While reading one of Jerry Coyne's blog posts I found my way to another blog post that I think to be one of the best descriptions of science I have ever read. I highly recommend this piece to all of you.
Below is the post in its entirety. It is lengthy but, IMO, well worth the read. Above I have also provided the link to the original post. I recommend reading the entire essay. I have taken the liberty of bold-facing and
italicizing some sections that I found of particular interest, importance or insight.
I think all will benefit from reading and pondering this essay. There are a few who will, in my opinion, benefit more than others because of their repeated demonstration of a limited understanding of science and self-imposed restricted definition of it. I look forward to the discussion and debate that will follow.
does “science” in “scientism” mean?
personally define “scientism” to mean the claim that any
questions to which humans can know the answer (with some confidence
in the reliability of their knowledge) are answerable by science, and
that science is the right tool to gain that answer. Or, stating the
same another way, any method of finding such answers becomes part of
science. A third way of saying this is the assertion that there are
no “other ways of knowing” that are fundamentally distinct from
science and that can do better than science.
science is largely defined by “what works”, being the set of
methods that have been established to give reliably true answers,
methods that have been selected and honed precisely as a result of
finding out what does work.
underlying idea is that the natural world is a seamless whole, with
no clear and uncrossable divides between different domains. Hence,
knowledge about the world is also a seamless whole, and principles of
evidence and reason apply the same everywhere. Thus evidence- and
reason-based enquiry is the proper tool for investigating any area of
is an explicit rejection of the “non-overlapping
idea that different areas of human enquiry are divided into rigidly
demarked zones where different rules apply. No-one has established
that different rules do apply, and the claim is usually made as a way
of avoiding tiresome requests for evidence.
keep out! We don’t want to have to supply evidence, we want to
believe whatever we want to believe without having to justify it in
any objective fashion!
raises the question of what we mean by “science”. Those who use
“scientism” as an insult will usually adopt an ultra-narrow
definition of science: “what can be prodded and measured in a
laboratory”. And they would be right to sneer at anyone who really
did think that science in an ultra-narrow view encompasses all that
there is to human experience.
usually, a definition of “science” might encompass those
disciplines in the science faculties of universities. Thus someone
defending “scientism” could be taken to be dismissing the whole
range of the humanities and the arts (and perhaps even the social
sciences). Again, though, such a creature is a straw-man.
espousing scientism recognise that it only makes sense in terms of a
much broader concept of “science”, a broad concept of evidence-
and reason-based enquiry, a pragmatic concept encompassing what does
actually work in producing reliable answers.
rests on the claim that knowledge is a seamless whole, and that ideas
of evidence and reason apply throughout. Any divisions into areas of
knowledge are arbitrary (for example biochemistry and neuroscience
and psychology merge seamlessly), and there are no areas of enquiry
for which science is the wrong tool, or areas that can only be
explored by “other ways of knowing”.
it is often objected, usually in an aghast tone, wouldn’t this
relegate history and art and economics and morals and many other
things to the dustbin?, and isn’t that obviously
the sort of bunk that would only be claimed by the most idiotic and
arrogant of scientists?
would have that implication only if coupled with a narrow view of
science; and those espousing scientism do not see science as narrow.
They are not rejecting everything outside of a narrow world of
science, they are viewing everything as a holistic whole, a synergy
in which any distinctions between these disciplines are arbitrary,
and in which rules of evidence and reason apply across any arbitrary
support this idea I’ll examine the demarcation lines that are
claimed by the NOMAds, and by those using “scientism” as an
accusation, and I’ll argue instead for the consilience of knowledge
as a seamless and unified whole.
science versus messy complexity
source of confusion is the idea that “science” is restricted to
hard facts and things that can be definitely measured and securely
quantified. Or that science is restricted to certain highly
this is not so. Science
is a pragmatic enterprise of doing the best one can, and of
constantly trying to do better. Thus science uses securely quantified
measurements when it can. And science uses a “gold standard” of
repeated, controlled double-blind experiments when it can. But often
these things are impractical and can’t be done, and in such cases
doing the best one can is still science.
is about the degree of reliability.
Nothing is ever finally certain beyond any possibility of revision,
but we can still try for and still attain high degrees of certainty
and reliability. And securely quantified measurements and repeated,
controlled, double-blind experiments are used because they have been
found to minimise human bias and to give the most reliable and secure
results. But, where they can’t be done, doing your best is still
take the example of astrophysics, accepted as a “hard” science.
Yet in astrophysics (at least beyond our Solar System) we can’t do
experiments, we can’t prod astronomical objects in the lab — all
we can do is observe. Many times unique events happen, and we see
astronomical objects behaving like none has behaved previously. And
every actual star or galaxy has its own individual characteristics,
and is different from every other star or galaxy.
we do the best we can, yet it is still science, and it transitions
smoothly into Solar System objects, onto which we can land probes,
and from there to Earth-bound physics laboratories where we can prod
and dissect and perform repeated experiments. Indeed, some of the
most profound advances have come from crossing that (non-existent)
divide: Newton’s great insight into gravity came from contemplating
our Moon, and realising that the force that kept the Moon in its
orbit was the same force that caused an apple to fall in an orchard.
the fact that, in some areas of investigation, you may not be able to
perform controlled, repeated experiments and get out hard numbers in
no way prevents that investigation from being part of science.
about pre-scientific people and folklore?
accusation can arise that anyone defending scientism is arrogantly
asserting that pre-scientific peoples knew nothing at all about the
natural world, and that folklore cannot, even in principle, contain
any worthwhile insight. This is, of course, a straw-man. The heart
and starting point of science is observation, the gathering of
empirical evidence about the world. And of course “pre-scientific”
people did just that and gained extensive knowledge of their
environment and of how to hunt and farm and live. There is no rigid
dividing line between this and today’s science. The difference is
only of degree, of the refinement and improvement of
evidence-gathering and evidence-testing methods, now formalised into
today’s scientific methods.
is not usually regarded as a “science”, but the crucial question
is whether there is any clear demarcation line between history and
the (other?) sciences, requiring fundamentally different rules of
evidence and reason.
pointer that there cannot be is the fact that our very distant
history (paleontology) is classed as a science, and this merges
seamlessly into archaeology, which can cover human history both
before and after the written record, and this meshes seamlessly with
written-record history. It would be ludicrous (or, rather, it would
be entirely arbitrary) if the distant history of our species was a
science but the more recent history of our species was not. And where
would the dividing line be? Would the rules of evidence change
radically one morning at some date BC?
let’s again take astronomy. If you are figuring out the physics of
exploding stars (“supernovae”), which are rare enough that none
has occurred in our galaxy in recent times, you observe the remnants
of older supernovae. And if you are calculating the energies and
speeds of the explosion you need to factor in when it happened. And
for that you might only have historical records, for example the
Chinese records of a supernova in AD 1054, whose remnant we see today
This combination of hard science and historical record shows that
they are part of the same “magisterium” of knowledge, where the
same rules of evidence and reason apply.
we can’t do controlled experiment about the past, but nor can we
about our neighbouring stars and galaxies. And yes, we may have
limited and incomplete information about some part of history, say a
few scraps of manuscript with no corroboration, but that’s often
the same with astronomical observations. Historians would love lots
of corroborating texts, if they could get them. And astronomers would
often like more observations, if they could get them. There is no
difference in principle.
philosophical point is that the “gold standard” of the scientific
method often asks that hypotheses must generate predictions which can
then be tested, verifying or refuting the hypothesis. This tactic
minimises human bias, and a theory which can successfully predict
what was previously unknown is likely to be true.
it is falsely claimed that such predictions must be about the future,
and if so that would present a clear difference between science and
history. However, predictions need not be about the future, they need
only be about things that are currently unknown (such that the biases
of a human making the prediction are minimised). And one can indeed
make predictions about history and then verify them: for example one
could predict a previously unknown Roman emperor, whose existence is
then confirmed by unearthing a coin stamped with his image.
about politics, economics and the humanities?
human species is a part of the natural world, just like any other
animal species. And that means it is amenable to the methods of
science, just as other species are. We call this science
“anthropology”. Of course, such is the importance of ourselves
and our societies that the science of social anthropology becomes
expanded into whole fields such as “economics” and “politics”
and the other “humanities”, which are usually not classed as
is there an uncrossable dividing line? No. It is only arbitrary
convenience which says that studying the politics within a troop of
chimpanzees is a “science” but that studying the politics of
humans is not.
yes, human affairs are very complicated and hard to predict — which
might seem very different from, say, the simplicity of particle
physics — but then the weather and the climate are also complicated
and hard to predict. Highly complex systems are indeed harder to
analyse than simple ones, but the same rules of evidence and reason
apply, and the study is still scientific. The onus is on those who
argue for an uncrossable line to argue for where it is and why it is
and literature and theatre and …
of the most enjoyable aspects of being human is our aesthetic senses
and their fulfilment from a range of different arts such as painting,
literature, film and dance. And as repositories of much of our human
understanding of ourselves and of each other, these arts convey deep
lessons for humanity. The question is not whether there are truths
about humans to be found in the arts (that’s obviously true), it is
whether such truths are of a nature that is fundamentally
incompatible with scientific investigation. Again I would assert that
they are not. At root both derive from our observations of ourselves
and each other. Our human society is of such importance to us that we
spend much of our lives interacting with other humans, observing them
and trying to understand them. And over evolutionary time we have
developed strong social instincts, which will have been honed (by
natural selection) according to the truth about human nature.
Empirical reality is the source both of our science about humans and
of our artistic interpretations of humanity.
morality destroys the argument I’m making; surely human morality is
a no-go zone for science; and surely any attempt to bring morals into
the domain of science commits the naturalistic fallacy, an
unjustified leap from an “is” statement about how things are to
an “ought” statement about what humans should do?
this is to misunderstand what morals are. Moral ideas are not some
abstract realm of discussion where science cannot tread. Moral ideas
are opinions and feelings of humans. And thus they are just as much
an aspect of the natural world as any other property of biological
can indeed tell you about the feelings of humans, and thus can tell
you what moral judgements humans make, and it can tell you how and
why moral sentiments arose in our evolution, and it can tell you why
humans make the particular moral judgements that they make. Morals
are “patterns” existing within a human brain, and that biological
human brain is a proper subject of scientific study.
course science cannot tell you what you “ought” to do since the
question doesn’t make sense in the abstract,
and science cannot answer nonsensical questions — it only answers
questions to which there are answers that human can know.
you properly understand morals as being the opinions and feelings of
a human being, then it becomes apparent that science is indeed the
correct tool to investigate the moral feelings that humans have and
why they have them.
holds a special place in the lexicon of those who disapprove of
scientism. It is proposed as the prime example of something that
science cannot measure or even know about. At some stage in the
discussion they ask “what about love?”, and the scientist is
supposed to fall silent, knowing he is beaten by its mere mention.
find this baffling. What on earth is it about love that is supposed
to be beyond science? Again, love is a pattern in a material,
biological brain. It is a very real phenomenon, a particular pattern
in a brain, just as a hurricane is a very real phenomenon, a
particular pattern in the atmosphere. There is no sense in separating
the world of human experience from the natural world, or in
pretending that it is somehow outside the realm of rational
explains what love is, why it arose in our evolutionary history, and
it explains why we tend to love the people that we do. And it
increasingly explains the biochemistry of love (for example google
the role of the
we ask how we know whether two humans love each other, then that
answer is that we do so by observing how they interact with each
other in everyday life. That is not saying that it is always easy
(half the novels in the English language revolve around human
misapprehension on this topic) but it is saying that there is nothing
involved that is outside the realm of biology.
course humans are notoriously prone to biases and mistakes, so
depending on introspection alone for evidence is highly suspect —
which is why, where it is feasible, science asks for
corroboration of ideas, in order to distinguish between something
that is true and something that a human merely thinks is true. A
good example of this is double-blind testing in medical trials,
removing from the outcome the biases of both the patients and the
maths is different!
so knowledge about the natural world is indeed all derived from
empirical observation, but maths is different. Maths is a matter of
reasoning from axioms using nothing but logic, and so it isn’t
maths is about reasoning from axioms. However, where did those axioms
come from? And for that matter where do these rules of logic come
from? There are only two possible answers here. The first possibility
is that there is only one set of possible logically consistent axioms
and rules of logic, and thus humans have arrived at them as the only
alternatively, of the many possible axiomatic/logical systems, humans
have arrived at our
mathematics because it is the one that works in our universe. People
knew, on purely empirical grounds, that 2 + 2 = 4 long before any
mathematician wrote down axioms from which “2 + 2 = 4″ follows.
Thus any mathematical truth is ultimately derived from empiricism,
even if that is through the intermediary of axioms that are founded
in and justified by empirical
after time abstract mathematics has been found to be profoundly
applicable to our universe, and that can only be the case if there is
a deep connection between our maths and our world’s empirical
reality — namely that the former is derived from the latter.
the first of the above possibilities holds, namely that there is only
one self-consistent possibility, such that any universe must concord
with that one axiomatic/logical system, then again we ultimately
derive our knowledge of it from empirical facts about our universe.
Evolution will have programmed our brains with the logic that works,
that corresponds to empirical reality — our brains would not be a
useful tool unless that was the case.
is addressed the same way. While philosophy is usually distinguished
from science, since it is held to be reasoning from premises, as
distinct from the empirical observation of science, again both the
rules of logic and the premises are ultimately rooted in the reality
of our world. At the every least, knowledge about our world (as
opposed to knowledge about hypothetical logic systems) must derive
from observation. Thus if we’re discussing the sphere of knowledge
that is accessible to humans, there is no reason to suppose that
maths or philosophy can, on their own (as opposed to when entwined
with science), attain knowledge that science cannot.
I defy anyone to produce a philosophical or axiomatic/logical system
that is entirely abstract and self-contained and in no way derived
from observed reality. Even if that were in principle possible, I
severely doubt that a human brain — something steeped in our
empirical reality as a result of eons of brute facts in the form of
natural selection — would be capable of doing it.
it isn’t. Science entails an obligation to do the best you can. It
is acceptable to draw conclusions from limited data if you have
nothing more; and you can do without rigorous controlled experiments
if they are impractical. But to be scientific you should be
continually seeking to do better, testing your conclusions, and
checking for biases.
you don’t seek out best practice and actively try to look for flaws
in your work then you’re not being scientific. If you avoid doing
double-blind tests because you suspect they won’t give you the
answer you want (hello homoeopaths!) then you’re not being
scientific. If you rely entirely on introspection and your own
feelings and don’t even look for corroboration, regarding it as
unnecessary, then you’re being unscientific. If you pray for faith,
and are thus actually asking and wanting to be biased in your
assessment of evidence, then you’re not being scientific.
you have an emotional commitment to a desired answer, then that in
itself isn’t unscientific, but it is a warning flag that you are
highly prone to a biased assessment and so to a false conclusion. If
you think that holding to the desired answer is more important than
the evidence for that answer then you’re being unscientific. (Following is a personal comment from me, Randy. I also think you are being dogmatic and are infected by dogma if the statement above describes you.) If your emotional commitment to a faith (perhaps a religious faith)
is clouding your judgement over the evidence for that faith then
you’re being unscientific. And if you point airily at “other ways
of knowing” as an excuse to pretend that you don’t need to
provide evidence then you are being unscientific.
the natural world is a unified whole and all aspects of that world
and all areas of human interest are accessible to investigation using
observation and reason. And because the natural world is a unified
whole the resulting knowledge we gain about that world is a seamless
entity in which the same rules of evidence and reason apply
is a mistake to think that different areas of human concern are
demarked into different zones in which fundamentally different rules
apply, and in which radically different “ways of knowing”
operate. The claim that this is so is usually an attempt to cling to
ideas derived from wishful thinking while avoiding any obligation to
provide evidence for them.