"'Scientism' wars: there's an elephant in the room, and its name is Sam Harris," Oliver Burkeman titled a piece for his news blog on The Guardian in August of last year. The war apparently rages on with most of its guns apparently turned on what has been identified as the "New Atheism movement," with which Harris is readily identified. Burkeman got some of his title right, but he overshot by six words. Whether or not he is right that Sam Harris exemplifies science overstepping its bounds, it is the term "scientism" itself that is the elephant in the room.
"Scientism" is defined in enough ways to make it almost spectral. On the one hand, it can mean the idea that science is the only road to knowledge. On the other, it can signify that science is attempting to answer questions outside of its boundaries. Perhaps most commonly, though, the term "scientism" is thrown out to mean something like, "I don't want to talk about science because with science it is too easy to demonstrate that I'm wrong." Those who use the term in either of the first two ways would be wise to recognize how helpful that usage is to those in the third camp.
Ultimately, the word "scientism" is most effectively a distraction from the real matter lying at the center of these ongoing debates—how we legitimize good ideas and discard bad ones. Worse than that, since all serious disciplines dedicated to getting things right should be working together, the term "scientism" isn't just a distraction; it's a wedge. Fields that should be able to collaborate and help each other are pitted against each other, and in the resulting tumult, defenders of bad ideas steal legitimacy they do not deserve. This hurts all of us.
Regardless of someone's position on if science is overstepping its boundaries, it is impossible to deny reasonably that as a tool for prying useful knowledge from the world, it is a discipline with an incredible track record of success. It is so good at this role, in fact, that a perennial challenge for science arises in dealing with the fallout of getting too close to bad ideas that happen to be either cherished or worth a lot of money. Science frequently casts doubt upon—or refutes outright—ideas that have strongly vested interests in claiming their validity by "other ways of knowing."
Charlatans, quacks, and frauds selling snake-oil medicine, for instance, operate in a multi-billion-dollar segment of the annual economy. Meanwhile, one of the most tested and least controversial findings of modern medicine, vaccination, languishes behind manufactured controversy that clouds good ideas with bad ones, including the promotion of expensive supplements alleged—and demonstrated not to be effective—to prevent the need for vaccinations. The specter of scientism, crying that science doesn't get everything right, lurks just outside the light of clear information and scares people away from going in. It is, then, a convenient distraction that protects these misguided interests. And then there's religion, a glaring offender upon which we have no intention to harp.
Widespread ideologically motivated distrust of science is roaring at a level unheard of in nearly a century, and it is taking place at a time that could hardly be worse for everyone. We cannot continue to ignore the call to address climate change, for a prime example, and yet actionable movements in that debate sit mired and stagnant, hinging upon both science and politics to move forward.
Until scientists and technologists can create solutions that make reducing atmospheric carbon levels profitable, action requires political effort, and in democracies, it therefore requires public trust in the science saying that it needs to happen. And yet every minute, to believe the researchers, the clock ticks closer to the zero hour, the point at which it is definitely too late. The science on this matter is unambiguous. Delaying is a bad idea, and effectively every working climate scientist knows it.
But "scientism!" The millions of followers of famous Christian megapastor Mark Driscoll, for example, "know" it—just like they "know" that climate change doesn't matter because they "know" Jesus is coming back to burn the world up before it could matter. The entire political Right seems to "know" something similar (the Left has its own bad ideas too, but not usually on climate change). These ideas are demonstrably bad ones, and they're harmful. Providing what looks like solid ground that protects them, exaggerating the scope of any reasonable debate about the role and limits of science, is a harmful distraction from our most pressing issues.
We need effective methods to determine good ideas from bad ones, and we need to encourage both trust in those methods and the critical thinking that allows people to make the determinations for themselves. Brandishing, or even cautiously applying, the pejorative term "scientism" is not likely to be found on the list of tools to encourage these noble and pressing goals. It—the notion that science overreaches and thus isn't that good of a method for legitimizing good ideas and discarding bad ones—is the real elephant in the room, and it is time for it to go.