“Scientism” is an ideology whose adherents believe that modern science can answer all important questions about the universe and human life, and that science is the only source of knowledge. A foundational premise of scientism is the “dogmatic endorsement of scientific methodology and the reduction of all knowledge to only that which is measurable.”
Adherents of scientism eschew the fact that there are numerous questions that science isn’t qualified to answer. Such questions are traditionally examined within the domain of philosophy and the humanities; but scientism claims that science can replace the humanities. So much for the intellectual contribution of the Enlightenment.
However, scientism’s most damaging influence is in the social science fields — psychology, sociology, anthropology, and education. The hypotheses in these fields cannot meet the rigorous scientific criterion of validation which seeks to disprove a theory; because they rely on observation and description. Scientism has misappropriated the theoretical speculations of the social sciences and declared them to be “science-based.”
Austin Hughes, Distinguished Professor of Biological Sciences at the University of South Carolina, is an evolutionary biologist who had first studied philosophy at Georgetown University and Harvard. He is the author of more than 300 peer-reviewed scientific publications. Prof. Hughes denounces scientism as being closely allied to the pseudoscience of eugenics.
He argues that genuine scientists recognize the distinction between science and philosophy and the vital contribution of philosophy, literature, and the arts to the development of moral, aesthetic, and spiritual values.
The proponents of scientism and eugenics both have breached the dividing line between science and moral / philosophical questions, declaring that science is the only means of answering those questions. They have usurped the mantle of scientific authority to make assertions about issues pertaining to ethics, social policy and moral behavior.
Part of this evolutionary approach to ethics tends toward a debunking of morality, as if knowing whether certain scientific claims are true imparts moral authority. Proponents of scientism argue that our standards of morality result from natural selection for traits that were useful for our ancestors’ survival. Accordingly, they insist that there can be no universal right or wrong. They tend toward a position of moral relativism. However, such moral assertions cannot be proven or disproven by any scientific methods. They are, therefore, merely theoretical speculations that science isn’t qualified to answer…
In his essays, “The Folly of Scientism” (2012) and “Scientism and the Integrity of the Humanities”, Dr. Hughes deconstructs scientism by explaining how this dogmatic fallacy has derailed the professions of medicine, biology, and ethics from their essential humanitarian focus. It has done so, even as scientism itself is shown to have failed to meet the test of science.
“forays into evolutionary explanations amount ultimately to storytelling rather than to hypothesis-testing in the scientific sense. For a complete evolutionary account of a phenomenon, it is not enough to construct a story about how the trait might have evolved in response to a given selection pressure; rather, one must provide some sort of evidence that it really did so evolve. This is a very tall order, especially when we are dealing with human mental or behavioral traits, the genetic basis of which we are far from understanding.”
Hughes delivers a coup de grace to the very foundational premise of eugenics:
“the eugenics movement arose, with its battle cry, ‘The unfit are reproducing like rabbits; we must do something to stop them!’ Although plenty of prominent Darwinians endorsed such sentiments in their day, no more incoherent a plea can be imagined from a Darwinian point of view: If the great unwashed are out-reproducing the genteel classes, that can only imply that it is the great unwashed who are the fittest — not the supposed “winners” in the economic struggle. It is the genteel classes, with their restrained reproduction, who are the unfit. So the foundations of eugenics are complete nonsense from a Darwinian point of view.”
An important lesson to be learned from the ignominy of eugenics is the fallibility of institutional authority.
The eugenic movement’s leadership included the most prominent intellectuals; largely university-trained biologists and doctors who aggressively advocated for immoral, even draconian eugenics policies because they thought they were justified by Darwinian biology. Eugenicists represented mainstream evolutionary biology, not the fringe. They were affiliated with universities like Harvard, Princeton, Columbia, and Stanford. And they were leaders in America’s most prestigious scientific organizations, including the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) whose president was the biologist Edwin Conklin of Princeton (Intercollegiate Review, 2010; Duty or Dream? Journal of History of Biology, 2012)
Prof. Hughes suggests that scientism appears to have as much in common with superstition as it does with properly conducted scientific research. Its claims that science has already resolved questions that are inherently beyond its ability to answer, could undermine the credibility of science.
“Of all the fads and foibles in the long history of human credulity, scientism in all its varied guises — from fanciful cosmology to evolutionary epistemology and ethics — seems among the more dangerous, both because it pretends to be something very different from what it really is and because it has been accorded widespread and uncritical adherence. Continued insistence on the universal competence of science will serve only to undermine the credibility of science as a whole.
The ultimate outcome will be an increase of radical skepticism that questions the ability of science to address even the questions legitimately within its sphere of competence. One longs for a new Enlightenment to puncture the pretensions of this latest superstition.” (Hughes, 2012)
He then takes aim at the much hyped brain imaging techniques by pointing out the fallacy and limitation of applying reductive techniques of empirical science to gain an understanding of human volition and consciousness.
“Although there has been much overhyping of brain imaging, the limitations of this sort of research are becoming increasingly obvious. Even on their own terms, these studies at best provide evidence of correlation, not of causation, and of correlations mixed in with the unfathomably complex interplay of cause and effect that are the brain and the mind. These studies inherently claim to get around the problems of understanding subjective consciousness by examining the brain, but the basic unlikeness of first-person qualitative experience and third-person events that can be examined by anyone places fundamental limits on the usual reductive techniques of empirical science.
Most of this research is soft science of the very softest sort — questionnaire surveys that ask people in a variety of circumstances about their feelings of happiness…there is reason for questioning to what extent the self-reported “happiness” in population surveys relates to real happiness.
Recent data indicating that both states and countries with high rates of reported “happiness” also have high rates of suicide suggest that people’s answers to surveys may not always provide a reliable indicator of societal well-being, or even of happiness… there is much disagreement between people as to what happiness is, “and often even the same man identifies it with different things, with health when he is ill, with wealth when he is poor.”
Again, understanding values requires philosophy, and cannot simply be sidestepped by wrapping them in a numerical package.” (Hughes, 2012; Read also: A Bug in fMRI Software Could Invalidate 15 Years of Brain Research, 2016)
Beware of the counterfeit seal of “science” donned by speculative genetic, social, or moral theories
Our recent history provides cautionary catastrophic reminders. Social Darwinism and its associated theory of eugenics became an institutional, government-backed theory that provided the “pseudo-scientific” justification for the sterilization policies in the U.S. and Nazi Germany. The Nazis expanded -racist eugenics policies into a genocidal Holocaust. For decades, Soviet biology was dominated by Trofim Lysenko, who rejected Mendelian genetics as inconsistent with Marxism. He formulated a genetics theory that acquired characteristics can be inherited. When Soviet Russia adopted Lysenko’s pseudo-scientific theory, 3,000 mainstream biologists who opposed the theory were imprisoned or executed.
Genuine science can be empirically tested and proven or disproven in accordance with Karl Popper’s falsification principle; and tends to correct itself over time. Not so in the realm of pseudo-science which is immune to the test of falsification.
Both eugenics and Lysenkoism relied on institutional mechanisms and government ordinance for their authority; each was overturned by political, not scientific factors.
“Can we be certain that there are not sub-disciplines of science in which even today most scientists accept without question theories that will in the future be shown to be as preposterous as Lysenkoism? Many working scientists can surely think of at least one candidate — that is, a theory widely accepted in their field that is almost certainly false, even preposterous.” (Hughes 2012)
Because of the unsavory link between eugenics and Nazi crimes against humanity, the proponents of social Darwinism and evolutionary ethics lowered their public profile and receded into the background for 25 years — they did not disappear.
That subdued profile changed with the rise of sociobiology, a concept promoted by E.O. Wilson, a Harvard biologist whose research specialty is ants. Wilson’s book, Sociobiology (1975) and its more recent offspring evolutionary psychology, have ignited a huge resurgence of interest in “evolutionary ethics” among philosophers, biologists, psychologists, and popular writers. [Read about the identical fervor with which US academics at elite institutions, Harvard most prominent among them, embraced eugenics.]
E.O. Wilson’s book, The Social Conquest of Earth (2012) argues that “the origin of religion and morality…is driven by natural group selection.”
The book was sharply critiqued by a fellow Darwinian advocate, Richard Dawkins, who rebuked Wilson’s deviation from the theory of “kin selection” to a “group selection” theory — as “implausible and unsupported by evidence” calling it “downright perverse.” (Prospect, 2012)
“The difficulty is in assigning what Darwin called ‘fitness’ to a particular genetic feature. They are trying to set basic fitness conditions which they believe work over very long periods of time. This is a fantasy. There is no such thing as a good or bad gene. It doesn’t work that simply. Genes are used and re-used in different contexts, each of which might have a different overall fitness value for a given organism or a group.”
“even the preservation of certain genes down the ages is no proof that they are good…there are many things that survive in biology for no beneficial reason, like male nipples. They are ‘bystanders’ of other important processes. They result from underlying genetic processes that in the opposite sex are absolutely essential for our survival as mammals.” (The Guardian, 2012)
Science – biology and medicine in particular – are driven by moral imperatives
Yuval Levin, senior editor of in The New Atlantis, challenges the idea that science is morally neutral in his essay, The Moral Challenge of Modern Science (2006). He begins with a quotation attributed to a former President of the U.S. who expressed concern about a health policy devoid of a moral dimension:
“The powers of science are morally neutral — as easily used for bad purposes as good ones. In the excitement of discovery, we must never forget that mankind is defined not by intelligence alone, but by conscience. Even the most noble ends do not justify every means.”
Levin notes that science, especially biology and medicine has always been driven by a fundamental moral purpose:
“The modern scientific project was not conceived or born as a morally neutral quest after facts. On the contrary, launched in the seventeenth century out of frustration with the barren philosophies of the European universities, modern science was a profoundly moral enterprise, aimed at improving the condition of the human race, relieving suffering, enhancing health, and enriching life.”
Levin cites two pillars of modern science: 17th century philosophers, Francis Bacon and Reneé Descartes, both of who explicitly rejected the notion of morally neutral science.
“a natural curiosity and inquisitive appetite would be inadequate…the aim of a genuine science should be the glory of the Creator and the relief of man’s estate.” Levin notes that “Bacon sought to master nature and thereby to ease suffering and empower humanity to act with greater freedom.”
Descartes agreed, stating that mathematical science aims not at neutral knowledge…but aims principally at “the conservation of health, which is without doubt the primary goal and the foundation of all other goods of this life.” (Descartes, Discourse on Method) Levin emphasized the essential moral imperative in scientific inquiry.
“The danger that confronts us in the scientific age arises not from our tools or our machines but from our own assumptions and attitudes. When we allude to the “Brave New World” as shorthand for the inhuman technological dystopia that threatens our future if we fail to meet this challenge, we must be sure to remember the full Shakespearean exclamation from which Aldous Huxley drew his novel’s title: “O brave new world That has such people in ‘t!”
It is not simply the age of modern science that should worry us, but the refashioned people in it.”
A moral issue for the twenty-first century:
The most troubling possibility is that science will once again become a tool for political tyranny as it did not that long ago:
“The two most tyrannical regimes of all time, the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, both claimed to be scientifically based. Marxism/Leninism was promoted as scientific Socialism, while Hitler claimed that National Socialism was actually applied biology. It’s entirely possible that this sort of thing could happen again.” (Blinded by Science, Salvo 26 Science & Faith Supplement, 2013)
In August, 2016, the National Institutes of Health announced that it has submitted a request for approval to obtain U.S. government funds for human-animal stem cell experiments.
- What will prevent genetic scientists from using their methods to create “subhuman” slaves for experimentation?
“The worry is that the animals might turn out to be a little too human for comfort, say ending up with human reproductive cells, patches of people hair, or just higher intelligence. The specter of an intelligent mouse stuck in a laboratory somewhere screaming ‘I want to get out’ would be very troubling to people.”
(Human-Animal Chimeras Are Gestating on U.S. Research Farms by Antonio Regalado, Science, Jan. 6, 2016; NIH Plans to Lift Funding Ban on Human-Animal Hybrids; N.I.H. Seeks OK to Fund Human-Animal Stem Cell Experiments)
Read more: Human-Animal Chimeras Are Gestating on U.S. Research Farms by Antonio Regalado, Science, Jan. 6, 2016; NIH Plans to Lift Funding Ban on Human-Animal Hybrids; N.I.H. Seeks OK to Fund Human-Animal Stem Cell Experiments; Read also, Against “Sociobiology” by Elizabeth Allen, et al. The New York Review of Books, 1975; “Cave Thinkers: How Evolutionary Psychology Gets Evolution Wrong” by Amanda Schaffer, Slate, 2005