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Scientism is a synonym of positivism, a common ideology in the 19th and 20th century which places its trust in scientific progress and only in scientific progress. However, while positivism may sometimes be used in a neutral way, scientism is always pejorative. It refers to the ideology of science as the only legitimate truth and to a conception of social progress has necessary and brought forth by technological development. Techno-utopianism and techno-progressivism, for example, have been accused of constituting a form of scientism, as well as the darker eugenicist movement or the Raelian cult which advocates the massification of cloning.

While it is usually the scientific community that is accused of scientism, non-scientific communities, such as New Age movements or utopians ideologies, may also be accused of scientism. Scientists themselves sometimes use the word "scientism" to refer to ananachronic conception of science: in this sense, though scientism is generally seen as a term used from an anti-science standpoint, it may as well be used by supporters of science who are proposing a less reductionist view of science.

"Reductionism", especially in this context, is intended by such as a critique of that scientific categorization which reduces individual variation into categories without regard for the consequences of such categorization, in particular upon those at the margins of such classification. Scientism used against reductionnism would then be the scientific analysis of populations which honors only prevalence and ignores outliers, tending to create undesirable norms.

The word scientism may be used in various contexts:

  • Scientism is a belief that scientific knowledge is the foundation of all knowledge and that, consequently, scientific argument should always be weighted more heavily than other forms of knowledge, particularly those which are not yet well described or justified from within the rational framework, or whose description fails to present itself in the course of a debate against a scientific argument. When used in a critique of science, it is dismissed by some scientists who maintain that all fields of inquiry should be subject to (and can ultimately be understood by) standard scientific methods of investigation.[1]
It can be contrasted by doctrines like historicism, which hold that there are certain "unknowable" truths. (Source for definition: The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language: Fourth Edition. 2000.)
This viewpoint is typified by comments such as "Scientific research has demonstrated that substance x causes cancer in humans."
  • As a form of dogma: "In essence, scientism sees science as the absolute and only justifiable access to the truth." [2]
  • Scientism can also be used to reject the assertion that the application of scientific understanding to all phenomena produces the predicted results and is therefore a reliable guide to policy. It implies a reliance on science unbalanced by, and therefore susceptible to, unconscious influence by other life factors such as experiences, emotions, values, dogmas, beliefs, and motive. These influences, and necessarily, the resulting science, are unscientific to the extent that they are unexamined in connection with the development of the science. In particular, in any area where secrets are known to be held, trust in science breaks down because influential facts are not being revealed, so no rational judgment can be fully trusted.

'Scientism' may be used to imply an ignorance (or denial) of a relationship/disjunction between metaphysical and natural phenomena. This sense of the term comes close to Hannah Arendt's use of it in The Origins of Totalitarianism; in her view, the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany had made the human condition a matter of scientific exactitude, and thus otherwise impossible moral or ethical questions (such as, "Can a man be worthless? And if so, can we euthanize him?") are easily resolved within the internally-consistent "scientific" methods of the state. In other words, the inhuman aspects of such totalitarian states cannot be said to be entirely unrelated to their adherence to pseudo-science as the ultimate arbiter of value.

See also


  • Susan Haack, "Science, Scientism, and Anti-Science in the Age of Preposterism", Skeptical Inquirer Magazine, 1997.
  • Sandra Harding, "Who Knows? Identities and Feminist Epistemology", in Joan E. Hartman and Ellen Messer-Davidow, eds., (En)gendering Knowledge, University of Tennessee Press, Knoxville, 1991, p. 109.
  • F.A. Hayek, The Counter-Revolution of Science: Studies on the Abuse of Reason, Glencoe: The Free Press, 1952.
  • Helmut Schoeck and James W. Wiggins, eds., Scientism and Values, D. Van Nostrand, Princeton, NJ, 1960.
  • Tom Sorell Scientism: Philosophy and the Infatuation With Science, Routledge, London, 1994.

External links

relativism and universal moral

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