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Scientism: A Secular Religion or Slander used to Spur Division

Disclaimer: This an opinion piece based on current philosophy of science literature and is not a compressive discussion.

When I utter the word scientism, most people ask, “Do you know Tom Cruise?” or “Do you think you have telekinesis?”. However, scientism is not scientology. It would honestly be simpler to just equate the two as the unanswered questions and intellectual depth of scientism can leave even the most veteran academics utterly puzzled. Through this article, I introduce scientism, discuss the demarcation problem (central to scientism), and offer how my views on scientism dictate my approach to public outreach.

Throughout history, scientism has been defined in a variety of ways with different connotations depending upon the individual’s discipline. Academics within theology, philosophy, and humanities typically refer to scientism as the over-extension of scientific methods to other non-scientific disciplines. Others, more strongly, define scientism as the belief that science is the only form of true knowledge. The latter definition introduces more philosophical questions concerning the definition of knowledge and the ability for humanity to have true knowledge. Therefore, I will focus on the former definition, which is also the definition that is often used to immunize ill-founded anti-science rhetoric. Scientism is often an accusation used when scientific discoveries threaten a discipline’s autonomy. However, this use of the term scientism introduces a philosophical debate known as the demarcation problem.

The demarcation problem is our inability to distinguish science from non-science disciplines reliably. The debate on demarcation criteria is a current area of research, but I will discuss a couple of points and solutions used by philosophers of science. Some philosophers of science have suggested science be bound by an institutional definition where science is limited by surrounding cultural and institutional beliefs. Therefore, university departments, research facilities, governments, or society may separate scientific investigations from non-scientific ones. However, institutional demarcation is unfounded in logic or philosophy, which will eventually result in the never-ending expansion of science. Scientists will make a discovery, campaign to change public opinion, and eventually, the institution will expand science’s boundary. A methodological based criterion is often used to separate science from other disciplines. Through this criterion, disciplines are categorized as scientific or non-scientific based on their methods. Typically, methods that depend on objective measurements of the natural world are deemed science. However, these methods may be expanded to traditionally non-scientific disciplines to facilitate more robust work. Therefore, the demarcation between science and other subjects using methodology may not always be clearly defined. My views are not based on a strict demarcation but realizing that the transition from science to other disciplines is not and should not be a boundary but a continuum. As an example, cultural anthropology may not be strictly scientific, but utilizing remote sensing methods from landscape ecologists or carbon dating from geologists may be essential to find and date human artifacts. The use of scientific methods in cultural anthropology does not force it to become a science. Furthermore, the use of scientific discoveries to inform philosophers does not make their work any less philosophical; however, it may aid in the development of their metaphysical theories. Therefore, in my opinion, the strict divide between science and other disciplines is unfounded. Science may be supported by understanding the human history of an area or the moral underpinning of an ingenious people. Therefore, science does have limits, but they are not constant nor strictly defined.

While science may not be demarcated based on general over-arching rules, there are disciplines in which science currently cannot offer answers. Morality is ambiguous due to its nature and questions. Science can only investigate what is, while morality asks what ought. Understanding what is provides reason to why things exist or explaining relationships between physical phenomena. Understand what ought is an extension to giving guidance. The is/ought gap is a morality topic philosophers of science have attempted to cross with little success. Currently, scientific methods aim to understand what is through the observation of the natural world; therefore, science cannot infer what ought without imposing some non-scientific rhetoric. Theology is another discipline that may or may not be currently unreachable for science. The accessibility of theology to science depends upon the theologian’s proposed impact of religion on the natural world. If a deity actively changes the world regularly, then science should be (eventually) able to detect these changes through the collection of empirical data. If deities influence the world in less apparent ways through suggestion or indirect methodology, science may be limited in its ability to detect influences. Furthermore, the lack of science’s ability to investigate subjects currently does not mean scientific methods will never provide insight.

Given the hazy demarcation criteria and science’s ability to supplement other disciplines, I think it is important to communicate an air of curiosity towards science to a diverse audience. While I am not proclaiming people should be skeptics of all scientific work, I am stressing the importance of analyzing scientific discoveries. While I remain a career skeptic, communicating this to the public may reduce their support of science and hurt scientific research.  Furthermore, I believe recognizing current limitations to science is essential when communicating with the public. Media typically embellishes scientific discoveries, which, when science fails to deliver on the media’s promises, hurts public opinion. Even undergraduate biology students are severely limited in their understanding of scientific methods and their proper interpretation.  Therefore, being honest with the public and recognizing possible limitations is essential to their knowledge and acceptance of science. Furthermore, scientists are unfortunately always under attack; therefore, when publishing opinions or research, it is crucial to choose your words carefully and recognize the implications of your statements. Finally, honestly communicating the limitations, restrictions, and role of science is vital in communicating your work to the public. Admitting there are clear areas of research that are currently outside of science, such as morality, is essential in maintaining public trust. Furthermore through recognizing science’s limitations, you may be better positioned for groundbreaking collaborations with other disciplines.