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The term scientism is a newly coined word that refers to certain epistemologies based on science. It is important to note that different people use this word in a variety of ways:

  • Scientism is sometimes defined as the acceptance of scientific theory and scientific methods as applicable in all fields of inquiry about the physical, natural world. This definition is functionally equivalent to scientific naturalism[?].

  • Scientism is often defined as the acceptance of scientific theory and scientific methods as applicable in all fields of inquiry about the world, including morality. Most scientists argue that this definition, and the critiques that follow from it, are wrong because (a) Science limits itself to inquiry about the physical, natural world; (b) Very few people actually hold the view described here, and it would be inappropriate to criticise most people for beliefs that they do not hold.

  • Scientism sometimes refers to humanism and enlightenment values informed by science. In this use of the word, scientism is "a scientific worldview that encompasses natural explanations for all phenomena, eschews supernatural and paranormal speculations, and embraces empiricism and reason as the twin pillars of a philosophy of life appropriate for an Age of Science." (Source: Michael Shermer, The Shamans of Scientism, Scientific American, 2002)

The critiques of scientism are many and varied. They seem mostly to focus on the confusion of conceptual metaphor arising in the process of learning science and negotiating the acceptance of scientific 'truth' in the larger culture. In Western education, for instance, students are encouraged to make scientific theories central to their thinking, and choice of conceptual metaphor, with the result that other fields tend to be seen as related to the hard sciences. Mathematics and physics thus tend to be valued more highly, as insights into reality, than, say, music or ethics. But many societies see those as sources of truth too, and would perhaps be skeptical of claims based on mathematics or the sciences.

Recent philosophy manifestos by literary deconstructionists, radical feminists, and opponents of science concentrate on what they believe is an unhealthy link between science and the humanities. The majority of writers using this term use it in a pejorative fashion. These writers view science as little more than a socially constructed ideology. In this view, scientists "bully" non-scientists with "oppressive" words such as logic, experiments, objectivity, etc.

Many scientists believe this to be anti-science envy. Michael Shermer writes:

One manifestation of science-envy is the mathematical or logical pseudo-rigor with which much recent philosophical writing is afflicted. This, to speak bluntly, is a kind of affected obscurity. Not that recourse to the languages of mathematics or logic never helps to make a philosophical argument or thesis clearer; of course, it does. But it can also stand in the way of real clarity by disguising failure to think deeply or critically enough about the concepts being manipulated with impressive logical sophistication. And it has come to be, too often, what Charles Sykes calls "Profspeak" -- using unnecessary symbols to convey a false impression of depth and rigor. Science-envy is manifested also by those who -- hoping to enhance their prestige by close association with the sciences -- contort themselves in attempts to show that this or that philosophical problem can be quickly settled by some scientific result, or to displace philosophical problems in favor of scientific ones. The result is at best a covert change of subject, at worst a self-undermining absurdity. No scientific investigation can tell us whether science is epistemologically special, and if so, how, or whether a theory's yielding true predictions is an indication of its truth, and if so, why, and so on; yet, unless these were not only legitimate questions, but legitimate questions with less-than-skeptical answers, it is incomprehensible how one could be justified, as the most ambitious style of scientism proposes, in doing science instead of philosophy. (Source: Science, Scientism, and Anti-Science in the Age of Preposterism, Susan Haack, Skeptical Inquier Magazine, 1997.)

See also:


Science, Scientism, and Anti-Science in the Age of Preposterism, Susan Haack, Skeptical Inquier Magazine, 1997.)

Sandra Harding, "Who Knows? Identities and Feminist Epistemology," in Joan E. Hartman and Ellen Messer-Davidow, eds., (En)gendering Knowledge, University of Tennessee Press, Knoxville, 1991, p. 109

External links

Is Science Killing the soul? A discussion between Steven Pinker and Richard Dawkins (http://www.edge.org/documents/archive/edge53)

Richard Dawkins essay: Is Science a Religion? (http://www.thehumanist.org/humanist/articles/dawkins)

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