Scientific imperialism

Scientific imperialism is a term that appears to have been coined by Dr Ellis T Powell when addressing the Commonwealth Club of Canada on 8 September 1920. Though he defined imperialism as "the sense of arbitrary and capricious domination over the bodies and souls of men," yet he used the term "scientific imperialism" to mean "the subjection of all the developed and undeveloped powers of the earth to the mind of man." [ [ Scientific Imperialism an Address] , Delivered by Ellis T. Powell, LL.B. D.Sc.]

In modern parlance, however, scientific imperialism refers to situations in which critics charge that science seems to act imperiously, such as "the tendency to push a good scientific idea far beyond the domain in which it was originally introduced, and often far beyond the domain in which it can provide much illumination." (John Dupré, "Against Scientific Imperialism," 2006) Scientific imperialism can thus describe an attitude towards knowledge in which the beliefs and methods of science are assumed to be superior to, and to take precedence over, those of all other disciplines. "Devotees of these approaches are inclined to claim that they are in possession not just of one useful perspective on human behavior, but of the key that will open doors to the understanding of ever wider areas of human behavior."cite journal
author = Dupré, J.
authorlink = John Dupré
year = 1994
title = Against Scientific Imperialism
journal = PSA: Proceedings of the Biennial Meeting of the Philosophy of Science Association
volume = 1994
pages = 374–381
url =
accessdate = 2007-07-16
( [ JSTOR link for this paper] )]

Scientific imperialism is also apparent in "those who believe that the study of politics can and should be modelled on the natural sciences, a position defended most forcibly in the United States, and those who have dissented, viewing this ambition as methodologically unjustified and ethically undesirable."cite journal
author = Bell, D.
year = 2006
title = Beware of false prophets: biology, human nature and the future of International Relations theory
journal = International Affairs
volume = 82
issue = 3
pages = 493–510
url =
accessdate = 2007-07-16
doi = 10.1111/j.1468-2346.2006.00547.x

Critique of power

It has also been defined as the "pursuit of power through the pursuit of knowledge," [ [ "The Scientific Voyages of Captain Cook"] ] and its pejorative use arguably reflects the frustration felt by some with "the limitations of reductive scientism (scientific imperialism)."cite book
author = Peacocke, A.R.
authorlink = Arthur Peacocke
year = 1993
title = [ Theology for a Scientific Age: Being and Becoming-Natural, Divine and Human]
publisher = Augsburg Fortress Publishers; Enl Sub edition
isbn = 978-0800627591
] And "the myth that science is the model of truth and rationality still grips the mind of much of our popular and scientific culture. Even though philosophers of science over the past few decades have gutted many of the claims of this scientific imperialism, many thinkers, knee-jerk agnostics, and even judges persist in the grip of this notion."cite book
author = Moreland, J.P.
authorlink = J. P. Moreland
year = 1989
title = Christianity and the Nature of Science
publisher = Baker Book House
isbn =
(review [ here] )] In its more extreme forms, critics of science even question whether we should "automatically assume ... that successful scientific theories are true or approximately true models of the world," and periodically express a desire to "dethrone science from an imperialistic stance over philosophy and theology." Such extreme critics also claim that maybe scientists harbor "unreal expectations and mistaken assumptions, their hubris and their imperialism," [Ted Nield: [ "The Madness of Scientists - scientific misunderstanding of public and media"] ] in their desire to extend the methods and ideology of science into regions of human investigation for which its methods might be unsuited, such as to religions and the humanities.

Religion of intellectuals

Scientific imperialism, "the idea that all decisions, in principle, can be made scientifically - has become, in effect, the religion of the intellectuals," [Staddon, J E R, [ "SCIENTIFIC IMPERIALISM AND BEHAVIORIST EPISTEMOLOGY,"] "Behavior and Philosophy," 2004] for it seems to reflect "a natural tendency, when one has a successful scientific model, to attempt to apply it to as many problems as possible. But it is also in the nature of models that these extended applications are dangerous." [John Dupré: [ "The Disunity of Science"] (2006) Interviewed by Paul Newall] Science appears most imperialistic when it seeks domination over other disciplines and the subordination of 'non-believers,' or those it perceives as being insufficiently educated in scientific matters. It can thus involve some zealotry, and perhaps a fundamentalist belief that science alone stands supreme over all other modes of inquiry. In this it may resemble cultural imperialism, as a rather rigid and intolerant form of intellectual monotheism. [ "Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective," Donna Haraway, Feminist Studies, Vol. 14, No. 3 (Autumn, 1988), pp.575-599] [ "Scientism and Humanism: Two Cultures in Post-Mao China (1978-1989)," by Shiping Hua & "Science and Dissent in Post-Mao China: The Politics of Knowledge" by H. Lyman Miller, Reviewed by Yan Sun, The Review of Politics, 59.3, Non-Western Political Thought (Summer, 1997), pp. 600-602] [ Garth D. Benson, "Science Education from a Social Constructivist Position: A Worldview," Studies in Philosophy and Education, 20.5, September, 2001, pp.443-452] If it acts monopolistically [ Joseph Ben-David, "The Profession of Science and its Powers," Minerva, 10.3, July 1972, pp.362-382 (abstract)] then science does indeed seem rigid, ruthless and intolerant.


Advocates of this critical position may describe themselves as marginalised and see their ideas described by scientists as irrational, and of being fairly or unfairly labelled as New Agers or religious romantics. In the science belief system, critics argue that whose who have a tight adherence to the core dogmas of science attracts the greatest credibility, respect and reverence. It is further argued that scientists extol the exclusive virtues of the scientific paradigm over other modes of interpreting Nature, the world and human behavior. It seems a paternalistic attitude that scientists alone belong to an elite class of people who deal with matters of greatest importance, [ Brian Martin & Sharon Beder, The arrogance of scientists, Chain Reaction, 68, Feb 1993, pp.16-17] and may belittle the intellectual powers of the average citizen.

In medicine

Another meaning of this term is shown when it is claimed that "poor people in developing countries are being exploited in research for the benefit of patients in the developed world." cite journal
last = Wilmshurst
first = Peter
authorlink = Peter Wilmshurst
coauthors =
title = Editorial, Scientific imperialism
journal = British Medical Journal
volume =
issue =
pages =
date = 22 March 1997
url =
doi =
id =
accessdate =
] In such an example, then it is clear that, "the scientific community has a responsibility to ensure that all scientific research is conducted ethically." Another example lies in the alleged misappropriation of indigenous drugs in poor countries by drug companies in the developed world: "Ethnopharmacology involves a series of sociopolitical, economic and ethical dilemmas, at various levels...frequently host country scientists, visiting scientists, and informants disagree...research efforts are (often) perceived as scientific imperialism; scientists are accused of stealing plant materials and appropriating traditional plant knowledge for financial profit and/or professional advancement. Many governments, as well as indigenous societies are increasingly reluctant to permit such research...historically neither native populations nor host countries have shared to a significant extent the financial benefits from any drug that reaches the market...unless these issues are amply discussed and fairly resolved, medicinal plant research runs the risk of serving ethically questionable purposes."cite journal
author = Elisabetsky, E.
year = 1991
title = Sociopolitical, economical and ethical issues in medicinal plant research.
journal = J Ethnopharmacol
volume = 32
issue = 1-3
pages = 235–9
url =
accessdate = 2007-07-16
doi = 10.1016/0378-8741(91)90124-V



*Adas M., "Machines as the Measure of Men: Science, Technology and Ideologies of Western Dominance" (New York, 1989)
*Alam A., "Imperialism and Science" in Race and Class Vol. 19, 1978, pp.239-251
*Arnold D. (ed.), "Imperial Medicine and Indigenous Society" (Manchester,1989)
*Crosby A., "Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900-1900" (Cambridge, 1986)
*Drayton R., "Science and the European Empires" in Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, Vol. 23, 1995, pp. 503-510.
*Drayton R.H., "Nature's Government: Science, Imperial Britain and the 'Improvement' of the World" (Yale, 2000)
*Grove R., "Green Imperialism: Colonial Expansion, Tropical Island Edens, and the Origins of Environmentalism, 1600-1860" (Cambridge, 1995)
*Inkster I., "Scientific Enterprise and the Colonial Model, Observations on Australian Experience in Historical Context" in Social Studies of Science, Vol.15, 1985, pp.677-704
*Kumar D., "Patterns of Colonial Science in India" in Indian Journal for History of Science, Vol. 15, 1980, pp.105-119
*Mackenzie J.M., (ed.), "Imperialism and the Natural World" (Manchester, 1990)
*Macleod R., "On Visiting the “Moving Metropolis”: Reflections on the Architecture of Imperial Science" in Reingold N and Rothenberg M (eds.) Scientific Colonialism (Washington, 1987)
*MacLeod R. and Lewis M. (eds.), "Disease, Medicine and Empire" (London, 1988)
*Macleod R., "Passages in Imperial Science: From Empire to Commonwealth" in Journal of World History, Vol. 4, 1993, pp.117-150
*Palladino P. and Worboys M., "Science and Imperialism" in ISIS, Vol.84, 1993 pp.91-102
*Petitjean P., Jami C., and Moulin A.M. (eds.), "Science and Empires: Historical Case Studies about Scientific Development and European Expansion" (Netherlands, 1992)
*Pratt M.L., "Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation" (London, 1992)
*Pyenson L., "Cultural Imperialism and Exact Sciences revisited" in ISIS, Vol.84, 1993, pp.10-108
*Pyenson L., "Pure Learning and Political Economy: Science and European Expansion in the Age of Imperialism" in Visser R.P.W., Bos H.J.M., Palm L.C. and Snelders H. A. M. (eds.) New Trends in the History of Science (Amsterdam, 1989)
*Reingold N. and Rothenberg M., "Scientific Colonialism: A Cross Cultural Comparison" (Washington, 1987)
*Said E., "Culture and Imperialism" (London, 1993)
*Secord J., "King of Siluria: Roderick Murchison and the Imperial Theme in Nineteenth Century British Geology" in Victorian Studies Vol. 25,1982, pp.413-443.
*Sheets-Pyenson S., "Cathedrals of Science: The Development of Colonial Natural History Museums During the Late Nineteenth Century" (Kingston, 1988)
*Stafford, R.A., "Scientist of Empire: Sir Roderick Murchison, Scientific Exploration and Victorian Imperialism" (Cambridge, 1989)
*Vaughan M., "Curing Their Ills: Colonial Power and African Illness" (Cambridge, 1991)

ee also

*Cultural imperialism

External links

* [ Duncan Bell (2006) Beware of false prophets: biology, human nature and the future of International Relations theory, International Affairs 82 (3), 493–510]
* [ John Dupré, Against Scientific Imperialism, Philosophy of Science Association Proceedings 2, 1994: pp. 374-381]
* [ John Dupré, The Disunity of Science (2006) Interviewed by Paul Newall]
* [ E Elisabetsky, Sociopolitical, economical and ethical issues in medicinal plant research, J Ethnopharmacol, 1991 Apr; 32 (1-3): 235-9]
* [ Ted Nield, The Madness of Scientists,]
* [ J E R Staddon, Scientific Imperialism and Behaviorist Epistemology, Behavior and Philosophy, 2004]
* [ Wilmshurst 314 (7084): 840 Comment > BMJ 1997;314(7084):840 (22 March), doi:]

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