Against Scientism

Littlefoot
9 min readApr 26, 2019

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Two brothers, Bo and Ben Winegard, have a new piece out in Quillette titled, “In Defense of Scientism,” that is receiving a lot of praise by the rationalist part of the internet filled with intellects that care about these sort of things. Although the essay does a brilliant job at defining and defending science as a public good and benefit to humankind, it is weak in addressing previous applications of it in the past, choosing to ignore instead of confront places where scientism got it wrong: notably, in Social Darwinism. Furthermore, in a more deeply pragmatic sense, the authors fail to highlight a difference between how public policy works and how science works in regards to accountability.

The essay itself argues that the sort of scientism, or application of science to society as advocated by people like Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Neil deGrasse Tyson are, in fact, good things. In response to an article in Slate from 2016, they have defined scientism as, “the view that social policy should be based on the best available theory and data; in other words, that social policy should be decided using the weight of the evidence.” Walking through four critiques they have come across in response to such a reasonable proposition, the authors defend scientism against the claims that it will lead to a tyranny of scientists, that scientism has been disastrous in the past, that scientism can’t define values, and finally that scientism will destroy all our other ways of knowing. While the authors have written a brilliant and passionate piece, I believe the defense is ultimately uneven, employs a number of switch-and-bait fallacies (known as a motte-and-bailey in professional circles), and gets many things wrong in the way of the history of science. It’s certainly the case that although science has granted humanity much in the way of progress, in my own view, there is one very good reason why one should not fall prey to scientism’s optimistic allure.

This is revealed by in the first paragraph which states, “In science [italics theirs], the jury is always out. This is because science is a methodological approach to the world, not a set of inflexible principles or a catalog of indisputable facts. Truth is always provisional. Science does not hold something to be incontrovertibly true.” In this statement the authors have impeccably defined what science is and is not, and I have few disagreements with them here. In my own essay defending science against the broad accusation of being “racist,” I argued that science’s greatest contribution to knowledge is its fallibilistic and self-correcting nature. This is important to knowledge building, as to be correct about something you undoubtedly have to be wrong about something else, but this is precisely why I do not want the scientific process to govern my life. The unfortunate mistake that has been made here is in assuming that what operationally works for science, works for the rest of the world, but we couldn’t be further from the truth. When you are dealing with human lives and monetary capital outside of the lab, the last thing you want is a system where its primary tenet is that it is designed to continuously fail. This is, per the Nassim Taleb, a fragile system. In applying these sorts of principles to the cost of human lives, there is a fairly deep and necessary divide between exploration and application.

Francis Galton, a brilliant man and one of America’s earliest eugenicists, most certainly saw his push for superior genetics as an application of science to the better of society.

A more historical flaw in the exploration of scientism as social policy is the argument that it has never been tried before. This is not unlike the charge that, “true Communism has yet to be tried!” For this reason, I also find the argument that, “Social Darwinism wasn’t really a science,” to be a complete and gross misunderstanding of how science, as a body of information, operates and a further misunderstanding of what their own definition of scientism is. To be fair, the authors are correct in stating that Social Darwinism was not science, because it wasn’t. Eugenics was the science and Social Darwinism was its social application; and eugenics was as valid back then as many of our sciences are today that are bound to be false tomorrow. Social Darwinism, as the application of eugenics to society’s “heritable ills” was as much scientism back then as the modern application of, say, Modern Monetary Theory, is to current economic policies. Although it certainly was a social policy, it was policy founded on scientific facts. It may have been the case that Social Darwinism was wrong because eugenics was based on faulty science, but if it were the case that eugenics weren’t based on a faulty science or that popular opinion on eugenics had not been changed after witnessing the horrors of WWII, I suspect that such a policy would be touted as one of scientism’s greatest advancements ever (and rightfully so- if it worked without going out of its way to harm anyone).

Instead of taking the safe route and admitting that science can be wrong (“clumsily” so, they state) the authors don’t seem able to admit to a single place where scientism has failed us and instead choose to operate in a realm where scientism only applies to what’s true, rather than what’s believed. These are dangerous waters, because our scientific facts are not always true. To clarify, truth and belief are separate things, and knowledge is arguably at the intersection of these two separate things. Science, in principle, is the search for knowledge, but scientific findings and statements are not knowledge in of themselves. That is to say, the scientific method is a very different thing from the body of facts that we call capital-S “Science.” For example, if tomorrow we found that glyphosates cause cancer and kidney disease, which scientisms’ greatest proponents such as Neil deGrasse have been flat-out denying for years despite mounting calls from within the scientific community to examine its impact, would we be able to admit this is a case where scientism failed; or would this failure, like Social Darwinism, be disregarded as a no true Scotsman to scientism as a whole? What about the shifts we are seeing now within the nutrition sciences or the idea that, at one point, even the father of modern statistics RA Fisher proved that smoking was not any bit harmful? Certainly, all of these were scientific facts, but this does not mean they ended up being true!

Source. Things have only gotten worse since 2015.

The difference between science and public policy is that in science, you’re allowed to be wrong because often the effects are trivial. The failure of Philip Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment amongst a slew of other psychological studies which are failing to replicate have had major consequences for the whole field of psychology, but very few consequences for the rest of the world (thank God). But imagine if we had been applying the great majority of these now-failed studies which were integral to social psychology’s canon to public policy. The world would probably be a very different place right now.

The question is, given all these failures of scientism, who would be held accountable in a “scientistmists’” world? The reason why the world is towards scientism is because accountability is required. Policy leaders, after making any disastrous mistake do not often get the chance to simply say, “I have now updated my priors and I was wrong, contrary to our findings, we probably should not have invaded the Bay of Pigs,” especially when so much more is at stake than a publication in PLoS One. In an era where scientists are being praised for showing that they were wrong (and praised, rightfully so), it’s surprising to me that anyone would expect me to take this operational framework and apply it to something more complex and important such as healthcare policy. With regards to how quickly we do find ourselves wrong in science, one should be reminded that much of the reason why science “moves fast” is because this process of “moving” anywhere is an illusion. In almost every case, the discovery of something new means throwing out something that’s wrong; science is not ratcheting upwards. For the most part science operates by striking downwards and replacing older knowledge.

In the public sphere, while scientism can be used as a guiding principle, other principles need to be applied to human choice. To the claim that science shouldn’t be used in telling us what we should or should not do on a policy level, the authors make the argument in the comments section of his article that, “the whole point of the article is that we don’t know what’s best for you,” and yet a direct quote from the body of the piece itself states, “science can and absolutely should tell people how to live.” For some reason though, the advantage of science telling us how to live our lives over any other method is that society’s “ad hoc” solutions are somehow bad. But what I think is more redeeming of society is the fact that most of our best solutions are the ones which are post hoc. Operationally, this is very different from how science operates as a prediction-based effort. Today many social scientists are moving towards a system where hypotheses must be reported before examining one’s findings, as our post hoc explanations are now, for whatever reason, unacceptable. You can contrast this with the world of engineering, where safe bridges must be built regardless of our predictions, in this case post-hoc statistical explanations (known as calibrated models) are the norm.

Furthermore, I find it is almost always our novel ideas that prove to be disastrous. To this effect, I believe that history, over science, has more to offer the world in terms of public policy than anything else. As Taleb stated in his book Antifragile, “If a book has been in print for forty years, I can expect it to be in print for another forty years. [This] tells you why things that have been around for a long time are not ‘aging’ like persons, but ‘aging’ in reverse. This is an indicator of robustness.” I find in the realm of public policy, post-hoc explanations to be much more powerful than novel predictions and updated “forecasts.” To be fair, science can certainly help with that. This is the case with Peter Turchin’s approach of cliodynamics, where he is observing history through quantifiable trends; and is also the case with closer attention to other fields examining societal shifts in regard to specific cultures which possess different values, ideas, and principles from one another, such as is the burgeoning field of cultural evolution and modern economics. Arguing from a conservative standpoint, if something worked in the past, we won’t need a great deal of scientific experiments or novel predictions for making it work today.

At the same time, I am not arguing that scientific findings shouldn’t be applied to public policy, either. Such an idea would be preposterous given the modern miracles that science has granted! In certain places using science makes sense: how do novel drugs interact with our bodies, how should we regulate high school sports to minimize injury, and, to use one of the authors’ own examples, should we put fences up around our pools to prevent childhood drownings? In this case, we’re taking precautionary measures, not proactive ones. The difference here is critical. In almost all others, as a conservatively minded person, I’ll argue that precaution is needed. We just simply can’t put all our eggs in science’s basket for fixing our problems, and in admitting the self-correcting nature of the scientific method, I think most people will agree this is a reasonable position. As a scientist and one who has worked to defend it against those who might try to strike it down, I am safe with saying that my problem is not with science at all. Science is imperfect, fallibilistic, and often wrong. That’s what makes it a perfect exploratory tool, but as an approach to governing the world, I can’t say I’d ever want to live in a country which primarily values itself on these traits- ultimately this is good for science, but not for us.

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Littlefoot

Evolutionary Anthropologist. I write about sensory ecology, human and cultural evolution, and laws of scaling. Opinions are my own.