On Scientism and So-Called Experts


I’ve been seeing scientism more and more often recently in my travels around the internet. Briefly, scientism is the attitude that the only type of knowledge which is valid when speaking about reality or the world is knowledge arrived at through the scientific method, quantitative data representing specific measurements of a certain phenomenon or set of phenomena. It can also refer to the notion that through science, all questions will eventually be answered, all problems solved and that this is an inevitablity; a simple matter of time.

Now there are obvious, massive problems with this attitude from the get-go. Firstly, not all areas of life are quantifiable. We cannot count the way in which your relationship with your mother has felt to you over the last decade. We cannot quantify the sense of insight or discovery that comes with stumbling across a novel new connection between some aspect of the world and another. The reason is not simply because we don’t have the right tools yet, or that science has “yet to” become sophisticated “enough” to study these phenomena in a quantifiable sense; rather it is that these systems and phenomena are simply not countable, because they do not consist of distinct packets or bits which can be honestly separated out and numbered.

Some systems lend themselves to this sort of calculus-style thinking, for example, we can perform advanced acts of quantification with regards to the amount of cars flowing in and out of a city on a certain road between two arbitrarily selected points in time. Others do not. To believe that all systems and phenomena are of the countable kind is simply to reduce all phenomena into terms which we are comfortable with in the present moment; it is not a sensible or useful way of approaching the ever expanding edge of human knowledge.

In fact, we may come to see that quantification itself is more of a description of the limits of our nervous systems than it is a description of “reality”, whatever that may be. In the light of this realisation, systems are neither quantifiable nor not quantifiable, but rather we may perform acts of quantification on facets of our perception which we isolate from the total array of signals registering on our nervous systems and call “systems”.

Clearly then, it is not simply a “matter of time” or inevitability that science will answer all of our questions; as the nature of what we are studying is ultimately defined by us, limited by our nervous systems and the frameworks of thinking and understanding we have already set in place. Our questions, and that to which we address them, are in flux.

In addition to the fuzzy nature of reality and our perceptual apparatus, alongside the fact that we exist in a reality where things do not come broken up into neat and separate packets; our major scientific paradigms have been overturned more times than we can remember. In fact the reason you are able to read this in the format you are is due almost entirely to the discovery of quantum mechanics in the early twentieth century, which allowed for more complex and sophisticated methods of computing. The history of progress in science is a history of commonly held attitudes and ideas about the special and final nature of our answers being shown to be utterly misguided.

In light of this, how can any self-respecting and self-aware scientist or consumer of science believe that we can be certain that science is leading us to a complete or final understanding of all human questions? This seems to me to be an attitude of premature certainty of the same kind as a pious but secretly uncertain religious believer who must constantly remind everyone of the fact, lest he be exposed to any form of stimulus that might exacerbate his existing misgivings.

We see out of this kind of attitude emerging a class of people who call themselves “experts”, and who can generally hang on to the title for a few decades before a new “expert” arises to replace them. An expert is someone who has claimed to have special knowledge in a field, and if they provide substantial proof that this is the case, then and only then should we take them any more seriously than the average joe.

Experts are obviously a required aspect of modern society. Looking at the state of human knowledge as it is today, our collected history, philosophy, art, music, our religious rituals, oral histories, stories and so on, no one individual can hope to gain competency in all these areas simultaneously. So it is only sensible that we have certain interested folk pursue their area of study to the utmost and become incredibly well versed in said area. This results quite often in fantastic discoveries and breakthroughs, but it can also lend itself to egotism and a certain calcification of ideas and attitudes past the point of their validity or usefulness.

Part and parcel of this domain are individuals who have enormous blind-spots in their thinking, or outmoded biases. Richard Dawkins is operating from a model of the universe that became outdated in the early 20th century with the discovery of quantum mechanics and the various non-deterministic and experimentally valid fields that emerged alongside and after; chaos theory, Thom’s catastrophe theory, Prigogine’s work into evolutionary thinking, and the work of eminent psychologists and philosophers such as Maslow, Watts, Grof and Laing.

Dawkins still uses the metaphor of a deterministic, mechanistic physical universe that operates based on eternal and immutable laws; which when one examines it closely is nothing more than Christianity minus the deity. It does not accurately reflect the world as we know it according to modern science.

And yet, he uses this outmoded image of reality as a way to claim intellectual authority over anyone and everyone who disagrees with his hard-line materialist attitude. He roundly dismisses altered states of consciousness as illusory or worthless, is unsophisticated in his explanations of religious ideas and seems to have no room whatsoever for odd phenomena, whether psychological or physical, preferring to blame the perceiver of the phenomena and engage in ad hominem attacks against their sanity.