“Science is a Quantum Phenomenon and Scientism is its Observer Effect”
Steve Fuller, University of Warwick, S.W.Fuller@warwick.ac.uk
Nature published a letter of mine in response to Nathaniel Comfort’s piece, written for the journal’s 150th anniversary, entitled ‘How science has shifted our sense of identity’. However, the version of my letter was shortened from the original. What follows is the original version, which may interest readers, considering the controversy that the letter has generated.
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Nathaniel Comfort (Nature 574, 167-170; 2019) offers a fashionable positioning of ‘scientism’ as the abuse of science in ways that obscures today’s concerns for ‘equity, inclusion and diversity’. However, ‘scientism’ normally refers to an abuse of ‘science’, understood as a protected brand name. Thus, Friedrich Hayek and Karl Popper originally popularised ‘scientism’ as a synonym for ‘pseudoscience’. More recently, ‘scientism’ has become synonymous with the expansion of science into domains where it really has nothing to say, as when scientists claim that evolution implies atheism.
In contrast, Comfort seems to want ‘scientism’ to mean whatever practices and policies that scientists have endorsed which have had adverse consequences for vulnerable groups in society. He is careful not to conclude that scientists have been malicious, naïve or ignorant in terms of these consequences. However, he does seem to suggest that the practices and policies themselves—and perhaps even the ideas that informed them—were bad, and that perhaps history can help make sure that such ‘scientism’ does not happen again.
This is a misuse of history to oversee the future. What counts as ‘good’ and ‘bad’ in scientific practice or science-based policies can be understood only in retrospect precisely because their causes are exactly of the same sort. In other words, it is only as a result of seeing the consequences that we can decide whether something was good or bad. Moreover, as we move forward in history, those judgements will change. Jean-Paul Sartre spoke of this as the problem of ‘dirty hands’. It reappears in Science and Technology Studies as the ‘symmetry principle’.
It follows that the moral character of any action is indeterminate at the time it happens. Science itself is a quantum phenomenon—and ‘scientism’ is its observer effect.