Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Scientism: Not As Popular As You Think

Stop me if you've heard this bit before, or something very much like it.

The problem with the New Atheists is that they are beholden to scientism. They have, understandably, a tremendous respect for the power of science - as well as reason - but their enthusiasm for science has combined with their ignorance of philosophy and metaphysics. The result is that they fail to appreciate the power and utility of reasoning that comes from sources other than science, and... (At this point comes a range of examples.)

I come across this often. "The New Atheists - they love science and reason. The problem is they love science too much!" It's a great line. But after encountering dozens of the Cult of Gnu over the years, I've come to realize that this is a complete load of crap.

Now, I speak from anecdote here. Years of anecdote at this point, but anecdote all the same. And my experience has been that most of the Cultists of Gnu could really care less about actual science. Rather, they love science the way a politician or an activist loves statistics: people who would have trouble defining "margin of error" and aren't all that interested in learning, but give them a study that supports the issue they want to boost and they won't be shutting up about it anytime soon. Give them a study that undermines an issue they want to boost, and their interest extends as far as their ability to undermine or discredit it. Give them an extremely detailed, well-researched, well-supported study that does neither of these things, and they will get very bored, very quickly, if you try to tell them about it.

It should go without saying that that isn't a love of science - or, if that does constitute a love of science, then just about everyone loves science. Young earth creationists love it. Parapsychologists love it. Intelligent Design proponents love it.

Worse, it doesn't even tend to provoke very much interest in the science they quote. I've run into multiple Gnu cultists who will not shut up about quantum physics, and proceed to tell me about how "scientist see particles come into existence from nothing all the time, and they see it's totally uncaused!" I've run into evolution fans who struggle to explain what natural selection really is, and cosmology fans who will excitedly talk about the multiverse and who are barely aware that there's a multitude of, rather than a single instance of, multiverse concepts.

Now, maybe you can reply, "That's just the pedestrian Gnu cultists, Crude. The guys they look up to though? Those guys love science!" And again, that's a popular attitude. But does it stand up to scrutiny?

Have a look at the best example - Dawkins. And hey, he's got quite a rep as a scientist doesn't he? How many times have you seen him introduced as an evolutionary biologist? And he certainly praises science like mad. He loves it so much, his last peer reviewed paper - what I'm also told is the gold standard of science - was written, what... two decades ago? Are we pushing three at this point? If Dawkins really loves science, one can only suspect that he decided scientific research was best served by him abandoning the field years ago in favor of writing popular science books. There's evidence the guy hasn't even bothered to keep up with his field since he's left it - he's preaching old-school selectionism in what's increasingly an Evo-Devo world.

No. The scientism charge - scientism taken as loving science too much, having too much of an attachment to science, being too damn interested in science - doesn't wash. The Cult of Gnu is beholden to science the same way the Cult of Reason was beholden to reason: hardly at all. What they love is the authority that comes with suggesting their beliefs are backed by science - even if those beliefs are philosophical, metaphysical, or purely political. Just as the Cult of Reason loved reason, only insofar as the 'reason' in question lined up with what they wanted.


PatrickH said...

They're not scientistic, they're science-fictionistic. It's not that science (scientists, really) know everything worth knowing, it's that future scientists will know everything worth knowing. The amount of hand-waving "one day we will" speculative pie-in-sky decades-off mumbo-jumbo ritual magic engaged in by Gnus is the giveaway: they are a faith-based cult of the credulous. Dawkins in his screed even had as the peri-culmination of his 747 "argument" that "one day" physics will provide an evolution-style argument that will--one day!--permanently obviate the need for a creator God to account for the universe.

One frabjous day! Calloo-callay, they chortle in their joy! Soon!

Just you wait.

Crude said...

Actually, I recall Dawkins said Hawking's last book provided exactly that. Which just goes to show how low Dawkins' standards are when it comes to that sort of thing - Hawking's book didn't go over well after the initial splash, as near as I can tell.

I think science-fictionistic is on target. Actually, it gets even more interesting there since I've run into a number of "atheists" who will make all these claims - then turn around and talk about the singularity, humanity's coming technological capability of (and destiny to) simulate worlds filled with conscious inhabitants. Which, of course, just leads one right to some serious skepticism about whether our world is created our not, evolution be damned. Dawkins even speculated about this, but thought there was no way to settle it.

I'm on record as thinking that atheism is a red herring, and that odd forms of theism are actually the bigger long-term trend. Polytheisms born of multiverse and technological speculation, etc.

IlĂ­on said...

But, Crude, scientism never was about science.

Crude said...

Yeah, but you wouldn't know that by half the descriptions. Hell, even the name itself conveys the dead wrong idea. "Scientism" sounds like "The theory that science is awesome". Critics of scientism frame it as "fetishizing science". It's flat out incorrect.

BenYachov said...

>Actually, I recall Dawkins said Hawking's last book provided exactly that.

That is weird. If you look for it there is a One Star review of Hawking's book (i.e. THE GRAND DESIGN) written by a pissed off Atheist who said he bought it because he thought he would find a devastating refutation of Theism and he bitches it didn't even come close.

What's more entertaining is the comments box responses to the review by the usual suspects among the Gnus bitching "He is not a real Atheist".

Gnu's suck! There is no polite way to put it.