Friday, January 18, 2013

Has anyone ever slung around the "scientism" accusation in a way that's actually convincing?

I can't think of an example, although there may be some out there.

Can you?

It is the abysmally unconvincing get-out-of-jail-free card that has been helicopter dropped on people who would rather just not entertain an argument.

The word is used to mean a couple things in different contexts, of course. If you use it to mean that it's problematic to apply methods that other people use for other problems to humans, you're just wrong. If you use it to criticize people who apply certain methods to studying humans simply because of the glamor those methods are bestowed with by being used by natural scientists too, then that's a fine criticism if such a person existed, but I doubt there's anyone on the planet that actually uses those methods for that reason. Certainly that's not why most people use those methods.

And if you use the term to claim that people who clearly have relevance to the conversation have no business talking about it based on what they've learned, then you seem to be using it just because you don't want to have the conversation.


  1. After you and Gene determine a clear victor, he will then face me in battle.

    1. I think we're just going to keep putting up bitter posts without actually naming the other.

  2. Would Jonathan Finegold Catalan's critique of Econophysics count as a legitimate charge of scientism?Catalan did not use the term "scientism" against the econophysicists, but I suppose you might as well say that he could have or should's Catalan's post just for everyone's reference.

  3. I have seen absence of evidence used as evidence of absence which it is until it isn't. It is not wrong to believe the latter but it is wrong to believe this constitutes proof.

  4. Not wanting to have a conversation is I have discovered one of Gene's trademarks. He blocks comments that make arguments against him based not on tone or rules, but just because he doesn't want to deal with the arguments.

  5. Don't forget that Hayek was a positivist.

  6. I think you are correct that part of the problem deals with semantics. I'm not sure if you mean what I think you mean in your first framing of the definition. Do you mean to refer to the study of individual humans or of society? Hayek's critique of scientism is concerned with the latter and I do believe it is legitimate. In his Counter-Revolution of Science , Hayek associates collectivism with scientism in the social sciences. He cautioned that the supposed objectivity of scientism obscured the reality of the structures that it studied:

    The wholes as such are never given to our observation but are without exception constructions of our mind. They are not 'given facts,' objective data of a similar kind which we spontaneously recognize as similar by their common physical attributes... They [terms for collectives] refer to certain structures of relationships between some of the many things which we can observe...which we select because we think that we can discern connections between them--connections that may or may not exist in fact. (Hayek, 1979[1952])

    He was concerned that the scientistic approach violated the precepts of methodological individualism when applied to large scale social phenomena and ignored spontaneous order. I do not find this misgiving about scientism inappropriate in this context, but the parameters should be stated more clearly - i.e., Hayek believes empirical observations should remain observations and not integrated into theory as causality is not entirely clear. This claim carries with it other issues, but I do not believe Hayek was summoning a get-out-of-jail-free card.

    I am reminded of a couple recent pieces about Austrian Economics and empiricism from Horwitz and Selgin.


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