Mark Twain famously remarked about how “lightning” and “lightning bug” look and sound an awful lot alike, but they are two entirely different things. Philosopher Kenneth Samples sees much the same relationship between “science” and “scientism.”
That difference is hugely significant for Members of Congress, and even more so for their staffers, who must know the difference if they are to render the most credible and useful advice and analyses for their law-making bosses.
So what is the difference between science and scientism? Samples first quotes the National Academy of Sciences’ definition of the former as “the use of evidence to construct testable explanation and prediction of natural phenomena, as well as the knowledge generated through this process.”
On the other hand, Samples observes, “according to scientism, science confers genuine knowledge to humanity. In terms of epistemology (relating to knowledge), scientism takes two forms: (1) strong scientism says science is the only path to knowledge, and (2) weak scientism says science is the best path to knowledge.”
See the key difference? Science is a discovery process for accurately describing material reality, while scientism is a set of assumptions about the nature of reality. And those assumptions in the final analysis are unverifiable.
“The claims of strong scientism are both breathtaking and logically incoherent. For example, the assertion that the material, physical world is all that exists cannot be shown by science,” Samples writes.
“And the claim that all truth claims must be scientifically verified cannot itself be empirically verified by science. Both claims, therefore, stand as self-referentially incoherent and thus false. Strong scientism cannot back up its extravagant metaphysical and knowledge claims,” he continues.
“The claims of strong scientism are both breathtaking and logically incoherent. For example, the assertion that the material, physical world is all that exists cannot be shown by science.”
Congress is perennially flooded with truth claims and other kinds of claims, many of which conflict. Think, for example, of competing claims for federal funding of construction of a new particle accelerator and increased cancer research.
How do you assess the priority that ought to be assigned to each of those claims without going beyond science to philosophy, ethics, theology and other non-quantitative disciplines?
Scientism would reject such inquiries as false, misleading or a waste of time, which could quite possibly preclude considerations that ultimately shape the difference between a just decision and a harmful one.
This is not an easy area of consideration, to be sure, but it’s an essential one for legislative analysts, professional staff members on committees and researchers with congressional agencies.
For additional thoughts on these and related issues, check out Samples’ blog, Reflections. See also a helpful essay on the blog of the American Philosophical Association (APA) entitled “The Problem with Scientism,” by City College of New York Professor Massimo Pigliucci.