Scientism and the limitations of logic

Slate recently published an interesting piece on “scientism”, which both perpetuates a caricature of science and rationality, and also points to a genuine problem with some folk who can’t see beyond science and reason as tools for addressing our political and social dilemmas.

“Scientism” is the belief that all we need to solve the world’s problems is, you guessed it, science. People sometimes sub in the phrase rational thinking, but it amounts to the same thing. If only people would drop religion and all their other prejudices, we could use logic to fix everything.

Last week, Neil deGrasse Tyson offered up the perfect example of scientism when he proposed a country of #Rationalia, in which “all policy shall be based on the weight of evidence.”

Tyson is a very smart man, but this is a very stupid tweet, and a very stupid idea. It is even, we might say, unreasonable and without sufficient evidence. Of course imagining a society in which all actors behave logically sounds appealing. But employing logic to consider the concept reveals that there could be no such thing.

There are two very different things being described here. To base all policy on the weight of evidence is a fundamentally different thing to desiring a society in which all actors are Mr. Spocks, all logic and no emotion. In conflating them, Jeffrey Guhin sets up the caricature I mentioned at the top.

Many pro-science and rationality folks, including myself and the vast majority of scientific skeptics I’ve been hanging out with at conferences for the last decade, would agree with Tyson’s tweet while rejecting the implication that it means we need to be all logic, all the time.

The reason for this is simple, and points to Guhin’s misunderstanding of the broader – and social – context to scientific reasoning. Emotions, intuitions, aesthetic preferences and what have you are all things that make us human, and social creatures, yes – but they are also data points in themselves.

In other words, policy that is based on the “weight of evidence” does not need to be blind to these human details, and is in fact compromised if it’s not sensitive to these details. We care, for example, about compliance with the law, so it would be irrational to enact a law that caused such a negative (emotional) reaction that compliance was impossible.

We also care about happiness, meaning that it would be irrational to treat each other solely as logical agents. Doing so would make marriages and friendships unbearable, and parent-child relations dysfunctional. Our relationships admit to – and even cherish – the idiosyncrasies of our various subjective points of view.

Guhin does go on to make various good points about scientific overconfidence, reminding us that “experts often get it wrong”. But this is again to rely on a misunderstanding of science – good science knows that it’s fallible, and this is in fact one of its key virtues when compared with pseudoscience.

The fact that scientific reasoning leads to errors (he mentions scientific racism, phrenology, eugenics and other examples) is only a crippling problem for science if there’s some better alternative for resolving empirical problems. Until we have one, the point is that science is self-correcting, and that we can discover and discard our mistakes.

More critically, the scientific method is of course vulnerable to exploitation by those who want to use it for odious reasons – but isn’t dogma (for example religious fundamentalism) more so? And, to note that people use the language of science to prop up eugenics doesn’t entail that they used good scientific reasoning to do so. Instead, we can now recognise it as an abuse of the scientific method, rather than a proper application of it.

Guhin has harsh words for Tyson, for the “I f***king love science crew”, and for Dawkins, as I also previously have for all three cases. But the problem with these evangelists for science is largely a political one, rather than them being wrong on the principle of the matter. If you communicate with others in ways which make it sound like you think they are stupid (Dawkins), people aren’t going to listen. If you communicate in ways which make it sound like you are stupid, for example in dismissing the value of philosophy (Tyson), you’ll also lose part of your audience. And if you just share (sometimes incorrect) memes on a Facebook group, nobody is going to believe you actually love science at all.

Guhin is right to remind us to not appear as evangelical as those we sometimes find ourselves arguing with. I’ve been watching folks on Twitter making the tone-deaf “the evidence must decide” sort of arguments with regard to various arguments about race and economics in South Africa, and they don’t get that even if that’s true, social progress also requires not being an ass.

But to conflate “rational thinking” with “scientism”, as Guhin does, is a mistake. Rational thinking can incorporate both following the evidence, and doing so in a way that is aware of one’s own biases, and all of our emotions, needs, wants and fears.

Those are all evidence too, yes. But – crucially – one of the ways we can get along better is knowing when to point that out, versus knowing when to take off our “Mr Logic” caps, and simply relate to each other as human beings.


Also published on Medium.