scientism: 2) definitions

So first, some preliminary definitions. What do we talk about when we use the word “scientism”?

Very broadly, “scientism” here refers to the view and understanding of “science” effectively as a religion, though without an acknowledgment of this being so. In other words, it is a totalizing approach in which “science” is assumed capable of answering any and all ultimate/ultimately valuable questions. Most crucially for my purposes here: looked to implicitly as the default mode of inquiry regarding human psychology and potential.

More fully:

1) a: “Reason” is viewed as a unitary entity. That is to say, when something called “reason” is deemed to be operating, we are referring to the same thing, practically speaking, no matter what the context.

b: Likewise, “science” is viewed as a unitary entity. It is supposedly the case that what, say, physicists, chemists, and cell biologists do, and how they do it, is basically the same thing that, say, geologists and meteorologists do, which is basically the same thing that researchers into the effects of food and drugs on the body do, and basically the same thing that sociologists, psychologists, and evolutionary theorists do.

c: Finally, these two entities collapse into one. As Jerry Coyne, professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolution at the University of Chicago, puts it in the article I quote from in the earlier post:

…some spheres of the humanities, namely the social sciences, do give us a way to find knowledge. They do it by using the same techniques as do “real” scientists: observation, experimentation, testing of hypothesis and predictions, rational inquiry, and doubt. In fact, I have long called things like social science, history, Biblical scholarship (as opposed to theology), and archaeology “science broadly conceived.” In fact, I have said that even things like car mechanics and plumbing could be considered forms of science, for when fixing electrical problems or finding leaks, mechanics and plumbers use scientific inquiry.

…I see science as essentially continuous with things like history and archaeology. I see science not as an area of inquiry that depends on a prescribed “scientific method”: as Philip [Kitcher] and others note, there is no one “scientific method.” Science can proceed via induction or deduction, experiment or observation, or any manner of rational inquiry that produces reliable (i.e. generally verifiable and reproducible) knowledge. I prefer to think of science as an attitude rather than a method: a respect for the truth about nature and a determination to wrest that truth from obscurity by using methods that, according to most rational people, reveal what’s out there.

2) Going a small step further to make this point quite clear, a scientistic attitude believes that the same heuristic expectations – the same principles, basic approaches, forms of verification, outcomes – apply equally to the study of sentience as to non-sentient matter and phenomena. That is to say, that there is nothing ultimately distinct between the study of immaterial thoughts, intentions, emotions, let alone the movement of these within the vast mesh of interconnectedness and interdependence that comprises the human mind, and the study of a subatomic particle, an organic molecule, a rock, a mountain, the atmosphere.

3) Scientism assumes without question that only “scientific” explanations can count as “ultimate,” and ultimately satisfying. No other means or form of expressing the truth of some phenomenon or other can ever have the prestige of a “scientific” formulation.

4) Therefore, as follows on from this, Science likewise and perforce must contain the ultimate source of all values – including those informing its own assumptions and projects. Since it is viewed as providing the only ultimately trustable methods and the only ultimate explanations, it has succeeded in taking the place of religion in more-or-less all of the latter’s traditional functions, and has supplanted the humanities more generally in perceived value.

5) Finally, as a result of the specialization inherent in scientific research and language, we have had no choice but to accept what amounts to a priesthood with whom, in the last analysis, the rest of us are not allowed to disagree at the level of basic view or experimental design, interpretation of results, and so on. Just as the theological pronouncements of the medieval Western Church, delivered in Latin, were indecipherable to all but its hierarchy, today’s scientists speak a language which non-specialists do not understand and generally do not have the time and means to understand. And this has become ever more the case with ever-proliferating specializations and sub-specializations of science: even those with a solid background in each of the major sciences cannot hope to keep up with all the new vocabulary, techniques, and technology that increase year to year.

Therefore, whereas in the past a more general public conversation was possible about wisdom, knowledge, the nature of truth, and so on, today, more and more, the average person finds herself silenced with regard to ultimate questions. Instead, we quote the latest headline in the New York Times Science section – about which media reports I have written below – and shrug our shoulders.

Very rapidly we have reached a point of virtual powerlessness and to a certain extent vapidity in our public discourse, in which ordinary sound, considered, deep reason carries little prestige when placed next to the latest splashy headline conveying a presumed increase in knowledge. (Presumed because, as noted in the linked post above: in Seth Mnookin’s report newspapers paid pretty much exactly four times as much attention to original studies as to related (supporting or unsupporting) ones, with 80% of the former being subsequently refuted or unconfirmable as stated. And with one out of 57 articles on the related studies even bothering to mention that the original finding cannot be confirmed as stated!)

This is one of quite a number of effects of scientism upon our culture that will be the focus of subsequent posts.

Seth Mnookin on the current troubling state of science reporting

Seth Mnookin over at PLOS has an excellent piece on the present state of science writing, worth reading in full. Here are some highlights:

Lest anyone think that the ENCODE case was sui generis, just this past Wednesday, a team of researchers based in France published a paper in PLOS ONE titled “Why Most Biomedical Findings Echoed by Newspapers Turn Out to be False: The Case of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.” (The paper’s authors were intentionally evoking the title of John P. A. Ioannidis’s groundbreaking 2005 piece, “Why most published research findings are false,” which built off of his earlier JAMA paper, “Contradicted and Initially Stronger Effects in Highly Cited Clinical Research.”) After examining every newspaper report about the ten most covered research papers on ADHD from the 1990s, the authors were able to provide empirical evidence for a troubling phenomenon that seems to be all but baked in to the way our scientific culture operates: We pay lots of attention to things that are almost assuredly not true.

The first cited article above (by Gonon, Konsman, Cohen, and Boraud) examined 47 scientific publications on ADHD from the 1990s, “echoed by 347 newspaper articles.” The authors selected the 10 most echoed publications, tracked all subsequent research relating to them up to 2011, and also followed newspaper coverage of this research. Here were their results:

Seven of these ten publications were initial studies; three were not. Of the seven, “the conclusions in six of them were either refuted or strongly attenuated subsequently. The seventh was not confirmed or refuted, but its main conclusion appears unlikely.” Of the three, one of the findings has been attenuated. (In other words, eight out of ten of these studies, 80%, cannot be confirmed as originally stated, and 60% have already been either refuted or “strongly attenuated.”)

Now, how did newspapers report on all this? “The newspaper coverage of the “top 10” publications (223 articles) was much larger than that of the 67 related studies (57 articles). Moreover, only one of the latter newspaper articles reported that the corresponding “top 10” finding had been attenuated.”

Put another way, newspapers paid pretty much exactly FOUR times as much attention to the original studies–80% of which have either been subsequently refuted or unconfirmable as stated–than to the related studies. And a grand total of one out of 57 articles on the related studies even bothers to mention that the original finding cannot be confirmed as stated!

Why is this the case? Mnookin suggests:

Because it’s sexier to discover something than to show there’s nothing to be discovered, high-impact journals show a marked preference for “initial studies” as opposed to disconfirmations. Unfortunately, as anyone who has ever worked in a research lab knows, initial observations are almost inevitably refuted or heavily attenuated by future studies–and that data tends to get printed in less prestigious journals. Newspapers, meanwhile, give lots of attention to those first, eye-catching results while spilling very little (if any) ink on the ongoing research that shows why people shouldn’t have gotten all hot and bothered in the first place… The result? “[A]n almost complete amnesia in the newspaper coverage of biomedical findings.”

He goes on to summarize: “…publications that should be exemplars of nuanced, high-quality reporting are allowing confused speculation to clutter their pages; researchers and PIOs are nudging reporters towards overblown interpretations; and everything we write about will probably end up being wrong anyway — not that we’ll bother to let you know when the time comes.”