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Science and Scientism: A Modest Proposal

The debate over whether scientisim is a problem points out an opportunity to engage people in science in more constructive ways.

Published August 29, 2013

Science and Scientism: A Modest Proposal

There's been a lot written lately debating scientism. There are various definitions of this concept but, basically, some fear that "Science" is appropriating questions that are supposed to be under the purview of "The Humanities," while others contend that science is the only reasonable way to determine human values. While debate is a great way to vet and hone ideas, this particular one might be more constructively framed. There probably are individual exceptions to this, but I don't think there's really a conflict between scientists and humanists (I like to think you can be both). A more useful question is how can non-scientists better understand science and scientific perspectives, and how can scientists better engage the public.

"We both believe in the attainability of truth and progress, and we agree that science is our most powerful means of understanding and improving our world. By all means engage with science,' says science writer John Horgan in this Scientific American blog. "But engage with it critically, because science...needs tough, informed criticism." Science and the humanities offer valuable frameworks for such critical thinking, and both perspectives are important.

The scientific method can be employed in the consideration of any type of question as a powerful tool for evidence-based decision-making, but it should be kept in mind that scientists are human. Denying the value of science doesn't get anyone anywhere. Neither is it constructive for scientists to deny our own fallibility or involvement in cultural contexts.

There are a lot of ways to make mistakes. If an experiment turns out a false result, the best way to catch and correct it is to have more people paying attention, thinking critically, and employing the scientific method in replication studies and new experiments. Fostering these skills and an appreciation for experimentation and the challenges involved in non-scientists as well as scientists is vital for increased public engagement as well as trust in science. In this Boundary Vision blog, Marie-Claire Shanahan (@mcshanahan) writes,

"The effects of 'right answer' science teaching [are] clear in the way students responded to disagreements among researchers...They wanted to know what the truth really was, and they became suspicious of the various scientists [with conflicting conclusions] for not knowing how to study the issue properly or for going in with biased preconceptions... Students need much more exposure to real inconclusive and controversial science."

In this podcast, biology professor and author Dr. Stuart Firestein makes a similar point:

"How do you engage more people in the scientific project in a way they can engage in it? It begins with education and the way we teach science. We teach facts instead of teaching questions. Now we present it as a huge encyclopedic collection of facts that nobody could ever hope to master. You have to give people a taste for questions and have them understand that science is about puzzles and questions and a kind of uncertainty that's very appealing the way that a sporting event should be...We're all scientists in a way. We're all out in the world trying to figure things out. We make predictions and we test them... I think being a scientist is being a human being."


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the articles on are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the New York Academy of Sciences.