Notes on Science and Scientism
Restoring the credibility of genuine science
Science is the activity of tracing patterns in phenomena, equipped with a method of standardising and then distinguishing relevant from irrelevant findings in a manner that does not presuppose indoctrination in the conceptional apparatus from whence the search for the data originates, and communicating in a style that values precision of statement and clarity of concept over persuasion through means that do not appeal to reason. The observation and concomitant measurement of the particularities of the case leads to the formation of theories that seek to both explain and systematise the raw inputs and, subsequently, facilitate the formulation of hypotheses for the identification of new patterns, which renew the cycle of pattern recognition and analysis.
Science is, in this regard, a certain way of accumulating knowledge; knowledge that is a function of the available evidence and, which, by the very nature of the imperfect state of the totality of human instruments, the particularity, indeterminacy, or incompleteness of facts as well as the multitude of possible ways they can be interpreted and combined, must be understood as a form of proximate or intermediate certitude rather than the absolute truth.
Science implements a method of verifying and reasoning about facts that is external to science: that of identifying particular patterns and confirming their exact behaviour through continuous observation and experimentation. The method of science qua method that cannot possibly supply the means of its own verification or be its own cause and justification, for one may not prove with facts that which remains abstract. The method derives from philosophy which can afford to be self-reflective because one can theorise about theories or a given concept in abstract. Scientists may conduct an inquiry on their method, though they must do so outside the narrow confines of their role as scientists.
Science does not discount its significance nor does it undermine its own work by recognising the essence of the method it applies as exogenous to it. Nor does the recognition of this principle suggest that philosophy is necessarily a more truthful discipline in general and must thus be applied to every aspect of life. It only shows that there are different scopes of application in what effectively are strata of abstraction in the systems where patterns are identifiable, each with its own peculiarities and each imposing its own set of requirements upon the truth-seeker. By delineating the boundaries within which scientific initiative unfolds, scientists are better prepared to guard against their own excesses by disaggregating with a critical mindset the independently verifiable claims from those that are unwarranted or otherwise products of fabulation though they may be prima facie resting on a kernel of intermediate certitude.
Science recognises the inconclusiveness of its assertions as expedient approximations that can inform further research; research that attempts to reveal theretofore unknown mysteries and recast existing knowledge in a new light. The intermediate state of scientific knowledge taken as a whole inspires scientists to press on with their work in the hope of further approximating the truth, given that the feedback loop of search and discovery is largely positive.
Science commits to the deciphering of the given case’s constitution and, by logical necessity, accepts the possible revaluation of its conclusions, including their total dismissal, once either the factors that constitute the case, or the means of assessing them, undergo change. Intermediate knowledge is contingent on the overall mutability of the case, with the proviso that some classes of scientific findings may be much more stable than others and can thus function as foundations upon which ongoing research programmes may be established. Neither the method of science nor the findings it yields are immune to reconsideration and recalibration: they rather serve as a framework that informs heuristic devices which remain relevant by their effectiveness to deliver some degree of certitude.
Science can affect the mutability of the case by remaining open to the possibility of reviewing what had hitherto worked. A more refined theory or an altogether different approach to a given problem can reveal factors that were previously unknown and, in so doing, alter the constitution of the case in its thinkable expression as what is thought to be constituted of, which are its factors, what their interplay involves, and what phenomena emerge from them.
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Science implicitly understands that the constitution of the case is not strictly objective, in the sense of being independent of the subject who examines it. For if a change in how a pattern is discerned can alter the meaning or impression of it, it means that there exists a third realm of interconnectedness that encompasses the subject and the object. And so, objectivity in the particular sense of verification pertains to the narrower meaning of freedom from indoctrination in the assessment of scientific findings, where “indoctrination” amounts to a tacit dependency on a certain line of reasoning to render the scientific output verifiable.
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Science employs the term “objectivity” to denote its own commitment to research that is not self-serving. If a given programme can only explain itself within its own theoretical framework and if its own theories must be accepted in advance through sheer faith in their expected or putative eventual validity by invoking the hokum of progress, it ultimately violates the principle of freedom from indoctrination, as it only addresses its disciples in what effectively is an echo chamber of social confirmation. Conversely, the potential presence of such a programme further reinforces the notion of intermediate certitude which implies a sceptical view of one’s conduct inter alia.
Science, like philosophy, is a field of endeavour that requires a high ethical standard in its agents in order to sustain itself and guard against the formation of dogmas within its ranks. Scientists need to be guided by the joint virtues of dubitativeness, inquisitiveness, humility, courage, and open-mindedness in the form of discursively synthesising old and new ideas in pursuit of the truth rather than insisting on the vanity of forwarding one’s parochial interests or seeking to vindicate one’s school of thought by attempting to win the argument in a decisively unphilosophical, winner-takes-it-all mindset.
Science that recognises the imperfections of its work, the inconclusiveness of its own insights, and the possibility of making mistakes that ultimately detract from its main cause though they may appear compelling at first, is one that is prepared to press on with its research programmes for the sake of further approximating the truth instead of entertaining notions that are alien to that core objective.
Science is applied dialectics: a grand exchange of views where the participants propound their propositions in a spirit of collaboration with their peers towards the common end of the scientific enterprise. Dialectics is about jointly investigating the truth of the topic in question, where each side in this special type of dialogue maintains a disposition of being eager to be proven wrong when faced with cogent anti-theses to their own theses, for that necessarily emancipates them from an earlier falsehood and puts them on a new path of moving towards the truth.
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Science severed from its philosophical underpinnings can only be a stale technical occupation that ultimately creates its own vapid fashions and the related ephemeral social behaviours of hype and credulity. Such a science becomes an industry that specialises in producing the commodity of half-truths or that of elaborate lies wrapped in jargon and carefully selected data sets which conceal their underlying mischievous intent. The industry of science is used by its sponsors to advance their own stratagems, which are not aligned with those of science proper, for science might indeed fail to account for all factors that constitute the case though it will only do so temporarily out of an honest mistake not due to an ulterior motive of some sort. Scientists within such an unphilosophical community inevitably lose sight of the norms of dialectics, sacrificing them to the altars of expediency and vanity. They seek to establish their own strata of power accumulation and then work laboriously to reinforce their dogmas or myths of self-valorisation which are to be protected and perpetuated by those at the top of the resulting hierarchy in order to preserve benefits they have secured; benefits which are indicative of corruption and have nothing to do with the quest of approximating the truth.
Science without philosophy will inevitably experience such decline because it will forget the requisite scepticism that reinvigorates the process of iterative learning and re-learning which is characteristic of science: a process that is imperfect by default, else its continuation would be superfluous. Dialectics is not about delivering the truth in an unequivocal fashion. It rather is the recognition that truthfulness as such is not within any one’s grasp or is not confined to the constitution of a case, and so intermediate certitude must be pursued in an incrementalist way as an inter-personal and then inter-generational effort where everyone involved tries to prepare their findings for the type of objectivity that science expects (freedom from indoctrination). A science that no longer tolerates openendedness of that kind or that cannot recognise its own temporality-specific shortcomings and constraints is one that ultimately falls victim to conventions that are essentially unscientific, such as the mythos of its own inexorable linear progress where the new generation is believed to have fully absorbed the wisdom of the previous one, so that there never is a need to rewind or take a step back in an attempt to reconsider the state of affairs.
Science without philosophy is thus bound to be instrumentalised by forces with no genuine interest in the pursuit of the truth; forces whose machinations find their telos in the accumulation of power in the form of increasingly repressive or outright tyrannical governments, as well as corporate or private actors whose sole objective is the maximisation of wealth and control regardless of the invidious costs on humanity and the ecosystem at-large.
Science of such a sort can only ever serve as the intellectual vanguard of a profoundly non-scientific, and thus anti-philosophical, elite: to perform the role of the supposed fountain of authoritative insight that provides legitimacy to the status quo and which is ultimately weaponised against those who dare challenge the establishment’s hubris, its lack of self-control and sense of place in the world, and its pretences on infallibility.
Science deprived of philosophy and consequently transformed into the means for the consolidation of a given economic-institutional arrangement of forces must then rationalise its own condition through narratives that have nothing to do with the basic notion of trying to attain intermediate certitude for the matter at hand. It must instead find other means to retain its appeal, such as to invent its own origin story that justifies its existence and necessity in the history of humankind in general and the current civilisation in particular, and it must also elaborate on its own eschatology of unmitigated further enlightenment both to attract newcomers to its cause and to fend against those who are not amused by the vainglory of an ostensibly godless technotheocracy.
Science as a career choice rather than a disposition towards learning, and an attitude of living in accordance with the principles than enable such learning, contributes to the distancing from philosophy and to the degradation of the moral character of those involved. The practitioner who has not been in the least exposed to the rigours of a virtuous modus vivendi is likely to prioritise superficialities that obscure their own intellectual insecurities, such as social status, a growing collection of titles and certificates that are supposed to support one’s appeal to intellectuality, or the emptiness of being celebrated as a force for so-called “progress” and “rationality” among those who are believed to be unfortunate enough not to be scientists. The latter is one of those non-scientific beliefs amplified by the oligopoly of mass media that helps the philosophically deprived science stake its claim as the tutelary figure of the contemporary world, while blithely disregarding its instrumentalisation as both the apologist and militant activist of the power apparatus that enables it.
Science without philosophy becomes an ideology for the class of scientists who promote their selfish needs and/or for those who exploit scientific research in their quest for control.
Scientism is the ideology that holds science, though not necessarily individual research programmes, as inherently unmistakable and as the single source of truth. It is a set of beliefs on the superiority of science as a means of knowing the truth over any other method and a prescription against modes of behaviour that are not backed by scientific evidence which are deemed irrational, unreliable, or otherwise unclear. Scientism takes the form of a political initiative to extend scientific methods to all aspects of collective living and to make politics partake of the putative innate impartiality, rationality, and corresponding sense of truthfulness of scientific insight, without recognising the intertemporal failures of science between cycles of research programmes to reach a state of satisfactory intermediate certitude. In the academic world, scientism translates as a belief in the preponderance of natural sciences over the humanities and a subsequent form of expansionism of the former class against the latter or the induced envy of the latter of the former’s social prestige and access to funding. For the individual professional, scientism functions as a pretence on the scientist’s moral neutrality, their indifference to matters outside their area of specialisation, their self-imposed censorship on topics beyond their field of research, and their ultimate alienation from human affairs at-large.
Scientism starts from the misunderstanding that science alone speaks the truth and that unless some statement is scientifically proven nothing can be said about it with any degree of credibility. What science finds is, at best, the recognition of the case, which involves both subjective and objective magnitudes as outlined above, meaning that the absolute certitude that scientism expects is not acquirable.
Scientism makes a parody out of science by claiming that research methods such as statistical analysis and modelling can be applied to every aspect of life, on the presumption that those techniques are inherently rigorous. It thus leaves no room for non-mathematical forms of expression, such as textual interpretation, art, and legal doctrine. Taken to its extreme, scientism cannot admit the truthfulness one finds in a painting, such as El Greco’s Portrait of a Cardinal which depicts the vanity and ruthlessness of Spain’s then Inquisitor-General.
Scientism can only see other forms of acquiring knowledge as imperfect, because it juxtaposes them with an idealised version of science; a science where there are no cycles of revaluation and reconsideration of existing findings or where those are somehow not relevant to the claim that at any given moment science presents the truth. Science effectively proceeds through trial and error, to the effect that its current state is a midpoint between phases of high uncertainty and a degree of certitude.
Scientism prefers to obscure the dialectical—and, thus, sceptical— philosophical underpinnings of science by conflating the precision of statement that is typical of mathematics with the correspondence of models to the actuality of the case. A model codifies the assumptions made by its designer and looks into what the scientist wanted to find. It can have internal consistency, yet still fail to describe reality, as the constitution of its case excludes factors whose inclusion would have altered the way things appear to be. The scientist who fails to draw lessons from philosophy forgets that models are heuristic devices with which to reason about states of affairs in order to draw inferences that must inform the formulation of new hypotheses that advance research. To advance research is to render old models obsolete and to challenge prior assumptions as incomplete, misguided, or outright fallacious.
Scientism’s negligence to remain aporetic with respect to the models that scientists employ forces it to develop a false sense of pride in the medium of communication that consists of statistics and their geometric portrayals. The ideology thus assumes a combative stance against research programmes that cannot be reduced to simplistic mechanics of input and output. In practice, scientism venerates the so-called ‘hard’ sciences while deriding the ‘soft’ ones: it does so already at the linguistic level by introducing the presumptuous hard/soft dichotomy, but also by openly questioning the scientific merits of programmes that involve interpretation and critical judgement.
Scientism thus unfolds as an offensive against classes of sciences that do not yield what are believed to be solid facts. Rhetoric and prejudices aside, the sustained attack takes the form of an uneven distribution of funding so that departments in disciplines such as history, sociology, gender studies, are forced into the margins of the academia, while their ostensibly superior and credible counterparts are endowed with all the money and exposure. What is the institutional equivalent of NASA for studying the human condition, the interpersonal magnitudes of our world, and how does it compare to NASA in terms of status, media coverage, and funding?
Scientism does not ask such questions because it dismisses ‘values’ as unscientific, as if science is not supposed to search for answers that can help humans improve their understanding of the world, which inevitably encompasses the understanding of their intersubjective world. And so a group of self-proclaimed geeks or nerds will blithely launch the rockets of some deranged plutocrat into outer space where they will be used to eventually consolidate repression both on Earth and beyond. Why bother going to Mars if the greatest aspiration is to set up more banks with which to perpetuate the rapacious tendencies that already dominate our life?
Scientism cannot nurture critical thinking from within; thinking that could show it the error of its ways and point at its delusions on the categorisation of the classes of human knowledge. For it maintains the unrealistic notion that the scientist has an agency that is distinct from its counterpart in the outside world: once the scientist enters the lab, or speaks their mind in their capacity qua scientist, they mystically assume an enlightened form that is free of ideological dispositions and deep seated biases; free from those ‘human values’ that scientism is unwilling to recognise as pertinent to the human experience and worthy of serious consideration.
Scientism promotes, in splendid non-scientific style, the ostensible moral neutrality of the scientist because that is consistent with its claims that only the supposed ‘hard’ evidence can be reasoned about with rigour while everything else must be discarded as being of dubious quality. This ideocentric view of science is further reinforced by powerful symbiotic interests of politics and business that benefit from that image both because (i) the work of the research they fund appears impartial and genuine, and (ii) the uncritically minded scientist will not suspend their research programme to ponder about its propriety, its telos.
Scientism further benefits from the myth that science, here conceived as ‘hard’ science, is a vehicle towards enlightenment as it is integral to humanity’s progress towards democracy from the earlier days of tyranny. Notwithstanding the fact that the so-called democracies of the modern world are oligarchies by design, there is nothing whatsoever in the nature of applied research that prevents it from being employed in the service of outright authoritarian regimes or used by assiduous and unscrupulous corporate actors in pursuit of malicious and unscientific ends.
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Scientism contradicts its claims when it tries to identify itself with liberty while undermining the significance of the humanities or liberal arts. The contradiction is, nonetheless, obscured by the narrative of inexorable historical progress not only of the material sort but also in terms of morality, which is encapsulated in clichés that point to the thought of something being out of place or unacceptable “in the 21st century”. Perhaps such apparent misreading of history and such inflated sense of importance in the modern era’s conventional wisdom would have been prevented by paying attention to studies that examine the human condition in earnest, contrary to the workings of scientism.
Scientism further contradicts itself on the point of being firmly fastened upon the vehicle of democracy, because what it wants in the domain of politics is for so-called experts to guide and mould society as they see fit, despite the obvious shortcomings of actual science on how the human world works. There are experts who control monetary policy, experts who advise the government on how to manage the economy, experts who decide what is to be taught at schools—with the indoctrination to scientism included—, experts who instruct farmers what is best for their land, and so on, to the effect that asking for the rest of society to participate in decisions that affect their quotidian life, and to do so in a meaningful way instead of some tokenistic engagement via hashtags on a platformarch’s playground or whatnot, is to promote some much-derided brand of populism.
Scientism thus denies the possibility of an ideologically driven technocracy. The scientist is supposed to an exalted being, morally neutral qua scientist. Science, in the scientism’s sense, is meant to be the instrument of secular providence that leads peoples towards democracy and liberty. And so, when a committee of experts issues its edict on how collective life is to be instituted, it merely expresses the epitome of impartiality, the purity of reason, and the undisputed truth of what can be said about the subject at hand. Same principle when a group of scientists catalyses the making of some consumer good that actually harms people to maximise profits, all under the guise of objectivity and moral neutrality.
Scientism expresses itself in the words of the feeble willed scientist who prefaces every opinion with the caveat “I specialise in X, therefore I cannot speak about Y, though I think…”. An honest scientist who has not lost sight of philosophy would simply admit that specialisation in X does not yield perfect knowledge of X and that one is uncertain about the validity of all of their views, despite whatever differences of degree. A genuine scientist would, in other words, not pretend to be impartial and immune to bias, but would rather openly admit the possibility of being mistaken, would acknowledge the fact that the constitution of the case thus examined does not preclude the reconstitution of the case if that is what the quest for the truth demands and, in a spirit of dialectics, be eager to be proven wrong by cogent arguments that contradict their prior fallacious views.
Scientism cannot tolerate dialectics, it cannot recognise the fact that the scientist does not provide definitive answers, as that would expose its hypocrisy and pose a hindrance to its aspirations of clinging on to power. It instead expounds on the asinine theory that philosophy is outdated and no longer relevant to science which is, by itself, an unequivocal assertion of the sort that genuine science dismisses as unscientific as well as a misunderstanding of how philosophy informs science not as a substitute for tinkering with equations and recalibrating instruments, but as a means of being self-conscious of the bigger picture in which one contributes their part, and a way of thinking and operating that remains mindful of the very framework that supports those equations and instruments.
Scientism endorses an unrealistic view of the current state of research where it downplays the significance of competing schools of thought and how not all of them are represented equally or at all in the technocratic power structures. The very presence of an orthodoxy and of heterodox views in any given field of inquiry means that (i) the discipline as a whole cannot be represented uniformly, (ii) the historical evolution of the discipline will consolidate the power of whatever mainstream tendency and not internalise those of competing traditions so that the state-of-the-art will eventually be the prevalence of the dominant persuasion in what effectively is a battle of numbers. Moreover, the existence of such differences of opinion or approach indicates what science knows and what scientism disregards: the truth remains elusive.
Scientism’s integration with business and political plans has pernicious implications in the world of science (in addition to the invidious consolidation of technocracy, with its inane pretences on neutrality and supposed apolitical outlook). Those concern the struggle for prestige and the related scramble for access to resources that are furnished by those with the goal to forward their agenda behind the veil of putatively authoritative science.
Scientism first engenders the demand for ostensibly undisputed evidence in all areas of life by misrepresenting science as the single source of truth and then accommodates that demand by turning science into yet another industry that functions in accordance with the idolatry of perpetual profit maximisation. The scientist who is cast in that milieu must think of how to market their research in order to get a grant that can keep them in business. While the humanities at-large must engage in a grand role-playing game where they appear to be implementing the same rigour that is found in physics so that they, too, can yield tangible results for use by their sponsors. Meanwhile, the aspiring scientist is incentivised to assume—or, rather, brainwshed into assuming—an odious debt burden in order to go through the now-industrialised and hyper-financialised formal education system in the hope of acquiring a degree or set thereof that improves their career prospects, including the option of a career in science defined by its aphilosophical hubris.
Scientism is inextricably bound up together with the established paradigm of political-economic-social organisation where a tightly controlled elite appropriates the means of production, communication, and decision-making. Scientism provides the origin story of this order’s self-professed benevolence as the heir of modernity—itself an ideologically loaded term—and renders plausible its claims on its inevitability as the sole possible outcome of rational thinking, all under the rubric of science alone being in a position to tend to the truth. As the status quo is defined by its inequality and amorality, which are embedded in the profligate quest for incessant year-on-year fiscal growth, so its simulacrum of science inherits the same antipathy towards the truth when that poses a threat to its bottom line.
Scientism exists to regale its de facto employers with findings that can be directly integrated in money-making schemes and power struggles, both of which are consubstantial anyhow. It exists to provide them with legitimacy and to shield them from criticism, for who has the temerity to question ‘science’ and ‘facts’?