Book review – Science Unlimited? The Challenges of Scientism

You only have to look at the name of this blog to realise that I am a cheerleader of scientific enquiry. The advances in knowledge we have made, and the pace at which it is proceeding, are breathtaking. Yet, there are plenty of people who are not comfortable with the way science has pervaded our lives and cry foul, hurling the accusation of scientism. But what is this beast called scientism? Philosophers Maarten Boudry and Massimo Pigliucci have here collected a diverse and sometimes technical collection of contributions to discuss what scientism is and reflect on how useful a term it really is.

Science Unlimited

Science Unlimited?: The Challenges of Scientism“, edited by Maarten Boudry and Massimo Pigliucci, published by The University of Chicago Press in February 2018 (paperback, 308 pages)

The first thing to strike the reader, which the editors also point out, is that there is no single agreed upon definition of what scientism is. Even so, all the different ways in which the contributors use and define this term reveal some commonalities. Scientism can refer to an excessive deference to and glorification of anything scientific, to an overconfident attitude as to what science will achieve in the future, to the idea that science is the only worthwhile way of asking questions, to the idea that other disciplines are either science or otherwise worthless, or to the idea that all ways of acquiring knowledge are ultimately science. It is, at heart, an excess of science. A form of intellectual imperialism. A form of arrogance, hubris, and dogma. Boudry and Pigliucci thus see this book as another demarcation project: that of establishing what the limits of science are, if any. As such, it fits comfortably next to their previous edited volume, Philosophy of Pseudoscience: Reconsidering the Demarcation Problem, which was also published by the University of Chicago Press.

Given the plethora of definitions of scientism, the chapters in this book are very varied. A number of chapters talk about the accusation of scientism coming from without. This is the one most general readers, myself included, will be familiar with. Religious believers, those believing in the supernatural, those with New Age convictions, people dabbling in fringe disciplines, practitioners of alternative medicine, and defenders of other forms of pseudoscience… all are quick to roll out the accusation of scientism whenever science threatens to intrude on their territory. The overall consensus of the contributors to these chapters (e.g. Taner Edis in Chapter 4. Two Cheers for Scientism) is one of:”Well, if that is scientism, so be it”. Stephen Law (Chapter 7. “Scientism!”) concludes that this term has become a knee-jerk reaction to try and immunise views from further scrutiny. Well, no such luck, sunshine – some things might be beyond the purview of science, but I would argue that many claims are not. Science here should continue to expose fallacies, quench superstitions and fight ignorance, and we can safely ignore these cries of scientism. As I mentioned in my review of Pseudoscience: The Conspiracy Against Science, pseudoscience is no laughing matter and is inflicting serious harm.

“[…] cries of “Scientism!” have become a knee-jerk reaction to try and immunise views from further scrutiny. Well, no such luck, sunshine!”

Other chapters cover the accusations coming from within. This is something I was less familiar with, but there is a surprising number of prominent scientists (e.g. the late Stephen Hawking, Neil deGrasse Tyson or E.O. Wilson) that publicly rubbish other disciplines such as philosophy. I agree with the various authors that this is both disappointing and anti-intellectual, especially coming from such luminaries. Russel Blackford (Chapter 1. The Sciences and Humanities in a Unity of Knowledge) and Philip Kitcher (Chapter 6. The Trouble With Scientism: Why History and the Humanities Are Also a Form of Knowledge) quite rightly point out that the natural sciences are not the only game in town. Rik Peels (Chapter 9. The Fundamental Argument against Scientism) develops a very logical argument that scientism discarding non-scientific sources of rational belief is self-defeating. Michael Ruse (Chapter 13. Why Really Good Science Doesn’t Have All the Answers) argues there are many question that science does not even ask, let alone answer. And Mariam Thalos (Chapter 15. Against Border Patrols) passionately argues for the need of cross-fertilisation between different disciplines, along the way giving a keen, albeit brief, criticism of E.O. Wilson’s research programme of sociobiology and its offspring such as evolutionary psychology.

This leaves a number of really quite technical chapters that discuss topics of particular relevance to philosophy. Justin Kalef (Chapter 5. Scientism and the Is/Ought Gap) scolds outsiders who are trying to resolve a traditional problem in philosophy by replacing philosophical reasoning with scientific investigations into morality. Thomas Nickles (Chapter 8. Strong Realism as Scientism: Are We at the End of History?) argues that making claims that go far beyond what is empirically supported, for example by claiming to have the absolute truth about a certain phenomenon (so-called strong realism) is a form of scientism. Useful to present science to an uninformed general public, but also a caricature of how science works. Science is an ongoing research process rather than a collection of truths.

“[…] prominent scientists […] that publicly rubbish other disciplines […] is both disappointing and anti-intellectual”

Tom Sorell (Chapter 14. Scientism (and Other Problems) in Experimental Philosphy) in essence describes an ongoing turf war between various philosophical schools. This particular school of philosophy incorporates empirical data (often results from surveys), and is accused of scientism where its practitioners claim this method as superior to more traditional forms of philosophy. Filip Bueken’s contribution (Chapter 3. Scientism and the Argument from Supervenience of the Mental and the Physical) is so technical, including what looks like mathematical logic formulas, that I can’t even really tell you what it is about – I simply lack the required background in philosophy to make heads or tails of it.

Notwithstanding above-mentioned chapters, most chapters are both readable and interesting, even to a general reader like myself. Many feature a helpful conclusion or summary at the end. This book will obviously appeal to fellow philosophers, and having background knowledge in, or at least an interesting in reading about, philosophy will certainly be helpful, as the reading can get quite technical. Overall, I thought this was an interesting collection of contributions, showing just how diverse and diffuse the term scientism is. If this is a topic you are new to, this book is a great starting point to quickly get an overview of the various interpretations out there.

Disclosure: The publisher provided a review copy of this book. The opinion expressed here is my own, however.

Science Unlimited? paperback, hardback or ebook

Other recommended books mentioned in this review:


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