Scientism: bad word, useful idea?


I really hate that word.

I first read it from someone who seemed to be looking for excuses not to accept scientific results. Rather than argue against them using science, he simply labelled the approach “scientism”. He wanted to denigrate his opponents’ reliance on evidence and reason to answer important questions. I really despise this sort of anti-intellectualism.* Some people would rather hold onto their own beliefs than find out what is true.

That was my first experience. But that is not the only context where people use the word. I’ve recently heard it used in the context of legitimate criticism (in an old episode of the apologetics podcast “Please Convince Me”). There, host J. Warner Wallace was describing and critiquing a real trend among some people.**

He describes the idea like so: “If it can’t be told to us by science then we ought not even be paying attention to it.”

The trend is the idea that “Any important truth can be addressed by science,” and its corollary that “Anything that can’t be addressed by science is unimportant.” It’s a real trend – not only among lay commentators, but among prominent scientists and philosophers. It deserves to be countered.

Why is it a problem? It’s a problem because betrays an irrational ignorance. (Ironically, the people who follow this trend pride themselves on a rational, evidence-based worldview, and would be mortified if they were seen to demonstrate irrationality or ignorance.)

For one thing, the validity of science itself (as Wallace points out) cannot be demonstrated by science. That would be circular. Rather, the methods of science derive from a particular philosophical perspective on epistemology – how we come to believe things. Now, the epistemological underpinnings of science are quite sound. One cannot reject them without rejecting most of everyday common sense. But they are not derived from science.

For another thing, much of the world of human values is separate from science. It’s true that values such as honesty, curiosity, humility, and submission to reality are deeply embedded in the philosophy and practice of science. But other human values, such as compassion, respect, and loyalty are not part of science, nor can they be validated by science. Surely these values are proper and important topics to discuss in any society.

Beyond this, a survey of prominent online dictionaries and encyclopediae indicates that the word is here to stay. Wikipedia,, Oxford English Dictionaries, and Merriam-Webster all have entries describing scientism. Of course it has multiple definitions, but they all agree that one use is (to use Merriam-Webster’s formulation) “an exaggerated trust in the efficacy of the methods of natural science applied to all areas of investigation (as in philosophy, the social sciences, and the humanities)”.

There are also scientists and other advocates of rationality that have weighed in on the value of identifying and criticizing scientism. The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) has an article identifying scientism and contrasting it with appropriate science – even calling out beloved scientists Carl Sagan, Stephen Weinberg, and E.O. Wilson for stepping over that line. Massimo Pigliucci has weighed in here and here – in the first one he’s criticizing Steven Pinker’s wander into scientism here. I don’t wholly agree with Pigliucci’s characterization, but he has some valid points. A more prominent example of scientism may be Sam Harris in his book The Moral Landscape, where he seems to want to define morality so that it falls under the purview of science. See this article by him outlining the position.

So, with all of this, why would anyone embrace this idea that the only important claims are scientific claims? It’s not entirely unfounded. For one thing, science does seem to be our best way of identifying true claims. If I can provide physical, repeatable, objectively-recognizable evidence supporting a claim, then everyone has good reason to accept the claim. If I can provide similarly concrete evidence contradicting a claim, then everyone has good reason to reject the claim. That’s the basis of science. To reject a truly scientific claim is equivalent to rejecting the evidence of the senses.

No other approach to knowing things is so powerful. Intuition is useful, but intuitive ideas are sometimes wrong. (How do we know this? Because we can test them. Scientifically.) Unaided reason is fun, and can point us in useful directions, but outside of abstract math and logic, unaided reason is limp without evidence to support it. (Look at how many ingenious, enjoyable, and ultimately wrong ideas the ancient Greeks had about the structure of the cosmos. And those ideas of theirs that were shown to be right? They were shown by – you guessed it – science!) Feelings, traditions, ancient writings … all of these things that people have leaned on and continue to lean on to provide insight, all of them are fallible, and all of them can be validated or invalidated by science.

In philosophy, there are ideas that cannot be tested scientifically. What is the nature of morality? What is the ultimate nature of existence? What does it mean to be conscious? Here are some questions which science cannot, even in principle, answer (although it can provide interesting and relevant clues). Philosophers can answer these questions.*** But their answers are never as robust or as compelling as the answers to scientific questions. Why should I adopt the desire-utilitarian perspective on morality? Why should I buy into the materialist metaphysical model? What’s to keep me from accepting the Cartesian dualist view of consciousness?

So I sympathize with those who conclude that science is the only way to know important things. It is certainly the way we get our most certain, unassailable beliefs. But it’s not enough, on its own, to populate a complete worldview.

If the term “scientism” is to have any legitimacy as a meaningful word (and not just a bogeyman for anti-intellectuals to sneer at), I think it must be used to identify this narrow perspective that dismisses any idea not grounded in science.

As a linguist, though, I still don’t think it’s a great term. For one thing, it carries the derogatory, anti-intellectual connotation I first identified above. It’s a word that at once denigrates another and identifies the speaker with a particular community. And for another, I just don’t think it’s a useful term to try to use more broadly. For example, what do we call someone who engages or embraces scientism? A “scientist”? Sorry, that term already has a very different meaning from what we’re discussing here. A “scientismist”? Too awkard. “Scientism-er”? Uh-uh. “Advocate of scientism”? Perhaps, but that’s not terribly felicitous.

I would love to propose my own term – perhaps explicitly formed as an antonym of “philosophy”: “misosophy” (by analogy with “philanthrope/misanthrope”). “Sam Harris is a misosophist.” “Thoughtful skeptics need to beware of falling into misosophy.”

misosophy [mɪ.'zɑ.sə.,fi] - the position that the only claims one should accept as true are scientific claims
misosophist [mɪ.'zɑ.sə.,fɪst] / misosopher [mɪ.'zɑ.sə.,fɹ] - one who asserts or accepts misosophy

I rather doubt that my coinage will catch on. It’s a bit phonotactically awkward. On the other hand, I don’t know if “scientism” can catch on either, in the useful-rather-than-simply-pejorative sense that I have suggested here.

What do you think?



* This is a very emotional reaction, so I want to make it clear: I despise the anti-intellectual thought process, I do not despise the people who engage in it.

** I want to be clear, for those who listen to that podcast, that I do not agree with most of what J. Warner Wallace says. He rejects evolution. He thinks there is a strong evidential case for Christianity. He believes that historical claims are outside the purview of science. In other podcasts, he suggests that atheists have no way to ground their morality. I disagree with him about all of these things. But I agree that scientism as he defines it near the start of that podcast is a real thing, and it needs to be refuted.

*** I know many would say that theologians can also answer these questions. I agree that they can, but only insofar as they are acting philosophically. In fact, anyone can answer these questions, and many do. And when they do, they are doing philosophy.


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4 Responses to “Scientism: bad word, useful idea?”

  1. Joshua Scott Hotchkin Says:

    The argument that the only thing that constitutes truth are ’empirically verifiable’ things is self-refuting. You mention this early in the article and then use the same fallacious logic later to defend scientism.
    This is itself a new trend I have noticed. The acceptance of the problem of scientism by its adherents as a way of co-opting the criticism of their fallacies and then just moving on as if it never happened.
    Check your premises for consistency.
    I have coined the term McScientists for those who hold the worldview of scientism. My site, Scientism Central, would be a good place for you to look further into the issue.
    Good luck and best wishes.

  2. Timothy Mills Says:

    Joshua, thanks for mentioning Scientism Central. I’ll look around a little and see what I can learn.

    However, you seem to be responding to a position that isn’t mine. Either you didn’t read my post carefully, or I wasn’t clear enough in expressing myself. Let me clarify.

    I categorically reject the idea that “the only things that constitute truth are empirically verifiable things”. You are right: this is self-refuting. It is an untenable ontological position.

    What I support is an epistemology which privileges tested claims over untested or untestable claims. That is, if you can provide evidence for a belief, then it deserves more support than one which you cannot provide evidence for.

    Note that I’m not saying untestable things don’t exist. I’m just saying that we don’t have as good a reason to believe in them as we do in gravity, evolution, or SUVs.

    In sum:
    (1) I am making an epistemological claim (about what we ought to believe), not an ontological claim (about what objectively exists).

    (2) It is a relative, not an absolute claim. (We should put less weight in unevidenced claims.)

    I hope that clarifies things.

  3. Joshua Scott Hotchkin Says:


    The epistemological claim is still very problematic for a few reasons.

    First of all, if the result of an epistemological preference leads to activities that favor an ontological set of properties which contain dissonance with the ontological properties which actually underlie our reality, then the epistemological approach becomes meaningless. Therefore ontological ‘truths’ must underlie our epistemologies. No matter how much more reliable our epistemological architecture is, if our ontological foundation is lacking, then it becomes meaningless and whatever we build we build to spill. Glossing over the ontological foundations merely because we have more mastery over epistemological paradigms is intellectual fatalism. We would benefit far greater by strengthening our weaknesses rather than just piling our strengths on them until the whole thing eventually crumbles.

    There is also an assumption here that the determining factor in what really exists is the empirical method. We need not say that empiricism is lacking in its methods regarding what we know exists if we acknowledge that it is severely lacking in solely determining what does exist. Existence precedes the empirical methodology, so it seems to be fine doing its thing without scientific recognition. Ignoring what may exist because it is not verifiable by a method only suitable for investigating what is already known to exist is its own logical error.

    These arguments are essentially about favoring some methods, truths and kinds of truths over others. This is the very essence of anti-intellectualism. The rejection of all other intellectual modes in favor of one. We should treat all inquiries into phenomena as equal and decide which methods of investigation provide the most meaning in any given phenomena. We can then take these various ways of knowing and look at our existence from many angles.

    The true sign of intelligence is not a sort of intellectual overspecialization, but the ability to hold many sometimes seemingly opposing viewpoints at once, and from them to produce even higher modes of intellectual investigation. When we commit to materialism or physicalism or objectivism or literalism or any of the other other peripheral scientistic world views above all others then we are essentially seeking to limit our understanding of existence rather than to evolve it.

  4. Timothy Mills Says:

    I don’t think I’m glossing over ontology here – that is simply not the target of the current discussion. Science is an epistemological approach; it is legitimate to compare it to competing epistemologies. And, when we do, we find that it is more reliable whenever a direct comparison is possible.

    You offer grand words about how science is built on a weak ontology (or has no ontological foundation at all? it is not clear). I invite you to make the case for this claim, or to link to somewhere that the case is made clearly.

    You suggest that I “ignore what may exist because it is not verifiable by a method only suitable for investigating what is already known to exist”.

    This is convoluted, but I gather that part of what you mean is that science can only investigate what we already know to exist. At face value, this is simply false: science has helped us to discover quasars, coelocanths, numerous evolutionary links in the fossil record, subatomic particles, electromagnetic radiation, the visual blind spot, white blood cells, microorganisms, and on and on and on. If you simply mean that science can only investigate the material world … sure. That’s its job.

    Do I ignore what may exist because it isn’t verifiable by science? Not at all. I enjoy visual art, music, drama, and works of fiction. I practice wordcraft myself, and engage in a variety of non-science-based recreational and social activities.

    If you care to point out another “way of knowing” that merits my attention, please do so. I am not closed to alternatives, but I have a high standard. My power of belief is valuable, and I will only grant it to ideas which I have good reason to believe are true.

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