Wednesday, September 16, 2009


Besides postmodernism, there's a second theory about knowledge--held by many in our culture--that (again like postmodernism) cannot withstand even a cursory scrutiny. I'm talking about scientism, the view that the only things we can really know are those things that have been shown to be true through scientific testing.

I come across this view frequently, especially in newspaper articles about science. (There seems to be a whole subculture within journalists of those who--while not scientists themselves--are sophisticated enough to agree wholeheartedly with everything scientists tell us.) The following articulation of scientism comes from an article in the L.A. Times, in which journalist Lori Kozlowski interviews Chris Mooney, coauthor of "Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future." The context and implication of the entire article is that whenever the public disbelieves or is skeptical of what scientists say, the public is wrong...
Q: What about the vaccine skeptic movement?

A: It bubbled up originally for legitimate reasons. The mercury preservative thimerosal probably shouldn't have been in vaccines. [Blogger's note: Ya think?] It was taken out for precautionary reasons. Since then, science has come in and we can't detect the correlation between a rise in autism diagnoses and use of childhood vaccines...

So, at some point you have to let go. But that hasn't happened. Instead, there's a conspiracy theory and people have appointed themselves as experts on this.

The people who try to avoid vaccination, who believe this, are not stupid. They're not disadvantaged... So the distrust of science--this is not something a better high school education would have saved them from. (ellipses in original article]
In other words, science tells us that there is no link between autism and childhood vaccinations, and that's the end of the story. People--that is parents--who don't believe science on this one are wrong (though not necessarily stupid). Even those parents who have personal, firsthand experience of their normal child suddenly displaying the behaviors of autism following their being vaccinated are wrong. Because, you see, on the view of scientism, no amount of eyewitness testimony can be brought to bear against science.

Mooney's view here is, of course, absurd, and I'll just give two reasons for now.

The first is that it is self-refuting. The claim "we can only know that which has been tested scientifically" is itself a knowledge claim, and one for which there is no scientific test. It's not a scientific claim at all, but a philosophical claim, and it falsifies itself. It is self-referentially absurd, and necessarily false. No amount of further discovery will make the claim of scientism true. (The people who make this claim--like Chris Mooney--are not stupid; they just don't think very clearly in certain areas. A better high school education--one that taught introductory logic, for example--might have saved them from this basic mistake.)

The second reason for rejecting scientism involves basic common sense. Just think about it--you know many, many things the evidence and reasons for which are not at all scientific. This includes a host of things for which you have firsthand (or even unique) knowledge; you were there and saw it happen. It includes many other things for which your justification for believing it (knowledge is "justified true belief") is sound. Do you know that George Washington was the first president of the United States, that we fought a war in VietNam, that the Romanian revolution took place in 1989? There's nothing scientific about any of that; so history involves a great deal of knowledge that refutes scientism. But so does geography, mathematics, your knowldege of current events. Indeed, unless you happen to be a scientist, most of the things you know how to do at work and at play you learned without scientific testing. Indeed, though there is increasingly DNA testing or other forensic science involved in criminal cases, most trials are decided primarily on eyewitness testimony and other non-scientific evidence and reasoning. I could go on and on, but have probably already belabored the point.

So Mooney's epistemology is demonstrably flawed, and it is this illogical epistemology that is at the heart of his conclusions about vaccination and autism. In other words, those parents who are skeptical of science's claim that there is no link are not involved in making conspiracy theories. Instead they are thinking more clearly about the issue--and with more at stake, since it's their kids' health on the line--than the scientists who have gotten involved. Though these parents may not consciously recognize the self-refutation involved in the scientist's claim, they are right to recognize that negative results from scientific testing do not serve to negate the abundant counter evidence from firsthand experience.

It is our right and duty as parents to carefully scrutinize the claims of science. This is especially true when the scientists involved betray their own failures in thinking clearly, as whenever they articulate the view described in this post as scientism.


Jordan said...

Very interesting and thought provoking article. A couple questions:

What's your definition science? It seems like it might be a bit more constrained than what a lot of the followers of "scientism" would go for.

In the case of the Autism-Vaccine link, do you think science can say conclusively one way or the other? I would think that given the right experiment(s) science should be able to detect a correlation if it exists. If not, how are those parents that believe there is a link supposed to react? I guess my question is if Mooney is absurd in your view because he proposes that science is the only source of true knowledge or because he's stretching the science beyond legitimate bounds (i.e. this study says they couldn't find a correlation so it can't possibly exist and saying it does is idiotic), or maybe both?

Rick Gerhardt said...


I'll respond in the blog itself. Thanks for reading!