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Scientism, the Religion of Science

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2014/06/09

Comparing unbridled, uncritical belief in Science to religious faith has been quite common.

The belief, faith, or ideology that science can deliver unquestionable certainty and that only science can answer all questions is called scientism.

Toward the end of the 19th century, Thomas Huxley practiced scientism quite overtly as he preached self-described Lay Sermons on behalf of the Church of Science [Knight 1986]. In more recent times, however, scientism has become recognized fairly generally as an unwarranted faith and its adherents do not usually bear public witness to it, dissembling usually by claiming only a rational adherence to observable facts — of course, “scientific” facts.
Nevertheless, common behavior and language use [Bauer 2001] reveal scientism to be a widespread, action-determining ideology; thus the phrase “scientific tests have shown” carries far more impact than “tests have shown”, implying that what is “scientific” is beyond doubt. Such honorific use of “science” or “scientific” is one of the marks of scientism listed by philosopher Susan Haack [2013/14]; other clues include aping the methods and approaches thought to characterize science; drawing sharp distinctions between science and “pseudo-science”; obsession with “the scientific method”; crediting science with the capacity to answer any and all questions; denigrating non-scientific modes of inquiry.

Comparisons of religion and science have largely focused on authorities and hierarchies, comparing scientific researchers to priests, and Scientific Establishments to Vaticans and other religious authorities. At least as significant in practice, though, for everyday matters including politics and social activities, is the similarity of the behavior of followers and acolytes of religion and the behavior of groupies and devotees of Science. Both accept their gurus’ pronouncements uncritically, unreservedly, in equally sheep-like manner, and both parrot those sayings without actual understanding of what they are talking about. Christian fundamentalists, for instance, profess the inerrancy of “the Bible” in blissful ignorance of the fact that there are many “Bibles” in many languages with many self-contradictions and mutual disparities. Environmental fundamentalists and left-leaning others describe global warming and its consequences in blissful ignorance of the pertinent facts, for instance that the greenhouse influence of carbon dioxide is much less than that of water vapor and about equal to that of methane, and that the official projections of future temperature are based on computer models that cannot explain the lack of warming during the last 15 years or so or the 7 or 8 cycles of changes over a range of 5-6°C during the last million years.

Human beings appear to crave certainty of understanding and have sought explanations of observable things and phenomena for as far back in time as we can see and infer. Knowledge about themselves led humans to interpret natural phenomena anthropomorphically, in terms of powers and actions of spirits and super-spirits. The numbers of supposed Gods decreased over time, by 3 or 4 millennia ago shrinking among most people to just one all-powerful Being.
Seeking certainty via “Science” has a shorter history, in particular the “modern” science that is less than a millennium old and which waged explicit battle against Christianity in Europe in the 18th century.
That Science really won that battle is demonstrated by innumerable accommodations that most religions have made with the sciences, in extreme cases by casting religion as “scientific creationism” or its alter ego of “intelligent design”. That the victory enshrined Science as a faith held irrationally was pointed out by John Burnham (How Superstition Won and Science Lost, Rutgers University Press, 1987).

In the human quest for certainty, religion and scientism are two incompatible extremes: both hold certainty to be attainable, but by distinct and incompatible means: in the case of religion via faith and revelation, in the case of scientism via empirical investigation. In both cases, perfectly sound logic is used to draw practical conclusions from the premises. The two extreme worldviews do not differ in rationality, only in the premises from which inferences and implications and applications are drawn.
The space between those two extremes is very sparsely populated, by people who recognize that certainty is not to be attained and who try to live in that “existential” state. Whether acknowledged or not — to themselves as much as to others—, most people hold one of those two extreme beliefs; that is to say, they act as though they hold one of those beliefs.

Those who do not hold one of those extreme beliefs are not much appreciated by those who do. Acolytes of a different religious faith are denigrated as non-believers, pagans, heretics, and have been persecuted sometimes to the point of death. Those who do not accept what the scientific authorities claim are denigrated as ignoramuses, pseudo-scientists, denialists, and are persecuted by sanctions on careers and reputations.

Yet the premises of both religious faith and of scientism are demonstrably doubtful, not to say untenable.

Religious believers hold a particular faith despite the fact that most other human beings disagree with their claims: Every religion is a minority religion. If the Jewish God is The One, then the Christian One cannot be, nor the Islamic One. Moreover, within each of those three umbrellas there are several sects in deadly opposition. Catholics and Protestants have engaged in mutual genocide, as have Shias and Sunnis. Yet acolytes of any given sect within any of the Big Three are somehow able to regard their own beliefs as the only really True One. Religious leaders and their followers manage somehow to ignore the significance of the fact that informed, intelligent people adhere with equal certainty to other faiths. They remain blissfully ignorant of issues fundamental to their premises and doctrines and guides to behavior.

Quite similarly, Scientific Establishments and their followers manage to be blissfully ignorant of their own history, which demonstrates that in the long run they are always proved wrong as “science” “progresses” via Scientific Revolutions as well as less dramatic but significant continual modifications. Scientific Establishments and their followers willfully ignore the lesson that those whom they denigrate as denialists may well turn out to be the secular saints of future Establishments. By ignoring substantive critiques by competent “denialists”, they remain blissfully ignorant of the flaws in their specific doctrines concerning, for example, the Big Bang, prescription drugs, global warming, HIV/AIDS [Bauer 2012]. No matter how often Establishments claim to be evidence-based, even perfunctory browsing in the research and review literatures reveals that the mainstream consensus on many issues of considerable public importance is at the least seriously flawed, at the worst quite untenable.

Public media, politicians, and official agencies all kowtow to Scientific Establishments, with the result that public policies are often seriously, even dangerously misguided.
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Bauer, Henry H., 2001: Fatal Attractions: The Troubles with Science, Paraview Press
Bauer, Henry H., 2012: Dogmatism in Science and Medicine: How Dominant Theories Monopolize Research and Stifle the Search for Truth, McFarland
Haack, Susan, 2013/14: “Six signs of scientism”, Skeptical Inquirer; Part 1, 37 (Nov/Dec 2013) 40-5; Part 2, 38 (Jan/Feb 2014) 43-7; see also Defending Science—Within Reason, Prometheus, 2003
Knight, David, 1986: The Age of Science, Basil Blackwell

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