A few months into the pandemic, and I was surprised so many people explicitly rejected expert advice. Mostly, I was shocked by their arguments: they said that scientists keep changing their minds; that not all scientists agree on what we should do; that their advice is not 100% safe; that scientists are hasty; scientists are greedy; scientists want more screen time in our tv-sets. And they were right of course. Doctors, epidemiologists, statisticians, health providers etc., gave different advice; some changed their advice on different stages of the pandemic; nothing they proposed was 100% safe; many had, and still have, serious disagreements with others; many produced very bad research; some seemed greedy; some seemed vain. … [please read below the rest of the article].
Gasparatou, Renia. 2023. “On Scientism’s Merry-Go-Round.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 12 (5): 58–62. https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-7OR.
🔹 The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers.
Renia Gasparatou’s article contributes to a symposium on Moti Mizrahi’s For and Against Scientism: Science, Methodology, and the Future of Philosophy (2022) published by Rowman & Littlefield as part of the “Collective Studies in Knowledge and Society” book series.
❦ Bryant, Amanda. 2020. “Some Devils in the Details: Methodological Concerns Regarding Mizrahi’s ‘The Scientism Debate’.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 9 (11): 28-37.
❦ Mizrahi, Moti. 2019. “The Scientism Debate: A Battle for the Soul of Philosophy?” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 8 (9): 1-13.
❦ de Ridder, Jeroen. 2014. “Science and Scientism in Popular Science Writing.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 3 (12): 23-39.
But then again, why would one expect virologists on day-one to already know all-there-is-to-know about a virus that had just emerged? Why expect different people, some working on different branches, to agree on everything? Why expect 100% certainty in order to make an informed decision? Why would someone not get vaccinated just because some scientists are “bad”, greedy or vain? I believe it is because scientism is the prevailing image. At its core, scientism is an overall attitude that Science is Oh-So-Super.
And of course, science isn’t all that Super all the time. As Catherine Wilson (2022) writes, there are many misgivings in research today. Many experts seem to have political, ideological or plain personal agendas. Most importantly, there is too much noise; we are overloaded with data, pointing to different directions, overwhelmed by lots and lots of bogus research, too many spurious correlations, too much manipulation with statistics (Kamin 1995; Kahneman et al. 2016; Ritchie 2020; Wilson 2022). And all this noise costs money; huge amounts of money that governments, institutions, and companies could allocate elsewhere (Wilson 2022). And yet, while the public is watching experts arguing why to eat soy, science-enthusiasts discuss the details of how Super Science is. Indeed, scientism may be methodological and/or ontological and/or epistemological (Mizrahi 2022); strong scientists say science is the only way, weak scientists say science is just the best way to gain knowledge, etc.
Science or Whatever Works
Well, here is an alternative: What if, strictly speaking, there is no such thing called Science?
Take a theoretical physicist, a zoologist, a genetic engineer, and a meteorologist. They ask different questions, deal with different problems, use different methods, rely on different types of instruments, data, analyses, and communities. Note that these examples are all from the so-called natural sciences. Now, put a psychologist, an anthropologist, and an archeologist into the mix, and things get even more complicated. There are many disciplines, trying to understand different types of facts and phenomena, with very different methodologies. If they do have a thing in common it is probably that all disciplines are opportunistic, in the sense that they will all try whatever works (Turunen et al. 2022). But it would be very hard, and totally pointless, to put every discipline and its methods in a row hierarchically (Poliseli and Russo 2022).
Some branches we do call sciences, acknowledging some family resemblance amongst them (Irzik and Nola 2011; Dagher and Erduran 2016; Gasparatou 2023). Often we don’t agree which ones to call “sciences”, just like we don’t always agree on what to call “moral”, “art”, or “furniture”. Indeed, to call a branch “science” or to call a method or a research project “scientific” is a badge of honor. It is a badge that history renders to people, projects, or disciplines who have pursued questions that mattered to us, and improved our understanding, in ways we render credible. One should remember though, that in other contexts, it is a badge of honor to call a thing “art” or “furniture”. And just like carpenters or artists, scientists sometimes are vain, greedy, or bad in what they do. Also, sometimes they are wrong. Even good scientists can be wrong. Newton was wrong about gravity; in his case we haven’t taken back his scientist badge, but then again history is not over.
My point being that, with all their accomplishments, the many sciences are still tentative human practices, practiced by regular humans; people who try to answer questions that seem interesting at a certain time, in ways that seem reliable at the time; sometimes they get it right, sometimes they get it wrong, and most of the time we don’t know which is the case until long after the fact. Saying that Science is the only or the best path to knowledge then, says nothing about the sciences, nor about what counts as knowledge. It simply mystifies Science (Kidd 2015). It is just another way of saying that Science is Oh-So-Super, and turn science into a straw-thing that will easily disappoint, and that is easy to attack. Scientism however, is neither a conspiracy nor a creation of the science-enthusiast. Scientism is a myth that gains power, at least in part, because of another, older, even stronger myth: represantationalism, that is, the idea that words stand for things (Gasparatou 2023).
Representationalism and Science
Representationalism is “a particular picture of the essence of human language”. Namely, the idea that “the individual words in language name objects”; or that “Every word has a meaning … [namely] the object for which the word stands” (Wittgenstein 1953, §1). It is a mythical image of language; it is inaccurate, and, in some sense, we kind-of know it, but it does run within us, under the radar, all the time; it is so old, we are all so deep into it, and, having grown up with it for centuries, it is part of us. All and all, it is very hard to resist this powerful urge to presume a “thing”, an “essence”, or any other fairytale referendum of the terms we use.
But then again, when it comes to Science, we don’t even try to resist it. We have a Science page in every news-outlet. It is the section that covers astronomy and the pyramids, the metaverse and the pandas. We teach Science at school. And even though it takes up most of the curriculum, in many schools around the world today, there is no distinction among the many sciences; in a typical “Science-class” one may find the same Science-teacher (whatever their major may be) teaching a mash-up-of physics, biology, chemistry, with a touch of geography. Students there get informed about the laws of physics, vertebrates’ properties, and the molecular weight of the barium. All this information is often given as a fact, without any context about how, when, why it was discovered, how it was grounded, or what hypotheses were made in the process; that is, without much effort to cultivate any of the skills that were necessary for humans to come up with this knowledge in the first place (Matthews 2012; Gasparatou 2017; 2019; Chakravartty 2022).
And well, some people just get bored to death in Science class. They see all this information as alien to them, too much, too irrelevant, for too long; and they just stop paying any attention. Others just open the Science section in a newspaper some day; instances of scientific research that are not-so-super are right in front of their eyes suddenly, and, since they have never been warned, well, they just feel lied to, fooled. So, they give up on the science section altogether.
But then again, there are also the people who don’t get bored in the Science class. Among them, the ones that would never acknowledge Science as being misrepresented in the science class. Some may pursue careers in research; many may be very-very bad at it. They would spend their days trying to enforce the same process to all things, collecting random data just because they can, making diagrams with spurious correlations pointing to all kinds of directions, trying to force their diagrams to answer questions that are often irrelevant. They would get grants, make papers and podcasts and talks, and produce more and more noise in the Science section. Most are overworked and underpaid, but that’s alright because they are Scientists and they are oh-so-Super.
Others may start YouTube channels; a standard Science-communicator will speak about everything from corals to quantum mechanics in under 3 minutes. And while youtubers, podcasters, and science journalists share more and more fun facts about octopuses, more and more bits and bytes of information stand for scientific knowledge. But, hey, at least they make it fun. One day, we are shocked to realize there are people who believed that other youtuber, not the one we like; the pseudo-Science-communicator rather than the Science-communicator; the Science-skeptic rather than the science-enthusiast. So, we write papers to argue in favor of scientism; defend that thing we call Science.
To make a long story short, when it comes to Science, instead of resisting the representationalist temptation, we further enforce it. Science takes on all the successes of the many different sciences. But then, it will take all the losses too. For every success story, for every discovery, for every invention, there are many failures, many misfires, many risks, lots of bogus research. And the harder a science-enthusiast points to Science’s Greatness, every misfire, every failure, every fiasco, every risk becomes a stronger counter-argument against its Greatness. And so we go round and round, the science-enthusiasts and the science-skeptics feeding off each other (Gasparatou 2023).
Among the two, I’d rather hang out with the science-enthusiast, no doubt about it; even the most naive amongst them, still believe in ideals like truth, verification, knowledge (Gasparatou 2018). In some ways then, I understand Mizrahi’s (2019; 2022) proposal to remain neutral to scientism. That is, I understand where he comes from. But I cannot empathize with him. We already have non-derogatory terms, such as naturalism, empiricism, materialism, physicalism, denoting an empirically oriented epistemic and/or methodological attitude, as well as a materialist ontology. Besides, as Amanda Bryant (2022) rightly suggests, the meaning of a term is determined by its use throughout history; and, so far, “scientism” has been widely used as a pejorative term (Dupré 1993; Haack 2007; Kitcher 2012; Delfino 2014; De Ridder 2014; Kidd 2014; 2015; Stanford 2016; Gasparatou 2017; 2019; 2023; etc.).
Scientism and Hyperbole
Scientism denotes a hyperbole; and it needs to denote this hyperbole if we are to address it.
Mizrahi aims to polish its meaning, implying that part of its bad name comes from philosophers worrying that scientism is dangerous for the academic status and the “essence” of philosophy. However, as I.J. Kidd (2022) argues, philosophy has no essence; philosophers share neither some single methodology, nor the same worries. There is not a thing called Philosophy, just like there is not even a thing called Science. And, to be honest, I too think Mizrahi fails to make a convincing argument about how philosophers feel, as Bryant (2020, 2022) and Turunen et al. (2022) comment.
In any case, I do not speak in the name of The Philosophers. But, I will allow for the possibility that some of the people arguing against scientism may actually worry about what they claim they worry (Haack 2007; Kitcher 2012; Kidd 2014; 2015; Gasparatou 2017; 2019; 2023): worry that scientism, either as a vague disposition or however one may define it, (1) is based on an false image of Science, (2) advances oversimplified premises about the evolution of human thought, (3) encourages absolutist, polarizing, stands, and (4) deeply hurts public discourse, our epistemic literacy, and the sciences too.
Renia Gasparatou, firstname.lastname@example.org, is an Associate Professor in DESECE, University of Patras; she teaches and researches in epistemology, philosophy of education, and philosophy of science education.
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