Uncommon Sense

March 17, 2023

What the Heck is Scientism?

Filed under: Culture,Philosophy,Religion,Science — Steve Ruis @ 11:59 am
Tags: ,

I am a scientist (and a student of philosophy to boot) and I had never heard the term “scientism” until quite recently. What the heck is it? By implication it seemed to be a term used by theists of the same ilk as those who referred to those who accepted the theory of evolution as “evolutionists.” It was at least mildly disparaging and carried the implication of, “you scientists don’t know all that much.”

So, off the ‘Net I went and gathered some quotes:

The term scientism was popularized by F.A. Hayek, who defined it as the “slavish imitation of the method and language of Science.” Karl Popper defines scientism as “the aping of what is widely mistaken for the method of science”.

Both Bacon and Descartes elevated the use of reason and logic by denigrating other human faculties such as creativity, memory, and imagination.

The 19th century witnessed the most powerful and enduring formulation of scientism, a system called positivism. Its founder was August Comte, who built his positive philosophy from a deep commitment to David Hume’s empiricism and skepticism. Comte claimed that the only valid data is acquired through the senses.

But the core of the resurgence of this obscure philosophical term showed up finally in this quote:

Scientism today is alive and well, as evidenced by the statements of our celebrity scientists:

“The Cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be.” –Carl Sagan, Cosmos

“The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.” –Stephen Weinberg, The First Three Minutes

“We can be proud as a species because, having discovered that we are alone, we owe the gods very little.” –E.O. Wilson, Consilience

While these men are certainly entitled to their personal opinions and the freedom to express them, the fact that they make such bold claims in their popular science literature blurs the line between solid, evidence-based science, and rampant philosophical speculation.

Whether one agrees with the sentiments of these scientists or not, the result of these public pronouncements has served to alienate a large segment of American society. And that is a serious problem, since scientific research relies heavily upon public support for its funding, and environmental policy is shaped by lawmakers who listen to their constituents. From a purely pragmatic standpoint, it would be wise to try a different approach.

Ahah! Consider “the result of these public pronouncements has served to alienate a large segment of American society.” Since when has a large segment of American society paid any attention to science or the philosophy of science and what causes the alienation? Is it the arrogance of scientists like Carl Sagan?

I suggest that you need look no further than religious apologists. They contend that science is at war with religion because science keeps showing how wrong many religious “understandings” are.

And the eighteenth century in “philosophical matters” in the West was dominated by a gigantic battle between deism and traditional religion. Many deists (not all) claimed that nature was “god” and to show piety was to learn as much about nature as possible. This is supportable even in traditional religion who believed that their supernatural entity created all of nature and so to study “god’s creation” was to get somewhat closer to god, even to traditionalists.

So, this somewhat obscure philosophical term has been resurrected by those wishing to keep science at bay, to keep science from running amuck, to keep science from intruding on the theist’s bailiwick.

Scientism is not a term invented by scientists. It was invented by philosophers actually wanting to overthrow the tyranny of traditional religion.

A side effect of this battle was the creation of the Great Experiment in Democracy, the United States. (More on this later.)

Postscript The Sagan quote “The Cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be” basically follows from the definition of universe: “The universe is all of space and time and their contents, including planets, stars, galaxies, and all other forms of matter and energy.” (Source: Wikipedia) I do not think this shows an overweening “faith” in science or its methods. It is simply how we defined things. So Sagan may have sounded arrogant but this hardly “blurs the line between solid, evidence-based science, and rampant philosophical speculation.”



  1. I always understood scientism to be the claim that science or the scientific method is the only way to obtain truth and other fields of inquiry are a waste of time or should just use the scientific method.

    Most of the accusations of scientism I have seen are directed at New Atheists and associates (Dawkins, Harris, and Tyson).

    Liked by 2 people

    Comment by consoledreader — March 17, 2023 @ 1:03 pm | Reply

    • I have heard of some philosophers making that claim, but few scientists (and then only by implication). It seems to be a term latched onto by apologists who want to denigrate scientific knowledge by using terms like evolutionist and scientism, inferring that we are ideologues and not to be trusted.

      Liked by 1 person

      Comment by Steve Ruis — March 17, 2023 @ 1:10 pm | Reply

    • Usually this is in the context of them making statements about or related to other fields like history or philosophy or religion, which people find questionable or shows a bad understanding of the topic, usually followed by an implied or directly stated claim about the superiority of science or scientists.


      Comment by consoledreader — March 17, 2023 @ 1:12 pm | Reply

  2. I understood scientism to be a belief that science is truth and that approach leads to “belief in” science which is a religious attitude. But a real scientist knows his theory is only useful to manipulate certain elements he can not explain the existence of.


    Comment by jimoeba — March 17, 2023 @ 2:13 pm | Reply

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