Going after Scientism through Science Fiction

By Walker, Daniel | Extrapolation, Spring 2007 | Go to article overview

Going after Scientism through Science Fiction


Walker, Daniel, Extrapolation


  Marxism is the science of the laws governing the development of nature
  and society, the science of the revolution of the oppressed and
  exploited masses, the science of the victory of socialism in all
  countries, the science of building communist society
  --Stalin

 With substrates of the type A-His-X-Y-B, the X-Y bond is cleaved most
 rapidly when it links two aromatic L-amino acids.
 --J. S. Fruton

We interrupt this academic essay for an important news report: A Fiend is loose in our world, a terrible Monster that pretends to be something it is not: human. It seems human, but it is not human. It is taking over our world, and it is doing so by means practically invisible to us. It attacks human beings when they are alone, vulnerable, and often while they are unconscious. It takes over the body, destroying the human being at the material level, replacing each and every living human cell with an alien cell. It is becoming a global force, colonizing the human race, and things may have already progressed to the point where there is no way of defeating this invader. Soon, humanity may become extinct, and yet not one person will even know the difference. People will not know that they no longer are what they once were: human.

That scenario drives John W. Campbell's well-known short story "Who Goes There?" The story invites intriguing questions, especially those dealing with the subjects of authenticity and mistaken identity. The scenario from "Who Goes There?" can be discussed as analogous to many situations unfortunately not restricted to fiction. One analogy I have in mind with respect to mistaken identity involves a Monster very much with us today: Scientism.

I feel that this paper can be best appreciated by appealing to a rather large context, and so before I launch into the main body of my argument I want to appeal to that large context. I was inspired to write this paper 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. Considering this context will hopefully help the reader to view this paper as involving much more than a scientific apology, which is the last thing I want this paper to be read as. I insist that distinguishing science from scientism is a worthwhile enterprise that could serve many disciplines and should be taken as relevant, even critical, to forwarding many positive aspects of life.

The main portion of this paper is divided into three sections. Section I aspires to offer a basic idea of what science is. Section II describes my notions of scientism and psuedo-science. Section III analyzes representations of scientism and discusses anti-scientism themes in a few works of Science Fiction.

I. Science

So I need to say something about what science is. In the Humanities the name that probably most quickly comes to mind for talking about science is Thomas S. Kuhn. I will quote Kuhn later in this paper since he has made an important contribution to the discourse on science, but with respect to answering the question, "What is science?

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