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Columns

Science, Scorn, and Cynicism

Scientism in the new generation

By William A. McConnell, Contributing Opinion Writer
William A. McConnell ’21 is a Mathematics concentrator in Adams House. His column appears on alternate Mondays.

It’s an understatement to say that modern science has been the most transformative tool in the human toolkit over the last millennium. From our transportation systems to our digital playthings, we are a society built on the shoulders of science.

We are also a society that has embraced this tool with passion. In elementary school I remember memorizing the scientific method, admiring the genius of Isaac Newton and Marie Curie, and watching with awe my first science experiment, a baking soda and vinegar volcano. STEM education is the stated center of U.S. education policy. News outlets, responding to public demand, now regularly utilize the statistics and studies that their forebears once flippantly labeled nerd-stuff. And wherever we go, we encounter technology, each device quietly advertising to us the power of this tool we call science.

Yet, as (somebody other than, it turns out) Mark Twain famously put it, “If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” And thus, amidst this science-oriented backdrop, the doctrine of scientism — “the promotion of science as the best or only objective means by which society should determine normative and epistemological values” — has emerged. It has done so throughout society, but especially in the most significantly exposed segment of the population, the younger generations, the longer educated, and the less religious. We’ve internalized our cultural love of science so that we increasingly tend towards believing that human knowledge is driven by science and science alone, that most questions need to be answered empirically, and that most phenomena can be explained with sufficiently complex physical accounts.

The first problematic symptom of scientism we can identify is the scorn that it often engenders for other modes of thinking. The religious arena best illuminates this scorn. At some point we all probably have seen, or have been, the person who confidently bashes on religion for having no evidence behind it. “Evidence” needs no adjective — for of course it is only evidence of the scientific sort that counts. And thus the ship of scientism leaves behind the religious, with an amused chuckle and a petulant puff of steam. My point here is less to initiate a metaphysical conversation about god/God than it is to illustrate how our scientism often precludes us from even getting to a starting point for such a conversation.

This same attitude possesses conversations that deal with topics like free will, morality, the nature of the mind, and the nature of gender. These questions do not ask for experiments but for reason, for examples and analogies, for theories of the meanings of words, for hypotheticals and counterfactuals, for powerful explanations, and for reflections on our own lived experiences. Yet our capacity and propensity to think along these lines fade as we become more and more convinced that truth in this world can be reduced to science. We become mired in the kind of thinking that says free will and morality cannot exist in an entirely physical universe, and that minds and gender can be reduced to the physical processes underlying them. We skip the humanities for the hard sciences, supposedly the only place where real, productive thinking takes place.

Scientism cuts deeper, however, in the way that it inherently devalues the individual. It denies the capabilities of an individual mind, and the meaning of an individual existence, thus cultivating repressed cynicism about the world.

We see this cynicism manifested in individuals’ pessimism in their ability to take a position on an issue. For as powerful a tool as science is, it is also selectively wielded, by academia, by large corporations, by the government. The individual is excluded from the truth-finding process. Thus the phrase “I don’t know enough to have an opinion” rolls freely and quickly off tongues, preempting the important processes of individual reasoning and reflection. Conversations start and end with a Google search that either revealed the answer science gave us or didn’t. The skeptical position becomes the thoughtful one, even as it entails almost no thought.

By devaluing the ways in which individuals derive meaning, scientism also contributes to a dangerous moral cynicism, not so much on the hot-button topics but on the more quotidian acts concerning morality — white lies, stereotyping, keeping promises, working hard, authenticity and the like. At its worst, scientism denies any form of meaningful justification — the religious, the cultural, the philosophical — for these norms and casts them as wholly arbitrary cultural artifacts. Where is the science to say that we should conform to these norms, it prompts. At best, it allows for a coarsely utilitarian view of them, the sort of easy “greater good” thinking that on the ground level almost always loses out to human selfishness.

In either case, scientism undermines the force of these moral norms. We may play along, depending on the strength of other behavior-shaping factors. But societies tend to slowly phase out the things they have stopped respecting.

Science is not going anywhere, nor should it. It is the greatest tool for understanding the world we humans have developed, and the innovation and improvements in our lives that it has brought should be duly respected. But we would all do well to not let this respect evolve into scientism. Because ultimately — a powerful hammer though science may be — the world is much more than just nails.

William A. McConnell ’21 is a Mathematics concentrator in Adams House. His column appears on alternate Mondays.

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