Scientism refers to a belief in the universal applicability of the systematic methods and approach of science, especially the view that empirical science constitutes the most authoritative worldview or most valuable part of human learning to the exclusion of other viewpoints.[1] The term frequently implies a critique of the more extreme expressions of logical positivism[2][3] and has been used by social scientists such as Friedrich Hayek,[4] philosophers of science such as Karl Popper,[5] and philosophers such as Hilary Putnam[6] to describe the dogmatic endorsement of scientific methodology and the reduction of all knowledge to only that which is measurable.[7]

"Scientism" can apply in either of two equally pejorative senses:[8][9][10]

  1. To indicate the improper usage of science or scientific claims.[11] This usage applies equally in contexts where science might not apply,[12] such as when the topic is perceived to be beyond the scope of scientific inquiry, and in contexts where there is insufficient empirical evidence to justify a scientific conclusion. It includes an excessive deference to claims made by scientists or an uncritical eagerness to accept any result described as scientific. In this case the term is a counter-argument to appeals to scientific authority.
  2. To refer to "the belief that the methods of natural science, or the categories and things recognized in natural science, form the only proper elements in any philosophical or other inquiry,"[10] or that "science, and only science, describes the world as it is in itself, independent of perspective"[6] with a concomitant "elimination of the psychological dimensions of experience."[13][14]

The term is also used to highlight the possible dangers of lapses towards excessive reductionism in all fields of human knowledge.[15][16][17]

For sociologists in the tradition of Max Weber, such as Jürgen Habermas, the concept of scientism relates significantly to the philosophy of positivism, but also to the cultural rationalization of the modern West.[7]



Reviewing the references to scientism in the works of contemporary scholars, Gregory R. Peterson[18] detects two main broad themes:

  1. It is used to criticize a totalizing view of science as if it were capable of describing all reality and knowledge, or as if it were the only true way to acquire knowledge about reality and the nature of things;
  2. It is used to denote a border-crossing violation in which the theories and methods of one (scientific) discipline are inappropriately applied to another (scientific or non-scientific) discipline and its domain. An example of this second usage is to label as scientism any attempt to claim science as the only or primary source of human values (a traditional domain of ethics) or as the source of meaning and purpose (a traditional domain of religion and related worldviews).

Mikael Stenmark proposes the expression scientific expansionism as a synonym of scientism.[19] In the Encyclopedia of science and religion, he writes that, while the doctrines that are described as scientism have many possible forms and varying degrees of ambition, they share the idea that the boundaries of science (that is, typically the natural sciences) could and should be expanded so that something that has not been previously considered as a subject pertinent to science can now be understood as part of science (usually with science becoming the sole or the main arbiter regarding this area or dimension).[19]

According to Stenmark, the strongest form of scientism states that science has no boundaries and that all human problems and all aspects of human endeavor, with due time, will be dealt with and solved by science alone.[19] This idea has also been called the Myth of Progress.[20]

E. F. Schumacher in his A Guide for the Perplexed criticized scientism as an impoverished world view confined solely to what can be counted, measured and weighed. "The architects of the modern worldview, notably Galileo and Descartes, assumed that those things that could be weighed, measured, and counted were more true than those that could not be quantified. If it couldn’t be counted, in other words, it didn’t count." [21]

Relevance to science/religion debates

As of 2006 the term was often used[by whom?] against vocal critics of religion-as-such.[22] Philosopher Daniel Dennett responded to criticism of his book Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon by saying that "when someone puts forward a scientific theory that [religious critics] really don't like, they just try to discredit it as 'scientism'".[23]

Michael Shermer, founder of The Skeptics Society, draws a parallel between scientism and traditional religious movements, pointing to the cult of personality that develops around some scientists in the public eye. He defines scientism as a worldview that encompasses natural explanations, eschews supernatural and paranormal speculations, and embraces empiricism and reason.[24]

The Iranian scholar Seyyed Hossein Nasr has stated that in the West, many will accept the ideology of modern science, not as "simple ordinary science", but as a replacement for religion.[25]

Gregory R. Peterson writes that "for many theologians and philosophers, scientism is among the greatest of intellectual sins".[18]

Susan Haack argues that the charge of "scientism" caricatures actual scientific endeavor. No single form of inference or procedure of inquiry used by scientists explains the success of science. Instead we find:

  1. the inferences and procedures used by all serious empirical inquirers
  2. a vast array of tools of inquiry, from observational instruments to mathematical techniques, as well as social mechanisms that encourage honesty. These tools are diverse and evolving, and many are domain-specific.[26]

Philosophy of science

In his essay, Against Method, Paul Feyerabend characterizes science as "an essentially anarchic enterprise"[27] and argues emphatically that science merits no exclusive monopoly over "dealing in knowledge" and that scientists have never operated within a distinct and narrowly self-defined tradition. He depicts the process of contemporary scientific education as a mild form of indoctrination, aimed at "making the history of science duller, simpler, more uniform, more 'objective' and more easily accessible to treatment by strict and unchanging rules."[28]

[S]cience can stand on its own feet and does not need any help from rationalists, secular humanists, Marxists and similar religious movements; and ... non-scientific cultures, procedures and assumptions can also stand on their own feet and should be allowed to do so ... Science must be protected from ideologies; and societies, especially democratic societies, must be protected from science... In a democracy scientific institutions, research programmes, and suggestions must therefore be subjected to public control, there must be a separation of state and science just as there is a separation between state and religious institutions, and science should be taught as one view among many and not as the one and only road to truth and reality.

Feyerabend, Against Method, p.viii

Religion and philosophy

Philosopher of religion Keith Ward has said scientism is philosophically inconsistent or even self-refuting, as the truth of the statements "no statements are true unless they can be proven scientifically (or logically)" or "no statements are true unless they can be shown empirically to be true" cannot themselves be proven scientifically, logically, or empirically.[29]

Rationalization and modernity

In the introduction to his collected oeuvre on the sociology of religion, Max Weber asks why "the scientific, the artistic, the political, or the economic development [elsewhere]… did not enter upon that path of rationalization which is peculiar to the Occident?" According to the distinguished German social theorist, Jürgen Habermas, “For Weber, the intrinsic (that is, not merely contingent) relationship between modernity and what he called ‘Occidental rationalism’ was still self-evident.” Weber described a process of rationalisation, disenchantment and the “disintegration of religious world views” that resulted in modern secular societies and capitalism.[30]

“Modernization” was introduced as a technical term only in the 1950s. It is the mark of a theoretical approach that takes up Weber's problem but elaborates it with the tools of social-scientific functionalism… The theory of modernization performs two abstractions on Weber's concept of “modernity”. It dissociates “modernity” from its modern European origins and stylizes it into a spatio-temporally neutral model for processes of social development in general. Furthermore, it breaks the internal connections between modernity and the historical context of Western rationalism, so that processes of modernization… [are] no longer burdened with the idea of a completion of modernity, that is to say, of a goal state after which “postmodern” developments would have to set in… Indeed it is precisely modernization research that has contributed to the currency of the expression “postmodern” even among social scientists.

Jürgen Habermas, The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity

Habermas is critical of pure instrumental rationality, arguing that the “Social Life–World” is better suited to literary expression, the former being “intersubjectively accessible experiences” that can be generalized in a formal language, while the latter “must generate an intersubjectivity of mutual understanding in each concrete case”:[31][32]

The world in which human beings are born and live and finally die; the world in which they love and hate, in which they experience triumph and humiliation, hope and despair; the world of sufferings and enjoyments, of madness and common sense, of silliness, cunning and wisdom; the world of social pressures and individual impulses, of reason against passion, of instincts and conventions, of shared language and unsharable feelings and sensations…

Aldous Huxley, Literature and Science

Range of meanings

Standard dictionary definitions include the following applications of the term "scientism":

  • The use of the style, assumptions, techniques, and other attributes typically displayed by scientists.[33]
  • Methods and attitudes typical of or attributed to the natural scientist.[34]
  • 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.[35]
  • The use of scientific or pseudoscientific language.[36]
  • The contention that the social sciences, such as economics and sociology, are only properly sciences when they abide by the somewhat stricter interpretation of scientific method used by the natural sciences, and that otherwise they are not truly sciences.[37]
  • "A term applied (freq. in a derogatory manner) to a belief in the omnipotence of scientific knowledge and techniques; also to the view that the methods of study appropriate to physical science can replace those used in other fields such as philosophy and, esp., human behaviour and the social sciences." [38]
  • "1. The collection of attitudes and practices considered typical of scientists. 2. The belief that the investigative methods of the physical sciences are applicable or justifiable in all fields of inquiry."[39]
  • As a form of dogma: "In essence, scientism sees science as the absolute and only justifiable access to the truth."[40]

See also


  1. ^ Sorell, Tom. Scientism: Philosophy and the Infatuation with Science. Routledge, 1994, p. 1ff.
  2. ^ Rey, Abel. "Review of La Philosophie Moderne." The Journal of Philosophy, Psychology and Scientific Methods 6.2 (1909): 51-53.
  3. ^ cf. Abraham Maslow: "There are criticisms of orthodox, 19th Century scientism and I intend to continue with this enterprise." Toward a Psychology of Being, Preface to 1st edition
  4. ^ Hayek in "The Counter Revolution Of Science: Studies on the Abuse of Reason". Liberty Fund Inc. June 1, 1980.
  5. ^ Hacohen, Malachi Haim (2002). Karl Popper: the formative years, 1902-1945 : politics and philosophy in interwar Vienna. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9780521890557. 
  6. ^ a b Putnam, Hilary (1992). Renewing Philosophy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. pp. x. 
  7. ^ a b Outhwaite, William (1988) Habermas: Key Contemporary Thinkers, Polity Press, second edition 2009, p. 22.
  8. ^ Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary. Merriam-Webster. 2003. p. 1112. ISBN 9780877798095. LCCN 2003003674. "Scientism: … 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)" 
  9. ^ Ryder, Martin (2005). "Scientism". In Carl Mitcham. Encyclopedia of Science, Technology, and Ethics (3rd ed.). Detroit: MacMillan Reference Books. "Today the term is used with pejorative intent to dismiss substantive arguments that appeal to scientific authority in contexts where science might not apply. This over commitment to science can be seen in epistemological distortions and abuse of public policy." 
  10. ^ a b Blackburn, S. (2005). The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy. Oxford paperbacks. Oxford University Press. p. 331-332. ISBN 9780198610137. LCCN 2006271895. "Scientism: Pejorative term for the belief that the methods of natural science, or the categories and things recognized in natural science, form the only proper elements in any philosophical or other inquiry." 
  11. ^ After reviewing the usage of the term by contemporary scholars, Gregory R Peterson concludes that "the best way to understand the charge of scientism is as a kind of logical fallacy involving improper usage of science or scientific claims." (p.753). From: "Peterson, Gregory R. (2003) Demarcation and the Scientistic Fallacy. Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science 38 (4), 751-761. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-9744.2003.00536.x"
  12. ^ Scientism by Martin Ryder - University of Colorado. (Accessed: July 05 2007)
  13. ^ Robert Bannister, "Behaviorism, Scientism and the Rise of The "Expert"
  14. ^ Haack, Susan, (2003). Defending Science Within Reason: Between Scientism and Cynicism. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books
  15. ^ Michael Collins, A Critical Analysis of Competency-based Systems in Adult Education, Adult Education Quarterly, March 20, 1983 vol. 33 no. 3 pp.174-183
  16. ^ Irwin Chargaff, In Dispraise of Reductionism, Bioscience, 47.11, Dec 1997, pp.795-7
  17. ^ R Keith Sawyer, Connecting Culture, Psychology and Biology: Essay Review on Inghilleri’s From Subjective Experience to Cultural Change, Human Development, vol.43, 2000, pp.56–59
  18. ^ a b "Peterson, Gregory R. (2003) Demarcation and the Scientistic Fallacy. Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science 38 (4), 751-761. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-9744.2003.00536.x"
  19. ^ a b c As described by Mikael Stenmark, author of the article about the topic of Scientism in: J. Wentzel Vrede van Huyssteen (editor). Encyclopedia of science and religion, 2nd ed. Thomson Gale. 2003. (p.783)
  20. ^ G. Monastra, M. M. Zarandi, Science and the Myth of Progress, 2004.
  21. ^ David Orr, Environmental Literacy: Education as if the Earth Mattered, Twelfth Annual E. F. Schumacher Lectures, October 1992, Great Barrington, Massachusetts
  22. ^ Robinson, Marilynne. "Hysterical Scientism: The Ecstasy of Richard Dawkins."Harper's Magazine Nov. 2006.
  23. ^ Sholto Byrnes, "'When it comes to facts, and explanations of facts, science is the only game in town'", 'New Statesman', 10 April 2006
  24. ^ Shermer, Michael. "The Shamans of Scientism." Scientific American June 2002.
  25. ^ Chittick, William (2007). The Essential Seyyed Hossein Nasr. Bloomington: World Wisdom. ISBN 1933316381. 
  26. ^ Susan Haack, Defending Science - Within Reason: Between Scientism And Cynicism, Prometheus Books, 2003
  27. ^ Feyerabend writes: "Imre Lakatos loved to embarrass serious opponents with jokes and irony and so I, too, occasionally wrote in a rather ironical vein. An example is the end of Chapter 1: 'anything goes' is not a 'principle' I hold ... but the terrified exclamation of a rationalist who takes a closer look at history". Feyerabend (1993), p.vii.
  28. ^ Feyerabend, P. and Feyerabend, P.K. (1993). Against Method (3rd. ed.). Verso. pp. viii,9,11. ISBN 9780860916468. 
  29. ^ See e.g. Keith Ward, Is Religion Dangerous? and the discussion by Alston, William P. (2003). "Religious language and verificationism". In Moser, Paul K.; Copan, Paul. The Rationality of Theism. New York: Routledge. pp. 26–34. ISBN 0415263328. 
  30. ^ Habermas, Jürgen, The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity, Polity Press (1985), ISBN 0-7456-0830-2, pp.2–3
  31. ^ Olson, R. (2008). Science and scientism in nineteenth-century Europe. University of Illinois Press. p. 4. ISBN 9780252074332. LCCN 2007005146. 
  32. ^ Habermas, J.; Shapiro, J.J. (1971). Toward a rational society: student protest, science, and politics. Beacon paperbacks. Beacon Press. p. 50–51. ISBN 9780807041772. LCCN 73121827. 
  33. ^ Random House Dictionary of the English Language. 1987.
  34. ^ Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary. 1983. Cf. "Scientism" definition 1, Oxford English Dictionary web edition, accessed October 16, 2009
  35. ^ Webster. 1983.
  36. ^ Webster. 1983. Definition #3 for Scientism.
  37. ^ Webster. 1983. Definition #2 for Scientism.
  38. ^ "Scientism" definition 2, Oxford English Dictionary web edition, accessed October 16, 2009
  39. ^ The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language: Fourth Edition. 2000. (archived 24 January 2008)
  40. ^ "Scientism" - Faith and Reason.

External links

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