no favor to real science either.

Massimo Pigliucci is the K.D. Irani Professor of Philosophy at the City College of New York. His interests are in the philosophy of biology, the structure of evolutionary theory, and the nature of pseudoscience. His latest book, co-edited with Maarten Boudry, is Science Unlimited? The Challenges of Scientism (Chicago Press). He blogs at platofootnote.org.