Scientism: A Quick Primer
 
Scientism is a term that’s actually fairly new to me. While the concept/pattern was familiar, I was calling it STEM Supremacy before I came across the term scientism. It’s a very complex, nuanced issue; so nuanced that I’m sure one could create an entire academic course on it. But we don’t have that kind of time, so instead, this is just a very basic primer on what scientism is, how it manifests, and why it’s problematic.

The basic premise is this: scientism is an ideological construct that discounts data when the sources are not from STEM fields. That’s a really simple, reductive way to describe a whole host of behavior, so let’s make a more detailed (but not complete) list as well:

- Unquestioned assumptions about the inherent superiority of western/white/European academic standards

- Dismissal of indigenous, non-white, gendered knowledge collections or measures of intelligence (unless that knowledge has been “reinterpreted” or accepted by a usually white academic source)

- Dismissal of the humanities fields (history, anthropology, linguistics, social sciences, etc.) as poor sources of data about reality

- Unquestioned assumptions about the inherent superiority of the STEM fields to gather or interpret data

- Belief that someone educated in or related to STEM fields also has the education and tools to comment on humanities-based fields, but does not believe the reverse

- Claims to be operating from a foundation of “logic” and “objectivity”, but often demonstrating the opposite

- Demands of all data gathering processes to meet arbitrary standards of random STEM field

- Refusal to acknowledge the limitations of the human body on data collection

- Refusal to acknowledge the historically documented effects of emotion/ “irrationality”, even when such effects drive history and events as strongly as “logic”

- Refusal to acknowledge documented patterns of human behavior

- Refusal to acknowledge documented systems of social construct such as patriarchy, white supremacy, etc.

- General lack of historical and anthropological knowledge/research

Thanks to Patron Erik Hestevold for this well-worded one:

-  The imposition of scientific concepts onto areas where they don't really make sense 


Let’s look at an example of scientism in action from none other than one of America’s favorite STEM spokesman, Neil deGrasse Tyson:   

Tyson is trying to make a point here about the usefulness of investing in explorers vs. investing in the institutions of religion. He’s trying to establish the superiority of “exploration” as it was done by Spain during the Age of Exploration over the goals of religious expression. One of these things has more value than the other for him, which in and of itself is fine. We all have value structures, and like a lot of STEM and atheist people, Tyson doesn't value religion.

Here’s the problem, though. Tyson is a public figure whom people trust to discuss truth, and he isn’t educated in history, or anthropology, or colonialism, or power dynamics. If he were, he’d remember the inherent brutality and violence of the Age of Exploration and its mutated children, settler colonialism and chattel slavery. By creating this false dichotomy (which was entirely his choice-- who asked him to compare these two institutions with their own histories and atrocities?) in order to subsume “religion” beneath “exploration”, he has also unwittingly endorsed the unethical methods by which his Spanish explorers did their work. He’s implying that exploration as it was done by Spain was not only advisable, but possibly a preferred method of behavior, simply because he thinks it wasn’t religiously-motivated (which is also false) or because they "reached the most land/have the most speakers" at this stage in history, which is an incredibly arbitrary measure of success. He's also enforcing that the "right" of Europe to "discover/explore" is inherently superior to the right of indigenous populations to live unmolested, uncontacted, and free of imperialist oppression. At best, his take is erasure; at worst, it's actively harmful.

I’m going to be hopeful and assume I don’t have to explain why endorsement of the Age of Exploration in such a way is problematic and deeply ignorant of historical reality and context. Tyson points out so many people speak Spanish, but doesn’t bother to say: “these countries speak Spanish because the Spanish systematically destroyed their original cultures and language in the quest for an empire”. All that matters to him is that final scorecard reads: Religion 0, Science 1.

This is not how logic works. This is not how critical thinking works. 

But Tyson’s intelligence (which is unquestioned by this writer!) has been endorsed by basically the entire world, as well as the scientific establishment, at this point. He has clearly never felt the need to question his own education and knowledge on history beyond its association with his own interests. Because he’s known as a “general smart guy”, and because patriarchy conditions us not to question men to the same degree as women, people will often not question him even when he swerves out of his lane. Thus, you get tweets and thoughts like this spread throughout the world under the guise of “logic”, from the mouth of one of America's premier intellects.

I’m smart as hell, too. But I’m not trained in astrophysics, so I would never have the arrogance to speak on it like an expert. Yet people who exist in the inverse—people like Tyson, trained in STEM but not in humanities—seem to have no problem crossing lanes and commenting on subjects on which they have no training or education. Scientism means the humanities as a whole are treated as inferior, and accessible to anyone with no training or education. Many STEM spokespeople do not take seriously their responsibilities as public figures before they speak.

This is a major problem in the atheist community, and for obvious reasons. Science has long been our biggest weapon against the oppression of religious authority, so it can be ideologically uncomfortable to critique it, especially when it's apparently in defense of religion. But if we as atheists truly believe in good faith data, it can't matter how uncomfortable it is. That's the point. We have to be able to critique our own methods, biases, historical errors, and limitations. We certainly have no problem demanding the same of religious people.

Atheists rally around men like Richard Dawkins and others guilty of this same ignorance; they take their advice on religion and culture often with little critical analysis; they claim to be beholden to logic and rationality, but never apply those standards to the STEM gatekeepers they worship.

    

  

Here we have one of the kings of scientism, Richard Dawkins, with another great example. First, I have to point out that Dawkins has admitted that he himself has never read the Quran despite making a career for himself on the basis of critique of religion (especially Islam). So, right away, he’s not even holding himself to his own standards of scholarship. That alone should be a problem to anyone defending good research. How often do you take advice from someone in your personal life who readily admits they know nothing on the subject?

He again demonstrates his lack of historical knowledge by maligning Islamic scholars as inauthentic, and accusing them of only reading their own holy text. This flies in the face of not just modern Islamic scholarship, but the historical reality of the Golden Age of Islam, where Islamic scholars made advancements in numerous areas (including the creation and advancements of STEM fields Dawkins himself uses) while Europe was floundering in the Dark Ages. Western society as we recognize it literally would not exist without Islamic scholars. But using the power of his assumed intelligence, Dawkins feels no shame in ignoring all of this “inferior” history to make his bigoted, ignorant, demonstrably false point.

His attempts to gatekeep—that is, to say he gets to decide who is a real scholar—is a technique as old as time, used by power structures to siphon power away from competitors. It happens every time someone says the Satanic Temple isn’t a “real” religion, or that Mormonism is a “cult”; it happens constantly to scholars from the humanities in attempts to devalue their critiques of accepted practices.

There is no fact in these statements, only the opinions of the speakers, and their clear intent to inspire wide devaluation of something they themselves do not value. The debate over authenticity and its uses is a large one in the humanities, and if Dawkins bothered to research this, maybe he'd catch his own bullshit. (Or maybe he's just a straight-up bigot happy to ignore evidence that ruins his bigotry, but that's a post for another day.)

This is the heart of scientism. It’s simply another form of bias and discrimination in favor of fields that are—shocker!— dominated by white straight men from elite backgrounds, disguised as the arbiters “objective reality”. It is another method for people to discount the experiences of others in favor of their own interpretation, however unverifiable or false. 

Reality is not objective. People in STEM fields are not objective. Human experience is not objective, and it can’t be boiled down to a math problem or statistics. The involvement of the humanities is imperative to us solving the problems that continue to plague all cultures. Science alone literally cannot solve these problems, as time has proven and will continue to prove. Anyone discounting the humanities outright as illogical, emotional, irrational, or biased is only demonstrating their own ignorance-- as is anyone who refuses to acknowledge the racist and sexist foundations of the STEM fields.

To be clear: rejection of scientism is not a rejection of science, or of STEM fields, or the use of them. Science is amazing. We absolutely need it. We just need it to work in tandem with all the other fields, because when people try to elevate science above all other fields, it does active harm to our ability to understand reality. This alone should get the support of these types of STEM people, but ironically, scientism is a very irrational ideology.

The history of science is full of bad, harmful, debunked ideas that have at some point been accepted simply because they came from educated white men trained in science. The humanities are not exempt from this problem, either. Anthropology is rife with terrible racism that is still to this day being weeded out. But that’s the point: humans produce bad research sometimes because humans are limited, fallible creatures. There is no field of research in which we can engage where we don’t need constant critical analyses of our own biases, and all research is improved in its efficacy when it is multidisciplinary. STEM needs the humanities, and the humanities needs STEM. This idea of superiority is only hurting both sides and the research they are capable of producing, and thus, is harmful to culture at large.