I have never understood why there is so much confusion about the definition of scientism. I just looked it up in my basic Apple dictionary, and it is crystal clear: “Excessive belief in the power of scientific knowledge and techniques.” The devil, and much of the discussion, of course, is in the details. When, exactly, is it that one’s belief in the power of scientific knowledge and techniques becomes “excessive”? What else is entailed by a scientistic approach or worldview? (Warning: if you think these questions are meaningless because of course there are no limits to the power of science, then you are most definitely engaging in scientistic thinking.)
As our readers may remember, John Shook recently gave us a useful “alphabet soup” of scientism, which I will use as a reference point in what follows in order to clarify my own thinking about scientism — an especially timely exercise because I will soon be hosting a workshop on the topic at CUNY’s Graduate Center, from which an edited volume may or may not eventually emerge. In what follows, then, I will simply list again the elements of John’s soup (in alphabetical order, of course), and briefly comment on every entry. The hope is that when we arrive at the end, a clearer and perhaps even somewhat coherent, view of scientism will emerge — or at the very least that there will be food for further thought and discussion of the issue.
A. There is a thing called “science” with its own characteristic features distinctive enough to distinguish it from other human practices.
Yes, there is. While it is true that scientific thinking, broadly construed, is continuous with human thinking in general (how could it be otherwise?), it should be uncontroversial (although it actually isn’t) that the kind of attention to empirical evidence, theory construction, and the relation between the two that characterizes science is “distinctive enough,” as John puts it, to allow us to meaningfully speak of an activity that we call science as sufficiently distinct from, say, plumbing, literary criticism, or mathematics.
B. Plenty of knowledge about a subject can be gained by practical trial-and-error, but scientific knowledge of that subject is more reliable and valuable.
Again, yes. Unless one wishes to claim — rather anachronistically — that Homo sapiens has been doing “science” since the dawn of its evolutionary history, we can clearly identify science as the sort of practice that came into full form around the 16th century with the likes of Bacon and Galilei, although elements of it can be traced much further back, arguably to Aristotle and even the pre-Socratics.
C. If there are people believing that something is true, but a science confirms that it can’t be so, then those people don’t really know.
Well, not exactly, though close. I would rather say that if you believe something that goes against the current scientific consensus (e.g., that the earth is a few thousand years old, or that climate change is not taking place, and so on), then you are very likely to lose the epistemic bet. But the scientific consensus has been proven wrong in the past, so the above statement is true only to a first approximation, and one should always keep in mind the history of science as an object lesson.
D. There is a specifiable “scientific method” that possesses some definable core or essential steps, used by all genuine sciences.
No. Philosophers of science have looked for just such an algorithm (e.g., the famous “hypothetico-deductive” method , or Popper’s falsifiability ) and have come up short. The post-Kuhn  consensus is that there is no such method, and that science helps itself to a loosely defined toolbox of methods, heuristics and intuitions.
E. There is no subject matter or kind of reality, or any field of experience and endeavor, that isn’t amenable to inquiry by scientific method.
False, and clearly so. Mathematics is a huge area of knowledge where science has absolutely nothing to say, zip (though, as is well known, mathematics has a lot to say about science!). Logic is another such field. There are fields where science may have something to say, but what it does say is pretty much irrelevant. No bit of scientific analysis is going to improve my experience of a Shakespearian play, for instance, or of my favorite bits of jazz music. And so on.
F. Even if there is no singular “scientific method,” the methodologies used by scientists are universally applicable to anything that can be observed or can have empirical consequences.
Ah, this one is tricky. I suppose this is true, in principle. But there are a lot of unique events, qualitative experiences, etc. that are in practice hardly amenable to rigorous scientific treatment. For instance, what I am doing, and even (potentially) what I am thinking, right now can certainly be observed empirically, and it does have empirical consequences. But what would it even mean to “do science” about it? What sort of hypothesis of general interest would one be testing, and why? Or think about claims about historical events. Suppose we had written testimony from a lieutenant of Napoleon that the reason the Emperor lost at Waterloo is that he had diarrhea that morning. This, presumably, is a matter of fact, with empirical consequences. Can it be tested scientifically? I doubt it. We just have to either accept or reject the testimony itself (about the diarrhea), and accept or reject the lieutenant’s specific inference of a causal connection between the diarrhea and the outcome of the battle. And such acceptance or rejection would be based on historical analysis of the proper documents as well as on commonsense judgment (is it really believable that Napoleon lost for that reason, even if he really did experience an episode of diarrhea?).
G. Any explanation that hasn’t been tested (or can’t be tested) by scientific method(s) is no explanation at all and mustn’t be believed with any confidence.
You’ve got to be kidding. For instance, there are mathematical explanations for why certain things are impossible (like crossing all the bridges of the town of Königsberg exactly once ) which trump, or make superfluous, or are more basic than, any scientific (i.e., empirical) explanation. Or, more mundanely, take my explanation of why I like dirty martinis (it has to do with the fact that I prefer sharp flavors to neutral ones, but I also like strong drinks). It’s not that you couldn’t “do science” about it, I suppose. It’s rather that the science would be superfluous: I am telling you why I like dirty martinis, the explanation is accurate and to the point, and it most definitely can be believed with confidence.
H. Whatever people may think they know, they don’t really know unless some science or another among the social, life, or physical sciences can come along and approve that knowledge.
Nonsense on stilts. I know how to demonstrate the Pythagorean theorem, and science has nothing to do with it. And I know that I prefer dirty martinis to martinis with a twist, science’s approval be damned.
I. However the sciences may develop and undergo paradigm shifts, science itself is reflexively competent to fully understand how it works best without assistance from any other humanistic or philosophical field.
Clearly not. Let me give you a very simple example, which I believe is representative. Julia Galef and I recently had the pleasure of having noted cosmologist Lawrence Krauss on our Rationally Speaking podcast . During our conversation Krauss said — in all seriousness — that scientific theories cannot be proven, they can only be falsified. I commented that that was very Popperian of him, to which he responded with a self-satisfactory grin of assent. But the joke’s on him: Popperian falsificationism is a historically important position in philosophy of science, but one that has been clearly and decidedly superseded by several additional decades of scholarship in the field (not only scientific theories cannot be proven, they cannot even be falsified!). Equally clearly, Krauss — like most scientists — is neither capable (because of lack of training) nor interested in doing much reflection on the nature of science. He should be happy to leave that task to philosophers.
J. Whatever the sciences may acknowledge to be happening and have existence cannot be amended or overruled by any other field of experience or intellectual discipline.
In a broad sense this strikes me as accurate, although its converse clearly isn’t (there are plenty of things going on in the universe — or in people’s personal experiences — of which science remains ignorant).
K. Nothing can be happening unless empirical consequences and entities/forces/laws trackable by one science or another are somehow involved.
Not exactly. I would agree that nothing can be happening unless there are (very broadly construed) empirical consequences, and that these consequences obey or are dependent on entities/forces/laws. It does not follow that one science or another can or will ever be able to track them, though. For instance, I’m pretty sure that life originated according to entities/forces/laws of this kind; but the origin of life is also one of my favorite bets for examples of something we’ll likely never be able to track scientifically, for the simple reason that there aren’t enough historical traces left for us to investigate. (Notice that even if we were able to artificially generate life under laboratory conditions, we would not thereby have shown that that is how life on earth also originated billions of years ago.)
L. A thing isn’t independently real unless it can be theoretically confirmed, presently or in the future, by one science or another.
No. What I’m thinking at this particular moment is real (independently of what?) regardless of whether science could confirm it, now or in the future.
M. A thing can’t have any reality unless it can be theoretically confirmed by one of the biological or natural sciences.
Are numbers and other mathematical objects real? The question at the very least makes sense and is debatable, and it is irresolvable by science . And of course, again, there are presumably gazillions of things that are real and yet are currently unknown to science and may be forever beyond science’s ability to investigate — parallel universes may (and I stress may) be a cosmic-size example of that. For a more mundane one, see the above mentioned hypothetical instance of imperial diarrhea.
N. A thing has no reality at all unless its existence is required by a theory of a single natural science enjoying the widest universality (physics).
Wow! The hubris! I’d like a physicist to try and work out why it is necessary, according to, say, quantum mechanics (currently the best theory in physics) that I be writing these very words. Yes, yes, pursuing this line of reasoning would quickly get us into the quagmire of free will debates, but, seriously, the assumption of reductive determinism is just that, a (philosophical!) assumption, not an empirical fact demonstrated by science . Oh, and mathematical Platonism.
O. A subject matter that seems to have little or nothing to do with a natural science hasn’t been well-understood until natural scientists have reviewed and commented on it.
I hope you can begin to see a recurring pattern here. Mathematics and logic are obvious (too easy, really!) exceptions. But also, for instance, literary criticism, music, and the arts in general. While surely science can make some contributions in understanding some issues pertinent to these other fields, it is outrageously false to say that we have no understanding of them until science steps in.
P. A thing cannot have value unless its existence has been scientifically confirmed and some science(s) can agree that it has some value, for an individual or an aggregate of individuals.
This one ought to be laughed out of court. “Value” is in the eye of the (human) beholder, so something can have value for me regardless of how many others share my opinion about it, and scientific confirmation is simply irrelevant. The broader discussion here concerns the famous is/ought divide in ethics , where I maintain science has little to say. But I could equally bring up aesthetics judgment and the value people put on specific works of art, or on art in general. Can science describe and quantify the distribution of values on these issues in the population? Sure. Can it tell us whether we should hold those values? I do not even know what that question means, from a scientific perspective.
Q. There is no form of human relationship or type of social organization that cannot be understood and improved by the application of scientific inquiry and reformed by scientific knowledge.
Yeah, please see eugenics and other “scientific” forms of social engineering for a quick retort. Look, I have a profound respect for factual information, and I use it whenever pertinent to my goals. But I’m supposed to “improve” the way I form, say, friendships based on scientific principles? What would that even look like? Of course science can help me understand the human phenomenon of friendship, but whether and in which way I wish to improve it is a matter for my (emotionally driven) judgment, not for a panel of scientists sitting on the Friendship Augmentation Committee to decide. And people wonder why scientism has a bad reputation in certain quarters.
R. There is no worldview that cannot be improved by the infusion of scientific knowledge and the replacement of non-scientific ideas.
Hmm, yes and no. I have no doubt that any coherent and sensible worldview has to include science or be judged woefully inadequate. But I’m not at all sure that all “non-scientific” ideas need to be replaced with scientific ones. There are plenty of interesting ideas that humanity has produced — about philosophy, literature, the arts, politics, etc. — for which science simply is in no position to provide substitutes. Indeed, in many cases I’m not even sure what it would mean to replace our ideas about, say, the place of Mozart in the history of music, or the value of democracy, or the abhorrence of slavery, with “scientific” alternatives.
S. No worldview has serious legitimacy unless it agrees with the natural sciences that humanity has no special place, purpose, or destiny.
I’m inclined to somewhat agree with this one, but with a number of caveats. First off, if science really requires deterministic reductionism, then in a very serious sense humanity does have a “destiny,” and that notion would be a fundamental part of the scientific worldview. Second, humanity at large may not have a purpose, but individual human beings certainly do, yes (because they come up with their own purposes)? Third, we don’t actually know how “special” (or not) our place in the universe really is. I — it should be obvious — don’t mean to endorse any kind of intelligent design notion here. But if it turned out that humans were among very few, or even perhaps the only, self-conscious beings in the universe, well, that would certainly make us special, wouldn’t it?
T. No virtue, moral norm, or ethical principle has serious legitimacy unless it has been confirmed by, or derived from, scientific knowledge about humanity and reality.
Oh boy. Clearly, obviously, and even perniciously wrong. Even if science can help us improve our ethical principles — for instance by showing us the empirical consequences of certain choices — it is historically false to claim that we haven’t been able to come up with “legitimate” (a human value judgment!) moral norms or ethical principles. We really don’t need science to tell us that it is wrong to torture babies (or anyone, really) on the basis that torture causes pain. We know it does. And what would it mean to scientifically “test” an ethical framework like virtue ethics, or utilitarianism? Any such testing would have to already presume a specific set of values that would fall into one or another philosophical framework, thus making the whole exercise pointless or viciously circular.
U. Cultural folkways or social institutions that rely on ideas/values about matters which no science can accept as knowable, ethical, and real should be eliminated or at least marginalized.
Again, there is something to this, but the full statement is unacceptable. To begin with, science is in the business of telling us what is (physically, as opposed to say mathematically) real and, to a lesser extent, what is knowable (logic, math and epistemology — a branch of philosophy — help there too). It is not in the business of telling us what is ethical (though it certainly helps in advising us on the likely consequences of our ethical choices). But “cultural folkways” that do not rely on science should not be marginalized or, even less, “eliminated.” If people wish to conduct their lives believing that the universe was created a few thousand years ago by an all-powerful god they have a right to do so. We can tell them that they are factually wrong, and it is certainly incumbent on us to counter such notions with sound education. But no, “elimination” sounds a bit too Nazi-like for me, thank you.
V. A highly worthy life is one guided by a scientific outlook on the world.
Baloney. Plenty of people have lived highly worthy lives (ethically, I presume) that were not guided by the scientific outlook on the world. Pretty much anyone before the Scientific Revolution, for instance. And a number of other prominent and ordinary human beings since. Moreover, a lot of pretty bad stuff has been done by people who wholly embraced the scientific worldview, even without bringing in the Nazis again. And that, of course is because the connection between science and values is tenuous at best, and certainly not determinant.
W. The worthiest culture for humanity is the one technologically controlled by the scientific worldview.
This is simply a version of (V) above on steroids and applied to societies rather than individuals, and it is hence unacceptable a fortiori.
X. The most thoroughly scientific culture should displace and marginalize all other cultures across humanity.
See comment regarding and bring it up a few more notches.
Y. The supremely scientific culture should eliminate all rival cultures and control the destiny of humanity.
A few more notches…
Z. The supremely scientific culture should control the course of humanity as well as all posthuman sentient forms of life, including AI life forms, that may arise from humanity.
Turn it up to the point of shouting a very clearly resounding “go to hell” response. 
Well, that pretty much ought to make a bit clearer what I think of scientism and its (alleged) implications, right?
Massimo Pigliucci is a biologist and philosopher at the City University of New York. His main interests are in the philosophy of science and pseudoscience. He is the editor-in-chief of Scientia Salon, and his latest book (co-edited with Maarten Boudry) is Philosophy of Pseudoscience: Reconsidering the Demarcation Problem (Chicago Press).
 For an excellent introduction to philosophy of science see A.F. Chalmer’s What Is This Thing Called Science?
 On Popper, see the SEP entry by Stephen Thornton.
 On Kuhn, see the SEP entry by Alexander Bird.
 See the fascinating paper by Marc Lange on the difference between scientific and mathematical explanations.
 Rationally Speaking with Lawrence Krauss.
 On mathematical Platonism, see the SEP entry by Øystein Linnebo.
 On emergent properties and the problem they may pose to reductive determinism, see the SEP entry by Timothy O’Connor and Hong Yu Wong.
 Check out this SEP article by Mark Schroeder on value theory.
 Incidentally, I by no means think that John Shook endorses any or all of the positions he listed. They are simply a good taxonomy of stuff people say in the name of scientism (either pro or against).