Philosophy, recent, Science

In Defense of Scientism

I hear the jury’s still out on science.
~Gob Bluth

In science, the jury is always out. This is because science is a methodological approach to the world, not a set of inflexible principles or a catalog of indisputable facts. Truth is always provisional. Science does not hold something to be incontrovertibly true. It says, “This appears to be true according to the best available theory and evidence.” On science, the jury long ago returned a verdict: it is awesome. It has conquered deadly diseases and eradicated oppressive superstitions. It has increased human flourishing and extended life expectancies. It has put humans on the moon and many fathoms under the ocean’s surface. It has uncovered the forces that guide the crudest motions of matter and those that govern the most exquisite processes of life. In short, it has vastly improved human existence while dramatically increasing our knowledge of the universe.

Despite all this, skeptical philosophers and pundits continue to forward arguments against scientific “arrogance”—or against what they see as science’s hubristic attempt to crowd out other forms of understanding and discourse. In recent years, these arguments have focused on what is called “scientism,” a malleable term that is vaguely pejorative. (It’s worth noting that this term can be used clearly and effectively, as in Susan Haack’s excellent article, for instance.) A 2016 Slate article defined scientism as “the belief that all we need to solve the world’s problems…is science.” The author upbraided Neil DeGrasse Tyson for the sin of “scientism” because he asserted that all social policy should be based on science. Well, more specifically, he wrote, “America needs a virtual colony” with a simple constitution that reads, “All social policy shall be based on the weight of evidence.” Scientists like Tyson and Steven Pinker and Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris among others are often accused of—and denigrated for—promoting scientism.

In what follows, we will defend Tyson et al—and what is (often) called scientism more generally—using, where appropriate, the analogous term “science-based social policy” (SBSP). Science-based social policy is the view that social policy should be based on the best available theory and data; in other words, that social policy should be decided using the weight of the evidence. And that is all scientism is—the view that scientific attitudes and methods can enhance all modes of empirical inquiry and should, therefore, be promoted. Critics will almost certainly object that this is an unduly reasonable definition. Scientism is sometimes characterized by its opponents as a utopian ideology or an irrational faith that science will eventually eradicate every evil, inaugurating an era of everlasting peace and prosperity. But this is a straw man, and we have yet to read a serious proponent of science defend this definition.

The version of scientism we will be defending here is the version advocated by Pinker, Harris, Dawkins, and Tyson; the simple contention that we, as a society, should use the principles of science—skepticism, experimentation, falsification, and the search for basic explanatory principles—to determine, however clumsily and slowly, how the world works and what the best and most effective social policies are. If we want to determine the best marginal tax rates, we shouldn’t dredge up some dogma or other or cite the authority of a dead economist. Instead, we should examine and weigh the evidence, compare the merits of competing theories, and then aim for the most reasonable rates.

Of course, society is a complicated mess of competing interests and ad hoc solutions. Politicians can’t simply discontinue policymaking while scientists test the effectiveness of alternatives, approving or disapproving as the evidence rolls in. SBSP contends that we should strive to gather as much information about policy effects as is feasible even though we will not be able to obtain perfect information about the costs and benefits of every policy proposal before us. The correct approach is one tempered by humility. However, this doesn’t require a posture of defiant incredulity. We really do know more today than we did yesterday.

The best way to explain what scientism is while simultaneously defending it from its critics is to address, in turn, four of the most popular arguments marshalled against it.

1. Scientism Will Lead to an Unaccountable Tyranny of Scientists

Many intellectuals and pundits who have assailed scientism have argued that it would lead to a tyranny of bespectacled elites promoting a dangerous brand of bloodless rationalism. They associate SBSP with other failed experiments in top-down utopianism such as the French and Russian Revolutions. Kevin Williamson at the National Review, for example, noted that, “Conservatives, who always have the French Revolution in their thoughts, reminded [Neil Degrasse Tyson] that [SBSP] already has been tried, and that the results are known in the history books as ‘the Terror.’” And G. Shane Morris at the Federalist similarly contended that Tyson’s SBSP vision had been tested and that it had “caused a lot of people to lose their heads—literally and figuratively.” SBSP errs, in this view, because it promotes a tyranny of technocrats who vainly try to guide sinful and flawed humans to perfection using pure reason and utilitarianism. The outcome is a predictable but tragic waste of human life.

Although this is a popular characterization of SBSP, it is grossly misleading. SBSP is not committed to the patently false doctrine that humans are emotionless creatures guided solely by reason. Rather, it is dedicated to the scientific doctrine that human nature is not entirely known, but that it is likely comprised of ineradicable passions and biases. As Daniel Kahneman has argued in his 2011 book Thinking Fast and Slow, many of these passions and biases are well understood and have been thoroughly studied by scientists using the scientific method. In fact, the best modern psychological theories recognize that humans are nepotistic, tribalistic, status-driven creatures. Today’s most preposterous policy proposals (i.e., those that resemble the blank slate optimism of the French and Russian Revolutions) usually come from those who are ignorant of or willfully deny the conclusions of modern evolutionary psychology, not from those who are immersed in and promote SBSP.

Furthermore, the best historical and comparative evidence on social systems unequivocally demonstrates that centralized planning and top-down control are dangerous, ruinous of prosperity, and antithetical to human flourishing. Therefore, a person who based social policy solely “on the weight of the evidence” would not promote an excessively centralized system given the remarkable weight of evidence against its desirability.

2. Scientism Has Been Responsible for Terrible Crimes in the Past and Scientists Are Often Wrong

Opponents of scientism often argue that scientists have been wildly wrong in the past and have promoted dangerous, intolerant policies such as eugenics and white racial superiority. It therefore follows that they might be just as wrong today and promote policies that society will come to view as equally detestable. For example, Jeffrey Guhin at Slate wrote that, “Eugenics was science, as was social Darwinism and the worst justifications of the Soviet and Nazi regimes. Scientific racism was data-driven too, and incredibly well respected.”

It is certainly true that many scientific hypotheses have been wrong or incomplete; the history of science is a vast cemetery of once-revered theories and beliefs. Furthermore, even today, science is riddled with flaws. The social sciences, for example, have been sullied by a recent “replicability crisis,” and many sober-minded scientists and critics alike have expressed alarm at the combination of political bias and potentially shoddy experimental methods in the field. But science has made significant progress, nonetheless. In fact, science makes progress precisely by discarding or revising once-revered theories. Aristotelian physics eventually gave way to Newtonian physics, which has given way to relativity and quantum physics. Similarly, social science continues to make slow but steady progress, despite depressing detours along the way. It is heartening, for example, to note that today very few people seriously believe that war is caused by a Freudian “death instinct.”

Furthermore, although eugenics, social Darwinism, and “scientific” racism are often used to besmirch the reputation of science, they in fact illustrate why SBSP is so important. Social Darwinism, for example, wasn’t really a science, and it wasn’t based on the weight of the evidence; it was a social philosophy that incorporated a crude version of natural selection. Social Darwinists did not promote a judicious approach to policy determined by careful study of outcomes; they promoted a values-based approach to policy determined by a priori philosophical and moral assumptions. The same holds for eugenicists and “scientific” racists. (The term “scientific racist” is a rhetorical triumph for opponents of science, but really refers to someone who uses the patina of scientific nomenclature to justify bigotry, and not someone who uses the scientific method to defend racism.)

And what is the alternative to SBSP? It is of course true that the best scientific theories and the best data will sometimes prove to have been wrong or misleading—as already noted, scientific knowledge is provisional—and science is indeed imperfect, fallible, and limited. Our current understanding of the outcomes of charter schools, for example, may need to be revised in the light of future research. Therefore, policy proposals should generally be cautious and incremental. But how else are researchers to determine whether charter schools are desirable other than the application of SBSP? Revelation, intuition, and epiphany are lousy and unreliable tools. And even if they were determined to be reliable, we would only know that by carefully scrutinizing the evidence—in other words, by application of the scientific method. The same holds for political theory and philosophy, although they are certainly more useful and reliable tools than intuitions or epiphanies.

3. Scientism Cannot Determine Values and Therefore Is a Poor Guide to the Good Life

Opponents of SBSP often argue that science is incapable of determining human values and is therefore a poor guide for social policy. Ross Douthat, a conservative writer at the New York Times, for example, has argued that “scientism” is, at bottom, “an invocation of the ‘scientific facts’ to justify what is… a philosophical preference for Mill over Nietzsche….” This point was made more peremptorily by Jeffrey Guhin at Slate who flatly declared that “science has no business telling people how to live.” In other words, science might be able to ascertain facts about the world—to discover laws and particles and explanatory principles—but it cannot discern values or meaning, and therefore cannot tell us much about life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

This argument is a version of David Hume’s philosophical claim that one cannot derive an “ought” from an “is.” Hume‘s argument contends that nothing about the state of the world can determine how we ought to behave or what we ought to value. To take an extreme example, there is nothing objectively or intrinsically wrong with defending the torture of one’s neighbors for no reason. The ought in any moral pronouncement (“one should not torture one’s neighbors”) is not exclusively determined by the state of the world, but instead requires something subjective—a preference, a desire, a value (such as a preference not to see people suffer needlessly). We agree with this argument, and we do not think that a defense of SBSP requires us to refute it.

The is/ought argument is almost exclusively scholastic, because in reality most people agree on an underlying value, and this helps us to bridge the gap between “is” and “ought.” As Sam Harris has argued in The Moral Landscape, the underlying value most people agree upon is that some form of human flourishing or satisfaction or well-being or happiness is an intrinsic good and ought to be promoted. That is, most modern people in the West agree, despite sometimes showy protestations to the contrary, that human well-being ought to be the goal of social policy and morality. To see this, consider the following examples. Would anyone argue that because beauty is the most important good in the world, it is good to shoot innocent people in the head because the resulting stream of blood is aesthetically pleasing? Or that because freedom is the most important good in the world, a social policy that saved 20,000 lives by increasing taxes by 1 percent would be immoral because it decreases freedom? Or that because piety is the most important good, it is good for people to slaughter heretics?

Of course, most moral/social policy dilemmas are more difficult to answer than these, but only because it is often more difficult to discern the policy or behavior that most increases human flourishing (or most diminishes human suffering). Harris is largely correct to compare morality to medicine. In medicine, the goal, of course, is to increase human well-being and reduce suffering, and the same should be uncontroversially true of morality and social policy.

Once we have identified a desirable end—human flourishing—we can and should use science to discover and promote the policies that encourage it. Put another way, science can and absolutely should tell people how to live. This is not because science is infallible or because it is better than literature or religion, but because it is the best method we have for obtaining knowledge. When researchers discovered that erecting fences with secures gates around private and public pools significantly reduced the risk of accidental drownings, did those who contend that science “has no business telling us how to live” propose that we disregard this evidence and its policy implications lest we risk a dangerous and unappealing overextension of science? What is true with pools is, in principle, true with all social policy and morality, even if many policy and moral puzzles are more difficult to solve.

4. Scientism Attempts to Cannibalize Other Fields and is Disrespectful of Other “Ways of Knowing.”

Finally, many critics of scientism contend that it is an imperial enterprise determined to colonize all other disciplines, replacing their unique methods and insights with a rigid program imported from physics. But this criticism assumes that those who promote scientism conflate the very different goals of art and science. It also assumes that scientism contends that physics and chemistry should be the model of all modern sciences. Both of these assumptions are incorrect.

Critics of scientism frequently express the fear that science is encroaching on the turf of the humanities, devaluing once noble human endeavors such as music, painting, and literature. But this is simply a category error. Humans don’t value art because it provides empirical knowledge about the world; they value it because it offers an enjoyable and often thought-provoking experience. It is no more a flaw of T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland  that it fails to provide the reader with scientifically vetted knowledge about the effects of pollution than it is a flaw of a delicious dessert that it fails to provide its consumer with knowledge about the relation between calories and weight gain. Some literature, of course, does provide knowledge about the world (for example, Dickens’s novels provide knowledge about industrialization in England), but that is not its usual or primary function. Science and the arts really are non-overlapping magisteria. They perform very different functions, and so they can coexist peacefully.

But, unlike the arts, the shared goal of literary criticism, film criticism, history, and many other disciplines is to pursue and disseminate some kind of objective truth. These disciplines should therefore use the tools of modern scientific thinking. This doesn’t mean that they should be preoccupied with measurement or tethered to reductive methodologies, it simply means that critical analysis ought to be based upon evidence and dedicated to rigor and rational argumentation. Literary criticism, for example, should be disciplined by the text it is analyzing. One should not be allowed to argue that Lolita is actually about the Cold War without providing evidence from the novel. On this basis, some interpretations are more plausible than others, and authorial intent, where discernible, can start to regain its authority. The critic should be skeptical and cautious about various readings, striving to falsify them with textual evidence. Furthermore, one should apply the best available theories from psychology, anthropology, and sociology to augment understanding of literature and the arts. We are generally skeptical that insights from, say, evolutionary psychology are crucial to good literary criticism; however, they are certainly more helpful than the patently nonsensical psychological theories many critics still use, which often come from the largely falsified theories of Freud or Jung. The same applies a fortiori to history.

So then what about philosophy? Many of those accused of promoting scientism, such as Dawkins and Harris, have written or said dismissive things about philosophy, often mocking it for its obsession with unanswerable questions and its tendency to confuse instead of enlighten. As such, they have been attacked by philosophers who, unsurprisingly, don’t appreciate the attacks on their discipline. But it’s clear, if one is charitable when interpreting these thinkers, that they don’t dislike or disparage philosophy per se, but rather a kind of esoteric and self-referential philosophy that has been mocked and belittled by many. (Ambrose Bierce’s definition of philosophy as a “route of many roads leading from nowhere to nothing” comes to mind.) Dawkins, Pinker, and Harris are all profoundly philosophical thinkers who reflect upon the consequences of their concepts and classifications and try to synthesize vast amounts of data into a coherent view of the universe.

Scientism doesn’t degrade philosophy, but its adherents are admittedly impatient with some of the logic-chopping, yawn-inducing, and obscurantist varieties practiced at elite institutions. They believe that philosophy should grapple with data and work with science. Some of scientism’s attacks on philosophy are undoubtedly unfair and deserve pushback. But most of those who advocate the expansion of science are not literally calling for the abolition of philosophy; they are calling for a philosophy that is more practical and less arcane.


Along with the rule of law, markets, and representative government, the scientific method (and scientific attitude more broadly) is one of the great human institutional creations. It has allowed us to solve many stubborn puzzles, to replace superstition with real understanding, and to create technologies that have raised millions out of indigence and suffering. Science has been so successful, in fact, that we, the spoiled offspring of the Enlightenment, take its fruits for granted and mistake its reasonable pride for imperial arrogance.

To be fair to critics of scientism, we should concede that some people have attempted to use the rigorous methodology of physics as a model for all other disciplines and have traded understanding for a mere illusion of precision. And others have belittled the power and importance of poetry, painting, music, and other non-scientific endeavors. Such errors deserve rebuttal. But many of the arguments forwarded against scientism are misleading and caricature the intellectuals who advocate the spread of science across other disciplines and into the realm of social policy.

None of them believes that if only every field copied the methods of physics and chemistry, then we’d be on the path to paradise or that art is a cheap facsimile of science, a distortion of the Truth, a degraded copy of a copy. What they do believe is that in the vast toolkit for understanding and engaging the material world, no other tool is better or more reliable than science.


Bo Winegard is an essayist and an assistant professor at Marietta College. You can follow him on Twitter @EPoe187

Ben Winegard is an essayist and an assistant professor at Hillsdale College. You can follow him on Twitter @BenWinegard

Featured image by A Owen from Pixabay


  1. Bob Johnson says

    And with this essay, Quillette reveals itself to be an enemy of western civlization, which is grounded in trasndent obligations to the family and nation that cannot be justified on grounds that are purely material.

    There is no scientific basis for any moral judgement. The west’s historic compassion for the poor, sick, and weak, and sexual taboos and commitment to a monogamous family, were the product of Christianity, and are now being attacked by the haters of authority/lovers of endless freedom on both the right and left, who seek a world where marriage is meaningless, there are no borders, no religions, and no monogamy. The lovechild of Ayn Rand and John Lennon.

    And thanks to the increase in “human rights”, we have widespread pornography, a mainstream culture that is schlock, widespread divorce and drug addiction, and collapsing birthrates, Read “coming apart”

    • Leo Strauss says

      I think you are right to point out that many scientific theorists about political life unwittingly take for granted, for example, the goodness of human rights without thinking about or considering alternatives. I.e., rights bring some goods but these goods often blind us from seeing the bad things that are or can be coeval with rights.

      On the other hand, you are being massively uncharitable to Quillette. There are many authors with many different views; Q is not an ideological monolith–thank God! If you disagree with the article, recapitulate its core claims and attempt to refute them. You can’t just rant about “enemies of western civilization,” and expect people to respect your claims.

    • David of Kirkland says

      Except on nearly every (if not every) measure of human progress, we’re better off now than ever before in history. That you think the problems you have now are so much worse than the problems before is because you never lived in those prior times.
      But it is true that science has nothing to say about morality or culture. I mean, what’s the science about executing a mass murderer? Clearly, after execution, the mass murderer will never harm again. But is that still the best in terms of justice or morals or rights?

      • Stephan Brun says

        I have to disagree about whether science can have a say in what is right and wrong, and how one should act in accordance with that. After all, while the article points out that ethics has to be based on feelings they call subjective, this is a misuse of the term. There are after all objective (fact-based) feelings, as well as subjective (fiction-based) feelings. The objective ones are generally confined to the self, which is the only thing a person can have reasonably certain knowledge about. And by collecting this information through surveys and experimental simulations (because it turns out we react almost as strongly to simulations as to real events), an objective theory can be constructed. And such a theory would indeed be able to solve whether or not one should execute a mass murderer, because if it couldn’t, it would have data added to it until it could be. And researching whether society killing people is the better thing seems a simple matter. After all, not all countries kill their murderers, so we can study the effects of not killing them.

  2. Jack B. Nimble says

    ‘……. (It’s worth noting that this term can be used clearly and effectively, as in Susan Haack’s excellent article, for instance.)….’

    This is the correct link:,%20Six%20Signs%20of%20Scientism.pdf

    ‘……Science and the arts really are non-overlapping magisteria. They perform very different functions, and so they can coexist peacefully. …..’

    Ummmm….. the ‘magisteria’ link goes to this article:

    Stephen Jay Gould, “Nonoverlapping Magisteria,” Natural History 106 (March 1997): 16-22

    I’m not a Gould-basher, but I think that SJG was too eager, here and elsewhere, to make an accommodation between ‘science’ and ‘religion.’ Winegard & Winegard, on the other hand, don’t even mention faith-based or supernatural explanations of reality in their article. That omission is a pity, really, since the most sustained objections to the scientific method have come from religionists. The difference in viewpoint largely boils down to the question of whether moral values were created BY humans or created FOR humans. The gap between these two positions is unbridgeable, Gould, Winegard & Winegard notwithstanding.

    • Bob Johnson says

      The Catholic church created modern western science. Europe made the greatest leaps in scientific progress because of its Christianity – the idea that the world runs according to objective rules made science possible. Read James Hannam, Rodney Stark, edward grant

      • Jack B. Nimble says

        @Bob J

        The history of western science goes roughly like this:

        Sumerian science –> Babylonian science –> Greek science –> Roman science

        …then during the European Dark ages, ancient science was preserved and extended by Islamic scientists….

        The revival of science in Europe started roughly around 1500 with Copernicus, Brahe, F. Bacon, W. Gilbert and others who relied in part on ancient texts preserved in Arabic translations.

        Islam certainly believes that ‘…..the world runs according to objective rules made science possible….’ but I’m not sure about the earlier societies. In any case, Christianity doesn’t deserve the special place that you are giving to it.

        And Rodney Stark? I read his ‘Rise of Christianity’ soon after it came out and was frankly floored by his attempt to explain in materialist [almost Darwinian] terms how Christianity became the predominant religion in Europe a few centuries after the death of Jesus. Basically his argument is that Christians out-competed pagan cults because:

        First, they condemned birth control, abortion and infanticide, leading to higher birth rates;

        Second, Christianity appealed particularly to women and slaves–and those were the persons caring for children in pagan households;

        Third, during disease epidemics, Christians cared for each other rather than running away, both modeling altruistic behavior to their pagan neighbors and also probably improving the survival rates of their fellow believers.

        • David of Kirkland says

          Running away was a better solution to infectious disease than caring for them among the previously uninfected.


          Islam did no such thing. The vast majority of so-called “islamic” individuals doing philosophy and research that is close to “science” (which never actually appeared in its familiar form until the early modern period) were Persians. In particular, it was the Sassanid empire after being conquered by Islamists. Much of what is taken to be “Islamic” (art, science, philosophy) is proximately from the Sassanids. It wasn’t done by Islam, and the continuation of Greek thought was mostly because of the Sassanid libraries and scholars that survived under Islamic colonization. Also, saying it was solely Islamic scholars who preserved this tradition is also flat out wrong. The Renaissance was heavily indebted to the Byzantines (especially Plethon).

          • Kelli says

            Thank you. Can you recommend a goid history book for this period?

          • persimon says

            Indeed, and the islamic Turkey came into possession of scientific books (and scholars) conquering Bysantine lands. Byzantium was responsible for the real preservation and expanding of science.

      • David of Kirkland says

        The Christian zero and the Christian Algebra… The greatest progress occurred once religion was rejected as the basis or creator of scientific understanding.

        • Jack B. Nimble says

          @D of K

          ‘….The Christian zero and the Christian Algebra…’

          Not sure what point you are making here, but the word ‘Algebra’ is of Arabic origin, as are lots of English words in science that begin with Al…. [algorithm, alkali, alembic, alchemy, etc.].

      • ALAN WHITE says

        So the church approved of what Galileo was doing?

        • persimon says

          And why do you think the Pope made Galileo the first head of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences?

    • S. Cheung says

      faith-based or supernatural explanations of reality aren’t factual explanations of reality. I don’t know how religion would factor into a discussion of science-based intellectual inquiry.

      • Jack B. Nimble says

        @S. Cheung

        Well, W & W were the ones that looped Gould into the discussion with his idea that science and religion occupy different epistemic realms [‘magisteria’].

        On a different but somewhat related topic, their suggestion that:

        “……The is/ought argument is almost exclusively scholastic, because in reality most people agree on an underlying value, and this helps us to bridge the gap between “is” and “ought.”….”

        is WAY over-simplified. Their suggestion ignores both the ethnographic and historical record showing that different societies have answered moral questions in radically different ways AND the evidence from modern western societies that important moral questions [capital punishment, abortion, euthanasia, etc.] are far from agreed upon, with no solutions in sight.

        Bottom Line: W & W tried to cover too much ground in their essay, leading to superficial and incomplete development of important topics.

    • This was Gould’s weakest work. I nevertheless learned more from him than from any other writer, and he inspired me (and my mentor Peter Bernstein) to pursue a writing career somewhat late in life – and all that despite being an unrepentant Marxist, a political position I find abhorrent! He was a flawed man but a great one.

  3. S. Cheung says

    “And that is all scientism is—the view that scientific attitudes and methods can enhance all modes of empirical inquiry and should, therefore, be promoted. Critics will almost certainly object that this is an unduly reasonable definition.”

    That says it all. There’s science….and there’s the impassioned staring at one’s navel. There are myriad applications of the latter, some of which might actually be useful, amusing, or enjoyable, from time to time. But none can replace the primacy of the former.

  4. Farris says

    “Similarly, social science continues to make slow but steady progress,…”

    Still laughing over this one.

    “Darwinism, for example, wasn’t really a science…”

    When the theory fails it simply isn’t science anymore. Convenient.

    “Put another way, science can and absolutely should tell people how to live.”

    All kneel at the altar of Science. All hail HAL

    I suspect that should Scientism declare:
    The death penalty is an effective deterrent.
    Walls promote border security.
    Private gun ownership promotes safety. Or
    There are only 2 genders.

    The author would change his tune.

    The author fails to note what solution would be chosen when policy goals conflict. For instance building the dam will provide hydroelectric power for hundreds of thousands but this marsh bird will go extinct. Policy choices are often a matter of priority not efficiency.

    What happens when HAL the computer decides:
    Citizen A should give up her dream to become a doctor because she is better suited for clerical work.
    Citizen B should not marry Citizen C but rather marry Citizen Y because their offspring would be genetically superior. Or
    Election of leaders is obsolete.

    This article would have been better entitled, “In Defense of Tyranny”

    • S. Cheung says

      “suspecting” what someone “would” do “should” such and such occur is precisely NOT science. A scientist would evaluate whether your suppositions (some might call them…hypotheses) are correct, or should be rejected. Based on that new-found knowledge, they could then apply that towards a policy perspective if necessary.

      Your subsequent points were already addressed by the author under numbers 1, 2, and 3.

      • “faith-based or supernatural explanations of reality aren’t factual explanations of reality. I don’t know how religion would factor into a discussion of science-based intellectual inquiry.”

        Religion defines what is sacred, which is necessarily faith-based. We do not have enough information to know how to live without taking articles of faith. Just try proving “human life is sacred” via the scientific method.

        Then again, try proving “the scientific method is the best way to determine what is sacred” via the scientific method. (You will probably find that the results vary depending on who gets to define words like “best”.)

        • S. Cheung says

          I think the problem there for science is less so with “best”, and moreso in what might constitute “sacred”. If “sacred” was measurable, it is quite probable that science would devise, and determine, the “best” way for measuring it.

          That said, obviously there are limitations to what science can do for you. You can have a favorite color, and science can’t evaluate that preference for you.

        • Leo Strauss says

          Ennede: I think you are spot on. There is no rational or demonstrative grounding for the notion of human dignity without some kind of idea of the sacred. For example, in Descent of Man, Darwin loosely uses the word “dignity” a few times in the beginning of the book to describe present day man. That led me to expect or at least hope that he might, during his account of the emergence of moral emotions to explain how a being goes from being non-sacred (without dignity) to suddenly possessing dignity. How do you from 0 to 1 in terms of dignity? Suffice it to say, Darwin, for all of his brilliance, does not answer this question or even pose it sufficiently well.

          Of course, many secular accounts of man speak of dignity, but they can’t give a demonstrative proof of the source of dignity or why we are genuinely obligated to uphold it, or must consider human beings to be inviolable in certain respects. At best, science can show us effective means for HOW we can safeguard dignity–it can’t prove that we are objectively obligated.

        • Lightning Rose says

          While I do believe that science is the best method we have for understanding the nature of our observed reality, it would be a colossal BORE if eternal questions like consciousness, soul, perception, insight and meaning were to be reduced to a series of neuron-firings observable by MRI and reduced to mere random chemical reactions. Spirituality has a place, and scientific literacy can often inform faith that the Universe knows what it’s doing.
          Especially the idea that forces much greater than fallible humans are actually in control!

          The danger of science is that it’s no less subject to inherent bias than politicians are, fed by money and the selectivity of journals for subjects that feed the narratives of the powers that would “nudge” us into beliefs that further agendas. Lysenkoism, eugenics, and the diet-heart hypothesis are good cautionary tales. NEVER accept arguments from authority without reading entire papers, not just the abstracts, and cross-checking the results with as many primary sources as possible.

          Of course, most “science” reported in the popular media is pure garbage, but people lacking in scientific education (which is most of ’em!) can’t tell the difference. It takes time and a good bit of intellectual effort. I call it “doing my homework.”

      • Farris says

        @S. Cheung

        I concede that suspecting someone of something without evidence, is supposition. The point I was making is that I have observed a person’s belief in Scientism is frequently flexible and malleable and often disappears when it fails to confirm a bias. Now admittedly I am working with a relative small sample size but as of to date I have no evidence to the contrary.
        Scientism is not science, rather it is the practice of labeling policy as science. The soft sciences of sociology and psychology are replete with supposition, wholly unsupported practices and beliefs, lacks rigor, discipline and adequate review.
        I don’t think it terribly unreasonable to suppose that people’s view of Scientism would change if Scientism advocated social policies based upon tyranny, dictatorship, gulags, death camps and communism.
        Calling something science or scientific, doesn’t make it so or superior.

      • Farris says

        @S Cheung
        The predictions, forecasts and models of science are only as good as the data inputted. Of course we can always trust scientist not to manipulate, over state or omit data. Also how would you distinguish between a supposition and a forecast or prediction?

        • S. Cheung says

          personally, i would consider “scientism” as the belief in “science” (or perhaps more precisely, the scientific method) to provide objective answers to questions. I think it is a further, and separate, step to try to leverage that knowledge into policy. For the most part, I have “faith” (for lack of better word) in the ability to find those answers. I am likely much closer to your position when it comes to how that knowledge gets translated, or misused, in the service of ulterior motives when it comes to policy-making time.

          I also agree that the “soft sciences” are both far more imprecise in their very nature (generally speaking, their fields and methods of study do not allow conclusions about causality), as well as their vulnerability to having their messages co-opted by special interests, simply based on the subject matter.

          I also agree with the garbage in/garbage out analogy. But I would treat supposition on a whole other plane than forecast or prediction, at least in the scientific sense. A supposition is little more than a gut feeling, rooted in the Stephen Colbert style “truthiness”. A forecast or prediction of scientific merit is one based on a scientific model, which itself should have been retrospectively-derived then prospectively-validated. That’s not just apples and oranges; that’s fruit and cars.

          “IF” scientism advocated those social policies you listed, I agree it would and should lose some of its sheen. BUt those various things have been tried at various times, and we already have the evidence of their efficacy. If you lived your life believing in science and proceeding on a course with an evidence-basis, those would precisely be the things you would advocate against. So someone suggesting “we should do communism” is doing the antithesis to scientism, regardless of what they may claim. Science in fact does seem “superior”, which is why charlatans might try to give themselves an air of legitimacy by making claims couched in “science”…look no further than recent anti-vaxxer clusterF. But their saying it’s “science” doesn’t make it so.

          (as an aside, we as a society would be well served if more people had at least a fundamental grasp of science, so that the public radar for bullshit masquerading as science would be less abysmal than it appears at present).

    • “When the theory fails it simply isn’t science anymore.

      It’s like Wikipedia: you just re-edit until it matches current truth, and the poor slob who believed you were right before the edit is left hanging is the one whose credibility is shot.

      • S. Cheung says

        you’re responding to a comment from Farris, where he conveniently left out the “social” part of “social Darwinism”, which completely adulterates the author’s actual point. Kinda cheap, if you ask me.

        This is the author’s actual passage:
        “Furthermore, although eugenics, social Darwinism, and “scientific” racism are often used to besmirch the reputation of science, they in fact illustrate why SBSP is so important. Social Darwinism, for example, wasn’t really a science, and it wasn’t based on the weight of the evidence; it was a social philosophy that incorporated a crude version of natural selection. Social Darwinists did not promote a judicious approach to policy determined by careful study of outcomes; they promoted a values-based approach to policy determined by a priori philosophical and moral assumptions.”

        • You nail why I oppose scientism: what it is, at its heart, is what you describe – appropriating the credibility of real science (the scientific method) to legitimize things that are not scientific.

          Until it is discredited by its own results, at which point it’s “wikipedia’d” out of existence by rewriting.

          Social darwinism, eugenics, and the Linnaean belief that blacks are closer to animals than to whites (people) were all absolutely understood to be “real science” at the time.

        • neoteny says

          Kinda cheap, if you ask me.

          I second the motion.

    • Jean Levant says

      “Similarly, social science continues to make slow but steady progress,…”
      Yes, Farris, it’s a joke. Social science is indeed an oxymoron. That has been proved again and again and again but… If science is the search of the truth, there’s no such thing in social fields, even “provisional” truths. I even prefer corrupt and lying politicians to rule me than scientists.

      • ALAN WHITE says

        There is very little “science” in social science. As long as “ought” dominates “is” that will be the case…

    • Bo Winegard says

      Science hasn’t made progress? We don’t know more about the world today than in 1980?

      How does a tyrannny support human well-being? If it doesn’t, then why would anyone who promotes SBSP support it? That’s an extreme straw man.

      • Jean Levant says

        No, you do the straw man. I specifically talk about social sciences, not sciences in general. By the way, it’s also your point in this article although you tend to amalgamate social sciences with real sciences which is one of the numerous flaws in this article. For instance, I like History but when one calls it science, I’m just laughing.

      • Stephanie says

        Bo says: “How does a tyrannny support human well-being?”

        The argument I hear from leftists typically goes like this: Science says anthropogenic climate change is an existential threat requiring drastic measures to counter. Capitalist systems (read: people’s free choices) are incapable of mounting the required defense for the planet, so science requires that we cede authority to more qualified technocrats who can engineer a solution. Not only does tyranny support human well-being, it is absolutely necessary for human survival.

        Not only is the use of sciencism to justify tyranny possible, it is increasingly common.

        You may think Western values are self-evident, but the variation in values across time and space demonstrates that is untrue. Our values are based in a unique cultural and historical heritage, and we ignore those roots at our own peril.

        • hail to none says

          @Stephanie- great comment. Most people can agree that “human flourishing” is worthy goal, but the devil is most certainly in the details.

          I enjoyed the thoughtful essay though.

  5. It is not “science” that has committed terrible crimes, but scientists – the scientific community.

    This happens because they become enamored of the belief that because science can tell us about the material world, it can therefore also tell us about values and metaphysics. The scientific method cannot do this, because it starts with the assumption that the problem is material, and will give a false answer if you try to use it for something it is not equipped to do.

    And if you study the history of science, you see this error repeating itself, over and over again: the assumption that nothing is sacred except the acquisition of knowledge is a terrible belief, one that leads logically to the conclusion that all other values are not only irrelevant but in the way of the one true value: the acquisition of knowledge.

    This is what separates scientism from science: the scientific method does not pretend that it can answer metaphysical questions, or derive an ought from an is, or define values, because the scientific method is based on certain assumptions – that there is no supernatural is a given, and therefore cannot logically be a conclusion.

    • Leif says

      Lord Acton’s ‘power corrupts’ aphorism holds true here. Should scientism come to hold the preeminent position Winegard & Winegard advocate, we can predict what science will become. They neglect to consider that scientists, as humans, can become corrupt. And as such, they can corrupt science.

      Lysenkoism is but one leading example.

      The leaked emails of the ‘Climategate’ affair of 2009 are revealing– not so much due to outright corruption, but because they expose the scientists as as advocates rather than disinterested scholars.

      I’ve been told that if a PhD candidate proposed research that might topple a department professor’s pet theory, that candidate would likely get his walking papers, and that this kind of thing is more common than not in American universities.

      The conversation should consider not just the limitations of science, but also the limitations of scientists.

  6. “A scientist would evaluate whether your suppositions (some might call them…hypotheses) are correct, or should be rejected.”

    And how does a scientist measure what is good?

    How is that falsified?

    • S. Cheung says

      I think that gets towards Sam Harris and the Moral Landscape: “the worst possible misery for everyone is bad and should be avoided”. So “bad” is more easily defined.

      “good” might then be conceived as something that is further and further away from bad. Also, “good” would have to be a factual reality, something that is real and exists, rather than a mere mental concept or moral construct. Obviously, I can’t do Harris justice.

      • Bob Johnson says

        You still have no scientific way of defining what is good or bad, or why I should value the wellbeing of everyone according to secularist scientific “reasoning”

        • S. Cheung says

          there are many things that science can’t answer. Which is why science types usually have no problem with saying “I don’t know”. But my position is simply to go with what is knowable whenever possible, and when it’s not, then go with second best options.

      • Sam Harris takes his logic to the conclusion that people who believe the wrong things should be killed for what they believe, rather than what they do.

        Because some beliefs make people kill people when they haven’t done anything wrong, or something like that.

        • S.Cheung says

          I think that might be Harris’ critique of radical Islam; not his prescriptive advice for people to emulate.

          • “I think that might be Harris’ critique of radical Islam; not his prescriptive advice for people to emulate.”

            Yes, he has “radical Islam” in mind when he advocates replacing due process with preemptive presumption of guilt for all people who share certain beliefs. But the identity of the group to lose their access to justice is irrelevant.

            The traditional atheist solution to the ought-is problem is to simply deny it is a problem and then assert the oughts as self-evident facts, and that appears to be what Harris is doing here.

            Historically, this is part of a pattern that keeps repeating wherever atheists seek a more “rational” or “reason-based” or “scientific” society:

            1) do away with what is sacred and “religious” (calling it “superstition”)

            2) assert a new morality instead (treating it as self-evident)

            3) label everyone who does not accept the new morality as a threat to right values and make an example of them, so that everyone else gets the hint and falls in

            4) those who refuse to fall in…this is why gulags were invented (gulags differ from prisons in that prisons are for people who engage in a wrong behavior, while gulags are for people who engage in a wrong belief).

      • David of Kirkland says

        No bad for me and some bad for you is preferential for nearly all “me”. Summing goodness and badness is foolish. Even two lives are not of equal value.
        In the runaway trolley idea, do you switch the lever to kill 1 to save the 5? What if the 1 is Einstein (or the like) while the 5 are gangbangers, or worse, politicians?

        • S. Cheung says

          I think historically, there are ample cases of starting with “religion” at position 1, and continuing through to step 4 (especially so for “non-believers”).

          Also, one needn’t look very far to see 2019 examples of religious fundamentalism. On the other hand, I’m not sure what “radical atheism” would even look like.

          So i don’t think using an example of “taking something to the extreme” is gonna get you where you hope to be going, in defense of religion at least.

          I don’t consider is/ought as a problem (you will not be surprised). At least not in the sense where you need to get from here to there. One can be observed. The other, as a normative state, can simply be conceptualized as “flourishing” as the Winegards have done in the OP. Such a state can be measured, not so much as an end state of “good” (which is absolute), but in incremental states of “better” (which is relative). Science is fantastic at comparing one thing to another. So I wouldn’t say “ought” is self-evident; but it is something that can be conceived of as something desirable in the absence of supernatural dictate.

          That said, there are things that science can not yet measure, or may not yet even know to measure. So as I said earlier, go with fact and knowledge whenever you can. In places where you can’t, then maybe go to some narrative or other as the next best thing. But as Harris said to Peterson, you can still take the narrative as sage advice from our forefathers via some type of verbal history, without invoking the supernatural. That sounds like a pretty solid solution to me.

      • Craig Willms says

        “Sam Harris and the Moral Landscape: “the worst possible misery for everyone is bad and should be avoided”. ”

        And Sam Harris will apply his free will to achieve this? Oh wait Sam Harris doesn’t believe in free will. I can’t take him seriously when he goes through his mental gymnastics to devalue the very notion of free will. We, me, you and Sam Harris all act everyday as if free will exists, our society and justice systems and our sense of fair play is based around free will, that we are responsible for our own actions… You can use rationality, reason and any number of science/chemical basis’ for denying free will, but actions speak louder than words.

        This is one reason scientism cannot rule the day. It’s a value proposition. Science can’t put value on human nature.

        • S.Cheung says

          I’m not sure who you’re arguing against here. I used that example as a way to measure “bad”, in response to Ennede and Bob from 2-3 days ago. I’m not saying I’m a mind clone of Sam Harris.

          Science doesn’t have to “put value” on human nature. But it can probably evaluate decisions made by humans at the behest of that human nature, in a far more objective manner than humans can.

          If you don’t believe in Science to provide you with objective answers, where else are you gonna turn?

          • Craig Willms says

            Oh hell I don’t know, but Sam Harris triggers me! He is one of those people who makes great arguments against what we all know to be intuitively to be true – like free will. He’s maddeningly smart, but…

          • S. Cheung says

            LOL. Is it the slow-talking? I’ve never listened to them, but his voice and speaking cadence seem ideally suited for the meditation podcast stuff he’s doing. Just not my cup of tea.

            Similarly, I can understand why not all his ideas will resonate with everyone. I’m not with him on free will either. But he is pretty darned smart, and science-based, so I’m at least willing to give him a listen. Heck I even listen to Ben Shapiro, and I disagree with him almost all of the time.

        • sashang says

          With Harris, I respect his methodology first. The process he uses to draw conclusions from a starting point is strongly related to the processes one finds in mathematics or philosophy. Arguments in those fields are rigorous and called proofs. He brings a watered down version of that to his podcasts. For what it’s worth I don’t 100% agree with him on free will and his take on guns probably only works within the American context. But his methodology trumps everyone else’s and it works better because it’s scientific.

    • He or she doesn’t. But I think that most would agree on human flourishing. We discuss in the article. Certainly willing to entertain alternative hypotheses, but I’ve never encountered a persuasive one.

  7. The Winegards are to be commended for a comprehensive display of how they think reality works. Here in the USA we have a Constitution which protects their right to say and advocate what they wish.

    Science has indeed discovered all kinds of interesting relationships and developed all kinds of amazing technologies. And having for several years worked as a scientist myself, I’m quite familiar with its methodologies. I refer to scientific studies often, and in my own way I conduct all kinds of “experiments” in my daily life.

    However, I’m also quite familiar with its limitations. Science is good at breaking reality into pieces but quite dumb about the wholes. And, despite the Winegards assertions to the contrary, we live by wholes not by parts. Apparently unlike the Winegards, I try to pay attention to how I actually experience reality.

    So I have no reason whatsoever to believe that Bo or Ben or any scientist has any idea of my own comprehensive vision of how I see my world and the hierarchal nature of my priorities. And the fact that they trot out the same inane arguments in favor of scientism and show no awareness of the long history of profound critiques of scientism (Goethe, Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, James, Whitehead, Einstein, Heidegger, Bohm etc etc ) doesn’t encourage my trust.

    The Winegards may think they know what’s best for me (or apparently for all of us) and this is all well and good. But insofar as they are willing to exercise political power to an end which is not my end, they are my political enemy.

    It’s quite clear to me, that my interests and the Winegards’s interests diverge significantly. There are then those of us who kneel before Scientism and those of us who do not – this is an empirical fact. Fortunately our Constitution presumably still protects us, to some degree anyway, from being coerced and oppressed by the ideas of others.

    • The whole point of the article is that we don’t know what’s best for you. It’s a difficult and challenging problem. I suspect autonomy is important.

      • Farris says

        Your posts reads like a repudiation of this statement from the article:
        “Put another way, science can and absolutely should tell people how to live.”

        • Farris

          Exactly. How can science tell and individual how to live without knowing what is valuable and meaningful to that individual?

          Seems to me, the reason we are even having this discussion at all is because we as a civilization have forgotten who we are. Knowing we still need to survive – we have to eat, and be sheltered and avoid pain – science has filled that vacuum. And it has filled it quite well.

          Being abstracted from suffering and conflict we sit around twiddling our intellectual thumbs looking for what D,H. LAwrence called “material assurances”. Little surprise science would try to fill all vacuums.

          • Farris says


            “Put another way, science can and absolutely should tell people how to live.”

            Mr. Winegard appears to be backing away from this statement. How anyone cannot view the statement as tyranny is mystifying. Dictating how law abiding citizens should live is practically the definition of tyranny. Most tyrants see themselves as benevolent. This is also elitism, where a supposedly higher or better authority is more fit than the individual to determine how that person should live.

      • David of Kirkland says

        And what’s best for you may not be what’s best for another. And best changes over time. There’s nothing special about scientists. Better to have politicians who reflect the will of the people use science to help evaluate issues, but the idea that a scientist is especially good at policy is absurd.

        • Farris, David of Kirkland

          “Put another way, science can and absolutely should tell people how to live.”

          Thanks for emphasizing this quote – I actually missed it on my first read.

          Scientism is a form of idol worship – as Nietzsche once said of scientists, “they worship their methodologies like little gods”. I’m all for freedom of religion but I’m equally for freedom from the tyranny of religion.

          The funny thing about all of this is that I personally am all for science and reason, but what Scientism doesn’t seem to recognize are the limits of science and reason. As a result scientists often end up sounding, protestations to the contrary, downright irrational.

          And confused, because they really don’t know who they are and what they value – after all can’t Science tell us what we are and what we should value? And am I to believe these “dispassionate” and “objective” butterflies somehow know who I am and what’s good for me?

          Scientism is one more example of our long history of we humans looking for something or somebody to bow down to and take away the pain of actually thinking. We humans find our idols where we can.

          This is not a new topic, There is a long rich history of defiance of this modern form of benevolent tyranny. This is Dostoevsky’s Underground man’s “ingratitude” toward a world guided by science and reason:

          “Shower upon him every earthly blessing, drown him in a sea of happiness, so that nothing but bubbles of bliss can be seen on the surface; give him economic prosperity, such that he should have nothing else to do but sleep, eat cakes, and busy himself with the continuation of his species, and even then, out of sheer ingratitude, sheer spite, man would play you some nasty trick. He would risk his cakes and would deliberately desire the most fatal rubbish, the most uneconomic absurdity . . . to prove to himself . . . that men are still men and not piano keys . . .”

      • Rev. Wazoo! says

        @Bo Wenegard
        A nice well thought-out essay. Let me encourage you not to gloss over (or take as read) the iterative nature of scientific pursuits and scientism as a tool for policy. It’s so essential and deeply embedded – indeed perhaps definitional– it’s easy to forget how counter-intuitive it is to those who don’t regularly do science.

        When considering a policy we must clarify the goal(s) it’s meant to achieve and determine how and when to measure evidence of its results, including unintended ones, against the predicted ones and the costs.

        Sciemtism’s initial successes would simply be not repeating policies with track records of failure. Even those suspicious of science and who fear technocratic over-reach see this as a sensible method and a good check against negative results.

  8. Andrew Roddy says

    ‘in the vast toolkit for understanding and engaging the material world, no other tool is better or more reliable than science.’

    This seems fair and modest. If that was the claim of scientism it wouldn’t raise an eyebrow. It would be as controversial as claiming that no tool is better than a hammer.

    Some other useful tools for understanding and engaging the material world are:the senses, imagination and intuition. All tools, incidentally, without which science would be…….unimaginable. If you take the view that sentient beings are also manifestations of the material world you might also find empathy to be quite useful.

  9. If “sacred” was measurable, then tens of millions of people wouldn’t have been killed last century in the name of making a more rational society.

    If religion is wrong, what makes the Holocaust wrong?

    • S. Cheung says

      to do a body count that resulted from religion through the ages would not be a pretty sight.

      That said, there’ s no statement from me that “religion is wrong”. (I don’t even know what that means).

      As for Nazism, that was discussed on another thread recently (the Ben Shapiro one). It was contended there that Nazis were hardly areligious…and suffice it to say J-C believers do not come out looking pure as driven snow. My contention was that it was more about replacing idolatry, rather than replacing “morality”.

      • You say “to do a body count that resulted from religion through the ages would not be a pretty sight”, but all the crimes I know of that are thrown at Christianity are not crimes if Christianity is not true.

        The Crusades? The Reformation? The Inquisition? They are good examples of how ignoring Christian teachings makes the world ugly, but if Christianity is not true, then what is wrong with killing your rivals? Isn’t that what atheists propose doing?

        Isn’t that how evolution works?

        The arguments that Peter Singer and Richard Dawkins have created to justify abortion would equally well justify killing anyone who is inconvenient to your person or your tribe. If the Christian claims are not true – specifically, about the sanctity of life and dignity and the equality of mankind before God – then there can be no reason why the Crusade or Reformation or Inquisition killers owe anyone an apology – unless you go to some other religious tradition and draw the sanctity of life from that, but why would they be obliged to obey those teachings?

        • S. Cheung says

          I would say those things you listed are examples of things done “in the name of”, in the same manner that you had referenced things done “in the name of making a more rational society”…but only that it had been going on for longer, and to a greater extent.

          I think you might be referring to “survival of the fittest”; natural selection, or evolution per se, don’t require “killing”.

          And you don’t need to invoke any “sanctity” to know that killing is wrong. That your will in the pursuit of well-being in your life requires that you impose an ultimate end to the well-being of someone else’s life should be sufficiently clear as to make that a “wrong”.

          That’s not to say that “traditions” or religious narratives have no value – far from it. But i would just see it as written text derived from oral history, in the manner of wisdom-passed-on-through-the-ages-from-elders, without the need to invoke any supernatural source.

          • “And you don’t need to invoke any “sanctity” to know that killing is wrong. ”

            I hold up the writings of Peter Singer as evidence that this is not true.

            If his premises are correct, then the rest of his logic is correct also. The only error he makes is that his premises aren’t correct – because anyone who isn’t a sociopath wants to believe life is sacred, even if they can justify exceptions to themselves for the sake of convenience.

            “I would say those things you listed are examples of things done “in the name of”, in the same manner that you had referenced things done “in the name of making a more rational society””

            No, I am relying on Deming’s ideas about what constitutes a system output.

            Christians in the Crusades and during the Inquisition were not following Christian teachings – and, again, you can see that by simply pointing out that the measure we use to judge their actions wrong was Christianity’s own standards. If Spartans did the same thing, we don’t judge them as evil – because Spartans are not expected to act like Christians.

            Whereas every atheist society yet discovered goes down the same path, and for the same reason. I’ve outlined this elsewhere in this thread, but the heart of the error is failing to recognize that religion is the source of our shared values: when you toss out what is sacred as “superstition”, where do values come from? Not from science, but from the men who are in charge, who then need to enter into a massive power struggle to MAKE everyone in society share their values or else.

            Which is, in a nutshell, the history of both the guillotine and the gulag.

            It’s a system flaw, and it’s inherent: if you are going to assert “rational” values, you’re going to have to do something with all the “irrational” people who refuse to “see reason”.

          • Saw file says

            In the name of Mohammad and Allah as well.

          • S. Cheung says

            is it fair to characterize your position then, as “Christians who do bad things are bad Christians, but bad Christians shouldn’t taint the message of Christianity itself”?


            Because this is not real time, I’m left with choice of waiting for your response, or proceeding based on that characterization. i will do the latter, but fully submit that if the above is incorrect, what follows is invalid also.

            For starters, ours is a secular society. I can’t think of a western society/country with obligatory Christianity. I also can’t think of a western society/country with obligatory atheism. So I’m not sure which constitute these societies on the same path, unless you’re going back to gulags again. But again, we’ve been there and done that. IF you were practicing science, you would review that evidence, and conclude that as NOT the way to go again. So if you’re arguing against gulags, I’m with you. But if you’re arguing science will get you to gulags in 2019, you’re simply wrong, or not actually practicing science.

            So then i would simply say: “Scientism done badly simply reflects on people who are bad at science, but those people shouldn’t taint the message of scientism itself”.

            As for what to do with those who are bad at science, hopefully they will be marginalized in society such that they do not hold sway (in other words, do to them what supposed “good” Christians in the Crusades and Inquisition failed to do with their bad apples).

            I would also add that a person steeped in Scientism can easily behave as a good Christian might, save for the supernatural beliefs. I’m not so sure that a good Christian can be good at practicing the principles of science, especially when those things collide.

          • Kencathedrus says

            @S. Cheung: ‘And you don’t need to invoke any “sanctity” to know that killing is wrong. That your will in the pursuit of well-being in your life requires that you impose an ultimate end to the well-being of someone else’s life should be sufficiently clear as to make that a “wrong”.’

            I’m going to play Devil’s Advocate here. Why is it sufficiently clear? In nature animals kill each all the time, even animals of the same species – if not for food, then certainly for tribal dominance. Surely, it’s complete arrogance to suggest that humans are any better? If anything we are more monstrous – we torture, maim, kill indiscriminately far more than any other animal. In the past we even made it a spectator sport.

            It is only because of religion that humans are more evolved than animals. It is because of our special status in the world that we developed ceremonial rites for when a friend or tribal member dies rather than leave their bodies out for animals to feast upon. It’s why we look up to the sky and stars and see the gods of our ancestors or when we look inside ourselves and come face to face with God. It’s why we codify rules for society to live by, and create laws around love, justice and punishment.

            Without the supernatural we are nothing but meat-bags where nothing is sacred – not life, not children, not marriage, not justice. When we removed Christian values from the center of our culture, our value as people eroded. We became mere cattle for the powerful to control and manipulate. Heck, we even allowed ourselves to be called ‘Human Resources’.

            Christianity has been universally hated by tyrants because it gives strength to those who would stand up to them. Without it we become scared, timid, inoffensive and effeminate, much like the slaves and eunuchs of the pre-Christian era.

          • “is it fair to characterize your position then, as “Christians who do bad things are bad Christians, but bad Christians shouldn’t taint the message of Christianity itself”?”

            To which I respond: would you want science judged by the results of people who don’t follow the scientific method?

            That your tribe demands the right to judge Christianity by it anti-vaxxers – while ignoring its Einsteins and its Galileos – is exactly why I don’t trust them with absolute unchecked power.

            Repeated experiments have demonstrated your philosophy does not govern well. the usual response is “those cases aren’t representative”, but I still have yet to hear what the scientific experts who think we should all want and need the same universal values are going to do with/to/about the people who want something else. If not the gulag, then what do you propose?

    • The fact that it caused unfathomable suffering and suffering is bad? If “religion” is right, then which religion? We’re stuck in the same dilemma.

      • S.Cheung says

        Professor Winegard,
        there are monotheists of all different stripes, and they can’t all be right. So i’m inclined to conclude that none of them are, unless and until such time that somebody can prove theirs. Today will not be that day. And not counting on it tomorrow either.

        • Obscure Canuck says

          There are similar but different competing theories attempting to explain the same thing, and each with different evidence for and against it. They can’t all be right, therefore none of them are?
          Since you only mentioned monotheism, I might be inclined to assume that you think that is the most reasonable form of supernatural belief. If you are willing to accept monotheism, the different forms of it are all quite different and each has historical evidence and logical arguments for and against it that you can analyze and compare.
          If you are willing to accept the supernatural but not convinced about monotheism, again there are logical arguments for and against the different alternatives that you can compare. Not all religions are equal.

          • S. Cheung says

            I mentioned monotheism cuz that is the crowd here. I certainly don’t think it is the “most reasonable” even among religious observers.

            On the spectrum of science to religion, I am 100% science.
            On a more philosophical level, which I find interesting but certainly does not drive my life or keep me up at night, I’m probably closer to an agnostic theist than an agnostic atheist.

            Probably because of that agnostic basis, I find monotheists to be a very curious lot. To think that their particular god is the Almighty, yet can only garner at most 30-35% market share in our humble tiny little outpost in the entire universe, seems like a contradiction in terms.

      • “If “religion” is right, then which religion?”

        As a person who belongs to a church that embraces evolution as the Hand of God, I assume that the way we know what is true is via the marketplace of ideas. When I was an atheist, I found it very disturbing to recognize that Christianity outperforms secular humanism by pretty much every measure you can think of, in the great competition.

        Of course, how we know what is or is not true is one of those values that are not universal, though zealots in every faith always believe they should be – and that applies to atheist religions as well as monotheistic or polytheistic ones.

        I do not see how one can separate universal values from imperialism; they appear to me to be one and the same impulse, executed in pretty much the same ways.

      • S.Cheung says

        I don’t think it’s arrogant at all to suggest that humans can and do function at a higher intellectual level than all other animals. It’s simply observable fact.

        And on an individual level, one can certainly argue for individual well-being as being ample justification for “killing”. However, that individual would then have to recognize that identical reasoning could be used by another individual unto him. So i would submit that on a societal level, individual pursuit of well-being would not extend to a right to kill, because any consequent “right to be killed” would be the antithesis of said well-being.

        Perhaps it’s word choice, and you’re playing a role here, but evolution predates “religion” by millions of years. The presence of “religion” actually occupies a negligible fraction of overall human existence in terms of time. In fact, i would say it’s the opposite: some humans evolved a need for religion. It remains to be seen whether that is an evolutionarily necessary trait.

        Those ceremonial rites you speak of seem more related to individual societal mores or norms, rather than religion. People in different places have different rites and rituals, even if they share a religion. That suggests to me those rituals are local, rather than universal. People have looked skyward for who knows how long. And while that might seem “universal”, their reasons for doing so likely are not. Even I look skyward from time to time….but mostly cuz it’s pretty, and not because I’m looking for something or expecting to find anything. Lastly, reason would not, in my view, opt for a lawless society. A free-for-all does not strike me as the best way to maximize well-being on a societal level.

        As I replied to Ennede earlier, i don’t think science or reason is necessarily well-equipped to define what is “sacred”. You could even argue that in science, nothing is sacred, because any and all things are potential candidates for falsification at some future point. But that’s different from an inability to formulate value judgments in the here and now.

        If Christianity inoculates societies against tyranny, then how did those previously christian societies fall under tyrannical reign to begin with? I argued in the Ben Shapiro thread that it’s actually the idolatry of a religion, rather than the morality, that tyrants seek to replace. I would also add that Christianity is not without its own tyrannical elements. First, as Ennede recognized, history abounds with “bad Christians” doing many bad, tyrannical, and murderous things. And second, even the premise itself has tyrannical elements, or at least a carrot-and-stick ploy: come with me for the promise of eternal bliss; don’t, and celestial North Korea awaits (h/t to Christopher Hitchens).

        • “If Christianity inoculates societies against tyranny, then how did those previously christian societies fall under tyrannical reign to begin with?”

          Parasitism. People cherry-pick from their culture’s original foundation – preserving their own rights and the obligations of others, while exempting themselves from their own duties and justifying violating the rights of others.

          They call you “judgmental” or a “hater” if you don’t assist them, preying on your fear of being ostracized.

          They teach your child that anyone who believes what Christians believe is the reason why every atrocity in history ever happened.

          They join your church, then lecture you on what a real “good” Christian ought to believe and how they ought to behave.

          And yet, even though they’ve been openly attacking Christianity for literally centuries now – and people hoping to build a utopia have killed millions of Christians, and keep bragging about how dead God supposedly is – Christianity is still growing.

          • S. Cheung says


            So it’s flawed people, or even flawed Christians, that allow rot to seep in, thereby allowing its own society to be undermined, at which time such societies are prone to tyrannical take-over.

            But aren’t all people, or at least all Christians, flawed by their own definition? So while an ideal Christian society might indeed be immune to tyranny, no such Christian society can actually or possibly exist, and any real “christian” society will forever and always be prone to tyranny.

            So that’s not so reassuring, is it?

            Here’s the other thing. Take any religion, yours or otherwise. Take their “good book”. Is that changing any time soon? Will there be a New Testament v2.0? If not, then whatever lessons there are to learn, are already there. By all means, learn them if you are so inclined, and feel there is no other way. As Harris said (in his debate with Peterson), take the narrative if you want or need. But the vast majority of the text (basically save for one book) does not need to implicate a supernatural source. So take the lessons, and believe them to be imparted by old wise men too if you would like, then move forward with Science.

            Is Christianity growing? If you say so. But its market share is still less than 35%. How Almighty is the Almighty if it can’t even get majority buy in on our tiny little outpost in the entirety of the vast universe?

        • I cannot reply to your comment below, so let me reply here:

          “So it’s flawed people, or even flawed Christians, that allow rot to seep in, thereby allowing its own society to be undermined, at which time such societies are prone to tyrannical take-over.”

          If you’d take the time to learn even a little bit about Christianity, you’d know that the core teaching is that all humans are fallen, and the story of the covenants – culminating in the New Covenant – is what enables us to live in a less fallen way, by the grace of God.

          Pointing out that many Christians have been flawed – or even not really Christian, except when socially convenient – does not in any way disprove Christianity. There is no law that is never broken, but that hardly proves that laws are futile or stupid or that we shouldn’t have them.

          And “only” 35% is fine: Christianity – unlike beliefs that promise a perfect world here in this life – does not need to take over the whole world and rule it and choke out all dissent (it never did: the Inquisition is typical of how human beings behave, but Christianity calls on people to be tolerant). I am still pleased at how fast and how much the faith is growing in Asia and Africa, and how in the US the Christian groups that profess beliefs antithetical to basic Christian teachings (like the so called “nuns on a bus”) are dying, while the more orthodox orders are showing signs of new life. It is quality, not quantity, that Christianity should care about.

          • S.Cheung says

            I imagine it should be clear by now that, since Christianity fails to sustain its own hypothesis, there isn’t going to be much there of learning interest to me, especially all the supernatural aspects. The narrative itself, insofar as it might be distilled wisdom passed down through the ages by man, is fine to use…in the sense of a manual, or a guide. Many of the things in there probably are worthy aspirational goals, and it would probably be a general societal good if more people aspired to more of it. As long as people don’t take it too literally, no harm done.

            And again, it’s Science 101 here, but there is no way to “disprove” Christianity, because there is no way to prove God doesn’t exist. The burden, instead, rests with believers to prove that he does. And as I alluded to earlier, that burden’s gonna still be there for a good while longer, i suspect.

            As I also stated, just in different words, all humans are “flawed”, or “fallen” in your terms. So the point was that there can never be an ideal Christian society, and that any human iteration will always be imperfect, hence prone to subversion by tyranny. Kencathedrus’ point (possibly tongue in cheek as Devil’s advocate) was that Christianity might be able to repel tyranny in theory; my point is that in practice, it won’t be. And we have historical proof to that effect.

            Quality not quantity will get no argument with me. If given the choice, I’d take a few good Christians over a bunch of bad Christians any day. My point was simply that for an Almighty, the uptake is rather sub-Mighty to date.

      • Stephanie says

        “If “religion” is right, then which religion?”

        The religion our culture derived its values and aesthetics from. It’s a dystopian world where everywhere is homogenised. Preserving local cultures, religions, and values should be even more important than preserving local biodiversity. I’m continually amazed that this concept is well-understood and accepted for indigenous peoples that have experienced colonization, but for no other indigenous peoples.

      • S. Cheung says

        “would you want science judged by the results of people who don’t follow the scientific method?”

        That’s not really the question I asked, or at least that certainly wasn’t the intent. I was more referring to the veracity of the message. I was not driving at passing judgment. I can easily reject religion based on scientific first principles, without ever resorting to judging it based on its worst, or even mediocre, practitioners.

        And i don’t think scientism requires “judgment” of Christianity in any event. If Christianity can bring it with respect to scientific principles, scientism would simply evaluate its merits based thereon. Any “judgment” that science passes on Christianity or any religion is based simply in its inability to sustain its own hypothesis. And if at any future time, Christianity can sustain its own hypothesis, then a whole new judgment would be necessary. I wouldn’t count on that happening, and would happily bet heavily against it, but that possibility remains (which, btw, is why when Jordan Peterson says that he “believes in the possibility that god exists”, that is an extremely science-conscious statement that i have absolutely no problem with).

        And again, we should have dispensed with gulag by now, but you’re clinging to it rather tightly. Science doesn’t have a “best”; but it can tell you “better”. And universal values is plural…meaning it’s not one thing. So unlike religion, it can’t promise you one end-goal or end state. Perhaps that’s why science ain’t for everybody. But it also doesn’t need to threaten you with hilarious stuff like eternal North Korea to scare you into believing something. All you need is logic, reason, and an open mind.

        • ““would you want science judged by the results of people who don’t follow the scientific method?”

          That’s not really the question I asked, or at least that certainly wasn’t the intent.”

          If you want me to stop associating arguments like the ones you’re making with the gulag, atheists are going to have to stop quoting Sam Harris, and stop admiring that John Lennon song “Imagine”. Because that is what a gulag is: a place people are sent for what they are, not what they’ve done.

          We are quite literally having a discussion about whether we owe it to you to let you rule the world, right down to morals and beliefs. The power your tribe claims as its due is breathtaking. Yet you still have not answered the question of what you intend to do with those of us who do not intend to cooperate with rulers who act outraged at being treated like eugenicists even as they celebrate Iceland “eradicating” Down’s syndrome.

          As far as the idea that I’m somehow suffering from confirmation bias by preferring those of my belief system be held to the same standards you hold your own tribe to, I said from the outset that I was using Deming’s standards regarding system output. We have patterns to look at, and we can differentiate consistent outputs from outliers. We also have information about what each system teaches, and can evaluate whether a person’s misbehavior arises from that teaching, or from not following that teaching – a point you don’t seem to want to acknowledge.

          (It’s also worth noting that I am not arguing that Christianity should be the law of the land, only that you cannot prove that Christianity should be displaced by your superior belief system, or outlawed. So really the burden of proof is on you, not me.)

          In the history of Christian rule, crusades and inquisitions are:

          (1) an outlier – there is no consistent pattern of crusader-like abuses in Christian history; if compared against a control group (the entirety of human history) you find that Christians are far less likely as a group to behave that way than the average human


          (2) not evil anyway: if one rejects Christian teachings, then the way the crusaders and the people of the Inquisition behaved is not in violation of any moral rule.

          Your feelz is not a moral rule. There is no history of non-Christians being held to the same standard: if the rule were consistently applied, atheism would be illegal.

          The history of “rational” rule is a consistent history of exactly the same pattern:
          1. state without evidence what the “correct” belief system shall be
          2. make an example of those with rival beliefs (kulaks)
          3. gulags and guillotines for those who cannot or will not fall into line with the new “rational” order.

          Christianity applied to any sociocultural system results in the system becoming “better” – notice that our very definitions of “better” and “worse” involve judging against the Christian teachings: equality before God, tolerance toward others, replacing tribalism with Jesus’ teachings – for instance toward the Samaritan woman – the notion of ‘hate the sinner, love the sin, etc.

          Science has a terrible history with human rights, because science was not developed to rule the world. It was developed to provide information, not as a tool by which the power-hungry can justify imposing their policies on people in defiance of natural law. It cannot be used the way you propose to use it.

          Which is why advocates of scientism can’t refute the criticisms, but must ignore them, change the subject – which is why every argument about scientism’s limitations will inevitably devolve into an argument about how eight hundred years ago a Christian did a bad thing, which proves that Christianity deserves to be criminalized. But you keep dodging the real question, which is NOT “should Christianity rule the world?” but is rather “if scientism rules the world, what do you propose doing to and with those Christians who refuse to give up their evil, irrational beliefs and go along with your more Enlightened, rational rules about how to live?”

          • S. Cheung says

            “If you want me to stop associating arguments like the ones you’re making …”

            You’re gonna have to argue with what I say, and not associate me to all the demons in your head, because I’m not obligated to embody all of Sam Harris’ positions or anyone else’s (or song lyrics, for literally Christ’s sake!?!). Do your therapy on your own time.

            I’m gonna ignore “gulags” from here on, cuz I’ve already addressed it several times, and you need to de-stupid yourself from that hobby.

            “We are quite literally having a discussion about whether we owe it to you …”

            I have literally never said anything about you owing me anything. “Be more rational, and less rooted in blind faith” is about as much as I’ve suggested up till now. Oh, and the challenge to prove God exists. You should spend more time on that, and less on the other stuff. If you don’t want to be guided by science, that’s up to you. I don’t see how anyone needs to do anything in particular with you. Folks like you are abound as it is. Sadly, that’s not changing any time soon.

            “you cannot prove that Christianity should be displaced by your superior belief system, or outlawed.”

            Where on your God’ green earth did I say it had to be outlawed? And where did I say it had to be displaced? It’s a minority, or at best plurality, position as it is. As a “belief system”, you can do as you please. And I can do as I please to find your position silly, but i have no quarrel with your right to have it. So long as you recognize that right ends at tip of your nose, we’re good here.

            “a person’s misbehavior arises from that teaching, or from not following that teaching”

            If a person does “wrong” because he is taught to do wrong, or if he does “wrong” because he ignores what he is taught, he is still doing wrong. You have consistently ignored this. But your position obligates you to accept that your disciples WILL do wrong, inevitably, and repeatedly, cuz that’s fallen humans fer ya. My position simply requires that the teaching improve, via a science based process of learning from one’s mistakes. My model aims to improve. Your model is literally destined to repeated failures.

            Your “examples” are outliers because the world literally “learned” to disavow Christian rule, and move towards secular societies. Because carrying on in the old way would have guaranteed destined repeated fails. Literally, the evidence is in the history. THe learning from that should be “let’s not do Christian rule again”.

            “which proves that Christianity deserves to be criminalized”

            Again, literally WHEN did I suggest that? You may be Pavlov’s favorite pet, but I’m not ringing any bells here, so you really need to simmer down, get medicated, or do something else (preferably science-based) to fix your issues.

            ““if scientism rules the world, what do you propose doing to and with those Christians who refuse to give up their evil, irrational beliefs and go along with your more Enlightened, rational rules about how to live?””

            Why would anything need to be done? You can have your fairy tales if you want. Scientism might say there is no reason for a need for fairy tales, and it’s ok to say “i don’t know”. But if people choose to believe in fairy tales, and to pretend they know stuff that they don’t, I think Scientism would treat it with bemusement.

          • “Why would anything need to be done? You can have your fairy tales if you want”

            If you want to be taken as arguing in good faith, you can’t just ignore legitimate complaints.

            If you honestly think what you call “science” is the best way of ruling the world, then you need to address the real problem: the reason why humanity stopped trusting the scientific community.

            Which means you’ll have to go back to the definition of “science” that was linked to the method, and stop pretending that calling something that has nothing to with the scientific method has anything to do with real science. Real science cannot rule the world, and does not wish to.

          • S. Cheung says

            “you can’t just ignore legitimate complaints.”

            Umm,what legit complaints? All you seem to be doing is arguing against stuff I haven’t said. I can’t be responsible because you’re high, angry about science, or angry about being a later-in-life-convert to fairy tales who now needs to appear extra-devout to make up for lost time.

            “what you call “science” is the best way of ruling the world”

            Again, never said anything of the sort. Science is the better way of living your life though, that’s for darn sure. Certainly better then believing in fairy tales. And definitely better than needing to resort to bribes about eternal bliss or threats about celestial or eternal North Korea in order to trick you into believing said fairy tales. Best? Can’t claim that, because with science, there’s always the possibility of better.

            “the reason why humanity stopped trusting the scientific community.”

            LOL. Morons have. Anti-vaxxers have. Humanity? Dream on. But lots of people have certainly given up on Christianity, cuz the ideal and the reality are 2 different things, and for some people, even the fairy tales aren’t enough.

            “Real science cannot rule the world, and does not wish to.”

            Boy, you sure have tyranny on the brain. Are you a reincarnated Crusader or something? Is that a Christian fairy tale too? It’s good you’ve referenced “scientific method”. Maybe study that more, and spend less time on fairy tales.

          • I notice you respond to argument with insult.

            The legitimate complaint, of course, is the one I detailed in numerous arguments, which you have chosen to simply not respond to.

            The attempt to use “science” to solve the problem of science not being able to establish metaphysical truths, values, goals, and definitions of human flourishing, has, in the past, created problems where people have substituted their own metaphysical truths, values, goals, and definitions of flourishing, and then have imposed those definitions on an unwilling population through the use of force. It’s quite a consistent pattern, actually.

            And not just Christianity. People died when the science of phrenology was used in courts of laws to determine people guilty of crimes. Buck vs. Bell was what we get when “science” is used to rule mankind. The history is really quite gruesome, and so far all the scientific community has had to say is “well we know better now” – which may be true, but if you’re going to change the primary goal of science away from “the acquisition of knowledge” to governance, does that mean you’re going to actually take responsibility for not being wrong? Or are you just going to randomly kill people, and then tell us to STFU when it turns out that thalidomide is NOT in fact safe for pregnant women, or the antidepressants you use your authority to make people give their kids turns out to cause suicidal ideation?

            Governance is about responsibility. Science is about saying “you can’t hold us liable, because that isn’t how the scientific method works: we don’t prove things true, we make hypotheses and then we test them”.

            And, of course, real science does not have any power at all to determine values or goals, or define what humans “ought” to want. Which has already been gone over in all those arguments that have been made (which you have conveniently not addressed).

            If you have a newer, better way – other than the use of force – to figure out how to resolve these problems, like figuring out how to convert a method that is spectacularly ill-suited to governing to be something it was never intended to be, or to get a population to share a consensus about all those things the scientific method is incapable of determining, I would love to hear it.

            But I suspect if you had anything like that, you’d have shared it by now.
            Do you have anything like that?

          • S. Cheung says

            I respond to belligerence with insult, which you richly deserve on the basis of requiring me on 8 occasions in my last 2 comments to directly point to statements you argue against that I did NOT make. As I already said, if you need to blow off steam over some insecurity on the basis of having found god late in life, that’s your business and/or problem, but it certainly ain’t mine.

            Science does NOT have the problems you keep going on like a broken record about. Science doesn’t need metaphysical truth. Science can derive values, goals, and define human flourishing. Science merely does not arbitrarily assign single end-states for each of those things. Nor does it have to. That your religion does, does not make a single end state vital, essential, necessary, or even desirable, against possible alternatives. Such possible alternatives do not result in use of force against non-believers; your examples are a pathetic stretch, taking what were already totalitarian regimes, and trying to blame science on their desire to eradicate theistic religion, when in fact: (a) totalitarian regimes can similarly overtake nontheistic peoples (eg Khmer rouge in Cambodia); (b) many Germans in Nazi regime were of judeo-christian heritage, yet did nothing; and (c) totalitarian regimes have the main goal of population control via primacy of idolatry, such that allegiance to the regime must take precedence over all other allegiances. So your trusty old gulags were never about “science” needing to quell “religion”, but it was about the Soviets needing to enforce allegiance to themselves at the expense of all else. You never had a point with gulags at any time, and I’ve been saying so for seemingly days now. I don’t know what pattern you think you perceive, but I’d get that looked at.

            And as i also already said, a Christian society (which might be your preferred alternative) has not only been murderous and totalitarian as shown by history (which you contend was because of Christians not adhering to their teachings), but that history would have been bound to repeat itself had peoples not learned their lesson and moved to secular societies instead (because again by your own contention, mortal Christians are fallen and flawed, and thus are bound to repeatedly fail to adhere to those teachings again and again, if ever given the chance). So if indeed totalitarianism is what you definitely want to avoid, science itself may not tell you which system to adopt, but it can certainly tell you which system NOT to (ie. yours).

            I have no idea what thalidomide has anything to do with this. There have been medical/scientific mistakes in history. Drugs or treatments that may have at one time felt to be safe and effective may have turned out not to be. And sometimes bad data are the result of bad actors who falsify research, like the idiot who made up garbage about vaccines and autism that has since been repeatedly debunked but is still dredged up by anti-vaxxers, a science-free group that rivals the religion crowd. If you want to suggest, on the basis of individual drug errors, that policy based on science could in fact be poorly-founded, or turn out in hindsight to be wrong, then yes, absolutely, that is possible. Do you suggest that governance based on the Bible would not be wrong, or even barbaric, in some circumstances, depending on how literally you take that manual of yours? Point being that there will be no perfect system of governance, but given that imperfection, i would rather a system of governance be based on observation, logic, and reason, rather than on supernatural dictate (which I might add is ironically rather dictatorial in a celestial North Korea kind of way).

            On the question of “liability”, are you talking moral liability, or legal liability in tort law? I don’t know of any governance system where you are held liable in a legal sense for simply having been wrong, with the benefit of hindsight, unless negligence was involved. And how would that differ in a science based system vs a christian based system? As for moral liability, I can’t think of a specific science based governance example, but i can sure think of a few Christian based examples, starting with some yummy Holocaust editions (all bad Christians, as I’m sure you will remind me).

            I already addressed “ought” days ago (April 7 date stamp). You simply don’t read, or you ignore what i wrote. Or you simply refuse to accept anything that isn’t framed in the way you prefer. WHichever it is, not my problem.

            And why is “consensus” the new standard? Your Almighty only has 1/3 buy in…yet you seem to feel that is a good system to live by. There is absolutely, positively, mathematically, nowhere close to consensus that the Christian way is the right way, even among theists; in fact, even among theists, there are more who would go a different route. So not only is your preferred method condemned to failure, on a repeatable and predictable basis, by its very nature (and based on your own arguments), but it’s a loser even within the theistic marketplace of fairy tales. Forget science; why would any sentient and intelligent being want to adopt that for a system of governance?

            As I’ve already said, there is no need for force, your proclamations and fear-mongering notwithstanding. Scientism is just a belief that science can provide objective answers to questions. Not all questions, of course. Where there are answers, you should use those. Where there aren’t answers, you might look to other sources, perhaps even to those manuals you like. As I’ve also said several times, use that narrative if you need to, but pass on the supernatural source.

            But y’know, I’m no pro at this. But if you can spare 10 minutes to watch “your way” go up in flames, you should try Hitchens.


          • I think it’s funny that you say I “richly deserve” insult.
            My complaint is that scientism cannot be trusted to rule the world precisely because they cannot be “rational”, they will see it as provocation if people refuse to see what they think of as ‘reason’ – the Sam Harris quote about when it may become ethical to kill people for what they believe (as opposed to what they do or intend to do) is based on exactly what you complain about: religious people refused to be persuaded that their betters are smarter than they are.

            Your inability to listen to what I am saying, your confirmation bias – these things persuade me that I am right to fear that “scientism” is nothing more than the desire to appropriate the credibility of science in order to bypass due process, to bully.

            I grew up around real scientists, back when science and technology were trusted. They were incredibly methodological, so much so that it seemed to permeate their personalities (another difference from scientism, whose advocates are emotional). They were obsessed with procedure while scientism is all about using past success to justify ditching procedure.

            Scientism is like a hairdresser telling her customers that because she is the only one who knows how to make their hair do fantastic things, therefore the hairdresser deserves and is entitled to decide what they should wear an where they should wear it. The funny part is the tantrum when the customer doesn’t trust you with scissors after that.

          • S. Cheung says

            it sounds more and more like you are repeatedly conflating Sam Harris with Scientism. I have no idea why that is. Perhaps you would be better served taking up your concerns with him, cuz I can’t be expected to defend everything Sam Harris says.

            What is your basis for suggesting that scientism demands 100% buy in, on every conceivable topic, all of the time, with penalty of “gulag”? Do you have any basis that doesn’t involve the words “Sam Harris”?

            As far as i can tell, I’ve listened, and determined what you’ve said to be bunk. You seem to think listening to you is synonymous with agreeing with you, which is hilarious. And i’ve done so without needing to attribute stuff you haven’t said, unto you. Mind you, i didn’t need to talk to you to realize that religion was a hot mess. Although you’ve certainly reaffirmed that observation. And you have offered no basis for your imagined fears besides you-know-who.

            Your impression of Scientism is warped beyond recognition and detached from reality. That problem is yours and yours alone.

      • Craig Willms says

        try pre-Romanized Christianity. There’s a world-wide movement happening right now to get back to the original form of Christianity.

    • David of Kirkland says

      Religion isn’t wrong, just not factual.
      The Holocaust is wrong because we agree that we prefer to have us all keep our right to our own life. Your judgement of my badness without a bad action to point to is just your tyrannical opinion, which we mostly consider to be “wrong.”

  10. Leo Strauss says

    I am not particularly impressed with the author’s choice to rely on Harris’ Moral Landscape as a key refutation of Hume. I deeply admire Harris’ podcast and happily admit that I have learned a great deal from him. However, Harris spends an embarrassingly short amount of time refuting the Humean ought/is argument.

    To my discredit, instead of laying out my own argument against Harris, I will only suggest that anyone impressed by Harris’ claims in the Moral Landscape consider this strong critique of his positions:

    • S. Cheung says

      thanks for the link. When it comes to supernatural stuff, the scientific method with hypothesis vs null hypothesis is more than sufficient for me. It’s actually a 2 second discussion. But the philosophical correlates are interesting, and the likes of Hitchens and Harris certainly speak to me. I watched the Peterson-Harris debates which were fascinating. Will check this one out too.

    • Andrew Roddy says

      Yes, thanks Leo. Strong critique might be an understatement. Relentless evisceration is what I got from it.

    • Harris does not actually refute the ought/is thing. He just says what the ought should be, which is not the same thing at all, because he doesn’t address the question of what his assumptions are.

      It is like claiming you can do financial statements without assumptions by presenting a set of financials with your own assumptions, without bothering to actually explain where the assumptions come from. The assumptions may sound plausible enough, but they’re still just pulled out of someone’s own beliefs.

    • DrJack says

      Bear in mind that among actual philosophers, or even just the brighter philosophy undergrads, Harris’ contributions have been considered awful, so bad ‘Moral Landscape’ has become a running joke. Reviews that go into the details are easy to google.

    • Bo Winegard says

      We didn’t even try to refute Hume. In fact, we agreed with entirely agreed with him. We then, noted, however, that most people accept that premise that human flourishing matters. Once we accept that premise, then we can move toward trying to promote it.

      • Leo Strauss says

        Bo: That is fair enough–I apologize for falsely characterizing your position (I do think that Harris thinks he has refuted on the is/ought question though). Wouldn’t it be the case, though, that the agreement about human flourishing is a non-scientific agreement? And that, science would come in, not to define human flourishing, but, rather to show us the most effective means by which we can achieve the non-scientific definition of human flourishing?

        In my question, I am also NOT attempting to say that human flourishing is completely subjective–by no means. Evolutionary biology certainly does argue that human beings possess some innate characteristics. Thus, we would be wrong to define human flourishing in any way that denies the existence of innate characteristics. So, the IS constrains the OUGHT, but, it cannot completely define the ought.

        Or, in other words, Darwin (and Dawkins digs this) tells us about the emergence of moral emotions, and that sociality and altruism are indispensable for survival, but, he can’t or doesn’t tell us precisely which moral actions are best, since as someone like Haidt shows, there are a broad range of actions, many of which are mutually exclusive that activate our moral emotions.

        In some sense, I suppose my question boils down to this: on what scientific grounds can science demonstrate or define what human flourishing is? Can it do so without relying on prior moral preferences? A moral preference that Harris takes for granted in ML is that globalism is simply good. It might be good, but, he does not scientifically prove it at all. And, in fact, given that evolutionary biology shows us that there are constraints on how many humans that we can really love or care about in the strictest sense, it almost looks like living in smaller homogenous (in terms of values) communities rather than one giant global community. My sense is that science can only show us HOW to achieve human flourishing once we loosely agree on what it is, but that it cannot show us WHAT it is. I would be infinitely grateful if someone could show me that I am thinking about this clearly.

        • Stephanie says

          Leo, I think you’re onto something, but I would rephrase the distinction you draw as a “how/why” discrepancy. Science is excellent at explicating the “how” about nature, but does not pretend to have a “why.” Questions of meaning are inherently subjective and require a priori definition of values.

          It is not clear to me that science can independently establish that human flourishing is the goal in the first place. If we are animals with no intrinsic value, equivalent to all other life forms (or even inanimate objects, since the value of life is a moral presupposition), the negative effect of humanity on the natural world would justify our eradication, or at least passive decline via antinatalism. What is the extinction of one species compared to the hundreds or thousands of others we are exterminating?

          Alternatively, “science” could say that our cognitive ability renders humans uniquely valuable. In that case, would the mentally handicapped, comatose, or dementia-ridden not have value, and thus their extermination is justified? What about the very young? Indeed, this line of thinking is already used to justify millions of murders a year. Sadly it tends to only be the religious who object to it, despite science demonstrating that individual human life is continuous from the moment of conception to death. This extremely well-appointed scientific fact has not succeeded at convincing purportedly science-minded people to embrace the value of unborn humans, because they prioritise the emotional and economic impact of responsibility over the life of young humans.

          The value of humanity is not objective or rational, and even scientific arguments to that effect would be tentative, because all scientific theories are tentative. What if we discover that other species are far more self-aware than we know now? We are learning even plants communicate with each other. How do we justify our existence once there is nothing we can eat that does not destroy something of value? These sorts of questions is why artists have conceptualized that robots acting on pure logic would eventually decide humanity must die.

          Assuming we could definitively establish that humans are all valuable, how to determine what constitutes human flourishing? You may achieve better economic metrics by allowing your women to kill their offspring in or out of the womb, or their elderly parents, so does that count as flourishing? If genocide is occuring, is it right to intervene even though it would involve killing the genociders and taking casualties ourselves? It doesn’t seem likely to me that a rigorous algorithmic expression could balance the interplay between conflicting values without an external system of judgement.

          • Leo Strauss says

            Stephanie: Thanks for your thoughtful reply! It helps clarify just how difficult it is to try to establish the ground of value or how to answer the “why” question.

  11. Fickle Pickle says

    Basically a good essay with some questionable points but perhaps because Ben is a professor at Hillsdale College we should take a look at the kind of applied politics that Hillsdale actively promotes, and the all-the-way-down-the-line cultural implications.
    Two of its infamous graduates are Betsy DeVos and Erik Prince.
    Do a search on the topic Betsy DeVos and Hillsdale College.
    A good place to start would be the Politico essay by Alice Lloyd titled The College That Wants To Take Over Washington

    • Leo Strauss says

      Fickle Pickle: Your comment is a cheap shot. Confront the arguments; don’t just plaster guilt by association.

  12. rickoxo says

    I would call my self a proponent of scientism, but this description of it was incredibly naive and misguided as the most fundamental problems and limitations of scientism.

    Problem 1, there are far too many choices between values across most of what humans do for science to give us any meaningful insight. Take something as simple as education. What is the scientifically correct, evidence based plan for teaching high school English? Should it be classic western novels? Novels representing minority view points? Scientific articles representing the latest and best thinking across a variety of topics? Should the books be actual books or computer tablets? Which of these will best help humans flourish? There is no scientifically determinable “best” practice or experimental evidence that can answer these questions and human flourishing isn’t close to a detailed enough metric to use in any meaningful way.

    Some people see this problem with scientism and values and the argue it represents a limit where scientism should back off and let people decide what they think is best. But as soon as schools in one state teach the writings of dead white men and another state teaches biological sex as a social construct, people aren’t going to get along and be willing to live and let live 🙂

    Problem 2, in many areas of human life, the details of problems are so complex that determining an ideal solution is not possible. Imagine designing a economic safety net policy for low income families? You think there’s clear, unambiguous scientific solution for what to do? Scientism can help guide the thinking, but even there, competing values get in the way and the inability to know ahead of time how a program will work in the real world means that scientism cannot solve many (maybe even most) of the big complext problems we’d want it to solve.

    Of course there are some areas of low hanging fruit where it would be great to have something like scientism help guide/determine public policy. Scientism would likely mandate some basic operating principles that I believe would be extremely helpful. Absolute transparency would be a good starting place, almost everything government does has to be publicly accessible. 2nd, government rules must be self-applicable – if congress wants to create a new national health care system, it applies to them as well.

    I’m from California, so some basic things like, if you have huge forests and climate conditions that frequently include droughts and wildfires, you must have forest management policies that help combat the problems. If your state has the highest population and limited access to water, you have to come up with feasible plans for water storage and management.

    But imagine scientism starting to analyze human food consumption and telling us how to live. Not a chance in the world beef makes it to the table, insect protein makes much better sense from a scientism point of view. Unless there’s a version of scientism that can fundamentally alter its own evaluative functions to take into account human likes, dislikes, preferences, etc. but given how much they conflict, interact, change and are frequently problematic, no way this happens.

    Fears of technocrats, fears that scientists have done bad things and been wrong, that’s all basic stuff, true about every political leader and not the real problem. Only crazy Kool-Aid drinkers would think that scientism will bring about utopia the day after it’s adopted. Human decision making has values embedded at every level and values range from difficult to impossible for science to navigate. Life is complex, there rarely are clearly understood best practices for even the simplest tasks. Scientism won’t be able to come up with answers to complex questions. And scientism won’t have the slightest clue about how to take into account the myriad of constantly changing human likes, preferences, beliefs and what not. That’s the real problem with looking to scientism to save the world.

    • X. Citoyen says

      Problem 2, in many areas of human life, the details of problems are so complex that determining an ideal solution is not possible.

      Important point. One of the perennial problems with what’s often called evidence-based policy (or decision) making is that the results of social experiments can be interpreted in multiple ways—partisans end up citing the same study as evidence for and against a policy.

      When I see people argue for it, I wonder how much time they’ve spent looking at how it’s been applied in the past. There’s an okay piece about it at National Affairs called “Policy-based Evidence Making,” which is what its critics call it. Just to be clear, I’m not opposed to the idea in the least. But one has to recognize its limitations—it’s no panacea.

  13. Andrew Worth says

    Ever considered the blow-back? If science is somehow used to determine government policy (actually it already is with democracies usually having various government committees that seek the input of specialists including scientists) in a formal way it would just give the ideologues even more reason to try to control what science says, taking that control out of the hands of scientists, we’d be up to our eyeballs in tyrants trying to control science, a bit like Nazi Germany.

    • S. Cheung says

      I agree…but that seems less a problem with science or scientism, and more a problem with ideologues.

      • Saw file says

        @S. Cheung
        I also agree with A.Worth, but I suggest that the “problem” with the various ideologies will lead to problems within the sciences and scientism.
        An example of this is evident in the current state of the environmental sciences. It’s also advancing in many other science fields.

        • S. Cheung says

          Absolutely. There is already evidence that academic inquiry in the ivory towers is very much confined to “woke” topics. And it’s even spreading to the objective sciences now as well. But I still feel it important to lay blame at the feet of ideologues, rather than at science itself.

          • Stephanie says

            The structure of scientific research needs redress before we give it any more authority. As is, peer review favours conformity to the dominant paradigm, funding structures render researchers beholden to vested interests in government and favours sensationalism, and researchers’ careers depend on a steady stream of outputs that disfavors large, thorough studies.

    • Jean Levant says

      Stong argument, Andrew. In the brave new world of Winegerd brothers, I also foresee a politization of sciences, even hard sciences, rather than a scientification of politics. And you’re right: it’s already ongoing.

      • Bo Winegard says

        How would epistemic humility and skepticism lead to politicization? It’s precisely when we DON’T use the appropriate methods of science that we allow ideology to determine our view of the world.

        • Saw file says

          It’s undeniable that certain political and cultural ideologies are making inroads into science fields by influencing the governing bodies. The M.O. is the top down approach. There’s no shortage of examples.

    • Bo Winegard says

      That’s a fast path from “this might be a problem” to “kinda like Nazi Germany.”

      How else would you propose to determine public policy?

      • the gardner says

        So called objective scientists in academia are supposed to communicate with so called objective scientists in regulatory agencies to produce the most science based policies. Case in point—- nutrition policy in the US, Dietary Guidelines, Food Pyramid. The problem has been, academics get ahead of the science and propose sweeping policies that impact everything from school lunch to food labels. Then, inevitably, new science refutes what had been the basis of the policies, and revisions must be made. Do this a couple of times, and the public stops believing what the experts say. Same thing with global warming, er, climate change. Who knows what to believe? So the public grows skeptical and disinterested. Academics, the “experts” just tarnish their reputations and their credibility. Seems the problem self-corrects over time.

        • Lightning Rose says

          The USDA dietary wonks that produced the Food Pyramid and My Plate were not primarily scientific–they were market-based and heavily influenced by lobbyists from the agricultural sector. The diet/heart hypothesis which held sway for the last 60 years was compromised with bad, cherry-picked science from the get-go and its wholesale adoption has brought us rampant diabetes, obesity, dementia, infertility, and autoimmune diseases. Most of this can be directly laid at the feet of one Ancel Keyes, cherry-picker in chief and a strong enough personality to bully all other voices into submission. It ~sounded~ plausible, so let’s foist it on the world population without waiting for proof. Now we have the proof–ugh! But in for a penny, in for a pound so they keep banging on about “plant-based diet” lest they all look like idiots.

          • “they were market-based and heavily influenced by lobbyists”

            That is what happens when you replace checks & balances with centrally planned “expert” rule.

          • the gardner says

            Lightning Rose, I could name the academicians and their universities who developed the USDA reports. Sure, industry groups tried to get their views heard. In many cases I think the industry PhDs were were better scientists than the academicians. The academicians perpetuated the Keyes hypothesis while industry scientists knew it was junk science, but since they were industry, they were assumed to be biased. This aura of irrefutability assumed by academicians is laughable, but also frustrating. I need to write a book entitled, “Nutritional Mythology”. There is no shortage of material.

    • tarstarkas says

      Scientists are people, and people have prejudices and phobias, which when put in positions of power inevitably affect policies affecting millions if not billions of people, some in subtle ways, some no so subtle. And when self-interest also plays a part, watch out.

  14. Fickle Pickle says

    Scientism, or more correctly scientific materialism is the “religion” of the left brain.
    It is also the now world-dominant “religion”
    The entire human world is now controlled and patterned by the ideology/paradigm of scientific materialism.
    Scientific materialism has deprived humankind of all profundity of view – relative to the nature and significance of the conditional universe, and relative to the Living Divine Reality.
    It has also deprived humankind from profound doings too.

    How much profundity is even suggested in any of the Quillette essays?

    It is a global cultural force, which has so effectively supported the ego’s motive to achieve a perfectly independent state of “self-sufficiency” that, as a result, the human collective has brought itself to the point of global destruction and universal despair.

    The philosophy promoted by both scientism and conventional exoteric religion are both neurotic psychologies based on the failure to understand and transcend the self. And to recognize the subtle brain-based processes that create both experience and presumed knowledge.

    Such psychologies are grounded in fear, misunderstanding, heart-recoil, alienation, horror, and death.

    • Lightning Rose says

      Sorry, I’m not seeing “the point of global destruction and universal despair.” Perhaps you’re off your meds? 😉 Pick up Hans Rosling’s recent book FACTFULNESS. The truth is that infant mortality is plummeting all over the world, there is currently no major war or famine anywhere, the standard of living has leaped tremendously to the point where global poverty is rapidly being eliminated in most places. At this point there would frankly be no excuse for “global destruction” than bloody-minded stupidity, as in “press this button even though you know better.” Personally, I think we’re better than that. Perhaps some time in nature instead of reading leftist magazines . . .

    • Good analysis. I don’t know why this article was written because, as you point out, Scientism already rules. The authors no doubt would assert that we need to all be better educated and even more subservient to Science to counter our persistent irrationality. Just close our eyes and believe.

  15. the gardner says

    I worked in the biotech industry for 10 yrs. We were driven by science. Our science was needed to get regulatory approvals to market products. We thought our science was so great, consumers would be reassured and welcome our products. They did not. Why? Because all it took was some activist to create a scary ridiculous image—-and ear of corn with a pig snout—- and all reason was lost by consumers. They could not get past the scary image. So as much as I was an avid supporter of science driving policy, in reality it might all be in vain. Consumers now see “non-GMO” on labels of things like vanilla extract, as though there are GMO versions of vanilla extract. A GMO-free label is now a marketing tool. So much for all the millions spent by my company on establishing safety and doing outreach to the scientific community, the medical community and consumers on our great science. Non scientific activists know the art of persuasion, and to consumers, great science is not persuasive. Scary images are.

    • Lightning Rose says

      So why didn’t the biotech industry get out in front of asshole “activists” with a science-based, verifiable, positive message understandable to the layman consumer? You can hardly blame the public if you lie down and roll over to “activists” with “scary ridiculous images.” You guys presumably have an advertising budget, right? Might be time to set the record straight. Most of us would be more than happy to buy a cheap, wholesome product of proven safety and provenance. The public may be undereducated, but not idiotic as “our betters” think. Scott Adams has it right–it’s all about persuasion!

      • the gardner says

        Again LR, we did. The Flavr Savr Tomato was the first biotech consumer food introduced with a consumer benefit. It was advertised as a cool biotech tomato that would stay fresh longer. But as Scott Adams explains so persuasively, facts don’t matter.
        “Frankenfood” and scary images were deployed by the antibiotech crazies, and people reacted. Another example, biotech potatoes that were resistant to inset pests so the crop didn’t need to be sprayed with organophosphate pesticides. Consumer benefit, right? Nope. The antibiotech interests threatened McDonalds that it would do a media campaign exposing the scary fries moms feed their kids. McDonalds folded like a cheap suit, the biotech potato business died. If people acted rationally as you say, no one would demand GMO labeling. It’s meaningless. But here we are, with GMO free vanilla extract. Facts. Don’t. Matter.

    • Activists will stop being effective when the scientific community repairs its trust issue.

      There’s an article out there right now saying that the Tuskegee experiments are still going on, just in third world nations. I don’t know if it’s true or not but it doesn’t really matter whether it is or not: the real point is that how plausible it is. The scientific community needs to do a better job rejecting and punishing unethical behavior. If it wants to have credibility as an institution or a community it needs to apologize when any one of its members violates trust. It needs to adopt rules that make clear that the community values human rights above the acquisition of knowledge. It needs to mean it, too – it needs to be willing to throw out knowledge if that knowledge was gained unethically.

      Until the scientific community does that, people are just being rational and looking out for their own self-interest by assuming that you value the acquisition of knowledge more than you value their life, and that if the two come down to a choice, that you will treat them as disposable.

      And now scientists demand the right to respond to the problem of low trust by being allowed to impose by force – taking away the right to self-governance and demanding the right to decide on behalf of the whole world wha’s good for it.

      If you want to be trusted, you can’t act like that. And you can’t just say “that was a single individual (or company)” when someone does wrong, but then turn around and try to use the credibility of the institution to make people trust an individual (or company) they don’t know.

  16. Greg Lorriman says

    Scientism is treating science as the only source of objective knowledge, and even to the exclusion of the possibility of a non-material world. Already there is an issue of ‘abstraction’, and the feedback loop of the abstracting mind and its effects on the world of matter.

    “The weakness of materialistic atheism is that atheists insist that all is matter when it could very well be only mind” G K Chesterton.

    Think about it, there is no way to prove your own sanity, let alone that anything around you concretely exists, or that there is such a thing as a human let alone androids called Dawkins and gas-bags called Hitchens. So the reassuring word of anyone around you is of no use whatever. And it’ll bake your noodle to think that philosophically speaking, we are the figment of our own imagination.

    Hypothetically, the only thing that could give absolute proof of itself would be a god (in contradiction of Huxlien ‘agnostic’ doctrine). Indeed, this is the root of what Christians mean by ‘faith’ and not Bertrand Russell’s presumptuous redefinition “Belief without evidence”.

    Something has the property of ‘existence’ and that is the union point of the abstract and the material, and being self-referencing it also has the pattern of self-awareness, mind. The Scientismists faithful need to explain how that would not be a supreme being.

    • Blue Lobster says

      Honestly, Greg, what exactly do you get out of reading Quillette articles?

      Have you ever come across one which in any way seems to comport with your conception of reality or which has contributed anything to your life other than as a vehicle with which to reinforce your clearly reflexively ingrained religious convictions and aid you in rapaciously clinging thereto? As best I recall, your comments have been generally antagonistic with respect to the substance of the referenced article and are singularly fixated upon your religiosity as well the patent lack thereof evinced within the apparently provocative source.

      But of course you’re certain to find the source provocative because (gasp!) Quillette is not a religiously oriented publication just as it’s not a publication devoted to the cause of the woke/intersectional Left.

      However, opinions (usually laced with profanity and unclever sarcasm) from members of the “Cult of Woke” have a habit of appearing with some regularity within the comment sections of articles deemed by adherents as particularly objectionable. Thus, I would infer that you, like those apostles of the most virulent brand of intersectionality, are in fact drawn just as moths, unknowing and unaware of your true motivation, to the proverbial flame of Quillette precisely because of the antipathy which it’s content will surely arouse.

      Personally, I occasionally disagree with or find objectionable content which I’m exposed to via Quillette, and while some of the articles are in my opinion subpar, I find that my mind is, on the whole, enriched with novel ideas and information hitherto unfamiliar to me and, quite possibly, unavailable via any other medium.

      The relationship that I’ve just described is, I would wager, quite unlike that which exists between you and your unlikely Cult of Woke brethren. There seems to be little if any benefit derived from your engagement with a blasphemous and heretical outlet like Quillette other than the satisfaction of a primordially combative urge. To be clear, I don’t propose to invalidate such appetites but it does seem to me a rather questionably healthy and productive exercise and certainly a cause for wonder given the seemingly vituperative nature thereof.

      • Greg Lorriman says

        “But of course you’re certain to find the source provocative because (gasp!) Quillette is not a religiously oriented publication just as it’s not a publication devoted to the cause of the woke/intersectional Left.”

        That would be all very well if Quillette was essentially agnostic (in the vulgar sense) “not a religiously oriented publication”, but to contradict you, in fact Quillette, while preaching open mindedness and free-thought, is an overtly atheistic/humanist publication, and atheism while so certain of itself and dismissive of religious claims, is a huge presumption (with or without the existence of a god). That can never be said of religious views (unless atheists prove their assertion) on the basis that a god may exist, and their claims be genuinely ‘enlightened’ and be correctly delineating reality; thought that is free of both ignorance and error.

        Quillette is effectively misrepresenting itself and invalidates itself at the same time. There’s no genuine ‘free-thought’ here, in common with all atheistic reasoning, and Quillette articles are frequently of an anti-religious character, to again contradict you.

        That’s a shame because Quillette and other free-speech vehicles are part of the ‘red-pill’ culture that is so necessary to counter the new ‘woke’ ideologies destroying liberty in the Free West.

        Liberties which derive mostly from Christianity, paradoxically, The Catholic Church is, ironically, arguably the mother of modern feminism (ref: The Witch of Agnesi, female doctors of the Church etc etc). And with the teaching of ‘equality in dignity’, even despite an exclusively male priesthood. I am sure the ‘enlightenment’ (ludicrous label) characters of the past are gnashing their teeth with extra vigour at my words.

        It’s nicely ironic that you should choose to reply to me on this article. And without actually addressing a word I wrote. Those words are aimed at persuading the atheist to rethink and perhaps even to turning Quillette around, rather than merely to ‘satisfy an appetite’, (thanks for that, and the amusement of your unintended irony). Quillette is ultimately doomed to failure.

        As a religious person, I can respect the agnostic view and writings, and they can be useful in service to mankind, but the atheistic are not able to solve world problems, despite their claims and appearances, and ultimately they make them worse.

        The critical truths are spiritual, not scientific. Such as that genuine liberty resides in the capacity for self-denial, denial of desire, and leading to pure self-giving love (charity/caritas), mastery of self, and the communion of persons, directly person to person. What person can freely give themselves in love to another who has subjected themselves to lust? No one. Lust is the beginning of slavery. Lust for power, the slavery of others.

        If children were raised to enjoy self-giving love and selfless seeking of the happiness of others instead of being encouraged to pursue their own happiness and ‘success’, that is what will increase liberty, avoid suicide, pierce error, and make people happy. And this is the message of the Gospel, and the example of God, Jesus Christ.

        “Love your enemies and pray for them…bless those who curse you…lend with an open hand even to the stranger….”

        • Blue Lobster says

          OK. Got it.

          You’re here to:

          1) Contradict me

          2) Persuade atheists to rethink

          3) Turn Quillette around

          4) Advocate for liberty (as you define it)

          5) Illuminate critical truths (in order to solve world problems)

          Wow. Geez, Greg. Perhaps you have quite a bit more in common with the Woke than I initially gave you credit for. Or perhaps you simply are Woke – of the theistic variety. Please do enjoy your denunciations of Quillette and best of luck with your proselytizing.

          You might also consider checking the definition of the word “irony” as you seem to be using it rather oddly especially if your response is to be understood as an expression of “self-giving love” and “selfless seeking of the happiness of others”.

          Oh, and fuck the holy spirit! 666

  17. dirk says

    Would one ever arrive at a moral statement of the kind of ALL MEN ARE EQUAL, by using th scientific methodology or mentality? I would say, to the contrary!! If it comes to morals, just leave all science behind you.

  18. Joshua Eisenhart says

    Scientism creates illusions of certainty. It seeks to rationalize peoples pre-existing moral intuitions with authority. They seek to impose their own religious views on others, while organizing those views with scientific authority and some accountability to the scientific method. They simply never question their underlying utilitarian presumptions. Communism wrapped itself in science, and failed. The only difference with this form of centralized authoritarianism is a different religion to base it on.

    Human happiness and pleasure can easily be shown to be invalid axioms for human well being. Living a meaningful life is about facing uncertainty and pain. Pain itself and the inherent suffering of life have moral and scientific value.

    Scientism creates a veneer of certainty so that people don’t have to face reality and uncertainty. Science can study anything, and create useful and valid insights. It however is woefully undeveloped in the social sciences. We don’t even have a functional theory of consciousness, nor how we really work as human beings.

    There are arguments to make for domesticating and controlling human beings, even with limited and flawed scientific understandings of people. Authority and power over people can produce useful results. yet what works for awhile won’t always work. large complex social systems will be hacked and are inherently fragile. Success for 30-70 years can itself create the conditions for utter systemic failure. Systems crash, and progressive theory of human management and ideal social policy will lead to mass systemic failure eventually.

    Just taking the work of Haidt and his book “The Righteous Mind” should cast doubt on any pure reason or objectivity in society at any level. It should also cast doubt on reason itself as a primary value. All reason is rationalizations of pre-existing moral judgements emerging from the moral intuitions in perception. The western enlightenments affinity for reason is a religious view that produced many great achievements yet that itself might be utterly contradictory to science, and fundamental self reflection.

    Hume won the debate on reason, yet people still can’t face it.

  19. Pingback: In Defense of Scientism | 3 Quarks Daily

  20. Doug F says

    Inherent in your discussion is the presumption that the institution of science is free from political motivations and scrupulously follows the scientific rules. Hardly, and this is particularly true in the social sciences (which I assume is where you hope to find your guiding light). Look no further than the success that was had publishing ludicrous unscientific studies that supported far left feminist ideology –

    (sorry, unsure how to embed links here). Or how Nazis used “racial science” to justify travesties.

    In addition, there is wide-spread misuse of the results of legitimate studies. A study itself only shows what it shows. To turn a study into policy it must be interpreted and herein lies the problem. The interpretation is not science as usually not very scientific and often twisted to conform to a particular ideology. For example, here a paper explains how a study showing no sexual abuse of Palestinian woman by Israeli soldiers proved racism.

    I would suspect if the study had shown there was sexual abuse that this also would have proved racism.

    So forgive me if I politely reject the idea of government dictating policies to spend my money and control my life based on their interpretations of science.

  21. My comments relate to this statement : “Scientism is sometimes characterized by its opponents as a utopian ideology or an irrational faith that science will eventually eradicate every evil, inaugurating an era of everlasting peace and prosperity. But this is a straw man, and we have yet to read a serious proponent of science defend this definition.”

    Something that is a widespread, perhaps even majority opinion, in popular thought cannot be a straw man

  22. X. Citoyen says

    Scientism and science-based social policy—aka evidence-based decision making—are different things. The latter is about determining the best means to a normative political end, while the former is about determining the best political ends.

    The Winegards’ first point contains a good illustration of the difference between the two. They assure us that scientism won’t lead to tyranny because science says collectivism doesn’t work. But if science happened to find otherwise or to find some better system for advancing human flourishing, then the adherent of scientism must toss out liberal democracy, property rights, or whatever else because the scientific consensus says so. Take a more realistic example, universal basic income. I really don’t care what “the science says” because UBI is outside my Overton window.

    “Human flourishing” is meaningful only within the context of Aristotelian teleology and the natural law tradition. That leaves two options for those who see human flourishing as a normative foundation for scientism: Either you find a new foundation for flourishing or you smuggle in teleology through the backdoor. From what I’ve seen, people like Harris et al. have chosen the backdoor. They rely on people taking the cultural mores and behaviour they were raised with as natural. Clearly, it works with some people, but it won’t stand up to—dare I say—Socratic self-examination.

    • Leo Strauss says

      Your point articulates much more clearly some of what I wished to say above. Socratic self-examination is an indispensable pre-condition for attempting to do science well. Without such rigorous self-examination on a daily basis, it is much more difficult to come to see the non-rational elements, emotions, etc, pulling you away from seeing the world as it is.

    • S. Cheung says

      but “if” there is a better way than “liberal democracy”, as demonstrated by science in some objective fashion, why wouldn’t you want to try that?

      For even Churchill famously said “Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.…”.

      And if you say you don’t really care what the science says, the limitation does not belong to scientism in that scenario.

    • ‘“Human flourishing” is meaningful only within the context of Aristotelian teleology and the natural law tradition.”

      I take this to generally mean that how “human flourishing” is defined is dependent upon all kinds of presumptions about the nature of reality and the nature of what a human being is. Since Scientism presumes nothing outside of its methodologies the term “human flourishing” is virtually meaningless. The practice of a science which presumes nothing, i.e. Scientism, is the virtual definition of nihilism.

      In a nihilistic universe values are simply posited. In such a universe the methodologies of science (which are themselves value neutral) can be used to further those values. Thus the use of Zyklon B was a proper scientific solution of the extermination of certain types of human beings in the name of the posited value of racial purity.

    • Rev. Wazoo! says

      @X. Citoyen – you’ve put your quill on the crux:
      ”Scientism and science-based social policy—aka evidence-based decision making—are different things. The latter is about determining the best means to a normative political end, while the former is about determining the best political ends.”

      I’ve been taking it to be the latter but you contend with strong arguments that it’s the former and this difference seems at the heart of the debate.

      Please adjudicate which your argument is or how we’re all off-track here.

    • X. Citoyen says

      S. Cheung,

      but “if” there is a better way than “liberal democracy”, as demonstrated by science in some objective fashion, why wouldn’t you want to try that?

      Good question. There are two unrelated answers. The first is the normative problem, which has already been discussed here ad nauseam. I’ll only say that your second question to me falls under the normative problem: UBI is godsend for philosophers and beach bums because they only need to eat; for everyone it’s moral death.

      The second answer is logical and scientific. Consider that you have two options when confronted with a scientific claim, accept it on faith or assess it yourself. If you assess it yourself, you’ll need some criterion for evaluating it. If your criterion is strong, you’ll be able to assess the value of a scientific claims—so long as the system is a simple one. Once you get into complex systems, however, your ability to assess claims about it will diminish as claim reaches the maximum any one human mind can take in. The same limitation applies to the theoretician proposing the claim. His knowledge of a complex system is limited by his ability to understand the complexity.

      Now here’s what we know about liberal democracy: It is a complex system made up of complex systems (institutions) that are in turn made up of complex systems (minds). No human will ever be able to understand the whole system the way we understand, say, planetary motion. As Aristotle said long ago in his science of ethics, a science can only be as precise as the subject matter allows. No one will ever be able to make anything close to a scientific claim about the best political system because it’s too complex; ipso facto, anyone who does make such a claim is either ignorant of science or ignorant of politics.


      In the Aristotelian and natural law tradition, all things were understood to have a completed, fully realized state (= a telos). Just as an acorn’s telos was an oak tree, so the highest human end was happiness (eudaemonia, sometimes translated as “human flourishing”), which is understood mainly to consist in exercise of excellence (arête/virtue). The exercise of virtue in turn depends on conditions that make it possible to do so, which means certain types of regimes will be favourable to happiness and others will not. All this became part of Christian theology and Christian self-understanding.

      Whether you agree with the account or not, it doesn’t work if you reject the telos. Liberalism tried to inject self-fashioning into the hole—you are whatever you want to be—but you can’t be anything you want to be in the real world, so along progressivism with an explanation: If you aren’t what you want to be, it’s because someone’s oppressing you. That’s our hell. But I digress.

      For scientism, liberalism is too subjectivist to fill the void left by teleology. The first of scientism’s hole-fillers was material wealth, but people in rich countries kill themselves at a higher rate than people in poor ones, so mental well-being got added to physical well-being. Of course, wide open abstractions like mental and physical well-being are as meaningful or meaningless as you make them. The closest I’ve seen to a replacement is positive psychology, which is basically the watered-down virtues without the telos (and thus without the normative force). Harris et al. seem to operate on this line, sometimes claiming a progressive evolutionary backing as a stand-in for teleology.

      That was an abbreviated account of long argument, but this is a comments section, so I ask for indulgence.

      • S. Cheung says

        thanks for that. I haven’t come up with my own opinion of UBI yet, and aren’t really equipped to judge its morality, so will leave that point.

        As for liberal democracy, I appreciate your answer. Obviously I’m not accepting anything on faith. But to scientifically understand how an individual factor affects the whole, that’s what multivariate analysis and logistic regression are for. Of course, that would only give you information on how “liberal democracy” might be improved if you tweaked one factor out of myriad factors while controlling for all the rest. That said, the limits of what the human mind can understand and perceive is less and less of a barrier, with increased computational power, machine learning, etc. So understanding how many many factors might exert influence on a final outcome simply requires more and more processing power. That’s not an impossible proposition the way I see it.

        I certainly agree that science can’t give you a “best” political system. But i think science is well-equipped to analyze for “better”.

        • S.Cheung says

          you alluded to your position on UBI and it seems like you’ve given it a lot of thought, as opposed to me. I don’t know if you have 3 hours to kill, but I just watched Andrew Yang on Ben Shapiro and Joe Rogan. If you had a chance, I’d be curious about your take on his position.

  23. An interesting article. I do think though that it is too black and white in its approach. One of the most profound results of modern science is chaotic dynamical systems and uncertainty theory. There are a lot of things (perhaps the most important things) that we can never know for sure. An example is “will the earth be struck by a large asteroid in the next 1000 years.” The problem here is the ill-posed nature of the multi-body problem. There are fundamental limits to science and broad areas of ignorance. This makes it unlikely that “science driven policy” can ever really be a complete solution for all questions or issues.

  24. Ray Andrews says

    **Social Darwinists did not promote a judicious approach to policy determined by careful study of outcomes; they promoted a values-based approach to policy determined by a priori philosophical and moral assumptions. The same holds for eugenicists and “scientific” racists. (The term “scientific racist” is a rhetorical triumph for opponents of science, but really refers to someone who uses the patina of scientific nomenclature to justify bigotry, and not someone who uses the scientific method to defend racism.) **

    It is breathtaking how the author’s contradict themselves without even knowing it. We see the usual entirely vituperative judgements of the ‘scientific racists’, whereas the scientific evidence of racial differences is as established as the law of gravity. When PC and science collide, guess who looses? Science looses. The authors are Lysenkoists, and the really bad news is that they don’t know it.

    A Catholic obstetrician can believe in the virgin birth and still perform his science very well because he knows he is a man of faith. When he is is church he does his religion. When he is in the lab he does science, and he knows which is which. But our authors imagine that their religion IS science and that means that they can confidently squash other religions as being ‘not science’. This is profoundly dangerous. In fact all policy decisions are ‘values-based’ as many comments above make clear. The author’s religion is a proscription for totalitarianism and they don’t know that, either.

    • S. Cheung says

      I agree that a religious scientist is fully capable of practicing both aspects of his/her dichotomy fully, almost all of the time. Because I think it would only be the rare occasion where the tenets of faith would push up against the bounds of scientific inquiry. However, i do wonder what happens on those rare occasions when those potentially competing interests collide.

      I would also wonder how the catholic obstetrician would respond in a situation where the pregnant’s woman’s life in endangered by the pregnancy but the fetus is not yet viable.

      • dirk says

        I wonder whether a catholic obstetrician (there must be 1000s of them) believes in a technical/physical virgin birth wherever, he might see it as a mystery of faith, nevertheless. Would any catholic physicist believe in a human being walking on water? Or a catholic chemist in changing pure water instantaneously in wine?

  25. Erik in the PNW says

    ‘in the vast toolkit for understanding and engaging the material world, no other tool is better or more reliable than science.’

    Couldn’t agree more. I can’t think of a better system for gaining knowledge. Other tools in the toolkit… eating, making love, growing a garden, talking to dogs, hugging a friend, going for a walk, shaking hands with intent, helping a neighbour, listen to elders (and put young people in their place)…

    If we zoom out and we view all of this from a broad perspective over time, humanity’s thirst for knowledge and explanation could have taken no other path. We could not have gone from where we were ten-thousand years ago to where we are today without a lengthy and difficult process in between. The less you know about something the more complicated and mystical your explanation for it is likely to be (if you’re even thinking about it at all). We could not have gone directly from attributing mystical reasoning to diseases, to understanding that washing your hands after wiping your ass was a good idea. A process that continues. In many parts of the world, many people still do not understand that it behooves one to be cautious with one’s shit. Religions continue to flourish in those areas. There is no correlation between the two. Short of perhaps noticing patterns… the further away from my house I shit, the less sick I tend to get. The next step is science… which was to explain the real reason why that was. We take germs for granted now (though we shouldn’t).

    It is all part of our attempt to understand the world. We are moving away from a method of explaining the world that had some fantastic insights and drove real progress, but was doomed to always fall short because of its underlying strictures (religion) towards a system of understanding not shackled by the same root beliefs. The one is grounded in “I believe it therefore it is true,” while the other basically says “I think I believe this but someone really intelligent is going to come along and give me a hard time so I better make sure my ducks are all in a row.” That is why religion did not give us antibiotics, our current understanding of cosmology, or the computer. It may have informed the motive (good and bad) of those engaged in the processes though. Darwin struggled with the impacts his discovery would have on society. We struggle with the impacts AI will have on ours (as we should). Scientists have often neglected to consider the broader impacts of the very focused approach they sometimes took to their work.

    What ever your system for understanding the world, it is clear that it is a human need to believe in things. Sharing common beliefs with our neighbours and friends is the basis for civilization. If we both believe in not stealing (among other things) we should get along fine in regards to property. If we both share a similar understanding of what stealing is, then we’ll get along even better. Certainly we all believe in money, otherwise it would not work. As is often pointed out in various guises in Quillette, the current lack of belief (especially among young people) in our society, our institutions, our history… is potentially devastating to our way of life, and regardless, in the end will benefit nobody.

    This is the problem with climate change or any large problem facing society. We’re debating climate change as if it was a religious issue, instead of focusing on the problem – which is pollution. The ‘sky-is-falling’ crowd is doing no one any favours by turning climate change into a problem of biblical proportions (presumably then with only Divine solutions). And the other guys… well, I suggest to them that they wrap their lips firmly around an exhaust pipe and see how well they fare. Times that by the number of vehicles and factories in the world and still deny there is a problem and I suggest you head to the nearest bar to have a beer with your buddy from the ‘sky-is-falling’ church. Here science let us down once again – the chemists firmly focusing on the ‘dilution is the solution to pollution’ solution, which is what much of the debate is focused on. We used to dump poison into bodies of water. Nobody is debating that it was a bad idea (though in some places/ways we continue to do it). Why it is so hard to get our heads around dumping vast quantities of pollution into the air being a bad idea is beyond me. For God’s sake.. identify the problem, apply knowledge to it, do not compromise, and then hand it to the engineers. This is how we successfully handled acid rain and the ozone problem.

    It’s bizarre to me that this constant bickering about science vs religion continues. In the broader perspective of history that conversation is a red herring! What is clear is that it is important that we share beliefs. This might be the very greatest contribution of religion to humanity – that it taught us the importance of sharing beliefs – and we should be thankful to religion for that contribution. As is self evident, shared beliefs can have a dark and ominous side as well (Nazism for example). What informs our beliefs is crucially important – and I think this is where science can have it’s greatest hour. I for one am thankful that we no longer shit where we eat.

    The penchant for individual power and the masses to worship that power is however a real problem… both religion and science carry the solution to this situation developing and both offer up its greatest opportunity for evil.

  26. Erik in the PNW says

    Last line should say … this situation not developing…

  27. Thanks for taking the time to personally respond. I should say at the outset, that I’m a big advocate of science, but I’m also a proponent of cultivating an awareness of the nature and limitations of science. So here are some of my problems with Scientism:

    When you claim you “don’t know what’s best” for me, you are being quite disingenuous. Here’s what you wrote near the beginning of your article:

    “[Tyson] wrote, “America needs a virtual colony” with a simple constitution that reads, “All social policy shall be based on the weight of evidence.” . . . In what follows, we will defend Tyson et al—and what is (often) called scientism more generally—using, where appropriate, the analogous term “science-based social policy” (SBSP).”

    What evidence, or more precisely, which evidence? How do you know what is important to you is important to me? What is SBSP but an attempt at exercising power, as a way of telling me/us “what’s best”? What you are trying to pass off as dispassionate and objective is guided by all kinds of values and prejudices – some of which may coincide with mine and many of which may not. What business is it of a scientist or anyone else to tell the rest of us what our interests and values are? Why should I subscribe to yours or Niel Tyson’s idea of a “simple constitution”?

    I personally believe it’s best for people to be in control of their own lives as much as possible. I believe it’s best for people to mostly suffer the consequences of their decisions, which is how people learn and which, by the way, is absolutely necessary in a democracy. People do not learn and grow when their lives are managed by other people who claim to have a more “accurate” view of reality – they are, as Alexis de Tocqueville long ago observed, simply maintained in a state of perpetual childhood. So I’m wary of our whole world of “experts” who seem to be a whole class of people who do not experience the consequences of their well intentioned SBSPs. (Check out Thomas Sowell’s Intellectuals and Society)

    And again, I’m also very leery of Scientism because its proponents seem incredibly unaware of the long history of commentary of the problematic nature of science. In general you seem to be confirming what I’ve observed over time: often scientist don’t even seem to understand science. The great mathematician/philosopher Alfred Lord Whitehead, commenting on the great discoveries of early modern science, refered to this tendency of scientists to become stupefied by their own abstractions as “misplaced concreteness”. The corrective for this tendency is a return to “concrete reality” as manifest, as Whitehead observed, in the great Romantic Poets. What is Scientism if not a virulent case of Misplaced Concreteness?

    Concrete reality is what we actually experience – we experience ourselves as participants in a paradoxical reality. Rarely, if ever, are we simply observers – even the simple act of looking at an object involves all kinds of interpretations and discriminations. The phrase “objective reality” has its uses, but, philosophically or empirically speaking, the moment we experience anything it is rendered, to some degree, non objective (modern science itself confirms this and it is what the great poets have known for millennia). In this regard, Scientism is not empirical.

    Scientists exalt science as a way of knowing but often have a poor understanding of the very nature of human consciousness. Neuroscientist Iain McGilchrist points out that science, as science, often misunderstands the nature of the brain because the brain is engaged simultaneously in breaking reality into pieces and seeing wholes. Science understands pieces not wholes. Science, as science, cannot even understand the nature of the origins of that particular way of knowing which is called science. So, contrary to your Dr. Kahnemann (refered to on the jacket of his book as “one of the greatest psychologist and thinkers of our time”) this suggests we are neither rational nor irrational beings, we are meaning generating beings – we are always trying to put the pieces of the world into some kind of coherent whole. Scientism cannot discover meaning.

    Without a doubt science is a powerful way of apprehending reality because of its apparent capacity to control outcomes, to control and manipulate nature. But this power can be illusory because reality functions as a whole and science not only does not deal with the whole, as Scientism it presumes there is no whole to be known.

    This obliviousness to the nature of wholes and our human need to generate meaning seems to me manifest in your quite pedestrian ideas of art. Science and art have indeed become “two non overlapping magesteria”, but this division is a peculiarity of the modern industrial world. Other than modern Western Europe, in all of history, in all cultures, art embodied knowledge – knowledge of the whole, knowledge of how conflicting forces of the universe interrelate and knowledge of how we humans fit into the whole process. What we call art is traditionally not some peculiar thing people do who call themselves artist do. Art, not science, is emblematic of how human consciousness works.

    We’ve both thrived and suffered for over two centuries guided by a way of knowing which seems oblivious to the interconnectedness of all things. Paradoxically, the very science which has broken the world into pieces and unleashed tremendous powers now is recognizing that what we once thought to be disconnected may actually be connected. Science can provide evidence of how things interconnect but it can never tell us what form that interconnectedness can take. Science, as science, does not and cannot provide meaning. Those who think Scientism can and should rule are in conflict with those of us who do not make a fetish of scientific methodologies.

    As you correctly point out, science can be used for nefarious purposes. Apparently we not only live in a time of Fake News, we live in a time of Fake Science – If Fake News consists of journalistic methodologies in the service of ideology then Fake Science is scientific methodologies in the service of ideology. The way to counter this is not for scientists to insist on the purity of their methodologies and the purity of their intentions. I believe the best way to counter Fake Science is for scientist to affirm who they are and what they stand for. Scientists, contrary to what many would like us to believe, are limited impure human beings just like the rest of us. Scientism as pure inquiry is merely one more form of ideology hiding under the skirts of methodology. In the brothel of life there are no virgins. I’m all for science, but Scientism? Scientism is Fake Science.

    • Andrew Roddy says

      Might it be the case that, in the not too distant future, scientism will be filed clearly under, ‘What the hell were we thinking?’

      It is to the great credit of our philosophers that they believe such questions are more usefully asked in the present tense.

      • ‘What the hell were we thinking?

        According to the Winegards philosophy seems a little obsolete. I would only point out that so called philosophy of science is to philosophy what military music is to music.

  28. codadmin says

    Selective breeding is the only way to create a better humanity, and world. Social programmes are not going to change anything.

    Put a decent human in a shit situation and they remain a decent human. We know this is true because most humans in shit situations are still decent.

    • Obscure Canuck says

      “Put a decent human in a shit situation and they remain a decent human. We know this is true because most humans in shit situations are still decent.”

      Can you provide a source for this? The article mentions that “modern psychological theories recognize that humans are nepotistic, tribalistic, status-driven creatures.” To me “decent” means not behaving in a selfish manner.

      I would say you are advocating a form of eugenics, which is not consistent with the concepts of the intrinsic value of human life and human self-autonomy. I don’t think science can provide evidence for these concepts, and I think the authors agree and simply take those assumptions for granted.

      Although perhaps having those assumptions, even if there is no direct support for them, consistently leads to societies with less suffering? But without direct evidence I don’t see how a scientist society would prevent itself from slipping into areas that violate them.

      • codadmin says

        @Obscure Canuck

        There’s no middle ground, either you believe in selective breeding ‘eugenics’ or you believe in dysgenics.

        Either you want the human race to improve or you don’t.

        Please explain why you hate humanity?

        • codadmin says

          @Obscure Canuck

          Ask those involved in animal husbandry what they think about breeding and its benefits.

          • Obscure Canuck says

            @codadmin people are different from animals and thus have different rights (although this argument breaks down under secular terms). Also, humans have the unique ability to completely change their behaviour and culture with new beliefs and ways of living. As a result, forcefully modifying genetics isn’t necessary to change people as it is with animals.

  29. David of Kirkland says

    “It [Science] has conquered deadly diseases and eradicated oppressive superstitions.”
    Really? It seems many so-called eradicated diseases are still here. Some infections have evolved to beat antibiotics. Superstition is alive and well, with many quite oppressive.
    Scientism fails because it believes itself to be the one true answer. Science is an extremely useful tool, but like all tools, it cannot fix or create everything.
    Slow deliberation, though, is better than fast moving central planning where good ideas spread nicely, but bad ideas do the same.

  30. Mec B says

    After reading the article I strenuously believe that maybe Scientism needs a little better marketing from its proponents. I fear what is lost in “look what science has done to us” motif found in the article is actually missing the mark. To advance this Scientism, the main point should only be the concept of the Scientific Method. And by concept, I mean the rigours that go through any theory that might be applied to any political choice.
    The scientific method to my mind is always a better way to determine the best(not the perfect) solutions. Lets not forget that SM is the journey to find theories. This journey in SM, is always about continued discussion, resolve, amendments or scrapping solutions altogether if new information is found. Sure this takes an extraordinary amount of faith in humans, enough that I don’t think scientism could ever become a reality. But I’d always prefer to be in a world where we AT LEAST try to use SM to find, dismantle, amend political solutions.

    • S. Cheung says

      Mec B,
      agreed. If only more people knew what point 1 of the scientific method is. It is a flaw, and a fault, of our education system.

  31. E. Olson says

    What happens when lots of people refuse to do what the “science” says they should do for happiness, health, fairness, or economic prosperity? For example, “science” has told us smoking is bad for our health since 1964, and yet 20+% of the global population continue to smoke. The “science” also says we can enjoy good health and avoid obesity related health problems by exercising 30 minutes per day and eating less fat (last week) or fewer sweets (this week), and yet virtually no one follows this advice and the biggest global health problem is obesity. “Science” says we need to eliminate 80% of man-made greenhouse gas emission to avert global warming, and yet fuel sucking pickups are the 3 top selling vehicles in the US, jet travel is growing by 8% per year, and average house and TV size continues to grow, and all these consumer trends lead to more greenhouse gas emissions. “Science” also says diversity leads to lower social capital and greater conflict, and illegal immigration leads to higher crime, greater welfare costs to the nation, and lower pay for citizens, and yet major political parties continue to advocate for open borders. “Science” says taxing the rich almost never generates as much revenue as predicted, lowers economic growth, while welfare destroys lower-class families and creates a never-ending cycle of dependency, and yet major political parties continue to advocate these policies.

    We can try the “science of persuasion” to convince people to “do the right thing”, but the “science” suggests that such processes will usually be very slow and will never achieve full compliance, because lots of people “just can’t handle the truth” or don’t want or like to do the “right thing”. Such slowness and incomplete progress is always what leads to the use of coercive state power and the loss of economic and political freedom, despite the “science” telling us that centrally planned bureaucratic governments are ineffective in creating a happier, cleaner, healthier, fairer, more prosperous society – see Venezuela as the most recent example.

    • dirk says

      @EO: That people continue smoking when knowing it’s bad for health, does not mean that these people do no trust science (= the knowledge that chances on this or that disease is so much higher). Same thing for climate change and behaviour, eating habits. I know (thanks to science) that airplanes are contributing to extra CO2, nevertheless take the plane. I do on any day of the year things of which it’s clear it’s bad. But the hard science of it remains nevertheless, I don’t doubt the hard facts, even weigh them against the alternative (science makes that possible), and, yet, decide taking the easy, comfortable, lazy road. Of course, none of this has to do with morality.

      • E. Olson says

        dirk – my point is that the fact many of us don’t follow the dictates of science means that Scientism will always lead to Totalitarianism despite the fact that science does not support the efficacy of Totalitarianism.

        • dirk says

          Don’t believe that, EO. Science should know its place, e.g., very few scientists come with plans on what to do with climate change, though, they know the details (on glacier melting, temperatures through the centuries, concentrations of CO2, methane etc etc better than ordinary people and earn their money, from the tax payer, by studying these fields). I remember right now the colleges of a professor land use planning, he developed a form of multiple goal planning, where the scientists did nothing else than calculating the consequences and costs or vaguely proposed programmes and wishes of stakeholders (e.g., what to do with wetllands somewhere, drain, leave it as such, or something in between, the most likely choice in European cases). The scientists just only calcluated the sharply defined alternatives, and presented these alternatives then to the politicans or stake holders. They had the last word, and had to make the decisions. The scientists only assisted with the calculations , presenting the realistic alternatives and their costs. Same thing occurs with climate change, diets, city planning, medical care, etc. Of course, it remains a power play, and the results are never clear.

        • S. Cheung says

          E. Olson,
          “Scientism will always lead to Totalitarianism”

          I don’t follow your reasoning here. You already showed that people knowingly do things that are demonstrably bad for them, despite well-publicized messages derived from science. I don’t see how a belief in the ability of science to provide answers inevitably leads to totalitarianism. The fact that people still smoke already disproves that. Unless you are contending that current smokers do not believe in the veracity of what scientists and doctors are telling them.

          You would have to show that the knowledge gleaned from science translates into absolute societal mandates. For example, smokers would have to be jailed for smoking. That’s clearly not the case. They are taxed. Locations for smoking are restricted. So there may be some behavioral modification, but that is a long way from totalitarianism.

          • augustine says

            S. Cheung wrote

            “I don’t see how a belief in the ability of science to provide answers inevitably leads to totalitarianism.”

            This line sounds like the word trickery of an MSM “news story”. You’ve expressed a doubt using the false premise that “belief in the ability of science to provide answers” is the main concern here. Your language sounds condescending and you make it sound like an unreasonable fear, which is not the case.

            The ability of science to provide answers, and to help people make better decisions, is awesome. Three cheers. The problem is people, including some scientists one assumes, believing that only science has the rational answers to all the problems of human existence, and not just to the material problems. Many scientists are saying nowadays that the new, enlightened role for their discipline is activism: using science to make things better. There are many comments in this thread that explain why this is antithetical to science’s actual role and how scientism is a bad idea for all concerned.

          • S. Cheung says

            “belief in the ability of science to provide answers”

            I have no idea what you’re going on about. I merely defined my interpretation of “scientism” so as to be clear about what I was responding to in E. Olson’s line about ““Scientism will always lead to Totalitarianism””. If merely disagreeing with someone on the right is “condescension”, then you lot really need to get out more. And I do make it sound like an “unreasonable” fear, because that’s what i think it is. If I thought it was a “reasonable” fear, then I probably wouldn’t be disagreeing with him.

            “The problem is people, including some scientists one assumes, believing that only science has the rational answers to all the problems of human existence, and not just to the material problems.”
            I wouldn’t say that science has answer to ALL problems; but if it’s “rational answers” you’re looking for, for the problems for which there are answers, science is definitely your guy. I don’t know who you would look to instead. Certainly not religion, I would think.

            The activism bit is a separate matter. Policy makers should make policy, and not scientists. However, I’d much prefer policy makers incorporate the answers that science can provide, rather than being ignorant of them.

          • augustine says

            S. Cheung,

            Somehow you came up with “belief in the ability of science to provide answers” (leading to totalitarianism) instead of critiquing the unqualified idea that scientism leads to totalitarianism. Your conversion of language seems like a corruption of the original statement but perhaps I was hasty in calling it condescension. My apologies. Significantly, your watered down wording does enable you to say that the fear is “unreasonable” though. As an analogy, it would be like me saying “democracy leads to violence” and you reply that this is an unreasonable fear of the belief in the ability of democracy to provide for human flourishing. I hope you can better see what drew me to respond.

            As for “rational answers”, you don’t discern between the material world and other concerns such as morality, ethics, purpose, etc. So… religion and transcendence, yes. Science can and should approach from the sidelines. It’s a pity that this constraint bothers some people to the extent that dialogue and thinking are impaired (on both sides).

            Agreed that policy makers should not be ignorant of science. And scientists should not be ignorant of the fact that their domain is set apart from the domain of ought.

          • S. Cheung says

            thanks for your clarification.

            ““belief in the ability of science to provide answers”” IS how I define “scientism”, so I was merely clarifying with E. Olson as to exactly what I was talking about, in case he was talking about something different. For instance, it would appear that you are talking about something different, and you likely attribute more baggage to the term than I do. Perhaps I should’ve defined totalitarianism as well, but I figured that must be less ambiguous for most people.

            For your analogy, you would need to make it “democracy-ism” for the parallel to work.

            You are correct that “rational” for me starts at something that is testable etc, and moves forward with logic and reason. A mushier starting point wouldn’t qualify for me.

            And obviously we disagree about “ought”. I agree that science alone can’t get directly from IS to OUGHT for any one condition at any one time. But that would be a problem if there was only one path to OUGHT and it is a fleeting state. The way I conceive it is there is more than one way to arrive at the same place, without it being directly reliant on the descriptive, given time.

            “If something is good, we ought to do that”. But there is always something that could be better than good. And something could always be worse than good. Science can’t directly define good, but science can readily parse better and worse. And so science can confirm any given state as the contemporary best-case scenario (better than all the rest), and hence identify that as the current goal for the benefit of human flourishing. Recognizing constantly and repeatedly that science will still try to determine “better” than the current “best-case”, at any subsequent point in time.

            Even still, activism is definitely not a scientific domain. Scientists need to not only do, but also be seen to be doing, science that is not driven by or enslaved to any a priori agenda (cuz then that’s just another religion).

          • “You sould have to show that the knowledge gleaned from science translates into absolute societal mandates. For example, smokers would have to be jailed for smoking. That’s clearly not the case.”

            Only because everyone agrees smoking is bad.

            The problem is clear enough when it’s something everyone does not agree on, for example LGBTQ issues, where debate about value judgments such as “good” and “bad” have been replaced with the question-begging that is scientism’s most characteristic trait.

            It’s even so bad that real scientists have been punished for challenging the narratives established by scientism’s question-begging tactics.

          • S. Cheung says

            “Only because everyone agrees smoking is bad.”

            So the science is clear on smoking, “everyone agrees” it’s bad, yet smokers still exist, and can still smoke, albeit with some restrictions, and nothing “gulag-y” has happened. Which is precisely my point that there is absolutely bupkiss totalitarian going on there.

            So what you really need in order to sustain your, or in this case E. Olson’s, position is to find a scenario where the science is clear, yet public acceptance of that scientific evidence is not unanimous (or anything close), and totalitarianism nonetheless befalls the science skeptics. Your LGBTQ example doesn’t come close, because while I agree research restrictions on scientists as a result is moronic, that is hardly totalitarian.

          • augustine says

            S. Cheung,

            Thanks for your clarification as well. I am more baffled than before, however. You say that “the ability of science to provide answers” fits or is your definition of scientism. Sounds like regular old science to me. From Wikipedia:

            “Scientism is an ideology that promotes science as the purportedly objective means by which society should determine normative and epistemological values.”

            Wow, that’s a whole lot different from your definition. Care to elaborate?

            “Science can’t directly define good, but science can readily parse better and worse.”

            I don’t see on what basis you are splitting these particular hairs. Value judgment is value judgment.

            “Even still, activism is definitely not a scientific domain.” Amen to that.

          • augustine says

            Unless you are touting science’s ability to provide answers to questions in virtually all categories?

          • S. Cheung says

            “Sounds like regular old science to me.”

            It’s the BELIEF in what science can do, which defines Scientism for me. I don’t subscribe to the Wiki definition, and it appears the authors of the OP don’t either.

            “Value judgment is value judgment.”

            What I was trying to say is that “good” is static, and absolute. Sort of like “best”. It’s a random single point. Better or worse is the comparison of at least 2 data points. Science can’t tell you the top of the mountain, whereas religion presumes it knows the peak. But science can help you keep climbing, and eventually you will reach that same peak. Except science won’t accept that “peak” as the actual peak, but rather continue to seek a higher one.

            There are things science can’t do for you. Personal preferences, for instance. Science can’t tell you what the best color is, or what your favorite beer is (or should be).

          • augustine says

            You are free to adopt whatever definition of scientism you find to your liking and has support in the literature. I haven’t seen anything like your definition elsewhere, though. Aside from the anodyne definition that relates to the style, practices, etc. of scientists themselves, the more commonly accepted definition/s clearly impart a notion of science “knowing best”, of righteously claiming a share of “ought”.

            From the American Association for the Advancement of Science:

            Philosopher Tom Sorell offers a more precise definition: “Scientism is a matter of putting too high a value on natural science in comparison with other branches of learning or culture.” (2) MIT physicist Ian Hutchinson offers a closely related version, but more extreme: “Science, modeled on the natural sciences, is the only source of real knowledge.”

            I think your personal definition allows you to in effect obviate a range of criticisms of “scientism” using a rather facile defense.

            “But science can help you keep climbing, and eventually you will reach that same peak.”

            If that peak cannot be scientifically discerned, but only known by subjective or divine means, how will you know you have arrived without relying on the latter? My car gets me down the road but it is orthogonal to any destination.

          • S. Cheung says

            I stake out a definition of scientism that I can defend. I feel no obligation whatsoever to how other people choose to define it, just as I feel no obligation to defend their position.

            I have no idea who Sorrell is. But “too high” seems a bit too imprecise to me. It is in itself a subjective judgement…when does it exceed “high enough” and become “too high”. It’s Mushiness 101.

            I don’t mind Hutchinson’s, however. I find nothing extreme about it. Real knowledge IS something you can test, repeat, and prove. Everything else is just truthiness a la Stephen Colbert…stuff you feel in your gut.

            But again, those gentleman can defend their own definitions, which I’m sure they do.

            “how will you know you have arrived (at the peak) without relying on the latter (subjective or divine means)?
            But how can a subjective or divine determination of said peak be proven to be the actual real peak? That you’re led to believe it to be so, does not actually make it so, or confirm it to be so.

            “My car gets me down the road but it is orthogonal to any destination.”
            Which is precisely how science should be. Your destination will change based on each data point you learn, which will reorient where you may be headed. Hypothesis; test; observe; analyze; then generate new hypothesis based on what you just learned. Which is why I said science doesn’t tell you “best”, but can readily tell you “better”.

          • augustine says

            Your destination will change based on each data point you learn, which will reorient where you may be headed. Hypothesis; test; observe; analyze; then generate new hypothesis based on what you just learned.

            This view suggests only a means of helping to decide on a pathway and that’s fine as far as it goes but for you, if I understand correctly, that’s as far as it goes. You will not or cannot give validation to any knowledge beyond this conceptualization.

            The methodology (science) is not a destination and cannot get you to “there”. Science cannot even help direct us toward any goals– we must have an a priori sense of ultimate things for science to be of any use to us at all in theoretical or abstract matters. It is cold and virtually indifferent (when done properly). Scientific enlightenment rests upon anterior things which you dismiss and seem to think will “burn off” in time. I doubt this very much and would not wish such a development on the worst of humanity.

          • S. Cheung says

            “The methodology (science) is not a destination” —obviously I agree with that.

            “cannot get you to “there””
            —as I said a few days ago, it cannot directly get you from here to there, and it certainly can’t do so instantly. But if “there” is simply another point, then there are other ways to get “there”, and there is no absolutely reason why empiricism via another path of investigation can’t independently arrive at that same point. Better still, science won’t stop “there”, but would continue to look for something even better than what you have been told is “best”. Pretty hopeful and inspiring message, if you ask me.

            “a priori sense of ultimate things for science to be of any use to us at all in theoretical or abstract matters”
            —why does it have to be a priori? Scientific hypotheses of today build on the conclusions of yesterday. Now, there will be gray areas depending on what you are referring to with “abstract”. As I already said, for example, science can’t arbitrate taste, or aesthetics, or preferences.

            “.Scientific enlightenment rests upon anterior things which you dismiss and seem to think will “burn off” in time”
            I don’t know what this means.
            But I think your fears and gloomy outlook are vastly over-exaggerated.

          • augustine says

            My “burn off” comment was based on a remark you made on this thread about faith-based views becoming less and less influential over time. I suppose I was taking license with the meaning of your words since I don’t know if you wish for the ultimate primacy of science and scientism in human affairs or not.

            Better still, science won’t stop “there”, but would continue to look for something even better than what you have been told is “best”. Pretty hopeful and inspiring message, if you ask me.

            Who gets to decide what is better or best, and by what means? What if others disagree? Do you see that contest ever coming to a conclusive end? Do you have something in mind that is best (or better) for everyone now?

            It seems you are advocating for scientism because there is no destination at all, only the assurance of incremental improvement, and that is the beauty part. Your references to climbing and peaks as an unending journey sound very similar to the rebellious spirit of liberalism, where the process itself motivates and anything stationary or unchanging is seen as holding back progress. Scientism gives this view more substance and discipline than merely shifting politics but the root motivation is the same I think.

            I can appreciate this on some level but it seems silly as a big picture idea because it is like advocating for “hope and change” when those things come and go regardless, and they cannot be extinguished unless we are extinguished. “Progress based on more knowledge” is not much of a slogan. I should hope that something hopeful and inspiring would lead us beyond what we know by empiricism or reasoning alone.

            But I think your fears and gloomy outlook are vastly over-exaggerated.
            I’m not sure what you mean by this but there are good reasons our fear instincts are much stronger than any tendency toward cheerful optimism.

          • S. Cheung says

            I do think that “science” deserves primacy, but only because I think it is a better method than everything else we have today; however, I don’t think it deserves “ultimate primacy”, because I can’t exclude the possibility of an even better way coming along. This again goes to my view that we can find “better”, but we can’t determine “best”. i would also reject any totalitarian aspects if you felt such baggage was necessary with “ultimate primacy”.

            As for what defines “better”…that really assumes that people can at least agree on something, or on the meaning of words. Can we agree on what is up vs down? For instance, to use a Harris-ism, if we can agree on what would be the absolute conceivable worst human experience for any and all humans at any and all points in time, then better and better is something that gets you farther and farther away from that point. It’s “zero”, where better is a progressively larger positive integer, and best is infinity (hence undefined, and undefinable). And it’s not totalitarian, so of course people can disagree.

            So you are correct, there is no “destination”. But there is the sense of the journey. If looking for something better and better is not hopeful to you, then your kind of hopeful is not the kind I need. i don’t need someone to tell me what I should be looking for, or striving for. That’s what our brain is for, so we can think for ourselves. And “stationary” is literally the antithesis of “progress”. However, that’s more than mere change…because change alone can be negative, or “worse”. Progress isn’t just change, but positive change.

            That are “fear instincts” are strong is without doubt. It’s evolution. However, a strong feeling doesn’t make it a wise feeling, a productive feeling, or a correct feeling. And it’s certainly not one that is conducive to progress.

    • Lightning Rose says

      I think you’ve just identified the primary characteristics of belief systems. Whether they stem from tradition, religion or science is irrelevant. Time-travel back to the 1950’s with me: Nearly everyone “agreed” that non-monogamous sex was an affront to God, nature, and civilization. But people fornicated, albeit furtively. It was the assumption in polite circles that an unmarried woman was a virgin, yes? Yet plenty of spinsters would not have passed the test! Sodomy was a dirty, unmentionable, unnatural act, right? But I’ll bet some of your college chums could have provided
      detailed instruction. Need I go on?

      It gets down to the fact that you can’t prove a negative. I say you’ll go to hell for fornicating; you say you don’t think so. I can’t prove you will; you can’t prove you won’t as both are matters for speculation with no convincing evidence either way BUT arguments from authority. Here is a short list of Chicken Little arguments from authority we’ve been asked to swallow since 1965:

      (1) Impending new Ice Age;
      (2) Hole in the Ozone Layer that will give us all skin cancer;
      (3) Acid Rain that will deforest all of North America;
      (4) “Population Bomb” will cause catastrophic wars, famines, displacements (Ehrlich);
      (5) Nuclear Winter;
      (6) Global warming;
      (6) Peak oil;
      (7) H1N1 flu pandemic;
      (8) Global recession.

      NOT ONE of these “scientific” predictions has come to pass in a 50-year period. At the same time it seems that eggs and steaks are safe, trans fats and HFCS not so much; GMO’s are safe and lifesavers for the developing world; common “screening” tests for cancer may do much more harm than good and routine medical procedures (physicals, pelvic exams, surgery for back and knee pain) have been proven to be plumb-rotten useless wastes of time and money.

      So We The People keep grilling, driving, flying, and drinking, see? I’ll bet YOU do, too!

      • Obscure Canuck says

        Problems 2 and 3 were real issues (not sure about deforesting but it would kill aquatic ecosystems at the very least) and solved by banning or controlling specific pollutants. Now both situations are mostly solved which is why the bad predictions didn’t come to pass.

        4 will happen eventually (unless I am mistunderstanding it) unless population growth is controlled or significantly slows soon because every ecosystem has a carrying capacity for each species, and we are growing fast enough that we will inevitably pass the carrying capacity for humans on Earth. When a population of a species goes past its carrying capacity it usually crashes before eventually reaching a balance. 8 would likely happen as a result if this did happen. Using up stocks of resources such as fish in the ocean and agricultural site quality (soil erosion, nutrient depletion, salinization, etc.) would lower the carrying capacity, while technology allowing us to produce resources more efficiently would raise it.

        Based on historical intense volcanoes, 5 would probably happen if enough nuclear bombs were dropped at the same time, but I’m guessing we don’t know the numbers for how many that would need to be.

      • S. Cheung says

        “It gets down to the fact that you can’t prove a negative. I say you’ll go to hell for fornicating; you say you don’t think so. I can’t prove you will; you can’t prove you won’t”

        To the extent of what you said, everything there is true. But what you didn’t say was that the onus would be on you to prove that someone will go to hell for fornicating. Unless you provide the proof for that hypothesis, that hypothesis can be rejected, and you would have to accept the null (which, btw, would state that you wouldn’t….but note that to be different than saying it proves that you wouldn’t).

        As OC says, some of those predictions were averted because something was actively done. #3 is certainly something Herbert Walker Bush deserves credit for.

  32. DrZ says

    “In science, the jury is always out. This is because science is a methodological approach to the world, not a set of inflexible principles or a catalog of indisputable facts. Truth is always provisional. Science does not hold something to be incontrovertibly true. It says, “This appears to be true according to the best available theory and evidence.””

    It’s true for most science, but not the science of man-caused climate change. 97% of scientist agree man causes climate change, so by gum, it’s true.

  33. Bartek D. says

    This is certainly an interesting essay, yet there are some contradictions and omissions:

    When discussing scientism, one should really try to directly engage the best critics of scientism and belief in progress, both the past ones (Voegelin, Hayek) and current ones (Taleb).
    The author cites favorably Susan Haack, who is a famous critic of NOMA, then cites favorably S.J. Gould, who proposed NOMA. Seems a bit contradictory to me.
    The literary criticism: Author is skeptical about the usefulness of evolutionary psychology (which is earlier referred as “best modern psychological theory”) but also criticizes the application of psychoanalysis. So what is actually useful? Some third theory that is otherwise less useful than the most useful psychological theory? Marxism, perhaps? (just kidding) Or maybe the whole point is that humanities have really something unique in their research method that cannot be reduced to “being based upon evidence and dedicated to rigor and rational argumentation”?

    As already pointed out, the status of social sciences is quite overstated. For example, actually there is no consensus that our cognitive biases are prevalent and well understood. Yes, there is the position of Kahneman, bout there is also a very different position of Gigerenzer, also supported by lot of research and empirical evidence. The same goes for evolution and human nature with some empirically oriented anthropologists (Sosis, Atran, Henrich) opening pretty new perspectives, like, for example, stating the religion and supernatural belief were not only very useful, but actually necessary for the development of human civilization.

    The criticism of philosophy as boring or arcane. This is really a very bad argument. Some humanist consider statistics as boring and integral calculus as arcane, but this hardly serves as proof of statistic and integrals not being pretty important. The fact that some issues in ontology or meta-ethics causes super-smart people to overheat their brains and reach opposing conclusions does not mean that the topic is not important. If anything, it means something exactly opposite.
    The morality and policy argument. “Most modern people in the West agree, despite sometimes showy protestations to the contrary, that human well-being ought to be the goal of social policy and morality”. But the “West” is a minority and the “modern” refers to perhaps 1% of history of human Civilization. The author mentioned something about the humility, I recon…

    In fact, the policy part is the weakest one in the whole essay. It’s extremely oversimplified. Take the argument “Or that because freedom is the most important good in the world, a social policy that saved 20,000 lives by increasing taxes by 1 percent would be immoral because it decreases freedom?”. Well, if freedom is not that important, compared to human lives, what about the total abortion ban? It could save like 600,000 life per year, you know. Or maybe something less extreme, “the act of assassinating current decision maker, and replacing him with the candidate who introduces 2 percent tax increase that saves 40,000 lives” (it’s net 39,999 lives in plus, much better than 20,000). Or maybe just linear extrapolation, like “saving 1,200,000 lives by increasing taxes by 60%, thus rising the rate to 100% and eliminating any disposable income?” Maybe “the obvious” ethical tradeoffs are not that obvious, after all?

    You may say, like Harris, that deontology is boring and embrace utilitarianism (maximize well-being) but this is hardly scientific approach – please, at least be honest about that. There are much more coherent, secular and rigorous ethical systems than utilitarianism, for example, Hoppe’s argumentative ethics – which, surprisingly, doesn’t give a shit about well-being maximization.

    The same problem is with “science based social policy”. Yes, it’s quite fashionable, but there is no empirical proof that it is really needed. Empires grew for centuries without it. Even in the 19th century we have a lot of scientific and technical progress, a lot of improvements in everyday life, economic growth at similar rate as today, yet very little of “science based social policy”. Actually, it is not really obvious that science based policy is, scientifically speaking, the best policy at al – especially, if we take into account some scientific insight into the organization of society: dispersed knowledge, fragile strategic irrationality, or double hermeneutic…

    • Grant says

      Very well said. People don’t respond very well to complicated solutions but human existence can be complicated. We did flourish economically and technically during the 19 th century without any social sciences whatsoever.
      Ironically science and technology is the cause of much of our problems. We are not adapted very well to these radical changes and the upheaval they cause in people’s lives. It’s over simplistic but completely necessary. Policies that promote stability in families and small groups is what’s needed. Housing and medical care solutions will go a long way in promoting peace and well-being. If we do that, a lot of problems will take care of themselves.

  34. Absolutely baffles my mind that individuals can simultaneously believe in genetic IQ differences and also that science is a guide to values. You are creating a eugenic state whether you think so or not. Science alone is amoral and science without guidance from a priori values will descend into utilitarian measurements of human value, and if a particular human is deemed a net negative to human wellbeing (disabled, low IQ, etc) what is to be done with them? Judeo-Christian ethics posits protecting the weak. What will the world of “scientism” do? Just because Sam Harris is a gentle liberal does not mean his core philosophical ideas led to those beliefs. They lead down a darker path, one the New Atheists and IDW may open not suspecting where it leads.

    • E. Olson says

      Very good comment alex6263. We already know that basically anyone with an IQ below 85 is a net cost to Western society, and that 5% of the people are responsible for 50% of medical costs. Thus the obvious “scientific” solution is to deport, sterilize, or kill low IQ and/or sickly people for the benefit of society.

    • Science alone is amoral

      Newsflash: there is no such thing as “morality” in nature, real life is all about survival and inclusive fitness maximization, nothing else matters. The only “purpose” that can be found in the individual’s existence is that the individual is a vehicle for the propagation of his/her genes. How much people find that abhorrent makes it no less true.

      You are creating a eugenic state whether you think so or not

      Nobody has actually presented a coherent argument against eugenics, it is all some combination of emotional screeching (by those incapable of rational thought) and virtue signalling hypocrisy (by those who have actually thought about the issue but either lack the intellectual integrity to say what they actually think and/or see virtue signalling as more important than speaking the truth).

      There are all sorts of mutations that have condition-invariant severely detrimental effects on fitness. It is a no-brainer to screen those out of the gene pool.

      There is also the unmentionable truth that technology has relaxed natural selection leading to continuing deterioration of the gene pool as a result. How exactly do we fix that problem if the species is to survive in the long run?

      • Ray Andrews says


        It is logically unavoidable that those who coddle the inferior now are undermining the entire species’ future. It is unfortunate that only the ultra right ever point this out, thus only their proposed solutions enter the meme-sphere. I myself would like to face that fact while looking for humane solutions.

      • augustine says


        Newsflash: you don’t get to decide for me what has meaning or purpose. And I don’t get to make that decision for you, either. You seem to be taking the very short view and have forgotten or are ignoring that we have been through a lot, evolutionarily speaking, most of which is unknown to us in any detail. Neither you nor any scientist or team of scientists is in a position to claim with confidence that today’s human weaknesses– genetic, cultural or other– will doom us.

        I suspect that the authoritative, gloomy talk of meaninglessness like what you employ here is nothing more than a bid for power over others. It is exactly the same power that has been developed and abused by religious people at times. Same psychology, same meta-meme. You need a better eschatology, though.

      • Bob Johnson says


        Thankfully, Our Authority is the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, who said that murder is a sin and that we will be judged by what we did for the poor

        All of us are sinners in need of grace, and we should be judged by how well we treat the poor, sick, and weak, not how well we meet modernist metrics of productivity

        To deny this is to reject western civilization, because western civilization=Christianity

  35. D.B. Cooper says

    @Winegard & Winegard

    Once we have identified a desirable end—human flourishing—we can and should use science to discover and promote the policies that encourage it. Put another way, science can and absolutely should tell people how to live.

    Comparably, I’m sure most would agree that human flourishing is desirable to outright impoverishment. To believe otherwise would lie in direct contravention to the basic tenets of Darwinian evolution. That is, if one excepts that genetic variation is selected (via comparative advantage) for its ability to enhance biological fitness – enhance our ability to survive and reproduce within a given environment – then one SHOULD expect that most people will agree on an underlying value of human flourishing.

    I can imagine that one might object that I’m committing a genetic fallacy. That the origins of an underlying value (human flourishing) is entirely irrelevant to the current context of your argument as I understand it; which is that SBSP doesn’t tell us what values we ought to pursue, but rather that SBSP can and should be used to discover and promote the policies that encourage those values/ends/goals that we have chosen to pursue – in this case, human flourishing. In short, SBSP is a tool, the best tool in your estimation, to help us achieve that which we have already decided is of value. SBSP is a means to an end.

    If this formulation is a reasonably accurate interpretation of your argument, then yes, I agree social policy should be grounded on empirical data. Moreover, I’m hard pressed to imagine that someone (at least in the West) would disagree with the idea that, for example, an administrative agency like the FDA should base its recommendation and enforcement decisions on anything other than the empirical data. I don’t mean to be flippant here, but that’s not exactly a provocative idea. Do you know many people who believe such decisions should be based on something other than the science, because I certainly don’t? I consider myself a fairly open-minded person, but even still, I think majority people would agree that such things should not be left to the interpretations of tasseography, palmistry, or any other occultic ritual of divination. My apologies, in advance, to any shamans in attendance. I’m sure that tea is powerful stuff.

    Of course, since SBSP doesn’t have anything to say about how we ought to behave or what we ought to value, but rather the best means by which we can achieve these things once it’s been decided what they are; this still leaves the small issue of being caught stiff legged in Hume’s guillotine as dumbfounded as we were before. And NO, human flourishing is not an apt rejoinder, despite the equivocations of Sam Harris, and let me tell you why.

    Simply because most people agree that their life and the quality of it has value (including their progeny’s and any they may have in the future) and can perfectly understand why others would share this sentiment; it does not then mean that human flourishing suddenly qualifies as an objective/intrinsic good. Surely, human flourishing can mean many things (e.g., happiness, health, satisfaction) to many different people (just ask AOC and her sycophants to define “a living wage” or “paying your fair share in taxes”).

    This variability is a function of using an ambiguous term like human flourishing. The benefit of imprecise language when making a claim is that it can mean many different things to many different people. What’s more, each metric (happiness, satisfaction, etc.) exists along a spectrum; therefore, we’ll need to know the exact point (it is an objective value, after all) at which human flourishing starts/stops being desirable. What level of well-being, happiness, satisfaction, health, etc. qualifies – intrinsically that is – as being a desired end that most would agree on?

    Of course, you almost certainly knew all of this, which is why you appear to have hedged your bets when defining it. “the underlying value most people agree upon is that some form of human flourishing or satisfaction or well-being or happiness is an intrinsic good and ought to be promoted.” There’s a name for this. It’s called the fallacy of equivocation.

    I’m a little shocked b/c you would have had to know that different people would define human flourishing in different way, and in doing so, would render invalid your claim that “most people agree.” This feels a bit slippery to me if I’m honest. Also, since when does a majority opinion transmute the subjective into the objective; the extrinsic into the intrinsic? A cursory glance at American history (up to 1865) would suggest that’s not a defensible course of action.

    There’s much more to say, of course, but maybe for a different post.

    • D.B. Cooper

      “The fallacy of equivocation”- good phrase. A common problem with scientists writing essays seems to be that they think they are being precise (scientific or logical) when in fact they may be all over the place or really saying nothing at all. This vagueness is suggestive of a larger issue regarding science and how scientists look at the world. If “Scientism cannot determine values” where do values come from?

    • Ray Andrews says

      @D.B. Cooper

      You’ve been away DB, welcome back.

      “To believe otherwise would lie in direct contravention to the basic tenets of Darwinian evolution.”

      One might think so, but there are those deep ecologist folks who consider you monkeys to be a plague on the planet and wish you/they would all die or perhaps go back to eating carrion and living in caves and numbering no more than a few million. They think that unspoiled nature is what has value (and I agree with them, tho far more moderately). Then we have the folks who ran off to join ISIS because what they valued was not comfort but purpose and meaning. For them human flourishing means the whole world in perfect submission. And we have the neo-eugenics types who point out the unavoidable fact that the flourishing of the species as a whole must mean keeping the gene pool from degenerating but rather robustly improving it by removing inferior people. As you point out ‘human flourishing’ is not a simple idea.

  36. augustine says

    The first paragraph offers the idea that “science” has produced a vast array of improvements to the human condition but this is wrong. Science has done no such thing. Human beings, employing bequeathments from the theoretical and applied sciences, have made magnificent progress for our species in general. However, it is the millions of selfish or more altruistic, motivated people who deserve most of credit for the work done and the advances we enjoy. Discovery and truth-seeking continue to provide many crucial tools for improvements and actions (and insights) but these are very different aims than those of the people who apply them.

    “Once we have identified a desirable end—human flourishing—we can and should use science to discover and promote the policies that encourage it. Put another way, science can and absolutely should tell people how to live.”

    That says it all. Just wow.

    It is surprising and certainly telling that this essay does not address religion by name or even conceptually. The section on “Scientism Cannot Determine Values” is weak and could have picked up a little credit by granting that science in fact cannot determine human values. The authors as much as cede this point. Science can inform our values of course, and help us make better choices, but in the end those choices are made by humans with their imperfect, emotion-laden brains. Perhaps this vexing natural condition is one that some scientismists (sp?) believe will be vanquished in the future, and so we are back to science absolutely, literally telling people how to live.

    Assigning value and value judgment are the key problems here. The authors are barely able to admit that some moral issues will be more challenging than the strawman examples they cite. Science per se cannot help when it comes to deciding if capital punishment or abortion are just or humane, or whether it ought to be any concern of ours if 60% of biodiversity goes extinct in the near future. Where do we go to find help in wrestling with these problems then? The Winegards don’t say.

    • Augustine

      “Assigning value and value judgment are the key problems here”

      You are absolutely correct that this is an issue which traditionally was dealt with by what we call religion. The Winegards’ et al are simply ignorant of the elemental nature of the problem.

      I don’t think the Winegards realize that Scientism has already triumphed. As Martin Hiedegger (following Nietzsche) observed, science has become modern man’s way of revealing reality – everybody on planet earth implicitly accepts this. Reality is no longer apprehended as a whole (art, religion) but in pieces. This process over time results in us being enveloped by an objectified reality to which we all more or less conform.

      Science and all of its miraculous technologies and rational bureaucratic systems results in a Dysneyfied reality where all values appears arbitrary or mere personal choice. Religion itself devolves to a personal whim, which is to say, one more consumer product.

      In other words, Postmodern relativism is the inevitable love child of the marriage of scientific methodologies to the presumption of a meaningless universe. Science x 0 = 0. Postmodern relativism is the logical end product when you apply scientific skepticism to science. So we get to make it up as we go along – Goofy one day, Mickey the next, Pluto the day after . . .

      The Winegard’s vagueness of definition of “human flourishing” is merely symptomatic of the fact that scientific methodologies are in themselves incapable of discovering values. This they admit, but as you point out, seem unaware of what this means. Why not, as is indeed happening, use the power of scientific methodologies to promote “equality” as the primary value? Or, how about simply “wealth”? Or, how about racial purity . . ?

      Again, scientific methodologies presume nothing, which is to say, the Winegards are wholly unaware of their own elemental nihilism. They can whine all they want about the misuse of science but until they understand and acknowledge who they are and what they stand for their complaints are unconvincing. Scientism is for people who want to make believe their ideas and beliefs are wholly innocent while everybody else has some agenda. These people aren’t so much like the boy who cried wolf, they are more like the wolf who cried wolf.

  37. Andrew Worth says

    I’ve always thought democracy was a pretty good system, but there are always people who think they can improve on democracy, the socialists think they could govern more fairly, the wealthy think they could govern better to create wealth and surprise, surprise, some scientists think they could govern more scientifically. The strength of democracy is though that everyone gets to have a say.

  38. Furthermore, the best historical and comparative evidence on social systems unequivocally demonstrates that centralized planning and top-down control are dangerous, ruinous of prosperity, and antithetical to human flourishing.

    This is demonstrably false though.

    The Russian people have never experienced a golden age such as the one in the 1960s and 1970s, before or since, and that was the result precisely of top-down control and centralized planning. If you want evidence for that, talk to people who lived through that time, they still exist. “Flourishing” is very much the word to describe their experiences,

    The same applies to a number of other places.

    • Grant says

      Well like all systems, it was a mixed bag. The problem with the Soviet system was the amount of force and coercion required to maintain it. It was fine if you were inclined to go along with it, tragically crushing if you didn’t. So yeah you’ll find people talking whimsically about how great the good old days were when they couldn’t get fired and had basic necessities however meager, but we all tend to do that. Most people however would not choose to repeat it.

      • Quality of life is not the same thing as per capita GDP.

        • Andrew Worth says

          The quality of life in the Soviet Union was so great that the frequent celebrations led to Russians becoming some of the heaviest consumers of alcohol in the world. /sarc.

      • dirk says

        Why do you think it was only 50% Andrew? Even now, with democracy allover, the more you travel eastwards from Berlin on, the lower the wages. I wonder how much they are in Kazachstan now. This has been so, I guess, for the last 2 or 300 yrs.

        • Andrew Worth says

          dirk, not always easy to make easy comparisons, in terms of PPP a lot of the East European countries are closing in on West European countries like Spain and Italy, there are still a lot on countries in Eastern Europe including Russia that do not have low corruption democracies and freeish market economies. A countries wealth is (obviously) largely determined by productivity, it takes time for the people in a country to adjust to new political and economic systems and take full advantage of them, Russia, which has never had a liberal free market economy, has moved to more a crony capitalist economy ruled by a President that controls the media, you can’t have sound democracy without a free press.

    • Have the Russian people ever had anything that wasn’t top down central planning?

      Saying that they experienced a golden age means contrasting it – with what, precisely? Tsars? Oligarchy? When have these people ever had true checks & balances?

  39. Jeff Stern says

    Plato lives, Hayek is dead. Nicely done, boys.

  40. Rick Phillips says

    We seem to have strayed from what I thought was the major point of the article as articulated in its opening sentence; namely, that science is really about appropriate methodologies to determine which of our beliefs best reflect truth (or at least are truthier) given the currently available weight of evidence. I quote that first sentence…

    “In science, the jury is always out. This is because science is a methodological approach to the world, not a set of inflexible principles or a catalog of indisputable facts. Truth is always provisional. Science does not hold something to be incontrovertibly true. It says, “This appears to be true according to the best available theory and evidence.””

    I suppose we have all strayed down the path of arguing whether science proved; or in fact could prove this or that…. But it really is not about when the science supported the right conclusion or the wrong hypothesis (although this is probably a question amenable to empirical assessment)…. It is truly all about the method.

    I think Kuhn developed one of the best descriptions of how the method actually works in practice and in doing so reconciles the observations made in many of the comments of apparent failures associated with the method (most of these related to interpretive failures together with typical human frailties). The difference between dogma and scientific hypothesis is the relative extent to which they are willing to be exposed to re-interpretation based on new evidence.

    I refer you again to Kuhn’s seminal thesis which is available or the Coles notes version (at Wikipedia) under “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions”…. I would put in the direct links but Quillette comments section seems to be somewhat allergic to these.

  41. I’m all in favour of science and scientists when they pursue the scientific method rigorously. The core truth of science is not its laws, theories, institutions, or acquired knowledge; it is the scientific method. This scientific method demands that everyone, not just ‘skeptical philosophers and pundits continue to forward arguments against scientific “arrogance”’. As the Greeks knew, arrogance leads to hubris. I disagree that promoting “science-based social policy” is the same as scientism. Ben and Bo established a binary opposition here. A false dilemma. My way or the highway. The notion that Pinker, Harris, Dawkins, and Tyson favour “science—skepticism, experimentation, falsification, and the search for basic explanatory principles”, is news to me. 3 of them are man-made climate catastrophe clones. They believe more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will lead to hell. I find that strange. How a scientist can say they “believe in” something without rigorously going through the science. Climate science is a lot of science: geology, paleoclimatology, solar studies, oceanography, atmospherics physics and more. When you claim to be a skeptic you actually need to show skepticism and respect skepticism. Not seen a lot of that from, especially Dawkins and Tyson. Which leads me to believe they are bad examples to follow. Excuse me if I don’t take their prescription for science based policy seriously.

    What is the alternative? A double-dose of skepticism. If you want to exclude scientists from policy making, please exclude those who dis’ skepticism and corrupt the scientific method. Especially exclude those who short-circuit debate by calling skeptics “deniers”.

  42. Grant says

    The problem with science is that there’s so much of it that is of low quality, that it’s prolific and often misrepresented to further ideologies. It’s often used akin to the way Latin was used by the priesthood to tell people what to think. There’s so much noise in the system, it’s no wonder there’s no focus on understanding a problem, then rationally going about solving it.
    There have been many, of course, spectacular successes such as the stunning fall in measles deaths world wide in 35 years, but these are mostly confined to STEM sciences.
    As a society and wish we’d focus in one problem, such as drug addiction, or plastic pollution and figure it out.

  43. dirk says

    Also author and landlord Leo Tolstoy once thought it would be better to do away with all science, because it does not tell us how to live. He could easily say so, traveling by train to Swiss and German Spa’s. And why expect assistance from science in morality? However, he was not the only negativist in Russia saying this, also Svidrigailov (Crime and Punishment) and other ” nihilist” Russians reasoned in a similar way, all highly critical of the Western enlightment, and its hope on a better individual fate by more sense and reason and science. Maybe, they all felt somewhere some cracks in that optimistic enlightenment. Maybe they were even right, somewhere, somewhat!

    • dirk says

      Checking again on what I thought to remember: Tostoy esteemed science for its precise and clear answers on natural and technical details, but for the real life questions, you couldn’t count on it, useless! This he wrote after a deep depression.

    • dirk

      You are correct to bring up Dostoevsky – I believe Dostoevsky understood that science cannot generate meaning. The underground man rejects science which is in the service of “human flourishing” not because it is ineffective but precisely because it is effective. As the modern poster child of alienation, the underground man understands his own humanity is a function of his capacity to transform suffering and to generate meaning.

      “What does reason know? Reason knows only what it has succeeded in learning (some things perhaps it will never learn, this is poor comfort, but why not say so frankly), and human nature acts as a whole, with everything that is in it, consciously and unconsciously, even if it goes wrong, it lives.”

      It appears to be an empirical fact that humans act both “consciously and unconsciously”.
      .Dostoevsky’s understanding of the whole cultural processes going on all around him has proven him to be one of history’s great empiricists.

      • dirk says

        For some reason, CA, we see here in the NL a revival in interest in the work and qualities of Dostojefski, with this year even a new translation. What once was seen as a writer without much order, unilaterality and style , is now much more seen as masterly psychological insight, rationalising the multifaceted subconscience of man, his search for redemption not a cheap melodrama of caricatures, but pure reality. Morality not seen as just sense and ratio,of utilitarianism, neither a matter of religion or enlightenment, but of a confrontation with our own monstruous , but also altruistic self. So, what Tolstoy found in the simple peasant lifestyle, and not in the French intellectuals. I read the book as a teenager (much too early) with even another title then, Guilt and Forgiveness, it looks like he is still very much alive and influential among us, 21st centurists.

        • dirk

          I’ve been rereading some of Dostoevsky’s lesser known short stories and I’m beginning to think of his works as comprising a kind of epic mythology of modern human consciousness. And interestingly I’m reading “Dream of a Ridiculous Man” in light of having just read Iain McGilchrist’s masterful study of the brain The Master and his Emissary – amazing concurance on how consciousness works.

          Seems perhaps Jordan Peterson has inspired some new interest in Dostoevsky.

  44. Andrew Roddy says

    Does the fact that science has made us more certain about some things mean that there is less uncertainty generally? Is there a finite amount of uncertainty? Is the job of science to nibble away at the great cosmic pie of uncertainty, occasionally taking enormous greedy bites, until there is not one crumb of uncertainty left? There are those who seem emotionally predisposed to feel it is and try to pass that predisposition off as something rationally grounded.
    Might it be that sum of all unknowns actually increases the more knowledge we acquire and uncertainty with it?
    Might it be better to come to some accommodation with uncertainty rather than make claims for science that science itself, in its proper wits, is too wise to make for itself?

    • dirk says

      There is even a science of uncertainties and probabilities, Andrew, very useful for insurance companies (and even in genetics and medical trials).

    • S. Cheung says

      not sure if it’s finite or infinite, but the amount of “uncertainty” or “the unknown” is unknowable. As you do science, the more you know, the more you realize how much you don’t know.

      Even often what are called scientific truths are usually statistical truths, and not absolute truths. A quantum of uncertainty is always baked in.

      • Andrew Roddy says

        @ S. Cheung

        And just so. Learning, in any field, can make us more keenly aware of the limits of our knowledge or skill. An exquisite bitter-sweet. Or to quote Irish Poet, Patrick Kavanagh,

        To be a Poet and not know the trade
        To be a lover and repel all women
        Twin ironies by which great Saints are made
        The agonizing pincer jaws of Heaven

        Frankly, I am not convinced that these sensitivities represent the most marked characteristic of adherents of Scientism.

  45. Anonymous says

    I thought this was an April Fool’s joke. Just look at objection number three – none of the other ones matter.

    Science cannot adjudicate between competing values. That is the role of politics. Politics is not science – nor is science politics.

    Science’s role is to describe the physical world and explain how it works.

    The ancient Greeks were very clear on this. It is not in the domain of science to make decisions about how to split up a pie and who to assign the pieces to.

  46. Jay Salhi says

    “It is not in the domain of science to make decisions about how to split up a pie and who to assign the pieces to.”

    What if you had evidence that splitting a pie a certain way might yield better results? Should you ignore such evidence?

    • Morgan Foster says

      @Jay Salhi

      “Evidence” is not a registered trademark of the sciences. We have legal evidence. We have political evidence.

    • dirk says

      Just read what I wrote about his here above, Alex. And I reflected somewhat more on it, of course, the statement is not a scientific one to verify either falsify. It is a moral ideal, something for on a banner, to spawn cohesion and trust in societies. It is also quite useless to define it properly (what do you mean with equal? with all? with created? with men?). Better leave it as such!

  47. Constantin says

    And then I read these gems: 1) “Similarly, social science continues to make slow but steady progress, despite depressing detours along the way. It is heartening, for example, to note that today very few people seriously believe that war is caused by a Freudian “death instinct.” “; and 2) “That is, most modern people in the West agree, despite sometimes showy protestations to the contrary, that human well-being ought to be the goal of social policy and morality. ” It is nearly impossible to know whether “social science” even exists, let alone whether it makes some steady progress if the only example that comes to mind is a psychoanalytic concept devised in the 19th century. If that counts as “progress”, “slow” is a very big understatement. Meanwhile, normal people are terrified of the little monsters “social science” creates, chief among them a war on biology and other real sciences. I fear we cannot share the extremely naïve optimism of Mr. Winegard. Furthermore, “despite protestations to the contrary” is the worldview of the intolerant political Left for whom the political differences on social policy are mere accidents or aberrations that could be contained under the category of “Nazi! Shut the ….ck up!”. The “obvious consensus” on what is good for the mankind was the modus operandi of totalitarians of all stripes, with the socialist/communist variety picking the top prize for eradicating dissent. No, Mr. Winegard! Most people in the West and everywhere else disagree on what which policies best serve the “human well-being”. I happen to like the side that builds the wall on the US Southern Border and re-asserts national sovereignty in Europe. I am curious what “social science” can tell us about it (above and beyond diversity is the best thing since sliced bread). Rest assured that no sane individual anywhere would like science to decide how they should live. If there are teenage (in years, or in mind as the author of this shameful ode to a quasi religious belief) readers perusing these comments, remember that science has certain notions about what is good for you that will lead to an incredibly regimented and confined existence (think broccoli on every plate, a curfew to ensure regular sleep patterns and not much screen time either). Give ultimate power to one who believes these decisions to some idiot who claims “…science can and absolutely should tell people how to live.” and tell freedom “goodbye”!. If the intention of the Quillette’s editors was to get us horrified, this works pretty well.

  48. I think Quillette is doing a public service publishing this article. The champions of Scientism have stated their case and recieved a range of more or less intelligent responses.

    There seems to be some agreement regarding the problematic nature of Scientism, in particular the ability of scientific methodology in determining values. And whille Bo Winegard is to be commended for responding in person, I can’t see anywhere that the authors have engaged this particular criticism seriously. And this criticism, by the way, goes back at least as far as Goethe.

    The Winegards’ apparent disregard of this elemental criticism is common, as near as I can tell, among all proponents of Scientism. I think the reason for this is somewhat simple: Scientism only sees science as responsible for good outcomes. All bad outcomes are the result of “bad science”.

    And indeed, scientific methodogies can be applied ex post facto to any any and all bad outcomes to demonstrate that science was misused and was indeed unscientific. Gas chambers? Bad science. Eugenics? Bad science. Planned economy? Bad science. DDT? Bad science . . . Scientism apparently only accounts for “human flourrishing”, or “happiness” – everything else is Bad Science.

    I think many of us are becoming increasingly aware that the case for Scientism involves a good deal of self congradulation, vague definition of terms, and an avoidance of confronting elemental issues. I think this whole give and take helps make that clear.

  49. davido says

    Baloney. What this article describes is traditional science, which no reasonable person denies. Scientism is the extreme view that ONLY science is a valid instrument for revealing truth. Just atoms and a void. It especially rejects philosophy and theology; there is not a scientism scientist in the world that is not an rabid atheist. See Dawkins, Richard.
    Thus we have the Atheist Saint Stephen Hocking, who liked to say things like “Physics has proved God doesn’t exist” Ditto Lawrence Krauss, at least before he was fired for sexual harassment. Scientism is the out-of-hand rejection of the ID challenge to the crumbling foundations of evolution, an ideology as much as a scientific theory. It is the insufferable Neil DeGrasse Tyson proclaiming humans are constituted essentially the same as stars and planets. It is the proposal that human consciousness can be downloaded into a computer (whatever that means) and we can live forever. “Science” generates questions that science cannot ipso facto answer, but scientism denies this obvious fact.
    And scientism is also the scientific communities disgusting support of transgenderism, the lunatic theory that has ZERO basis in biology but chemically and surgically mutilates healthy children.

    • davido says

      Here is why science is possible in the first place:

      In the beginning was the Logos, and the Logos was with God, and the Logos was God.

      John 1:1

    • S. Cheung says

      “The version of scientism we will be defending here is the version advocated by Pinker, Harris, Dawkins, and Tyson; the simple contention that we, as a society, should use the principles of science—skepticism, experimentation, falsification, and the search for basic explanatory principles—to determine, however clumsily and slowly, how the world works and what the best and most effective social policies are.”

      If you’re going to argue against the article, you should at least argue against what the author explicitly said, and not what you hoped they had said.

      Seems like the extremism is all yours. Your bibical quote is hilarious btw.

  50. Andrew Roddy says

    Skepticism and experimentation we have had for millennia and Falsification for about fifty years. A Holy Trinity that revealed itself in well spaced instalments. What will we think of next?

  51. Shawn T says

    “humans are nepotistic, tribalistic, status-driven creatures. ”

    So are scientists. The fact that scientists would argue they should determine social policy illustrates the flaw.

    The authors cite an example of setting a tax rate. This is meaningless without establishing what you want to buy as a government. Do we go with the “make life better for people” angle? Then we can argue about what “better” really means. Can a government even achieve “better?” Should it be responsible for “better” in the first place? We see lists of country rankings like “best place to live.” This always includes free stuff provided by government as criteria. If more free stuff is the measure of government, you will arrive at one tax rate. If you start with the idea that government should only provide national security, regulate interstate commerce and handle relations with foreign nations, you end up with an entirely different rate. Science doesn’t help because it is the underlying PHILOSOPHY that guides the direction of the scientific question. Eugenics was awful because it was framed in an awful philosophy. Same with Nazi science. Given the flaws with scientists themselves (opening quote of this post) there is no evidence anything would be better by their driving the philosophy.

    There is great value in contextualizing scientific work. Science itself would not conceive of charter schools. It can analyze them, compare them, even improve them, but they are the result of a philisophical leap from well studied public and private education. Science didn’t reveal the value of charter schools, but did expose the strengths and weaknesses of public and private education.

    Science did put us on the moon. But, only after someone with political motivation layed out the challenge. The derivative benefit was massive, but not the result of careful study of social policy. One leader wanted to stick it to the USSR.

    Scientists can study Social Security, welfare, housing assistance, education or any other social program…it cannot, however, ever come to the conclusion that these programs should be eliminated. If given the job of deciding whether or not to be rid of programs, there may be value. If the underlying motivation is to make them viable, make them bigger, or some other policy goal, science will be driven in that direction. It won’t fumble its way to a final policy.

    What is the scientific policy when scientists disagree? Poll them and if a majority vote one way call it settled? How then can the science evolve and study continue? Enforcing this vote then becomes, itself, a betrayal of scientific method. Once a “concensus” is reached, how can it ever be anything but etched in stone? We end up with pathetic statements like “the right side of history” or “the science is settled” to justify almost anything using the right set of facts to fit the occasion.

    The problem with science as governance is exactly the same as religion as governance. Both will declare and defend “Truth” and enforce it as humans always do. The only difference is in what is declared truth. These are sources to inform decisions and both are powerful when used to augment governance, but as the actual setter of policy neither can be successful.

  52. Fred says

    Yeah, tell you what: When you can show me the controlled experiment that provides even the slightest evidence that I should only believe what is verifiable by controlled experimentation, show me the empirical evidence that I shoiuld only accept that for which there is empirical evidence, and show me a non-question-begging way to verify with my senses that my senses can verify anything, I will consider taking scientism seriously.

    I might add that science itself presupposes certain metaphysical positions that it cannot verify by its own methods. It presupposes a certain physical realism. It presupposes that physical objects exist outside our sensory perception. It presupposes cause and effect. It presupposrs that our senses, aided by intrumentation and experimentation, can perceive reality more or less accurately. It presumes a certain level of intelligibility to physical reality that it cannot itself explain. Those are all philosophical, not scientific, presuppositions. Yet science could not function without them. Not being a scientist, I cannot comment on Dawkins’ or Tyson’s competence in science, but as someone who has studied philosophy for decades, I can tell you they are embarrassingly incompetent philosophers.

    • S. Cheung says

      “When you can show me the controlled experiment that provides even the slightest evidence that I should only believe what is verifiable by controlled experimentation,”

      That’s completely circular.

      What you should believe is stuff that has been, or can be, proven. Because barring that, you will allow yourself to potentially and literally believe anything. You could do that, and you can; but I don’t think you should. But in order to get to that point, you will need to extricate yourself from your circle.

      • Fred says

        S. Cheung, That it is circular is precisely the point. Scientism is self-undermining. And I am not recommending intellectual anarchy. I am only saying that science is not the sum of human knowledge, nor is the scientific method the sum of human reasoning. There is philosophical knowledge, aesthetic knowledge, and, yes, theological knowledge. All of those are reached in ways other than empirical investigation (although they may start there) and controlled experimentation. Science is a method and a powerful one. Scientism is a metaphysics, and a demonstrably false pne.

        • S. Cheung says

          I think I see your point. But in that case, it’s actually the strength of scientism and not a weakness…and it’s a weakness in other modes of thought. Science can’t prove that the scientific method is supreme. You do have to believe in its capacity first. In contradistinction, theologists probably feel that their belief in their god also serves as proof of their god’s existence. So like the Big Bang, you do have to start somewhere. But once started, science moves itself forward. On the other hand, with theology, once started, it is instantly circular, and will remain so in perpetuity.

          I guess where we also differ is what we consider knowledge, or perhaps the relative worth we associate with different forms of knowledge. For me, the pinnacle is the factual, testable, objective stuff. THere are philosophers of course, and brilliant ones who conceive of things in a certain way…and yet there are other presumably similarly brilliant ones who would conceive of the same things in different ways, in what amounts to me to a difference of learned opinions. Aesthetics, literally, is beauty in the eye of the beholder. One can’t get much more subjective than that. But then theology is literally just believing in something, which ironically disproves my previous statement.

          • Fred says

            Of course, you’re competely wrong about theology. No theologian would ever argue “God exists because I believe God exists.” That is a gnu atheist straw man. There are in fact powerful logical and philosophical arguments for God’s existence and for the rationality of faith going back to Aristotle, through Aquinas, such Enlightenment thinkers as Descartes (personally, I believe Descartes’ argument was flawed, but it was not irrational) and Leibniz, to contemporary thinkers like John Haldane, Edward Feser, John Hick, Pope St. John Paul II, and Alan Plantinga to name just a few.

            You are also quite wrong about aesthetics. While there is an irreducibly subjective element to the subject, it also has been an object of philosophical investigation and logical argumentation since at least Aristotle. Who would you find more convincing, someone who told you a song, say, was good because, Butt-head-like, he thought it was “cool” or someone knowledgeable about music who explained to you what musical techniques the song uses and why it uses them, what influences it shows, and how it has influenced subsequent music? For my part, if the musical arguments were convincing logically, even if I still didn’t like the song, I would at least understand and appreciate its quality.

            Finally, even though I don’t know you, I would say the odds are pretty good you believe at least some things that cannot be verified by empirical observation and controllled experimentation. Philosophy, aesthetics, theology, etc. are just ways of rationally examining and at least attempting to support or refute those beliefs. I would hardly describe those efforts as “useless.”

          • Fred says

            Also, Mr. Cheung, it occurs to me that if we disagree about what constitutes true knowledge, by what criteria are you making that judgement? If your criterion is that it has to be scientific, then you’re begging the question since whether science is the only true knowledge is precisely what’s at issue. If your criteria are outside of science, then you undermine scientism since the fundamental tenet of scientism is that only science provides true knowledge.

          • Fred says

            As for “usefulness” that criterion is meaningless without specification of useful for what? To whom?

          • S. Cheung says

            “Of course, you’re competely wrong about theology.”
            Of that, there can be no doubt. I would be extremely disappointed in myself if I wasn’t. Certainly, there is zero scientific evidence for existence of God. Can a “logical” argument be constructed somehow? Perhaps. But its underlying premise will certainly be flawed. Are there “philosophical” arguments? Almost certainly. There are probably as many as there are different philosophies. That is one of the fundamental flaws of monotheistic religions: how do you reconcile your God with all the other Gods out there?

            The “rationality” of faith does go back a while…mainly through the ages when people had nothing else to explain the world around them, and had to resort to the supernatural. That is no longer the case…and becomes even less and less of a case with each passing day.

            You know what makes a song “good”? It should sound “good”. And it’s entirely subjective.
            There is musical theory, of course, and a computer would likely master that in seconds. But I wouldn’t want to hear a computer compose a song. Sounds like you wouldn’t mind that as much, which is quite astounding.

            “Philosophy, aesthetics, theology, etc. are just ways of rationally examining and at least attempting to support or refute those beliefs.”
            I do agree with that. I would just say those beliefs are on a different plane, and perhaps in a completely different rubric, than knowledge.

            As for “true knowledge”, my analogy about the Big Bang was my way of explaining my point of view. One has to start with a belief somewhere, because as you say, science can’t prove it’s own veracity. Scientism is that belief in the power of science. So I choose to start with that, then let the beauty of the scientific method take over from there. But if you say that “No theologian would ever argue “God exists because I believe God exists.”, then a monotheist must also choose to start somewhere as well. The difference is that what I choose is testable and falsifiable etc at every subsequent point, whereas other folks choose to believe in stuff that simply isn’t.

  53. Tersitus says

    I fear the author is giving scientism too good a name— the older use of the term, I believe, has involved uncritical acceptance of pseudoscience as science— the exploitation of science’s good name to disguise “fake science.” Put differently, making a religion of science.

    • Fred says

      @Tersitus: Theproblem is much deeper than that. See my comment above.

  54. To see why this essay is flawed, consider how you would arrive at “all men are created equal” without beginning from “man made in the image of God.”

    If scientism is correct, man is just a smart ape, which means man is not governed by natural law or divine law but by jungle law. And in the jungle, the strong oppress and murder the weak with impunity. Forget solving (scientifically) the great moral/political questions of the day, scientism can’t even get to such a basic concept as “human rights”.

    “Would anyone argue that … it is good to shoot innocent people in the head because the resulting stream of blood is aesthetically pleasing? Or that because freedom is the most important good in the world, a social policy that saved 20,000 lives by increasing taxes by 1 percent would be immoral because it decreases freedom? Or that because piety is the most important good, it is good for people to slaughter heretics?”

    The more important question to ask is, in a moral relativist, materialist, cost-benefit based philosophy (which is what scientism/materialism actually is), how exactly would one argue that any of these are “objectively evil”?

    Steven Pinker has been attempting a scientific moral framework for decades. His best attempts can be shredded by a philosophy undergraduate in minutes.

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  56. TJ Andre says

    OK, so in summary:

    Humanity is messy.
    Science is helpful.
    More scientific input is a good thing.

    Why Scientism is not the answer:

    A. See #1 above
    B. Requires entire societies to operate on the principle that Humanity would be great if it weren’t for all these humans

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