Making a distinction between ‘science’ and ‘scientism’

In 2007, Daniel Walker wrote a position piece on criticism of science (in news media, literature, classrooms, etc., but also – and particularly – in the Academy) that is worth considering when thinking of ‘teaching science’? …

“I was inspired to write this paper,” he writes, “by a troubling phenomenon that I have observed over the last several years, and in fact continue to observe today: The circulation of problematic understandings/representations of science in the Academy, especially those produced in the Humanities. Some of these poor representations have been employed as elements within cultural critiques of science and/or the ‘West.’ I think that the representations have been problematic primarily because those producing them have failed to distinguish between science and scientism. I believe that distinguishing between science and scientism not only can clear up misunderstandings with respect to the two terms, but also can facilitate more effective performances of cultural criticism, make available a relatively more critical and more rigorous notion of science to those who might otherwise (perhaps unhappily and/or ‘irrationally’) distance themselves from science, and, with respect to the study of literature, correct for certain mis-readings so that works once interpreted as featuring anti-science themes are seen as involving anti-scientism themes.” (p.153)

“Confusing science for scientism helps no one, risks terrible problems, and it removes science as a possible ally to human endeavours.” (p.166)

What is Science?

Addressing this question, Walker writes: “Gregory N. Derry, a scientist, writes in What Science Is and How it Works that science can be thought of as ‘organized skepticism’ (161). And he addresses the project of defining science by saying the following:
‘Scholars argue over whether science is a body of knowledge, a collection of techniques, a social and intellectual process, a way of knowing, a strictly defined method and so forth. These arguments are not very interesting to me, since I accept all of these elements as valid partial visions of science.’ (ix)

“If our goal is to understand science,” Walker continues, “then we certainly should avoid simplistic definitions. Complete visions may indeed be beyond us, but partial visions that are as inclusive as possible will help move us toward a better and more comprehensive understanding of what science is. Stephen Jay Gould maintains that ‘science works with testable proposals’ (397). And Carl Sagan has said both that ‘the scientific way of thinking is at once imaginative and disciplined’ (27) and that ‘science thrives on, indeed requires, the free exchange of ideas’ (38). Stewart Richards, in his Philosophy and Sociology of Science: An Introduction, a book, the author makes clear, that is ‘about science written by a professional scientist,’ (vii) gives the following statement on science: ‘Science studies those aspects of our knowledge of the external world upon which there can be universal agreement, at least in principle’ (9). Richards admits that science proceeds ‘as if the external world existed and, as a working principle, as if its laws were invariable’ (9). Fortunately, the kind of everyday work done by scientists can also educate us about what science is, so that we are not limited to cataloging the many general statements scientists have made about the nature of their field.” (p.154)

Science is often confused with a set of remarkable claims that go under the name of objectivity. This objectivity is supposed to be completely free from the influences of emotions and prejudices, as well as free from non-scientific-oriented traditions, the most prominent of those being religious doctrines. Also, objectivity is supposedly a position that is based solely on empirical data, that data presented usually as facts, or propositions, and those propositions usually pertaining to objects. The observers and the data are supposedly independent of one other. In Science Deified and Science Defined: The Historical Significance of Science in Western Culture, Richard Olson traces the vision of science as it has developed over the centuries. Olson describes notions of science being capable of such objectivity as a set of ‘positivistic assumptions that have perverted most of the traditional attempts to understand interactions between science and other institutions within Western culture’ (5). Science does strive for universal agreement, and the struggle to achieve that is embedded in problems too numerous to list here, but science does not pretend to be objective in the manner mentioned above.” (p.155) Rather, Walker asserts, “it is worth recognizing how actual work in science is dealing with the complex relationship between observer and observed phenomena.” (p.155)

“To some degree, science is always tentative, and always working out problems. It has been punctuated by revolutions, but those moments have usually been relatively brief.” (p.162)

“Science aspires to be elegantly coherent but is not an eternally stable field. It is a study not only open to change but also based on change.” (p.156)

‘Scientific’ conclusions, according to Walker, are ones reached when a ‘testable’ hypothesis is put forward and then tested (p.155). That the scientist’s hypothesis be a ‘testable proposal’ is essential to the practice of science, as Walker describes it.


“Elizabeth Cummins Cogell argues that ‘scientism is not the scientific method nor its findings per se,’ but rather ‘it is the obsession with the objective-empirical perspective, to the exclusion of any other type of knowledge’ (98).” (p.157)

“Scientism is like science, but is corrupted by dogmatic attitudes and practices that remove many if not all critical qualifications that go into defining science as a way of constructing aspects of our knowledge about the external world that are dynamic, local, at times intuitive, particular, open, subjective, social, cultural, skeptical, demanding of observation, based on testing, overt, self-critiquing, and at times even revolutionary.” (p.158)

“Scientism isn’t just science gone dogmatic that deals with the sorts of things with which science is concerned – Scientism often claims as its natural turf arenas within which proper science wouldn’t be caught dead. There are as many possible permutations and partial visions of scientism as there are of science, but it is the unqualified and dogmatic attitude of scientism and its application to areas usually not considered appropriate for science that for me quickly characterizes scientism.
Pseudo-science is closely related to scientism. Pseudo-science explicitly claims to be a science, but is in fact nothing like a science in practice or in theory.” (p.158)

“My assertion is that scientism is dogmatic science and/or science applied in appropriate contexts, situations imply not compatible with scientific work.” (p.162)

In his analysis of Solaris, Walker describes “the worst form of scientism” as “bad science applied where science does not work and in a context in which all other ways of knowing and living are treated as obstacles.” (p.163) “What makes Solaris so successful,” according to Walker, “is the way in which Lem unifies the theme of anti-scientism through the masterfully crafted relationship between aspects of the representation of scientism and the very human consequences of living a scientistic life.” (p.162)

Ref: (emphases in italics in original; emphases in bold/blue mine) Daniel Walker (2007) Going after Scientism through science fiction. Extrapolation 48(1)Spring: pp152-167

Reference is made to: Elizabeth Cummins Cogell (?) ‘The Middle-Landscape Myth in Science Fiction.’ Science Fiction Studies 15, pp.83-99
Gregory N. Derry  (1999) What Science Is and How it works. Princeton: Princeton U.P.
Stephen Jay Gould (2000) ‘Sex, drugs, disasters, and the extinction of dinosaurs’ The Writer’s Presence. 3rd edition. Eds. Donald McQuade and Robert Atwan. Boston: Bedford, pp.396-403
Stanislaw Lem (1987) Solaris. San Diego: Harvest
Richard Olson (1990)  Science Deified and Science Defined: The Historical Significance of Science in Western Culture. Volume 2: From the Early Modern Age through the Early Romantic Era, ca. 1640 to 1820. Berkeley: U. of California P.
Stewart Richards (1984) Philosophy and Sociology of Science: An Introduction. New York: Schocken
Carl Sagan (1995) The Demon-Haunted World. New York: Random


About backyardbooks

This blog is a kind of electronic storage locker for ideas and quotes that inform my research... literary research into fiction for young adults (with a special focus on New Zealand fiction). Kiwis are producing amazing literature for younger readers, but it isn't getting the academic appreciation it deserves. I hope readers of this blog can make use of the material I gather and share by way of promoting our fiction. Cheers!
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