Positivism did not lose its appeal in the 20th century. To the contrary, a group known collectively as The Vienna Circle reinvigorated the fundamental tenets of positivism with enhanced symbolic logic and semantic theory. They called their approach, fittingly, logical positivism. In this system, there are only two kinds of meaningful statements: analytic statements (including logic and mathematics), and empirical statements, subject to experimental verification. Anything outside of this framework is an empty concept. (11)
Given its sweeping claims, logical positivism came under heavy scrutiny. Karl Popper pointed out that few statements in science can actually be completely verified. However, a single observation has the potential to invalidate a hypothesis, and even an entire theory. Therefore, he proposed that instead of experimental verification, the principle of falsifiability should demarcate what qualified as science, and by extension, what can qualify as knowledge. (add footnote here and renumber)
Another weakness of the positivist position is its reliance on a complete distinction between theory and observation. Observations, essential to the empirical approach of science, were claimed by positivists to be brute facts which one could use to establish, evaluate, and compare the theories. However, W.O. Quine pointed out in his “Two Dogmas of Empiricism” that observations themselves are partly shaped by theory (“theory-laden”). (12) What counts as an observation, how to construct an experiment, and what data you think your instruments are collecting—all require an interpretive theoretical framework. This realization does not deal a death-blow to the practice of science (as some post-modernists like to claim), but it does undermine the positivist claim that science rests entirely on facts, and is thus an indisputable foundation for knowledge.
Scientism of Today
Scientism today is alive and well, as evidenced by the statements of our celebrity scientists:
“The Cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be.” –Carl Sagan, Cosmos
“The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.” –Stephen Weinburg, The First Three Minutes
“We can be proud as a species because, having discovered that we are alone, we owe the gods very little.” –E.O. Wilson, Consilience
While these men are certainly entitled to their personal opinions and the freedom to express them, the fact that they make such bold claims in their popular science literature blurs the line between solid, evidence-based science, and rampant philosophical speculation. Whether one agrees with the sentiments of these scientists or not, the result of these public pronouncements has served to alienate a large segment of American society. And that is a serious problem, since scientific research relies heavily upon public support for its funding, and environmental policy is shaped by lawmakers who listen to their constituents. From a purely pragmatic standpoint, it would be wise to try a different approach.
Physicist Ian Hutchinson offers an insightful metaphor for the current controversies over science:
“The health of science is in fact jeopardized by scientism, not promoted by it. At the very least, scientism provokes a defensive, immunological, aggressive response from other intellectual communities, in return for its own arrogance and intellectual bullyism. It taints science itself by association.” (13)
Noting that most Americans enthusiastically welcome scientific advancements, particularly those in health care, transportation, and communications, Hutchinson suggests that perhaps what the public is rejecting is not actually science itself, but a worldview that closely aligns itself with science—scientism (14). By disentangling these two concepts, we have a much better chance for enlisting public support for scientific research than we would by trying to convince millions of people to embrace a materialistic, godless universe in which science is our only remaining hope.
Distinguishing Science from Scientism
So if science is distinct from scientism, what is it? Science is an activity that seeks to explore the natural world using well-established, clearly-delineated methods. Given the complexity of the universe, from the very big to very small, from inorganic to organic, there is a vast array of scientific disciplines, each with its own specific techniques. The number of different specializations is constantly increasing, leading to more questions and areas of exploration than ever before. Science expands our understanding, rather than limiting it.
Scientism, on the other hand, is a speculative worldview about the ultimate reality of the universe and its meaning. Despite the fact that there are millions of species on our planet, scientism focuses an inordinate amount of its attention on human behavior and beliefs. Rather than working within carefully constructed boundaries and methodologies established by researchers, it broadly generalizes entire fields of academic expertise and dismisses many of them as inferior. With scientism, you will regularly hear explanations that rely on words like “merely”, “only”, “simply”, or “nothing more than”. Scientism restricts human inquiry.
It is one thing to celebrate science for its achievements and remarkable ability to explain a wide variety of phenomena in the natural world. But to claim there is nothing knowable outside the scope of science would be similar to a successful fisherman saying that whatever he can’t catch in his nets does not exist (15). Once you accept that science is the only source of human knowledge, you have adopted a philosophical position (scientism) that cannot be verified, or falsified, by science itself. It is, in a word, unscientific.
Disclaimer: The author’s views do not necessarily represent those of AAAS or DoSER.
Thomas Burnett is the assistant director of public engagement at the John Templeton Foundation. As a science writer, Thomas has also worked for The National Academy of Sciences and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He has degrees in philosophy and the history of science from Rice University and University of California, Berkeley.
1. Olson, Richard G. Science and Scientism in Nineteenth-Century Europe. Urbana, University of Illinois Press, 2008.
2. Sorell, Tom. Scientism: Philosophy and the Infatuation with Science. New York: Routledge, 1991.
3. Hutchinson, Ian. Monopolizing Knowledge: A Scientist Refutes Religion-Denying, Reason-Destroying Scientism. Belmont, MA: Fias Publishing, 2011.
4. Descartes, Rene. Discourse on Method
5. Sorell, p176
6. Sorell, p35
7. Ozouf, Mona (1988). Festivals and the French Revolution. Harvard University Press
8. Zammito, John H. A Nice Derangement of Epistemes : Post-Positivism in the Study of Science from Quine to Latour. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004.
9. This view is a form of strict determinism, and current popularizers of continue to enthusiastically endorse it. Perhaps they are “determined” to do so?
10. This view is a form of extreme reductionism, also widely endorsed by current popularizers of science.
11. Zammito, p8
12. Popper, Karl. Logic of Scientific Discovery. 1959)
13. For an extended discussion, read Zammito’s chapter “The Perils of Semantic Ascent: Quine and Post-positivism in the Philosophy of Science” in A Nice Derangement of Epistemes
14. Hutchinson, p143
15. Hutchinson, p109
16. Giberson, Karl, and Mariano Artigas. Oracles of Science: Celebrity Scientists Versus God and Religion. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.