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“Six Signs of Scientism”: where I disagree with Haack

I came across this article, “Six Signs of Scientism,” by philosopher Susan Haack from 2009. I think I’m in general agreement with Haack’s views—science has made amazing progress over the centuries but “like all human enterprises, science is ineradicably is fallible and imperfect. At best its progress is ragged, uneven, and unpredictable; moreover, much scientific work is unimaginative or banal, some is weak or careless, and some is outright corrupt . . .”—and I’ll go with her definition of “scientism” as “a kind of over-enthusiastic and uncritically deferential attitude towards science, an inability to see or an unwillingness to acknowledge its fallibility, its limitations, and its potential dangers.”

But I felt something was wrong with Haack’s list of the six signs of scientism, which she summarizes as:

1. Using the words “science,” “scientific,” “scientifically,” “scientist,” etc., honorifically, as generic terms of epistemic praise.

2. Adopting the manners, the trappings, the technical terminology, etc., of the sciences, irrespective of their real usefulness.

3. A preoccupation with demarcation, i.e., with drawing a sharp line between genuine science, the real thing, and “pseudo-scientific” imposters.

4. A corresponding preoccupation with identifying the “scientific method,” presumed to explain how the sciences have been so successful.

5. Looking to the sciences for answers to questions beyond their scope.

6. Denying or denigrating the legitimacy or the worth of other kinds of inquiry besides the scientific, or the value of human activities other than inquiry, such as poetry or art.

Yes, these six signs can be a problem. But, to me, these six signs are associated with a particular sort of scientism, which one might call active scientism, a Richard Dawkins-like all-out offensive against views that are considered anti-scientific.

I spend a lot of time thinking about something different: a passive scientism which is not concerned about turf (thus, not showing signs 1 and 3 above); not concerned about the scientific method, indeed often displaying little interest in the foundations of scientific logic and reasoning (thus, not showing sign 4 above); and not showing any imperialistic inclinations to bring the humanities into the scientific orbit (thus, not showing signs 5 or 6 above). Passive scientism does involve adopting the trappings and terminology of science in a thoughtless way, so there is a bit of sign 2 above, but that’s it.

A familiar examples of passive scientism is “pizzagate”: the work, publication, and promotion, of the studies conducted by the Food and Brand Lab at Cornell University. Other examples include papers published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on himmicanes, air rage, and ages ending in 9.

In all these cases, topics were being studied that clearly can be studied by science. So the “scientism” here is not coming into the decision to pursue this research. Rather, the scientism arises from blind trust in various processes associated with science, such as randomized treatment assignment, statistical significance, and peer review.

In this particular manifestation of scientism—claims that bounce around between scientific journals, textbooks, and general media outlets such as NPR and Ted talks—there is no preoccupation with identifying the scientific method or preoccupation with demarcation, but rather the near-opposite, an all-too-calm acceptance of wacky claims that happen to be in the proximity to various tokens of science.

So I think that when talking about scientism, we need to consider passive as well as active scientism. For every Dawkins, there is a Gladwell.

27 Comments

  1. Jag Bhalla says:

    Useful distinction. Perhaps could be slightly more usefully called Pop Scientism…
    (as practiced by much of pop science fun-focused media).

  2. Keith O’Rourke says:

    OK – why is your concept of passive science not a version of 2. Adopting the manners, the trappings, the technical terminology, etc., of the sciences, irrespective of their real usefulness, where the etc includes use of actual methods irrespective of their real usefulness?

    (Been a few years since I read that paper of Haack’s).

  3. Steve says:

    I love Susan Haack’s work, and I love your blog, but I think that trying to define Scientism is fraught with the same ills with which Scientism is inflicted. Look at number 3 in her summary, “a preoccupation with demarcation.” We would have loved to have a clear demarcation between science and pseudo-science, but no such demarcation (in an absolute sense exists). And, we would love a clear distinction between scientism and real science, but there is none. Any scientist can fail to identify clearly and honestly all of the sources of uncertainty in her research. That can happen in a piece of research where the sources and extent of uncertainty are massive and it can happen in an area of research where the degree of uncertainty is very constrained. Of course, when it happens in the former context, we can recognize it more easily. But, the result is the same, we use the trappings of science to hide the fact that we have made assumptions (perhaps, inescapably) that are open to challenge or discounted alternative explanations without evidence. The offense is a matter of degree not of kind.

    • Tom Hickey says:

      I would say (see my comment below) that scientism and pseudoscience are similar but different. Both involve creating the illusion of scientific authority.

      Pseudoscience involves misapplication of scientific method while claiming the authority of science.

      Scientism involves drawing conclusions exceeding the scope of scientific method even though applying it correctly.

      Regarding fine lines, see Harold Pinter’s Nobel Lecture, “Art, Truth and Politics” (2005):

      “In 1958 I wrote the following:
      ‘There are no hard distinctions between what is real and what is unreal, nor between what is true and what is false. A thing is not necessarily either true or false; it can be both true and false.’
      I believe that these assertions still make sense and do still apply to the exploration of reality through art. So as a writer I stand by them but as a citizen I cannot. As a citizen I must ask: What is true? What is false?”

      Substitute “scientist” for “citizen.”

      To paraphrase Wittgenstein, context rules. The same signs have different uses as symbols depending on context and purpose as instruments of expression and communication.

      • Steve says:

        All of these distinctions are fine if you want them, but my point is that as soon as you start labeling certain claims as pseudoscience or scientism you are now involved in rhetoric not science. You are interested is persuasion by insulting your opponent, i.e., saying that what they are doing is not science. I suppose rhetoric has a place is society. Political debates are about persuasion through rhetoric, not a search for truth. But, we should be very concerned about engaging in rhetoric when ostensibly trying to clean up science and scientific communication as Andrew’s blog is doing. Because it will immediately become clear that we are engaging in the very forms of argument that we are attacking. Why not just point out the scientific errors, the exaggerated claims of certainty, the failure to identify alternative explanations, etc. without the labels?

        • Andrew says:

          Steve:

          I disagree. We can do labeling, criticism, philosophy, etc., without being interested in persuasion or insulting or whatever. We do a lot of these things in order to understand science better. For example, when my colleagues and I looked carefully at the beauty-and-sex-ratio research and realized it was hopeless and was essentially pseudoscience or scientism, we thought about these issues and came to these conclusions as a way for us to better understand science. We were not trying to persuade the author of these studies, nor did we view him as an opponent. To me, this sort of thing is not a war or even an argument; it’s an attempt to understand what we are doing when we do science, and to understand how to do it better.

          • Steve says:

            Of course you are correct that labels can be used without engaging in rhetoric. My point is that there are no absolute distinctions between good thoughtful scientific work and pseudo-science or scientism. I am sure you can use these demarcations in a sufficiently thoughtful way. However, that is not how they are used. Haack is pointing to scientism as an imperious way to use the trappings of science to block any other means of inquiry or elevate one’s informed opinion into unassailable knowledge. My point is labeling certain discussions as scientism may well be used in the same way with the same risks. Denigrating an informed but assailable opinion as nonsense because it lacks true scientific rigor. Maybe my statement of the problem was itself overly simplistic. I think that what we should expect people to do with labels like scientism is to use some criteria to label whole areas of inquiry or investigation as junk without examining the details. Not that you would do that, but is a very natural human tendency, maybe even unavoidable, but, nonetheless, dangerous.

          • I was more puzzled by the meaning of this last sentence in Susan Haack’s article:

            “Such examples could be multiplied almost without limit;but I will stop here, with a simple thought: that to forget that the technological advances that science brings in its wake, much as they have improved our lives, have also sometimes come at a real cost in the displacement of valuable traditional practices and skills, is itself a kind of scientism.’

            • I think she’s saying that accepting the “latest” thing as “automatically better” than older things is itself a kind of scientism. I’ll give some examples:

              Cars vs Horseback
              Archery vs Firearms
              Airplane vs Train
              Electric Guitar vs Classical Guitar

              Clearly it’s better to have both than just one of these, but the newer technology doesn’t just completely replace the older. It’s not automatic that if a horse could do something, a car would be an even better choice (consider especially off-road mountainous terrain). It’s not the case that MIDI keyboard instruments eliminate the need for Cellos…

              • Daniel,

                Thank you. I agree. But I also think that the last thought she was not quite the synthesis of all six signs of scientism that I would have expected. So I might venture my own after reviewing the article again. I think that she is making a broader point about scientism, suggesting that the term has undergone evolution. And whether the shift in meaning is meaningful in itself.

    • I’ve just started reading Susan Haack. I actually think those distinctions she draws are relevant. But I’ll hold out final comment after I finish reading her work. I think that I’m more persuaded when the author doesn’t devolve into self praise soon after offering good insights. Social media has put authors into the awkward position of having to market their research.

  4. Jonathan says:

    I just read a paper which discusses the difference between Israeli animal rights activism and Palestinian rights activism through the lens of intersectionality, which means Israeli animal care, conservation, etc. was condemned because it lacks the correct political contextualizations and awareness. Whether animals are cared for is relatively unimportant compared to the lack of the correct intersectionality.

    This form of academic work is Marxist in origin, following the general form developed in the 20’s and 30’s under Lenin and Stalin. Most people are unaware of how this relates to statistics: it’s the absolutism of the prior. That history is why schools resisted for so long creating programs they feared would become highly politicized: from American Studies to Women’s Studies to Middle-Eastern Studies. It was never that schools feared research into history but that political priors would become absolute. That is what has happened.

    So the line between science and, well, I can’t find a word because ‘pseudo’ isn’t appropriate is the degree to which priors are imposed as absolutes. Intersectionality is just the latest example of 2 + 2 = 5 (which you should recognize is from 1984). The difference to pseudo-science is that stuff like phrenology or belief in spirit pictures were attempts to fill in gaps in our knowledge. They were stupid and ignorant attempts but they’re different in kind from believing in idiocies like race theories in which Jewish avarice is shown by the size of Jewish noses, which one could only believe if one couldn’t notice the noses of anyone else. That is a form of prior being imposed as an absolute so you can’t see reality anymore and thus you accept that 2 + 2 = 5 even if you aren’t threatened.

    Imposition of priors as absolutes is something people grab on to in order to justify their own evil actions. But that’s another topic. On this one, that you can describes something carefully, that you can delineate things carefully, that you can label with exactness doesn’t make what you do science if you are imposing priors on your descriptions, delineation and labels.

    • Jacob says:

      But surely the kind of work you describe wouldn’t ever be described or mistaken as a science, right? These are transparently philosophical, ethical, and/or political arguments that can be made with varying degrees of good faith and rigor.

  5. Tom Hickey says:

    There are essentially two types of scientism, and different flavors of each.

    The first is methodological scientism, which is based on the view that only scientific method is capable of arriving at true knowledge and that all other methods are deficient in comparison. This overlooks that all sound conclusions arrived at by scientific method are falsifiable, hence, contingent on future discovery. Science is tentative, not absolute.

    The second is ontological scientism, or reductionism, which is based on the monistic assumption that only matter is real, hence sense experience (observation) is the sure epistemological criterion of knowledge corresponding to the real. This is a stipulated assumption that cannot be proved by scientific method without falling into circularity and if scientific method is the only method for arriving at true knowledge, then the issue is moot.

    From the philosopher’s perspective, naturalism is a methodological assumption that is useful in gaining knowledge through scientific method. However, this doesn’t privilege scientific method ontologically. That is an unwarranted assumption that goes beyond the boundaries of the contex and available criteria.

    Issues regarding ontology, epistemology and other branches of philosophy give rise to “enduring questions” for the reason that absolute criteria as lacking in human knowledge, knowledge being in accordance of the mode of the knower. This is called “the human condition.”

    Human must choose, but they have to do so — existentialists would say are “condemned to do so” — under uncertainty in many significant cases. Statistics is, of course, a rigorous way to do that, but application of statistical methodology may reduce uncertainty, but it doesn’t remove uncertainty entirely. For uncertainty is both epistemological, rationality being bounded, and also ontological, the future being uncertain and in the context of a complex adaptive system, emergent.

  6. Roy says:

    So I gather you are not going to hear Malcolm Gladwell at the New Yorker Festival this weekend??!!???!!??

  7. Lars says:

    I’m confused.

    In your view, Dawkins is an avatar of bad science and scientism? Advocating blind faith in science; unaware of biases, and challenges and corruption is statistics and science? Then what about Feynman or Pinker’s Enlightenment Now?

  8. Paul Alper says:

    I am surprised that no one has mentioned this:

    http://skepdic.com/toothfairyscience.html
    —–
    “Tooth Fairy science” is an expression coined by Harriet Hall, M.D., (aka the SkepDoc) to refer to doing research on a phenomenon before establishing that the phenomenon exists. Tooth Fairy science is part of a larger domain that might be called Fairy Tale science: research that aims to confirm a farfetched story believed by millions of scientifically innocent minds. Fairy Tale science uses research data to explain things that haven’t been proven to have actually happened. Fairy Tale scientists mistakenly think that if they have collected data that is consistent with their hypothesis, then they have collected data that confirms their hypothesis. Tooth Fairy science seeks explanations for things before establishing that those things actually exist. For example:

    You could measure how much money the Tooth Fairy leaves under the pillow, whether she leaves more cash for the first or last tooth, whether the payoff is greater if you leave the tooth in a plastic baggie versus wrapped in Kleenex. You can get all kinds of good data that is reproducible and statistically significant. Yes, you have learned something. But you haven’t learned what you think you’ve learned, because you haven’t bothered to establish whether the Tooth Fairy really exists.
    ——–

  9. Anoneuoid says:

    I’ll go with her definition of “scientism” as “a kind of over-enthusiastic and uncritically deferential attitude towards science, an inability to see or an unwillingness to acknowledge its fallibility, its limitations, and its potential dangers.”

    I think a lot of what is getting grouped in as “science” simply is not science. That’s whats causing all the confusion.

    If you “reject” (or “fail to reject”) a strawman hypothesis and then draw conclusions about your hypothesis, it’s simply not science. The End.

    It doesn’t matter what trappings of science you surround it with (collecting data, publishing in a journal, etc). I refer to this stuff as “research”, a hypernym of “science” that I consider generously neutral.

    The scientific method:

    1) Carefully observe and record some phenomenon
    2) Abduce possible explanations for this phenomenon
    3) Deduce novel (preferably otherwise surprising) testable predictions from the above explanations
    4) Collect new data to check the predictions
    5) Choose the best performing of the above explanations (using Bayes rule, p(H|D) is telling use how relatively well our model performed)

    There is no need for a single team or person to perform every step, but you can’t substitute fake steps. Eg, testing a strawman hypothesis instead of step #4 just because you couldnt be bothered to deduce a prediction it would be meaningful* to test during step 3.

    *By “meaningful” I mean the prediction differs amongst the various possible explanations available, so you can use it to distinguish between them. Usually this means figuring out a precise, rather than vague, prediction.

  10. Thanatos Savehn says:

    Whatever Dr. Haack’s intent the personal injury lawyers responsible for things like “coffee causes cancer” rely heavily on her work to argue for pure credentialism. The argument boils down to (1) there is no scientific method; (2) if another study conflicts with your theory or a replication attempt fails neither can be said to constitute a refutation because the other scientists might be standing on the shoulders of the wrong giant; thus (3) science is simply what comes out of the mouths of scientists.

    I’m hoping to find confirmation of the idea that real science can be had via severe testing in Dr. Mayo’s new book (which I’ve ordered).

  11. max says:

    Most compelling examples of “scientism” above seem to be just examples of more or less scientific hypotheses that happen to be wrong. Their wrongness is shown by appeal to the evidence and observations, in that sense their wrongness is established using “scientific approach”. I bet i could run a similar line against “knowledgism”: tell a story about how people abuse the term “knowledge”, story based on the examples of beliefs that are not actually knowledge because they are actually false.

  12. Brewingsense says:

    I think what you call “passive scientism” already has a well known and catchy name – cargo cult science. That denotes a kind of activity that has a general resemblance of science (gathering data, writing papers that go through peer review etc.) but doesn’t actually produce the cargo people want (reliable knowledge and understanding of the way the world works). Sorry to say that, but I think this is a much better term,

    Nevertheless I agree that there are some important similarities between scientism and cargo cult science – both seem to stem from a naive philosophy of science, and a hope for some universal method of inquiry that could be used in an almost ritualistic way, relegating the hard work of finding the truth about the world to a mere procedure.

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