Confusing scientism with science?

Confusing scientism with science? November 27, 2019


MIT's iconic dome
The Great Dome at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology or “MIT,” the small, obscurantist Bible college where Ian Hutchinson teaches.   (Wikimedia Commons public domain photograph)


I continue here with another passage that I’ve extracted, for my notes, from Ian Hutchinson, who is a professor of Nuclear Science and Engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) with a primary interest in plasma physics.  It occurs in his book Monopolizing Knowledge: A Scientist Refutes Religion-Denying, Reason-Destroying Scientism [Belmont, MA: Fias Publishing, 2011]).


First, though, a bit of background:  Most scientists — there surely aren’t too many exceptions, if there are any at all — haven’t taken kindly to postmodern critics of science.  (The brilliant “Sokal Hoax,” which I envy and admire more than I can possibly express, will serve as an unusually glorious example of their attitude.)  On page 161 of Monopolizing Knowledge, Ian Hutchinson remarks, quite accurately, that


I have so far given what, for a scientist, is a relatively sympathetic presentation of the postmodern stance.  I am genuinely sympathetic because I believe that a great deal of what fuels the postmodern impulse is a fully justified rejection of scientism.  I think that the diagnosis offered has important insights, although I think the recommended course of treatment misses the mark when it fails to distinguish science from scientism.


With that in view, here’s a passage on, in Hutchinson’s words, “science’s relation to narrative knowledge”  (from Jean-François Lyotard’s 1979 book The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge) that Hutchinson cites with approval on page 148 of Monopolizing Knowledge:


I have said that narrative knowledge does not give priority to the question of its own legitimation and that it certifies itself in the pragmatics of its own transmission without having recourse to argumentation and proof.  This is why its incomprehension of the problems of scientific discourse is accompanied by a certain tolerance: it approaches such discourse primarily as a variant in the family of narrative cultures.  The opposite is not true.  The scientist questions the validity of narrative statements and concludes that they are never subject to argumentation or proof.  He classifies them as belonging to a different mentality: savage, primitive, underdeveloped, backward, alienated, composed of opinions, customs, authority, prejudice, ignorance, ideology.  Narratives are fables, myths, legends, fit only for women and children.  At best, attempts are made to throw some rays of light into this obscurantism, to civilize, educate, develop.

This unequal relationship is an intrinsic effect of the rules specific to each game.  We all know its symptoms.  It is the entire history of cultural imperialism from the dawn of Western civilization. . . .  it is governed by the demand for legitimation.


At this point, Hutchinson himself remarks that


Here Lyotard reminds us of the key characteristic of narrative.  It does not bother explicitly to legitimate itself.  This permits it a hospitable openness to science, which it welcomes as one discourse among many.  But this openness is not reciprocated.  Science, Leotard says, rejects the unproven narratives. . . .

Lyotard is here mixing up science with scientism.  Scientism generally does feel obliged to reject the ‘narrative statements’ as knowledge, and regularly attributes to them the litany of ills, the fables, legends, ideology, and so on, that he lists.  Science without scientism, however, is under no such obligation, and, in so far as the ‘narratives’ are not setting up a new pretended science that attempts to subvert either the content of natural science or its hard-earned brand-loyalty, science has no compulsion to adopt this aggressive stance.  The failure on the part of postmodern proponents to distinguish between science and scientism is the driving force behind their science critiques and a major source of the conflict between scientific and non-scientific academics, which has been elevated in common terminology to the level of ‘science wars.’  Postmodern science-critiques generally throw the baby out with the bath water.  The scientism that many scientists improperly advocate deserves to be washed away.  Science does not.  (148-149)



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