What scientism means to me

I’ve been reading many posts on scientism lately. Some have been from well-known academics and some have been from less known equally astute members of my social-networking circle. Some seem to equate scientism with atheism, some equate it with a reasoned approach to the world, and some equate it with pure evil, apparently.

I don’t know what definition is correct, but I view scientism as the belief that science is not only the best way to gain information about the world but also the best way to make meaning in the world. As a humanist, I reject scientism because I believe we can and should turn to philosophy, literature, religion, art, music and other forms of human introspection and expression to make meaning in our lives. This does not mean I reject the idea that science is the best way to learn facts (disputable as they may be) about the world.

In other words, I think climate scientists are the best qualified individuals to give information about whether the climate is changing and what is causing it. I don’t think I should challenge scientists because I don’t “feel” like they are correct. Opinions are not all equal. Informed opinions are of greater value than uninformed opinions any day.

Similarly, believing that religions can help us find our make meaning in our lives does not mean that scientific information regarding evolution is invalid. Science as an endeavor does not encroach upon religion. It is only when religious dogma makes scientific claims that conflict arises between the two discrete domains of knowledge. Some people in science may occasionally make a religious claim, citing their authority as a scientist, that runs in to conflict with religion and creates controversy as well, but I really think that most scientists simply do their best to report the best information they can glean from available evidence with the hope of improving life for all of humanity.

I’m not sure, but I suspect this has all come to head because of recent controversies over evolution and climate change. Folks on the left have accused those on the right of being “anti-science” because they reject the findings of scientists in these two areas. Many on the right took this as an attack on religion for some reason that I don’t understand, but there you have it. What would we call the view that religion is the only way to find information about the world? Religionism?

Anyway, in response to the left’s accusations of an anti-science bias on the right, some on the right have accused the left of being anti-science because they don’t like genetically-modified foods or vaccinations or something. Never mind that many who oppose GMOs and vaccinations are either conservatives or libertarians, it is true that some people on the left do not approach the world with scientific rigor.

And somehow this has all resulted in people tossing the word “scientism” around like a new hacky-sack. If someone says you are anti-science, you can just say that they are guilty of “scientism.” And, once someone throws that label at you, it is hard to shake it off. So, you either accept the label, ignore the situation completely, or fire back a volley of counter-attacks.

In Steven Pinker‘s response to such an attack, he embraced scientism in a positive sense by simply recounting all the successes of scientific reasoning. Of course, in response to an accusation of scientism, he basically says humanists should embrace scientism and accept that only scientists can save the humanities from extinction. He said, “A consilience with science offers the humanities countless possibilities for innovation in understanding.” He then inadvertently points out the risk of doing so, saying, “In some disciplines, this consilience is a fait accompli. Archeology has grown from a branch of art history to a high-tech science.” In other words, we should all accept how the infusion of science can improve our disciplines by destroying them.

Pinker mentions that philosophy has benefited from collaborations with cognitive scientists, and interesting and productive work has certainly been done in philosophy around cognitive science, but western philosophers have been involved in scientific theory and method from the beginning. Early on, philosophers and scientists were essentially the same people, but even later philosophers sought both to influence scientific method and apply apply scientific method to philosophy. In the twentieth century, the drive to conduct philosophy with the rigor of science led it to a level of obscurity that almost destroyed any hope of philosophers reaching any kind of popular audience.

In the twenty-first century, this movement continues but without a somewhat different focus under the banner of “experimental philosophy.” In this scientific approach to philosophy, philosophers actually gather data to analyze and test their philosophical assumptions. Kwame Anthony Appiah summarizes the problem with this approach quite succinctly: “You can conduct more research to try to clarify matters, but you’re left having to interpret the findings; they don’t interpret themselves. There always comes a point where the clipboards and questionnaires and M.R.I. scans have to be put aside.” When all is said and done, data must be interpreted, and interpretation has always been the forte of philosophers, so, as Appiah suggests, we must return to the armchair for the hard work of hard thinking.

But how do philosophers reach beyond their small circle of professional philosophers to a more popular audience? Philosophers achieve this when they write on matters that intersect with the daily lives of non-philosophers. Appiah is an excellent example of someone who is able to engage the public on matters of moral concern to anyone who happens to be alive on this planet. As a public intellectual, he comments on how we think, how we converse, and how we interact with one another. This ability has taken him out of obscurity and into the public domain.

But the least obscure living philosopher in the world must be Peter Singer. Singer writes on issues that affect our daily lives (what we eat, what we do with our money, how we preserve life), and he creates great controversy in the process. Whether you think he is skilled as a philosopher or not, you cannot deny the scope of his reach. He is helping, as is Appiah, us to interpret and determine exactly what value we place on life and exactly what we consider a good life to be.

Neither Appiah nor Singer is anti-science, but both know that a philosopher’s skill lies in helping us examine what is meaningful and valuable to our personal lives. They seem also to realize that science is unable to interpret and analyze human values. No, it is the humanities that enable us to envision a meaningful and rewarding existence. Scientific advances make a constant re-examination and re-evaluation necessary, and the humanities help guide us down that path. The idea that the humanities have nothing to add to this journey toward meaning and value is what I call “scientism.” Scientists and humanists can both be guilty of scientism.

And scientists and humanists can both engage in a search for meaning that reaches beyond data.

When cultural competence is cruel.

It is now common practice for organizations and businesses not only to declare their acceptance of diversity but also to proclaim their celebration of diversity. Employees may be asked to demonstrate how they value diversity in all forms. When someone says or does something insensitive or even intentionally hostile to a particular group, that employee is often ordered to receive training in cultural competence. And, just in case this scenario sounds too negative, employees and people in business often seek out cultural competence training in order to work more effectively with members of unfamiliar groups. Before traveling to China, for example, business people might study up on the social practices of Chinese people. And after a brief course and some exposure, they feel confident they are competent.

Proponents of cultural competence training assume that knowledge of another culture will result in workers who are sensitive, understanding, compassionate, and fully accepting of unfamiliar groups. This seems true intuitively and even anecdotally. I grew up in the southern United States, and I have personally known racists who soften toward other races once they get to know a few people from the once loathed group. Personal interaction does, indeed, breed greater acceptance and understanding. Sometimes.

In his book Cosmopolitanism, Kwame Anthony Appiahgives a description of Victorian adventurer Richard Francis Burton who was truly a master of cultural competence, learning many languages and traveling extensively.

Richard Francis Burton

Burton understood a variety of cultures, languages, and religions enough to be accepted among natives in some instances. He was also a racist, who recorded his negative opinions about a variety of groups, including Africans, Indians, the Irish, French-Canadians, and the Pawnee Indians. Stating that Burton refutes the idea that “intimacy must breed amity,” Appiah notes, “You can be genuinely engaged with the ways of other societies without approving, let alone adopting, them.”

Exposed to cultural competence training, a hateful person will not become a nice person. CEOs of transnational corporations tend to travel extensively and meet a variety of people. They may become more open to different cultures, if they do not happen to be psychopaths (British journalist Jon Ronsen wrote a book claiming that about four percent of CEOs are psychopaths, double the rate for the population at large). Knowledge of other cultures does, however, help us to understand the motives, needs, and desires of other groups. In reality, humans have pretty much the same motives, needs, and desires across the globe even if we have found different ways to express them.

Florida Governor Rick Scott recently angered anthropologists when he said Florida did not need to be producing any more of them. He feels there won’t be enough jobs for anthropologists, so it is a waste of resources to give them degrees. Surely a few jobs will open up when the current anthropologists retire, so it would seem short-sighted to cancel entire programs, unless you really think anthropology is a waste of time regardless of job prospects.

Anthropologists and I both suspect that is what Rick Scott really meant, but I will leave it to anthropologists to explain the value of their work. I will only note that anthropologists do the groundwork that is needed to interact with other cultures in a competent manner. With that, anthropology does increase the opportunity for profit, which seems to be the only concern these days. Never mind the fact that understanding other cultures and groups enriches our lives and makes the world a slightly nicer place to live.

Occupy Wall Street

For more than 30 years, I have mourned my country’s decline. When it comes to generating capital, the United States remains a leader, creating wealth at unprecedented rates. This meteoric rise in wealth, however, is accompanied by equally steep increases in indifference, poverty, and environmental degradation. Anyone who expresses concern or even sadness is mocked and rebuked. In an Orwellian turn, “compassion” is now “hating America.” Concern for declines in education and employment is now “liberal fascism.” As a nation, we have forgotten our humanity.

Like many in this country, I had given over to despair and resignation. Corporations are allowed to fund our elections as well as write and enforce our legislation. How can one resist a power that comprises the global economy and the governments of the developed world? Perhaps, it is still not possible, but the Occupy Wall Street protesters have sent one clear message: “By virtue of being a human being, you deserve a modicum of respect.” This belief, that people do matter, is common to every religion known to me. It is also common to every philosophical approach to ethics and morality that I can name. Even Ayn Rand’s exhortation to “selfishness” recognizes the demand that no one has a right to trample the needs of others. To pursue your own happiness entails concern for promoting good relations with others.

America has become a nation of talking points and PowerPoint lectures. When people ask what the protesters want, specifically, they are really demanding a “study sheet” for a humanistic movement. What do the protesters demand first? That humanity be recognized as something of concern. People must be treated as persons, first and foremost. From this assumption, policy decisions will flow. No simple solution exists, so no one can articulate it. Life is complex. Economies are complex. Legislation is complex.

If we can once again affirm the value of our humanity, however, we will live in a better, if imperfect, world.