Against Scientism

6 December 2012 at 1:13 pm 3 comments

| Peter Klein |

Hayek defined “scientism” or the “scientistic prejudice” as”slavish imitation of the method and language of Science” when applied to the social sciences, history, management, etc. Scientism represents “a mechanical and uncritical application of habits of thought to fields different from those in which they have been formed, and as such is “not an unprejudiced but a very prejudiced approach which, before it has considered its subject, claims to know what is the most appropriate way of investigating it.” (Hayek’s Economica essays on scientism were collected in his 1952 Counter-Revolution of Science and reprinted in volume 13 of the Collected Works.)

Austin L. Hughes has a thoughtful essay on scientism in the current issue of the New Atlantis (HT: Barry Arrington). Hughes thinks “the reach of scientism exceeds its grasp.” The essay is worth a careful read — he misses Hayek but discusses Popper and other important critics. One focus is the “institutional” definition of science, defined with the trite phrase “science is what scientists do.” Here’s Hughes:

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.” 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.

Entry filed under: - Klein -, Austrian Economics, History of Economic and Management Thought, Methods/Methodology/Theory of Science.

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3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Rafe Champion  |  6 December 2012 at 2:55 pm

    One of the problems with coming to grips with scientism is that the standard or received view of science in the positivist/empiricist tradition is radically defective. It is most unfortunate that Mises despite his polymathic scholarship dropped the ball in the philosophy of science because he thought that positivism worked just fine in the natural sciences.

    Hughes did well to refer to Popper as an antidote to muddled thinking on this topic although Popper changed his mind more than once about the methods of the social sciences, especially the existence and/or the role of universal laws. The following reading guides or “cribs” on The Poverty of Historicism and The Logic of Scientific Discovery may be helpful for people who want to get an idea of where Popper was coming from, something that you cannot get from the academic profession because it is possible to spend a career in universities without meeting anyone who can give a straight feed on Popper’s ideas. Ladyman (cited by Hughes) is especially unhelpful.

  • 2. Bruce Koerber  |  6 December 2012 at 6:47 pm

    Scientism is not only a false extension (inappropriately) into a field of study (as described by Fredrick Hayek in his 1952 Counter-Revolution of Science and reprinted in volume 13 of the Collected Works) but it is also even and again more subtle in its exclusion of appropriate science into its midst! Hence, for example, we see entrenchment and stubborn resistance towards subjectivism in the human sciences. I would venture to say that an even greater harm is done (and it is even done by those who recognize subjectivism) by claiming a false separation between ethics and economics. It is a ‘scientism-like’ attitude towards the new scientific advancements that clearly demonstrate that ethics and economics cannot be separated. What you get when they are separated is the mess that we see all around us – unabashed interventionism by the ego-driven.

    The present-day economic problems cannot be resolved without using a scientific method that recognizes the inseparability of ethics and economics!

  • 3. James Reade  |  8 December 2012 at 4:45 pm

    I find all the obsessing Austrians do about “scientism” really sad. But then, similarly, the disparaging nature of those that make use of the more scientific methods is similarly sad. Why do we devote such time to belittling the other, wasting our precious intellect in doing so? Clearly both have much to offer, and saying the other has little to offer or is dangerous is overblown and unnecessary.

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