The Problem with Scientism
The second component of the problem with the evolution – creation controversy is, in my judgment, the attitude that at least some scientists take when it comes to popularizing their findings and the field of scientific inquiry in general. The word scientism has been used to refer to two different frames of mind, one of which is in my opinion correct, the other one that implies a degree of intellectual arrogance that is unwarranted and dangerous.
Scientism can be the idea that science is the most powerful method at our disposal to inquire about reality. I think this is eminently sensible and clearly demonstrated by the innumerable achievements of science, which no other approach to knowledge has been able to even remotely compete with. On the other hand, scientists can succumb to an overreaching attitude characterized by too much confidence in what science can do. Scientism in this second sense is rightly perceived as an arrogant stance that betrays the very ideals of humble inquiry and nature-inspired awe that characterize science at its best.
Scientists should be the first to clearly explain to students and the public what science is and upon what premises it is based. For example, the practice of science is built on several fundamental philosophical assumptions and axioms: realism, the idea that there is a unique and consistent reality “out there;” naturalism, the supposition that the universe can be explained entirely in terms of natural phenomena; Occam’s razor, the idea that one should attempt to explain phenomena by recurring to the minimum necessary number of theoretical constructs; and Hume’s dictum, a fundamental component of skepticism which requires extraordinary evidence for extraordinary claims (i.e., a sliding scale of stringency commensurate to the novelty of the phenomena being studied). Realism and naturalism are, of course, leaps of faith, but very small ones compared to those required by any religion or other method of inquiry proposed so far.
Scientists are often accused of arrogance and intellectual snobbism. Alas, the accusation is sometimes justified. While it is true that we value intellectual achievement over other kinds, and an argument can be made for the importance of brain power in our society, there are at least three other things to consider. First, no society made of only intellectuals would be able to survive. Second, intellectualism is still a human – not a universal – value: there is no cosmic reason why smart people should be considered more than any other individual. Third, let us not forget that the results of science are not always benign; witness the atomic bomb and nuclear proliferation.