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Blinding Ourselves With Scientism

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Formerly, when religion was strong and science weak, men mistook magic for medicine; now, when science is strong and religion is weak, men mistake medicine for magic.

Thomas Szasz, The Second Sin (1973).

I once gave a talk at a research university in which I illustrated some of the ways in which rigorous scientific research (most of which was my own) failed to help resolve a series of natural resource management conflicts and guide the development of on-the-ground ecological restoration programs. I concluded by suggesting that as trained scientists, we of all people should be willing to objectively evaluate the practical merit of our work and at least be open to the possibility that there may be times and places when other "less scientific" methodologies may be more effective and appropriate.

When I was finished, a scientist in the audience jumped to his feet, shook his head disapprovingly, and exclaimed "You sound like an ex-Catholic who has lost the faith!" I later realized that he was absolutely right -- the assumption that science is necessarily centrally important to the resolution of environmental conflicts in particular, and that it is, should be, or one day will be the most efficient and appropriate approach to applied problems in general, is a matter of faith.

Many scientists and nonscientists appear to have this faith and believe in the universal supremacy of the scientific method with a fervor that resembles religious fundamentalism. Many also subscribe to the theory that science has been the driving force behind much of the "progress" humans have achieved over the past thousand years or so, and similarly assume that most of the progress made by those outside the sciences is attributable to the "fact" that they have had the luxury of standing on the giant shoulders of the scientists who preceded them. They are thus absolutely convinced that ever more science is the best, or even the only, way we can solve our current problems and continue to progress into the future.

Yet many scholars have convincingly challenged these assumptions and conclusions. Some have also pointed out the dangers and inherent irony of "hard-nosed scientists" effectively treating science as a religion. For example, in his 2001 book Scientism: Science, Ethics, and Religion, Mikael Stenmark pointed out that statements such as Francis Crick's claim that "we are nothing but packs of neutrons," Carl Sagan's "the Cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be," and Richard Dawkins's "every living object's sole reason for living is that of being a machine for propagating DNA" are extrascientific or philosophical claims. That is, even though these statements were made by brilliant scientists, there is nothing "scientific" about them because they are based on nontestable, nonfalsifiable personal convictions.

My own nonfalsifiable personal conviction is that such dogmatic faith in science is dangerous and myopic. I also believe this worldview can blind scientists and the public to the ephemeral nature of scientific truths, the double-edged sword of scientific and technological ''progress,'' and to other ways of understanding and interacting with our rich and mysterious world.

The next time you hear some celebrity scientist, impassioned blogger, or earnest politician argue that we must develop and implement their "science-based approach" to solving the latest pressing issue, I suggest that you keep this concluding quote from Stenmark's 2001 book in mind:

The public has to be more suspicious about what is claimed in the name of science, and scientists themselves need to be less naïve about the impact of their own ideological beliefs or value commitments on their scientific theorizing. What is called science can be far from an objective and dispassionate attempt to figure out the truth entirely independent of theism and naturalism, or of political and moral convictions ... It is the conflation of these elements that gives the false impression that science can be one's religion ... the truly scientific mind must instead be conscious of the limitation of the scientific enterprise, and also allow forms of truth and knowledge which lie beyond the scope of the sciences.

Portions of this blog were excerpted from my book "Intelligent Tinkering: Bridging the Gap Between Science and Practice