What is Skepticism? Week 2: Science Vs. Scientism

The Committee for the Advancement of Scientific Skepticism (CASS) at the Centre for Inquiry Canada, in an effort to educate the public about the roles of critical thinking and the philosophy of skepticism, has produced a series of articles we have entitled “What is Skepticism?”  Over  four weeks we will be presenting them on Skeptic North and welcome your comments and discussion.

Last week we discussed the definition of  ”Skeptic” the modern skeptical movement. This week’s article by Viktorya Baydina and Iain Martel of CASS discuss the idea of Science versus Scientism and the philosophical implications for skeptics.

Why Scientism Isn’t Science

    To the dismay of scientists, the dreaded word ‘scientism’ has become a favorite of critics of the scientific method. Accusations of scientism, which are largely unjustified, can be heard from proponents of alternative medicine, homeopathic practitioners and everyone in between. So what is scientism and how is it different from science?
    Scientism is an umbrella term for a group of extreme attitudes towards science. For example, in his article “What is Scientism?”, Mikael Stenmark defines rationalistic scientism as the view that we are rationally entitled to believe only what can be scientifically proven, or what is scientifically knowable. Other forms of scientism offer variations on a basic idea which will serve as our definition of scientism: the view that in the future, all or nearly all of our real problems can and will be solved by science. Some of the implications of this idea are that problems which are not solved by science, or can not be put into scientific terms, aren’t important problems and that scientific knowledge is the only knowledge that exists. 

    It is easy to see why one would disagree with such an extreme position. Carl Sagan once said that humans are simply a “collection of almost identical molecules.” It is difficult for most people, who perceive themselves as thinking, feeling human beings, to reduce their existence in such a way. Can science really answer every question about our reality and render all other forms of inquiry meaningless? Few people will deny the effectiveness of the methods employed in the natural sciences for explaining the world around us. If a better method were discovered, it would be immediately adopted by scientists, since that is the nature of the scientific enterprise. But to stretch these methods to areas that normally wouldn’t be considered a part of the sciences, and claim that that is the only way to study said areas, is to step from science into scientism. Under this criterion, philosophy, religion, art and many other areas of human interest would all be effectively stripped of much of their significance.

    Science, then, has its limits, but when dealing with claims that are testable within the methods of science, such as medical claims, to demand scientific evidence is simply to hold everyone to the same standards as the scientific community holds itself to. To cry scientism in this case shows disregard for the scientific method. Yet this is exactly what proponents of homeopathy attempt to do, as shown in a recent article by Lionel Milgrom, a member of the Alliance for Natural Health expert committee:

    “Scientism is on the march, attempting to crush beneath its positivist boot the public’s right to complementary and alternative medical therapies such as homeopathy.”

    He goes on to say, “clinical decisions are now supposed to be based solely on the scientific evidence,” which he calls a “draconian approach.”

    It is not scientism that Milgrom is rejecting here, but science itself. Despite the frequent claims to the contrary by homeopaths, there is no great difficulty in testing homeopathic remedies by the same controlled experimental methods as used to test conventional medicines. Such tests have, indeed, been carried out, and homeopathy has been shown to have no more effect than a placebo. The only reasonable conclusion at this point is that homeopathy does not work, and that to portray it as otherwise is deeply misleading to patients. Where good scientific evidence is available, it should be heeded – this is not the extreme ideas of scientism at work, this is simply good science.

Author Bios

Iain Martel (CASS Co-chair)

Iain is slowly joining the real world after two decades in the ivory tower as a student and teacher of philosophy. His philosophical research was in the metaphysics of physics, focusing on theories of causation and time in the context of relativity theory and quantum mechanics. He is a British citizen, but did his graduate work in Colorado. Iain has been teaching at the University of Toronto for the last six years, including classes in logic, critical thinking, philosophy of science, and a class entitled “science and pseudoscience”.

Viktoriya Baydina

Viktoriya Baydina is a first year student at the University of Toronto,  currently studying Astronomy and Physics program. She was born in Kiev, Ukraine and moved to Toronto with her family in 2001. Besides English, she can speak Russian and Ukrainian, and is presently learning Norwegian. She is interested in how cultural traditions and religious beliefs influence people’s interpretations of scientific findings.

About the Committee for the Advancement of Scientific Skepticism (CASS) and the Centre for Inquiry Canada (CFI)CASS is a national, fast response team which critically engages with scientific, technological and medical claims made in public discourse. We address factual inaccuracies and misinformation in public debates by promoting evidence-based science. CASS is a subset of CFI. CFI is the leading freethought organization in Canada promoting reason, science, secularism and freedom of inquiry. CASS can be followed on Twitter @CFICASS, or on Facebook on the CASS fan page.

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  • Michael Kruse

    Michael is an advanced-care paramedic in York Region, just north of Toronto, Ontario. A semi-retired theatrical lighting designer as well, he re-trained in 2005 as an EMT-PS at the University of Iowa and as an ACP at Durham College, and is currently working towards a B.Sc at the University of Toronto. Michael is a founder and the chair of the board of directors of Bad Science Watch. He is also the recipient of the first annual Barry Beyerstein Award for Skepticism. Follow Michael on twitter @anxiousmedic. Michael's musings are his own and do not necessarily represent those of his employer or Bad Science Watch.