Post Author: Bill Pratt
Those who identify “good science” with the current mainstream practitioners of institutional science seem to think so. Professor of biology Austin L. Hughes, however, sees serious problems with the adulation of scientists in his essay, “The Folly of Scientism.” Hughes points to the core issue with this line of thinking:
The fundamental problem raised by the identification of “good science” with “institutional science” is that it assumes the practitioners of science to be inherently exempt, at least in the long term, from the corrupting influences that affect all other human practices and institutions. Ladyman, Ross, and Spurrett explicitly state that most human institutions, including “governments, political parties, churches, firms, NGOs, ethnic associations, families…are hardly epistemically reliable at all.” However, “our grounding assumption is that the specific institutional processes of science have inductively established peculiar epistemic reliability.”
Is this correct, that scientific institutions have escaped the weaknesses of humankind that plague other human institutions? Hughes strongly disagrees:
This assumption is at best naïve and at worst dangerous. If any human institution is held to be exempt from the petty, self-serving, and corrupting motivations that plague us all, the result will almost inevitably be the creation of a priestly caste demanding adulation and required to answer to no one but itself.
Hughes moves on to accuse philosophers who have indulged in scientist worship:
It is something approaching this adulation that seems to underlie the abdication of the philosophers and the rise of the scientists as the authorities of our age on all intellectual questions. Reading the work of Quine, Rudolf Carnap, and other philosophers of the positivist tradition, as well as their more recent successors, one is struck by the aura of hero-worship accorded to science and scientists.
In spite of their idealization of science, the philosophers of this school show surprisingly little interest in science itself — that is, in the results of scientific inquiry and their potential philosophical implications. As a biologist, I must admit to finding Quine’s constant invocation of “nerve-endings” as an all-purpose explanation of human behavior to be embarrassingly simplistic. Especially given Quine’s intellectual commitment to behaviorism, it is surprising yet characteristic that he had little apparent interest in the actual mechanisms by which the nervous system functions.
Does Hughes not believe that the scientific method is reliable? Is he anti-science? Not at all. Read on.
Ross, Ladyman, and Spurrett may be right to assume that science possesses a “peculiar epistemic reliability” that is lacking in other forms of inquiry. But they have taken the strange step of identifying that reliability with the institutions and practitioners of science, rather than with any particular rational, empirical, or methodological criterion that scientists are bound (but often fail) to uphold.
Thus a (largely justifiable) admiration for the work of scientists has led to a peculiar, unjustified role for scientists themselves — so that, increasingly, what is believed by scientists and the public to be “scientific” is simply any claim that is upheld by many scientists, or that is based on language and ideas that sound sufficiently similar to scientific theories.
Hughes is a keen observer of our current culture. Listen to what he is saying: scientists have become the new priests of our time. Whatever comes out of their mouths, we swallow without question. Most of us don’t really understand what they are saying, or whether what they are saying makes any sense. We just parrot what we hear, because, after all, they are scientists, and they must be right.