I often cringe when I hear folks say things like, "because scientists/economists/experts say so, we should enact certain policies and anybody who disagrees is clearly stupid, ignorant and/or a denier of science." One of the most famous quotes along those lines is by Richard Dawkins:
It is absolutely safe to say that if you meet somebody who claims not to believe in evolution, that person is ignorant, stupid or insane (or wicked, but I'd rather not consider that).Science has been used to amass the evidence and knowledge upon which theories of evolution have been built. Those theories in turn, are works in progress, like most scientific knowledge, and will continue to be updated and refined over time. Evolution is a good example of the scientific method in action and may even be closely related to the actual explanation of the trajectory of the biosphere during the existence of life on this planet. But that isn't enough for Dawkins - I'm required to "believe in" evolution and I simply don't.
Now I want to introduce a term (from dictionary.com):
scientism/ˈsaɪənˌtɪzəm/I'm also going to add my (non-standard) definition and assume when I use the word below that I'm referring to this definition:
the uncritical application of scientific or quasi-scientific methods to inappropriate fields of study or investigation
the belief that a large percentage of all personal and collective decisions should be based on science and/or analyses of empirical evidenceNote that the two definitions are not in conflict.
Evolution provides a good example. It's science to build theories like evolution. It's scientism to insist that people "believe in" the theory or even that this particular theory ought to be taught in schools. I realize that the latter half of the previous sentence is a very contentious statement, but ask yourself this: given that only a tiny fraction of useful science is taught in school (there's simply not enough time to teach it all), why is it so important that that particular bit of science be taught to the exclusion of something else? And note I'm not talking about DNA, RNA, genetic encoding of information and inheritance, and all of the other knowledge that's loosely related to evolution, I'm only talking about evolution, which, by itself, really isn't particularly useful for much of anything at all.
It's science to explore the relationship between the diffusion of various isotopes of oxygen and the diffusion of heat in ice cores from Antarctica in order to be able to put error bars on the historical temperature record in that locale. It's scientism to create laws that restrict people from discussing skepticism regarding the impact of global warming. It's also scientism to tell people how to live in order to reduce CO2 emissions.
It's science to understand genetic inheritance via DNA. It's scientism to decide to create a eugenics program in order to improve human genetics as has been done in the past.
It's science (sort of) to create models that retroactively can predict economic trends and events. It's scientism to craft policies with wide impact based on those models.
In other words, scientism is a quasi-religious view that takes scientific knowledge and strives to make it the basis of societal organization. Remember those dreams, desires, preferences, and fears I mentioned above? Nuh uh, not allowed or at least heavily discounted by scientismists (those that use scientism) as the basis for their outlook. Of course, I rather suspect that whatever the scientismists' preferences are just happen to align with that which they happen learn from science.
Since these problems are complex beyond human capacity for comprehension, scientism can be thought of as sort of a "folk-science" that relies on networks of people with similar beliefs:
There are many religious views that are not the product of common-sense ways of seeing the world. Consider the story of Adam and Eve, or the virgin birth of Christ, or Muhammad ascending to heaven on a winged horse. These are not the product of innate biases. They are learned, and, more surprisingly, they are learned in a special way.
To come to accept such religious narratives is not like learning that grass is green or that stoves can be hot; it is not like picking up stereotypes or customs or social rules. Instead, these narratives are acquired through the testimony of others, from parents or peers or religious authorities. Accepting them requires a leap of faith, but not a theological leap of faith. Rather, a leap in the mundane sense that you must trust the people who are testifying to their truth. [...]
Many religious narratives are believed without even being understood. People will often assert religious claims with confidence—there exists a God, he listens to my prayers, I will go to Heaven when I die—but with little understanding, or even interest, in the details. The sociologist Alan Wolfe observes that “evangelical believers are sometimes hard pressed to explain exactly what, doctrinally speaking, their faith is,” and goes on to note that “These are people who believe, often passionately, in God, even if they cannot tell others all that much about the God in which they believe.”
People defer to authorities not just to the truth of the religious beliefs, but their meaning as well. In a recent article, the philosopher Neil Van Leeuwen calls these sorts of mental states “credences,” and he notes that they have a moral component. We believe that we should accept them, and that others—at least those who belong to our family and community—should accept them as well.
None of this is special to religion. Researchers have studied those who have strong opinions about political issues and found that they often literally don’t know what they are talking about. Many people who take positions on cap and trade, for instance, have no idea what cap and trade is. Similarly, many of those who will insist that America spends too much, or too little, on foreign aid, often don’t know how much actually is spent, as either an absolute amount or proportion of GDP. These political positions are also credences, and one who holds them is just like someone who insists that the Ten Commandments should be the bedrock of morality, but can’t list more than three or four of them. [...]
Many scientific views endorsed by non-specialists are credences as well. Some people reading this will say they believe in natural selection, but not all will be able to explain how natural selection works. (As an example, how does this theory explain the evolution of the eye?) It turns out that those who assert the truth of natural selection are often unable to define it, or, worse, have it confused with some long-rejected pre-Darwinian notion that animals naturally improve over time.And there's the rub. I'm an extremely untrusting person and I don't trust scientists either. I especially don't trust people advocating for various policies and as soon as a scientist or group of scientists do that, I simply don't trust anything they say. In other words, I have no "faith" in them.
But much of what’s in our heads are credences, not beliefs we can justify—and there’s nothing wrong with this. Life is too brief; there is too much to know and not enough time. We need epistemological shortcuts.
Given my day job, I know something about psychology and associated sciences, but if you press me on the details of climate change, or the evidence about vaccines and autism, I’m at a loss. I believe that global warming is a serious problem and that vaccines do not cause autism, but this is not because I have studied these issues myself.
It is because I trust the scientists.
That's not to say I don't ever rely on experts. As Arnold Kling points out, we are all hugely dependent on expertise in this day and age:
I have faith in experts. Every time I go to the store, I am showing faith in the experts who design, manufacture, and ship products.
Every time I use the services of an accountant, an attorney, or a dentist, I am showing faith in their expertise. Every time I donate to a charity, I am showing faith in the expertise of the organization to use my contributions effectively.
In fact, I would say that our dependence on experts has never been greater. It might seem romantic to live without experts and instead to rely solely on your own instinct and know-how, but such a life would be primitive.Once again, the problem is when expertise is linked to politics and power:
Expertise becomes problematic when it is linked to power. First, it creates a problem for democratic governance. The elected officials who are accountable to voters lack the competence to make well-informed decisions. And, the experts to whom legislators cede authority are unelected. The citizens who are affected by the decisions of these experts have no input into their selection, evaluation, or removal.
A second problem with linking expertise to power is that it diminishes the diversity and competitive pressure faced by the experts.
A key difference between experts in the private sector and experts in the government sector is that the latter have monopoly power, ultimately backed by force. The power of government experts is concentrated and unchecked (or at best checked very poorly), whereas the power of experts in the private sector is constrained by competition and checked by choice. Private organizations have to satisfy the needs of their constituents in order to survive. Ultimately, private experts have to respect the dignity of the individual, because the individual has the freedom to ignore the expert.Because of the power, I call scientismists with access to political power "Little Gods." Most have at least a bit of a "Savior Complex," that is the need to change society to help people. That sounds like a good thing but there are some inherent problems with it. The first problem is that there is a fine line between he who helps people who may not even be particularly interested in that help and a meddlesome busybody. But the main problem is that they are playing god.
There is no policy ever that helps everybody. There are always winners and losers with every change and the Little God therefore actively creates losers. The Little God decides that hurting one person or group to help another is worth it and that is a position of great responsibility and power - in other words, the power of a Little God.
When they do so "Because Science!" they've turned science completely into a religion in service of being a Little God.