The straw man named “scientism”

Aaron Neil is employed by Cardus, a self-described “faith-based” think tank. He is the author of an article in Quillette Against Scientism—A Rejoinder to Bo and Ben Winegard. Mr. Neil starts off by defining “scientism” negatively as “the application of scientific methods to non-scientific subjects” in contrast to the Winegards’ definition of scientism as “the view that scientific attitudes and methods can enhance all modes of empirical inquiry”. Mr. Neil then proceeds to do what almost all critics of what they label to be “scientism” do: Changing the topic without engaging or disputing the arguments made by the Winegards.

The Winegards’ argued in their article In Defense of Scientismthat we should make an honest effort to rely on empirical evidence, as best we can, for decision making regarding how the universe works and for identifying the best and most effective social policies. Mr. Neil begins his counter-argument by replacing the Winegard’s phrase “all modes of empirical inquiry” with “scientific pursuits”. Mr. Neil then rejects his own false misrepresentation of the Winegards’ definition of scientism on the grounds that it is self-evidently true and thus meaningless. Mr. Neil thus avoids addressing the Winegards’ actual argument by substantially revising it. 

Empirical inquiry, unlike professional scientific pursuits, is a pervasive activity. Everyone performs empirical inquiry hundreds, if not many thousands, of times a day without engaging in any professional scientific pursuits. By denying the usefulness of empirical evidence outside of professional scientific pursuits Mr. Neil frees us from the constraint of allowing evidence to dictate our conclusions, which is a bad place to begin what should be a rational argument. Mr. Neil accomplishes all of this by unilaterally and falsely restricting the applicable of empirical methods to professional scientific activities without providing a justification, beginning his argument by declaring the conclusion he claims to be defending. This is a substantial mistake that taints and undermines much of the rest of his argument from the start.

Another mistake that Mr. Neil makes, which is a pervasive mistake among critics of so-called “scientism”, is not acknowledging that the Winegards’ argument regarding trying to find truth is limited to “how the world works and what the best and most effective social policies are” contexts. Instead,  Mr. Neil devotes the many hundreds of words in his article attacking the application of empirical methods to contexts where the Winegards’, and the other people he names as being advocates of scientism, do not advocate applying them while simultaneously trying to deny the applicability of empirical methods in contexts where it is needed by relabeling those contexts “metaphysics”.  

Mr. Neil is blowing smoke that obscures and confuses the topic by changing the context to an ambiguous “metaphysical” realm. If the metaphysical realm never determines “how the world works and what the best and most effective social policies are” then it is irrelevant since the Winegards’ stated that this is the context where their argument applies. On the other hand, if the metaphysical realm does have some (hidden?) role in determining “how the world works and what the best and most effective social policies are” then Mr. Neil still needs to show how we can better make such physical world decisions without relying on the empirical methods that connect our decisions to the physical universe. He shows nothing of the sort. Should we make our decisions based on falsehoods, the dictates of an authoritarian ruler, the alignment of the planets with the constellations in the sky, tossing dice, a metaphysical Zeus? He does not say. His argument fails because it does not even start to succeed. The entire article strikes out by not meaningfully addressing the argument it claims to be refuting.

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