On science and scientism

by Neil Rickert

Coel Hellier has a new post on his blog, on the subject of scientism:

The tagline of coelsblog is “Defending Scientism” so it is no surprise that Coel is a proponent of scientism.  However, his post also brings out some points on the nature of science, and that’s what I want to discuss here.

Coel explains what he means by scientism, with:

I disagree, slightly, with these definitions (both of course by people critical of scientism), and suggest that scientism is instead the claim that science can answer all questions to which we can know the answer. The point is that there are many questions that are “meaningful”, yet we can never, even in principle, answer them.

A major criticism of scientism is addressed by Coel.  He states the criticism as:

Critics of scientism often assert that historical questions are outside the realm of science, as are questions within axiom-based systems such as mathematics and logic.

I disagree with him on both points.  We’ll get to the mathematics and logic issue later.  Let’s start with history.  Coel’s basic objection with respect to history is:

Defining science broadly as enquiry based on empirical evidence (which I defend more extensively here), history is just as much an evidence-based subject as any science, and there is no basis for asserting a fundamental demarcation between them.

I agree with Coel, that history is inquiry based on empirical evidence.  But I think it misdescribes science to define it that way.  As for history, it is far more concerned with social and cultural history, while science is mainly concerned with the physical world, with evidence that is not culturally based.

But here’s my bigger problem.  If we define science as inquiry based on empirical evidence, then what distinguishes science from journalism?  Yet, to me, that distinction is clear.

Science and answering questions

Coel has, in effect, defined science as the way of answering questions for which we could, in principle, know the answer.  But that seems too narrow for science.  It seems to me that science answers questions that could not have even been asked.  Much of science, from the time of Newton till now, has been answering questions that Aristotle would never have asked.  And he would never have asked them, because the questions themselves could not have been posed.  The answers involve new concepts that were unknown at the time of Aristotle.  And the answering of those questions involved evidence that would have been inconceivable at the time of Aristotle.

So here is how I would distinguish between science, and fields such as history and journalism.  Both history and journalism are concerned with using evidence that already exists, and perhaps evidence of a type already known that could easily be collected even if that evidence did not already exist.  By contrast, science is very much engaged in coming up with new kinds of evidence that had not been previously conceived.  In doing this, it also comes up with new concepts that are used in describing the new forms of evidence.  And once there are new concepts and new evidence, then new forms of question can be posed that could never previously have been asked.

To illustrate with a simple example, consider electricity.  At the time of Aristotle, about all that was known of electricity came from experience with lightning, with hair standing on end (which we explain in terms of static electricity), and sparks (which we also explain in terms of static electricity).  Concepts such as voltage, electrical current, electrical energy were unknown.  Those concepts came from science.

On mathematics

Coel’s comment on mathematics is:

As for mathematics, it is often asserted that mathematical truths derive from reasoning from axioms, and thus are fundamentally different from truths derived from empirical evidence. However, where do these axioms come from? They are not arbitrary, and they are not arrived at ex nihilo, instead the axioms of mathematics are products of our observation of the universe; they are distilled empirical enquiry.

Again, I have to disagree with Coel’s conclusions.  For sure, axioms are not arbitrary.  But it is just as sure that they do not arise out of empirical evidence.  They are very much idealizations.  But I see them, not as idealizations derived from empirical data, but instead of idealizations of empirical practice.  Number theory arises out of an idealization of our counting behavior.  Geometry arises out of an idealization of our measuring behavior.

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One Comment to “On science and scientism”

  1. Hi Neil,

    As for history, it is far more concerned with social and cultural history, while science is mainly concerned with the physical world, with evidence that is not culturally based.

    The claim I am arguing is that both of these are areas of enquiry based on empirical evidence (for which I use the shorthand “science”). Humans are just as much a part of the natural world as anything else and the study of them (and their culture and history) is just as much in the domain of science.

    The point is that there isn’t a fundamental demarcation where totally different rules of evidence apply and where “other ways of knowing” prevail. Yes, there will be differences of style and emphasis, but not major divides. For example, the study of chimpanzee society and culture is on the (non-existent) boundary between these two areas of study.

    If we define science as inquiry based on empirical evidence, then what distinguishes science from journalism? Yet, to me, that distinction is clear.

    The same rules of evidence apply to both, there is no difference in principle between a journalist criticising a recent scientific paper and another scientist doing so. There is a continuum between them, rather than a rigid division. Yes, we usually use the word “science” in a narrower sense than I’m using, but I don’t know of a better word for the broad idea of enquiry based on empirical evidence.

    Both history and journalism are concerned with using evidence that already exists, and perhaps evidence of a type already known that could easily be collected even if that evidence did not already exist. By contrast, science is very much engaged in coming up with new kinds of evidence that had not been previously conceived.

    Hmm, I’m not sure this distinction amounts to much. I’d suggest that many historians and journalists regard themselves as coming up with new ideas, new concepts, new ways of exploring concepts, and would look for new types of evidence.

    For sure, axioms are not arbitrary. But it is just as sure that they do not arise out of empirical evidence. They are very much idealizations. But I see them, not as idealizations derived from empirical data, but instead of idealizations of empirical practice. Number theory arises out of an idealization of our counting behavior. Geometry arises out of an idealization of our measuring behavior.

    Hmm, I’m not sure here of the distinction between empirical observation and empirical practice. I’d regard them as basically the same thing.

    Cheers,
    Coel.

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