Some notes on scientism

The word “scientism” gets tossed around a lot in critical public debates about science’s place in society. Usually it is used derogatorily to dismiss a trend in using science which the user of the word doesn’t like. Used in this way, it is a rhetorical label without much analytic content. But it may also be turned into a useful category for analyzing historical data.

In my class last week we discussed the relation between the concepts “science”, “scientism”, and “scientific naturalism”, especially with reference to historical developments of the Victorian period. We read some chapters from Richard Olson’s Science and Scientism in Nineteenth Century Europe (2008), and Frank M. Turner’s classic Between Science and Religion: The Reaction to Scientific Naturalism in Late Victorian England (1974).

The latter was an important modification of the “conflict thesis” on the relation between science and religion in the 19th century when it came out. Turner argued that rather than a strict divide, of interests as well as arguments, parts of the recently emerged scientific class still significantly overlapped with religion in Britain. In making his argument, Turner set up an operational division between actual scientific work, on the one hand, and the specific conglomeration of ideas which he calls “Victorian scientific naturalism” on the other. The upshot of Turner’s argument is that the latter constitutes an ideology and a worldview, formed and promulgated by such people as T. H. Huxley, John Tyndall, Herbert Spencer, Henry Maudsley and others, built only on a selective use of contemporary scientific theories. As a theory of matter the Victorian naturalists chose Daltonian atomism  instead of the competing theories of Lord Kelvin or James Clerk Maxwell, in logic they preferred J. S. Mill to William Whewell.

With this distinction, essentially between an ideology based on some scientific theories and “real” science in all its complexity, Turner argues that while scientific naturalists were often forcing against religion in public lectures and popularizations of science, other parts of the scientific community actively disagreed and rather attempted to forge a new synthesis. This is where Turner identifies the emergence of late-century psychical research: an ostensibly scientific discipline seeking to validate the existence and activity of the soul by investigating spiritualism, mesmerism, haunted houses, hypnosis, thought reading, clairvoyance and so on.

A distinction between “actual science” and a scientific, science-based or “sciency” ideology is often implicit in talk about scientism. In a derogatory sense, this tends to be implicit in criticisms of e.g. the New Atheists as dogmatically “scientistic” rather than scientific. As Turner noted about the Vicotrian naturalists as well, ideological scientism then implies an overstatement of science’s claim to knowledge and its place in society. Although most often employed derogatorily, there are some instances of scientism used as a self-referring, positive term. Almost echoing Turner’s definition of Victorian naturalism, Michael Shermer wrote in Scientific American in 2002 that

Scientism is a scientific worldview that encompasses natural explanations for all phenomena, eschews supernatural and paranormal speculations, and embraces empiricism and reason as the twin pillars of a philosophy of life appropriate for an Age of Science.

These views all see scientism as arising from science itself, whether as its ideological superstructure, or as a perversion of its aims. But a different kind, mostly of derogatory use as well, should also be discerned, emphasizing “sciency” or science-like ideology rather than actually science-based ideology. A classic example is economist and social theorist F. A. Hayek’s (1899-1992) attack on the use of science in 19th century socialist discourse:

Whenever we are concerned, not with the general spirit of disinterested inquiry but with slavish imitation of the method and language of Science, we speak of scientism or the scientistic prejudice … It should be noted that, in the sense that we shall use these terms, they describe, of course, an attitude which is decidedly unscientific in the true sense of the word, since it involves a mechanical and uncritical application of habits of thought to fields different from those in which they have been formed. The scientistic as distinguished from the scientific point of view is not an unprejudiced but a very prejudiced approach which, before it has considered its subject, claims to know what is the most appropriate way of investigating it. (quoted in Olson 2008, p. 3)

A similar way of defining scientism, but stated with more analytic precision and detachment, has been proposed by historian of religion Olav Hammer. Here scientism singles out a discursive strategy used by new religious movements – and potentially any other cultural system – in an attempt to win scientific legitimacy:

Scientism is the active positioning of one’s own claims in relation to the manifestations of any academic scientific discipline, including, but not limited to, the use of technical devices, scientific terminology, mathematical caluclations, theories, references and stylistic features – without, however, the use of methods generally approved within the scientific community, and without subsequent social acceptance of these manifestations by the mainstream of the scientific community through e.g. peer reviewed publication in academic journals. (Hammer 2001, p. 206)

It seems that we have essentially two types of definition here: scientism as a strategy used by non-scientific discourses to claim scientific legitimacy for themselves, and scientism as a strategy for scientists to expand their sphere of influence to traditionally non-scientific issues.

Robert Olson provides a definition which potentially bridges this distinction. First he defines science (for the sake of historical analysis) as

A cultural institution characterized for each particular time and place by a set of activities and habits of mind aimed at contributing to an organized, universally valid, and testable body of knowledge about phenomena. These characteristics are usually embodied in systems of concepts, rules of procedure, theories, or model investigations that are generally accepted by groups of practitioners – the scientific specialists. (Olson 2008, p. 2)

An inclusive (too inclusive?) and flexible definition which combines the claims to rationality, universality and method with an emphasis on social context. Distinguished from science stands scientism, defined less as a social system, ideology, worldview, or strategy, and more as a developmental feature identifiable in the history of ideas. For Olson scientism is taken

to indicate the transfer of ideas, practices, attitudes, and methodologies from the context of the study of the natural world (which was assumed to be independent of human needs and expectations) into the study of humans and their social institutions … . (Olson 2008, p. 1)

With this distinction in mind we can return to Turner’s discussion of Victorian scientific naturalism and the relation with religion. The activities of Turner’s naturalists certainly fit a framework of scientism. Scientific naturalism was in a sense the British sister of Comte’s positivism – a discourse which main spokespersons of naturalism were both influenced by, and hostile towards, as mentioned in a previous post.

What’s more interesting is that, going from Olson’s rather loose definition, some of the opponents to the naturalists were also scientistic. Psychical research is a particularly good example of this: A discourse that is founded on the assumption that scientific method and concepts have the potential to discover facts about the immortality of the soul, the existence of spirits and ghosts, latent magical and occult abilities of the mind, etc. Sometimes this expresses a widely shared optimism on behalf of science’s capability of producing valuable knowledge. Other times it seems wiser to interpret the claim to science in psychical research, and the bordering discourses of occultism and spiritualism, as a scientistic strategy of legitimization in the sense presented by Olav Hammer.

I will probably have much more to say about that at a later occasion.


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This work by Egil Asprem was first published on Heterodoxology. It is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.


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  1. […] naturalism did not mean one thing, despite a strong ideological front which may have seemed unified from public addresses and polemics by Huxley, Tyndall, Spencer, and […]

  2. […] of psychical research. Disenchanted with Christianity and dissatisfied with the worldview of the scientific naturalists, he exhibited an intellectual yearning, at the same time scientific, religious and philosophical, […]

  3. […] “Esotericism and modern science” (I’ve written about previous classes here, here, here, here and here)we talked about the encounter between two influential thinkers of very different […]

  4. […] of the interesting things with writing about relatively separate things – from Mesmerism to 19th century scientism to eugenics in Norway to lectures on alchemy to Goetic ritual magic – is keeping a track on […]

  5. […] the interactions with the ideological superstructures of naturalism and positivism (here and here), Frederic Myers, William James and psychical research, and the encounter between Jung and Pauli. […]

  6. […] the interactions with the ideological superstructures of naturalism and positivism (here and here), Frederic Myers, William James and psychical research, and the encounter between Jung and Pauli. […]

  7. […] claims and construct modern religio-scientific mythologies (cf. the discussions on scientism here and here). In studying these trends, having a basic understanding of the history of science is an […]

  8. […] Scientism is a scientific worldview that encompasses natural explanations for all phenomena, eschews supernatural and paranormal speculations, and embraces empiricism and reason as the twin pillars of a philosophy of life appropriate for an Age of Science. (found in this blog post) […]

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