by Elliot Temple
Originally posted on the Beginning of Infinity List, 7/25/2011

[Note: This post had some incorrect attribution of material and was updated/corrected on June 13, 2016]

[A poster asked: "What are some typical examples of scientism?"]

Scientism is pretending to apply the methods of science to issues, but not actually doing so. It's giving the appearance of doing science when not actually doing science.

This can be done for questions science could answer, but is commonly done for questions science couldn't possibly answer.

A typical example is pretending to do scientific research about moral issues.

There is no way to measure what is moral and immoral.

Science can address some things with some relevance to morality. For example, whether it's moral to use lead in paint depends on scientific issues about whether lead is poisonous. But science can never give a complete answer to any moral question. There always must be interpretation and argument, e.g. the application of values that favor life and avoiding poison.

Hiding the use of interpretation and value judgments, and pretending one's conclusions were reached by scientific methods, is dishonest and makes it harder to rationally discuss, understand, criticize and judge the conclusions.

[A poster asked: "I've heard there's lots of scientism in psychology. For instance, anything that purports to measure happiness. Why is that scientism? Or studies that show children are more violent if they play video games. Or studies that measure whether an animal suffers if you do a certain thing to it. Why are they scientism?"]

One of the main theme of psychiatry is to medicalize morality. They take moral judgments (e.g. condemning people who deviate from social norms) and then dress those moral judgments up in scientific language and deny that they are moral judgments.

Rather than calling someone a sinner or deviant, accusing him of vice, complaining of his heresy against conventional social norms, etc, they will assert he has a physical disease which is scientifically detectable. But they are just pretending. They don't actually have scientific methods for diagnosing "mental illnesses". Instead they judge by behaviors, verbally stated symptoms, and similar, not, say, x-rays.

Autism is a good example of moral judgment pretending to be medical diagnosis. Here are a few the diagnostic criteria:

* marked impairment in the use of multiple nonverbal behaviors such as eye-to-eye gaze, facial expression, body postures, and gestures to regulate social interaction

* failure to develop peer relationships appropriate to developmental level

* a lack of spontaneous seeking to share enjoyment, interests, or achievements with other people (e.g., by a lack of showing, bringing, or pointing out objects of interest)

* lack of social or emotional reciprocity

All of these are about social conformity, about living in accordance with cultural norms. They are not medical issues, they are moral standards.

They are all *lifestyle choices* which psychiatry has decided to condemn in scientific (rather than moral) terms. Physics focusses on objectively measurable facts. Psychiatric diagnosis does not use the same scientific methods as physics researchers; it involves making value judgments.

If they openly said they were doing philosophy that would be OK and people could then debate whether it is good philosophy. But psychiatry claims that autism is a matter of medical science. So it is scientism.

(Read more of Elliot Temple's writing at Fallible Ideas )