Neil Postman’s take on “scientism” and popular misuse of the word “science”

An excerpt I transcribed from the book Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology (1992) by Neil Postman follows, beginning on page 147:

By Scientism, I mean three interrelated ideas that, taken together, stand as one of the pillars of Technopoly. Two of the three have just been cited. The first and indispensable idea is, as noted, that the methods of the natural sciences can be applied to the study of human behavior. This idea is the backbone of much of psychology and sociology as practiced at least in America, and largely accounts for the fact that social science, to quote F. A. Hayek, “has contributed scarcely anything to our understanding of social phenomena.”

The second idea is, as noted, that social science generates specific principles which can be used to organize society on a rational and humane basis. This implies that technical means—mostly “invisible technologies” supervised by experts—can be designed to control human behavior and set it on the proper course.

The third idea is that faith in science can serve as a comprehensive belief system that gives meaning to life, as well as a sense of well-being, morality, and even immortality.

I wish here to show how these ideas spiral into each other, and how they give energy and form to Technopoly.

The term “science,” as it is generally used today—referring to the work of those in the physical, chemical and biological disciplines—was popularized in the early nineteenth century, with significant help from the formation of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1831 (although Murray’s New English Dictionary gives 1867 as the earliest use of the term in its modern sense). By the early twentieth century, the term had been appropriated by others, and it has since become increasingly familiar as a description of what psychologists, sociologists, and even anthropologists do. It will come as no surprise that I claim this is a deceptive and confusing use of the term, in part because it blurs the distinction between processes and practices.

Using definitions proposed by the British philosopher Michael Oakeshott, we may say that “processes” refers to those events that occur in nature, such as the orbiting of planets or the melting of ice or the production of chlorophyll in a leaf. Such processes have nothing to do with human intelligence, are governed by immutable laws, and are, so to say, determined by the structure of nature. If one were so inclined, one might even say processes are the creation of God. By “practices,” on the other hand, Oakeshott means the creation of people—those events that result from human decisions and actions, such as writing or reading this book or forming a new government or conversing at dinner or falling in love. These events are a function of human intelligence interacting with environment, and although there is surely a measure of regularity in human affairs, such affairs are not determined by natural laws, immutable or otherwise. In other words, there is an irrevocable difference between a blink and a wink. A blink can be classified as a process; it has physiological causes which can be understood and explained within the context of established postulates and theories. But a wink must be classified as a practice, filled with personal and to some extent unknowable meanings and, in any case, quite impossible to explain or predict in terms of causal relations.

What we may call science, then, is the quest to find the immutable and universal laws that govern processes, presuming that there are cause-and-effect relations among these processes. It follows that the quest to understand human behavior and feeling can in no sense except the most trivial be called science. One can, of course, point to the fact that students of both natural law and human behavior often quantify their observations, and on this common ground classify them together. A fair analogy would be to argue that, since a housepainter and an artist both use paint, they are engaged in the same enterprise and to the same end.

The scientist uses mathematics to assist in uncovering and describing the structure of nature. At best, sociologists (to take one example) use quantification merely to give some precision to their ideas. But there is nothing especially scientific in that. All sorts of people count things in order to achieve precision without claiming they are scientists. Bail bondsmen count the number of murders committed in their cities; judges count the number of divorce actions in their jurisdictions; business executives count the amount of money spent in their stores; and young children like to count their toes and fingers in order not to be vague about how many they have. Information produced by counting may sometimes be valuable in helping a person get an idea, or, even more so, in providing support for an idea. But the mere activity of counting does not make science.

Nor does observing things, though it is sometimes said that if one is empirical, one is scientific. To be empirical means to look at things before drawing conclusions. Everyone, therefore, is an empiricist, with the possible exception of paranoid schizophrenics. To be empirical also means to offer evidence that others can see as clearly as you. You may, for example, conclude that I like to write books, offering as evidence that I have written this one and several others besides. You may also offer as evidence a tape recording, which I can supply on request, on which I tell you that I like to write books. Such evidence may be said to be empirical, and your conclusion empirically based. But you are not therefore acting as a scientist. You are acting as a rational person, to which condition many people who are not scientists may make a just claim.

Leaving off on page 149. Neil Postman had much more to say on this and other topics, and I highly recommend reading this book.

More on scientism and the problem with so-called social “scientists” is discussed in the next transcribed excerpt.

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