Archives for posts with tag: scientism

I support “science,” I guess, but not this Saturday’s Earth Day “March for Science.” Why?

Well, because it proved ridiculous? A bizarre twist on virtue signaling? A risible parade of partisans pretending to be “above politics”? 

Let me suggest the crucial distinction, the key to my incredulity, by way of a question:

If scientists practice science, who practices scientism?

Science is the accumulation of knowledge by means of public testing, and the falsifiability of claims is its standard, marking its boundary with other domains of belief. Scientism, on the other hand, is the use of “sciencey” factoids, hypotheses, fantasies, arguments, theories, procedures, and, alas, even the conclusions of scientists, sans any practical recognition of fallibilism or process context. That is, scientism is science-as-dogma, science-as-rite, science-as-shibboleth, etc.

Scientism is what you find most regularly in popular discourse. Scientism is what you find most often in politics. Scientism is what you will most likely find in . . . The March for Science.

Alas, “being a scientist” is no guarantee against practicing scientism some of the time or even most of the time. Many scientists revert to scientism when they wander outside their field of specialization. Not a few practice it part-time within their chosen realm. Almost all embrace the practice when they seek funding.

But what do we call a practitioner of scientism?

I suggest: “sciencist.”

Sciencists are those people who think they like science, but love scientism all the more, and cover for their ignorance and bigotry and embarrassing blind spots by extolling Science as their God and Bible all in one. They piously march to prove their loyalty.

Too bad self-flagellation is not in sciencey vogue. I would not mind seeing these people bleed.

Just a bit.

Oh, and remember: the proper place for scientism isn’t the safe space of a university, a congress, or a parade. It is in your library, under the heading SF.

twv

N.B. “Scientism” has its origins as a technical term in a few peculiar contexts, most especially in the critique of logical positivism and reductionism. I am expanding on the usage of F. A. Hayek and Karl Popper. The image, above, is from Popper’s Objective Knowledge: An Evolutionary Approach (1972; 1989). While Hayek and Popper saw scientism as the mistaken identification of a few procedures used by scientists as defining of science itself, and therefore worthy of emulation by all intellectuals, I am taking a more sociological view of that sort of attribution error and applying it broadly. Scientism is not unlike racism and sexism, to my way of thinking. At core, racism is the “making to much of race” by improperly imputing modal (but not defining) features of the race to all or any individuals who belong to it. It is attribution error by improper discrimination. Scientism “makes too much of science” by taking some common but not defining features of science and holding them as a standard. In academic settings, this can be seen in the over-valorization of measurement, say, and applying it where measurement does not work. In popular science-mongering, it is not procedure that is over-valorized, but certain findings or conclusions and even funding rationales. Most “isms” that we use pejoratively involve similar confusions of part for whole. Scientism as discussed by Hayek and Popper and others is an academic error. The scientism I am talking about could be called vulgar scientism. And since even academic scientism is a vulgarization of science, the vulgarity of everyday scientism is . . . doubly vulgar.

FOUNDATION trilogyWho wrote that the proper place for scientism is science fiction?

Well, that judgment is relevant to this story, of economist Paul Krugman’s indecent love for Asimov’s scientistic set-up to his most popular series, as related at iO9:

Even if you’re not a huge fan of Paul Krugman, the trouble-making economist and New York Times columnist, you should check out his introduction to a new edition of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy. . . . He explains pretty succinctly just why these novels are great, and why they had such a huge impact on the young Krugman.

And then he talks about how the science of psychohistory means that every victory of the Foundation is predicted, in advance, by Hari Seldon. Which turns this into a “tale of prophecy foretold.”

That is all very well and good for fiction. I admit that Asimov’s literary art possesses attractions. But I will not admit that the goals and methods of psychohistory are good social science. They are fanciful. The reality is that prediction in the social realm will always be a limited, fragile art, not a rigorous “mathematical” science.

Krugman realizes that his economics is not up to the level of Asimov’s imagination. But I do not think he quite gets how far off it is. Consider:

I didn’t grow up wanting to be a square-jawed individualist or join a heroic quest; I grew up wanting to be Hari Seldon, using my understanding of the mathematics of human behavior to save civilization.

OK, economics is a pretty poor substitute; I don’t expect to be making recorded appearances in the Time Vault a century or two from now. But I tried.

Based on his idiotic columns, I would say he shouldn’t have tried.

Paul Krugman can’t keep scientism in its place.