Magazine article The American Enterprise

The Trap of Scientism

Magazine article The American Enterprise

The Trap of Scientism

Article excerpt

Our faith in science, although dying for two decades, remains strong enough that we often succumb to the lure of scientism. Scientism is the effort to disguise as science things that have little to do with science, in the hope of making them look more attractive-in much the same way that a fisherman baits a hook hoping the fish will think it is food, or that a politician quotes Scripture hoping the audience will think the politician's preferences are the will of God.

This tendency helps explain why scientists often fare so badly in the courtroom. Forensic science, used to assist in deciding a legal question, should be an important part of our judicial practice. Unfortunately, instead of science in the courts, we see scientism: the manipulation of scientific evidence and the scientific method to reach the desired result. As one commentator has pointed out, "Despite lip service to the contrary, lawyers frequently perceive forensic scientists as strictly utilitarian tools of the lawyer's trade"'

A well-known example occurred in the Supreme Court's 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education, when the justices rested on the tentative conclusions of social science their decision that school segregation harmed black children. Probably the Court read the studies correctly, but using them illustrated the trap of scientism: When data are presented in support of a moral proposition, the implicit message is that the moral claim is only as strong as the data. If racial segregation is wrong because social scientists believe it is harmful, the message is, If you think the social scientists are wrong--or if later research proves them wrong--then racial segregation is just fine.

What makes scientism attractive is the hope that one can win a moral argument without discussing morality. The irony of scientism is that it simultaneously acknowledges and denies the traditional vision of singular truths. On the one hand, scientism treats scientific knowledge as infinitely malleable, able to reach any result, support any argument. But that is only in the construction of scientistic argument. In its public presentation, scientism treats science as settled and clear, a collection of irrefutable if unexplainable facts; not the asker of difficult questions but the provider of easy answers. The debater who goes to scientism wants the audience to understand that only a flat-earther would disagree.

Scientism's exaltation of scientific results (but not scientific method) is a transparent device for avoiding debate. …

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