Scientism, Heal Thyself
The scientific establishment that sees itself as the paragon of rationality needs take an honest look at its human frailties.
Scientism is the belief that knowledge comes only through the scientific method. In order for something to be true, it must be testable with reference to natural laws and processes. It’s a self-refuting position, philosophers like to point out, because scientism itself is not capable of being tested in the lab. It is not a statement of science, but a statement of philosophy about science. Despite its logical fallibility, scientism reigns in the scientific institutions of our day. Journal editors, institutional bosses and science reporters tend to have an air of smugness, looking down on anyone claiming to have other avenues to knowledge. Maybe they should get their own house in order before pretending to have the superior path to human understanding.
Stop ignoring misconduct (Nature). In this commentary, Donald S. Kornfield and Sandra L. Titus want to go beyond the current efforts to improve reproducibility of experiments. “Efforts to reduce irreproducibility in research must also tackle the temptation to cheat,” they argue. But why shouldn’t a scientist cheat? Journal papers like this one in PNAS frequently attempt to explain the “evolution and maintenance of cooperative relationships” in Darwinian terms, describing human cooperation as just an instance of social networking observable throughout the animal kingdom (in the PNAS paper, groups of chimpanzees). This view implies that cheating is not really immoral; it just subverts cooperative structures that arose by chance. Presumably, once the cheaters outnumber the cooperators, the roles would be reversed. How could scientism call that “misconduct”? It’s just conduct. Perceptions of misconduct would depend on whose side one was on.
Culture of silence and nonchalance protected disgraced trachea surgeon (Nature). This article is not just about the misconduct of Paolo Macchiarini, but the culture surrounding him that allowed him to get away with exaggerated claims, lax oversight and carelessness with patients. The whole institution had a “nonchalant attitude towards regulations,” Alison Abbott reports.
Duke fraud case highlights financial risks for universities (Science Advances). A researcher convicted of fraud and embezzlement subjected Duke University to a steep financial judgment. Alison McCook quotes a lawyer who says that this case “should scare all [academic] institutions around the country.”
Scientific advances: Fallacy of perfection harms peer review (Nature). In their letter to Nature, James C. Zimring and Steven L. Spitalnik use the words best, good, strive for the better, improve, and progress. Although they discount the need for perfection, they employ value terms that require a worldview able to supply them.
Going beyond impact factors—reforming scientific publishing to value integrity (PhysOrg). For a community that prides itself on measurement, science has had a long-standing crisis measuring itself. “Impact factor” (a value placed on the number of citations a paper gets) has led to numerous complaints, one being that it motivates fraud. Ulrike Träger, writing for Plos Blogs, thinks its time to measure science in a way that values integrity. How will scientism measure integrity in terms of natural laws and processes?
Is Addiction a Disease? (Live Science). Nicole Lee, professor and expert on drug use, describes the controversy over whether to call addiction a disease or a moral failing. Lee argues that the “disease” nomenclature is vague, rationalizes the behavior and removes control from the addict. Her interlocutor, Femke Buisman-Pijlman from the University of Adelaide, finds the term “useful.” These are value judgments bearing on the philosophy of ethics, not matters that scientism can decide.
Life-altering science moves fast, sparking debate (PhysOrg). Researchers are working hard to save endangered species on the Hawaiian islands, but the methods of some, using genetic engineering, raise ethical concerns about modifying the ecology beyond control. The smugness of scientism shows in one researchers statement, “As a scientist who worked on it, I am particularly concerned because we scientists are ultimately morally responsible for all the consequences of our work.”
Our biases get in the way of understanding human behaviour (New Scientist). “Can we ever study ourselves without our expectations affecting our conclusions?” Simon Oxenham writes. “A damning report suggests that bias on the part of researchers has made vast numbers of studies in social psychology unreliable.” But without a universal, unchanging standard, who is to say Oxenham’s own words are reliable?
Lochte’s Lies: How Science Explains Fibbers (Live Science). This article exemplifies the smugness of scientism to “explain” everything to the rest of us, including lying. The occasion is Olympic swimmer Ryan Lochte’s much-publicized lie to the media about being robbed in Rio. Writer Taylor Kubota purports to tell readers the “scientific” reasons why people tell lies. Of course, he expects everyone to see him as pure as the new-fallen snow. But that requires integrity. If lying evolved, so did truth telling. Without a universal, unchanging standard, how do we know Kubota isn’t fibbing himself?
Ethical concerns tied to research on human-animal embryos (Science Daily). This article coming from Stanford recognizes the need for ethics to guide the controversial practice of making chimeras. Such a recognition presupposes ethics having priority over scientific research. But in a world of scientism, who watches the watchers? Scientism would give priority to the scientists, saying that ethics is an evolved trait reducible to physics and chemistry. Strikingly, the ethicists in the article are more concerned about the welfare of the animal subjects than philosophical issues about human exceptionalism. Bioethicist Wesley J. Smith argues that science ethics are too important to leave to the scientists (Evolution News & Views). He also believes the NIH cannot be trusted to regulate research into human/animal chimera research (ENV). In August, Nature reported that the NIH decided to lift the ban on such research.
Ethics: Taming our technologies (Nature). Stephen Aftergood, in a review of Shiela Jasanoff’s new book The Ethics of Invention, Technology and the Human Future, notices that there is something scientism cannot supply: ethics. The same can be said about research science, despite the books focus on technology and invention. Jasanoff thinks a fundamental “reboot” is needed to fix wrong thinking about technology as if it were a value-free enterprise. Despite its successes in the short term, a wrong worldview has led it astray, “owing in part to technological determinism, a semi-conscious belief that innovation is intrinsically good and that the frontiers of technology should be pushed as far as possible.” Wrong:
What we too often fail to grapple with, writes Jasanoff, is that technology is value-laden from start to finish. From the innovator’s intuition of a desired end to the development of the practical means of achieving that end — as well as its application, distribution, ownership and ultimate impact on society and the world at large — choices about technology are inextricably intertwined with value judgements at every stage.
Adherents of scientism have a similar “semi-conscious belief” that their research is values-free and should be pushed as far as possible.
Philosophy is prior to science, and since the philosophy espoused by an individual depends on that person’s worldview, worldview is prior to philosophy. One has to presuppose logic and ethics to do philosophy or science. By pretending to exempt itself form worldview, scientism defeats itself. Its tangled-up failures as described above are evidence of that defeat.