“Scientism” is the belief that all we need to solve the world’s problems is, you guessed it, science. People sometimes sub in the phrase rational thinking, but it amounts to the same thing. If only people would drop religion and all their other prejudices, we could use logic to fix everything.
Last week, Neil deGrasse Tyson offered up the perfect example of scientism when he proposed a country of #Rationalia, in which “all policy shall be based on the weight of evidence.”
Tyson is a very smart man, but this is a very stupid tweet, and a very stupid idea. It is even, we might say, unreasonable and without sufficient evidence. Of course imagining a society in which all actors behave logically sounds appealing. But employing logic to consider the concept reveals that there could be no such thing.
There has always been a hope, especially as elites became less religious, that science would do more than simply provide a means for learning about the world around us. Science should also teach us how to live, pointing us toward the salvation religion once promised. You can see this in any of the secular utopianisms of the 20th century, whether it’s the Third Reich, scientific Marxism, or the “modernization thesis” of Western capitalism.
And yet each of these has since been summarily dismissed, and usually for the same two reasons.
First, experts usually don’t know nearly as much as they think they do. Experts often get it wrong, thanks to their inherently irrational brains that, through overconfidence, bubbles of like-minded thinkers, or just wanting to believe their vision of the world can be true, mislead us and misinterpret information. Rationality is subjective. All humans experience such biases; the real problem is when we forget that scientists and experts are human too—that they approach evidence and reasoned deliberation with the same prior commitments and unspoken assumptions as anyone else. Scientists: They’re just like us.
And second, science has no business telling people how to live. It’s striking how easily we forget the evil following “science” can do. So many times throughout history, humans have thought they were behaving in logical and rational ways only to realize that such acts have yielded morally heinous policies that were only enacted because reasonable people were swayed by “evidence.” Phrenology—the determination of someone’s character through the shape and size of their cranium—was cutting-edge science. (Unsurprisingly, the upper class had great head ratios.) 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. Scientists in the 19th century felt quite justified in claiming “the weight of evidence” supported African slavery, white supremacy, and the concerted effort to limit the reproduction of the lesser races. It wasn’t so long ago that psychiatrists considered homosexuality unhealthy and abhorrent. There is at least one prominent, eminently rational psychiatrist who hasn’t come around on transgender people. And many scientists decided that women were biologically incapable of the same kind of rationality you find in men, a scientific sexism reborn in contemporary evolutionary psychology. Weirdly enough, you find a similar kind of misogyny in that high priest of scientism, Richard Dawkins.
And yet, despite its abysmal track record, people continue to have extremely positive opinions of “science.” As a sociologist, I do a lot of fieldwork with creationist evangelicals, and I’m struck by how rarely any of them dislike “science” as such; they don’t like certain scientists, and they especially don’t like evolution, but “science” is always just fine. Even for the folks a certain kind of secular commentator thinks are the very definition of anti-science, science is just fine. And for those who more strongly identify with the idea of rational thinking, their commitment is immutable. Just ask the 25 million people who F*cking Love Science.
Part of the problem here is that nobody really knows what science means. Most people define it as the exploration of the world we live in, which is a fair if simplistic description (and not much on which to base a nation). The academic definition is frequently debated, without any really clear headway. (It’s hard even to figure out how to define physics, chemistry, and biology.) Philosopher Susan Haack argued that science is, at its most basic, just thinking rationally, which is as good a definition as any, even if it leads to another problem: What do we mean by the word rational?
My work with creationists shows how impossible it is for humans to behave rationally. We are always informed by our biases. For example, a careful analysis of creationists’ scientific knowledge shows they know as much science as anyone else. It’s just that they deny scientific claims. In my fieldwork in one creationist evangelical high school, I found students perfectly capable of answering correctly every question about evolution in their AP Biology exam. They simply used phrases like scientists believe in their answers so as not to betray their creationist bona fides. This is actually an extremely rational way for them to handle the discrepancy between their faith and mainstream science.
In fact, creationism has a lot more in common with scientism than folks like Tyson or Dawkins would ever admit. Like Tyson, creationists begin with certain prior commitments (“evolution cannot be true” is to “science cannot be wrong”) and build an impressively consistent argument upon them. Just about everyone is guilty of some form of “motivated reasoning”: We begin with certain priors, and then we find a way to get the evidence to do what we want.
Science’s past mistakes should make us skeptical it could be used to build a utopia. But, the scientists might say, science is most important for its ability to self-correct. Psychiatry has come around on homosexuality, for example. This may be true, and yet it presents the precise reason why attempting to act only accounting for the “weight of the evidence” is so flawed. Science may give us data, but that doesn’t mean that data points to truth—it just means that’s what we currently understand as truth. So how we act on that data requires nuance and judgment. It’s philosophical, maybe religious, and certainly political. Scientists can’t tell us if it’s right to kill a baby with a developmental disability, despite how well they might marshal evidence about the baby’s relative life or her capacity to think or move on her own. There’s no easy answer for how we ought to weigh those things, just like there’s no easy way to decide whether tradition is superior to efficiency or monogamy is better than lots of random sex.
Scientism refuses to see this. The myopia of scientism, its naïve utopianism and simplistic faith, bears an uncanny resemblance to the religious dogmatisms folks like Tyson and Dawkins denounce.
Back in February, some of my sociologist friends retweeted another Tyson quip: “In science, when human behavior enters the equation, things go nonlinear. That’s why Physics is easy and Sociology is hard.”
We sociologists appreciated the recognition, even if some of us resented needing a famous astrophysicist as our hype man. Yet it’s simply galling that a person who can recognize the difficulties of studying social life somehow doesn’t connect those same challenges to their philosophical and political implications. If simply studying sociology is complex, governing society with it is anything but simple. Science is not straightforward—as Tyson himself admits. Our interpretation of science simply requires insights and wisdom well beyond what science can provide.
To claim otherwise is simply irrational. And what would Tyson know about that?