Defenders of evolutionary theory are sometimes accused of “scientism”, and this much-used (and much-abused) term has also arisen in the republic of letters due to Steven Pinker’s recent “Science is Not the Enemy of the Humanities” in The New Republic, which drew interesting responses from Leon Wieseltier, Ross Douthat, and Dan Dennett. Here I want to examine a bit more carefully the idea of “scientism” by way of a criticism of Wieseltier’s “Perhaps Culture is Now the Counterculture”: A Defense of the Humanities”. There he complains that
Our glittering age of technologism is also a glittering age of scientism. Scientism is not the same thing as science. Science is a blessing, but scientism is a curse. Science, I mean what practicing scientists actually do, is acutely and admirably aware of its limits, and humbly admits to the provisional character of its conclusions; but scientism is dogmatic, and peddles certainties. It is always at the ready with the solution to every problem, because it believes that the solution to every problem is a scientific one, and so it gives scientific answers to non-scientific questions. But even the question of the place of science in human existence is not a scientific question. It is a philosophical, which is to say, a humanistic question.
Wieseltier isn’t a philosopher but a professional pundit who sprinkles his prose with philosophemes to appeal to the class-prejudices of his intended audience. So it would take some work just to locate his rant on a more well-traveled map.
He says that the difference between “science” and “scientism” is that science knows its place, and scientism is the inappropriate use of science outside of that place. But it’s really a very murky issue to know just what exactly “the place” of science is, and just how that knowledge is arrived at. How do we know what the limits of science are? What is the justification for claims about the limits of science? The answers to those questions are just as problematic as are the philosophical systems which ground those answers, whether Thomistic, Cartesian, Kantian, Hegelian, etc. In the 20th-century we have seen criticisms of scientism come from phenomenology, pragmatism, hermeneutics, feminism, and so on.
Beginning in the late 19th-century, some neo-Kantian philosophers have held that the difference between the sciences and the humanities is basically *methodological*, and that seems close to the right answer. But once the distinction is methodological, rather than about different sets of phenomena, then “noble speculation for humanity, vulgar quantification for nature” (or however it may be put) doesn’t work so well. We need good social scientific work about human minds and societies just as much as we need a rich tradition of ‘humanistic’ thinking about it. These days, the latter doesn’t have a good track record — “family values” and “traditional ways of life” are increasingly flimsy excuses for pursuing policies that are both ineffective and oppressive.
Wieseltier’s real complaints, however, have nothing to do with science or scientism. That’s just the scapegoat. His real complaints are about the fetish of efficiency, precision, and control. But that’s got rather less to do with science (or ‘scientism’) than he thinks, and much more to do with the political economic goal of maximizing over-consumption to support an economy premised on over-production and profit-maximization. The anxious hand-wringing about ‘scientism’ is just a romantic anti-capitalism that dare not look itself in the face, for fear of losing well-entrenched corporate support. (There’s a reason why Wieseltier writes for “The New Republic” and not “The Nation” or “Dissent.”)
More generally, we can distinguish between a left-wing critique of scientism and a right-wing critique of scientism. Left-wing scientism is the symptom of a left in decline, a left that has lost the very last vestiges of its grounding in Marx’s critique of political economy, and scape-goats science for the social ills produced by unrestrained capitalism. Right-wing scientism is more ‘authentic,’ insofar as social conservatives recognize (even if only implicitly) that the natural and social sciences do not lend support to their various sacred cows (e.g. that abstinence-only sex-education is effective, that restricting abortion access lowers the abortion rate, that anthropogenic climate change is a hoax, or that evolution is a fraud).