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The Scientism Straw Man

Scientism is the belief that science can and will discover the answers to all questions, that there are no inherent limits to the ability of science to solve all problems. In my experience it is a trait rarely seen in working scientists, but often accused as a way of dismissing scientific criticism.

A recent editorial in the Vancouver Sun (sent to me by listener Vinay Punwani) by Doublas Todd misinterprets scientism all together to create a straw man argument against defenders of evolution. Todd writes:

Those who unknowingly fall into the trap of scientism act as if hard science is the only way of knowing reality. If something can’t be “proved” through the scientific method, through observable and measurable evidence, they say it’s irrelevant.

Scientism is terribly limiting of human understanding. It leaves little or no place for the insights of the arts, philosophy, psychology, literature, mythology, dreams, music, the emotions or spirituality.

Todd has made the logical fallacy of assuming the inverse of scientism as an extension of the definition. In other words – scientism is the belief that science will discover all knowledge, the inverse of scientism is that something that is not science cannot discover any knowledge. So Todd is attacking the inverse of scientism, not scientism itself.

Todd makes a far more egregious mistake in not properly defining “understanding.” This is a very vague term – using ambiguous terminology and then exploiting that ambiguity to create a misconception is a common tactic of debate, but is fallacious reasoning.

As soon as we try to define terms precisely, Todd’s argument evaporates. What scientists argue is that the methods of science are the only way to generate scientific knowledge of the universe. Yes – that statement is self-referential, because science is a system and only claims knowledge within its system. Science does not claim objective ultimate metaphysical truth of reality – only that: 1) its methods, when properly employed, give results that are internally consistent, 2) these results are useful and powerful because they make predictions about how the world will behave.

Insights from the arts, literature, mytholody, dreams, music are legitimate for what they are – they are just not science. Philosophy is different, because part of philosophy is logic, which is a necessary tool of science. Psychology is a scientific discipline, so its inclusion in the list is not appropriate.

Todd argues that scientists feel insights from these other disciplines are “irrelevant” – but he misses the point, that they are irrelevant to science. Science is a collection of methods to empirically test ideas about how the world works through observation and experimentation. Other intellectual activity, like aesthetics and value judgments, are simply not part of science, even though they may provide other kinds of insights and wisdom.

Todd’s argument is therefore a mess of confused definitions and logic. But it gets worse. He also writes:

In general, scientism leaves little or no place for the imagination, which Albert Einstein, after all, said is “everything.”

What? Imagination is a very important part of science. Excluding non-scientific intellectual activity from science (which is appropriate and necessary) is no scientism, and doing so does not eject imagination from the scientific process.

He develops his fallacious arguments specifically to apply to evolution. He says:

In other words, Walden, whose viewpoint represents that of many scientists, appears to believe that any discussion of evolution that does not uphold chance as the only driving force is ridiculous.

This is blinkered.

It defaults to atheism. And it assumes incorrectly that what we believe, and the way we live, is always based on provable “facts,” which do not include conjecture, speculation or imagination.

So now we see why Todd set up his bizarre position about science and scientism – it get’s back to the old intelligent design claim that “Darwinism” is atheism, because it will not consider anything other than chance as a mechanism. What rubbish. Todd is further trying to argue this is equivalent to ejecting “conjecture, speculation, or imagination” from science, which is bizarre and ridiculous.

Todd is also making the common straw man argument that rejecting a proposition based upon logic and evidence is equivalent to rejecting it out of hand, or clinging dogmatically to the current consensus. Scientists will consider any proposition which is coherent. Rejecting a proposition based upon the current evidence, or on logical grounds, is considering it.

With regard to purpose in evolution – this is the old ID tactic of arguing that evolutionists will not consider purpose because evolution is inherently atheistic. Wrong and wrong. Science and evolution are not atheistic – science is agnostic toward any proposition which is outside the realm of science. If an idea cannot be tested scientifically, it is not science, and science is agnostic toward it.

The challenge to those who believe there is some purpose or direction in the mechanisms of evolution is to develop a coherent and testable scientific theory. So far, no one has been able to do this.

Further, it is not as if scientists assume evolution is random. In fact, early ideas of evolution is that it was directional and purposeful. Observation of the natural world led to the conclusion that evolutionary change results only in adapation to the local environment. There is no data to suggest that there is any direction or purpose to evolutionary change. There is no known mechanism by which such purpose would exist. Mutations and recombination appear to be random. Variation and natural selection, as a theory for the mechanism of evolution, are doing just fine.

Todd brings up Lynn Margulis as a scientist with an alternate view of evolution that includes purpose. But I think he is misintepreting her work – although this is a topic for another post. And, in any case, this would just contradict Todd’s point – if Margulis has an alternate theory of the mechanism and mode of evolution then great. It is up to her to formulate her theory is a testable way, then scientific methods can be used to see if it has any merit. If it does, and the evidence supports her view, it will win out over time.

In the end Todd’s article is one long and fallacious argument for admitting non-scientific arguments into science. This is, of course, exactly what Intelligent Design proponents want to do. Their ideas have lost the battle within science long ago, so now they are trying to change the rules.

3 comments to The Scientism Straw Man

  • Rienk

    If an idea cannot be tested scientifically, it is not science, and science is agnostic toward it.

    I would argue that science is ignostic to such ideas. All fun and games, but if something cannot be tested one way or another, then that “something” is thus not of influence in our observable universe. If that is thus the case, why would we even care?

    I get the impression that most atheistic scientists are of this persuasion: deism might be true, but it is of no importance to the functioning of our universe.

  • DLC

    “Science” is just a method. It’s a “Way of Knowing” and in my opinion the only way of knowing worth knowing, if you’ll pardon my humor.
    But the knowing is knowing about the real physical world, and not such subjective things as art, music and literature. There is no Richter scale for Literature, nor should there be.

  • Jim Shaver

    There is no Richter scale for Literature, nor should there be.

    Sure, DLC, but maybe there should be a Richter scale for fallaciousness. And one for credulousness… And one for superstition… And one for fraud…

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