Scientism is the belief that we have everything figured out. In some ways, it is a problem of pop science vs real science. It suggests that we understand what is happening and assumes there is nothing new under the sun. Simply put, it suggests we know everything there is to know.
Scientism goes deeper, it is the belief that we can quickly explain everything around us. In a sense, there are no hidden forces at play. In other words, it is the idea that we know everything there is to know because of “science.”
Many people, mainly non-scientists tend to hold this belief. Meaning it is often regular people who think they know how the world works. When they talk about a topic, they may say things like, “that isn’t scientific” or “science doesn’t back that up.”
The truth, however, is that these people don’t know much about real science. Often people are fixated on an inaccurate ideology that try to explain how the world works. Even worse, the truth is that people often don’t understand the basics of our day to day experiences or science in general.
There Are Many Unknowns
So much of what we think we know is unknowns or incomplete sets of facts or data. It is estimated that there 45 billion different types of bacteria in the world. So far only about 1 million have been identified.
It is the dominant belief in the scientific community that the universe has more matter than can be explained by observation. So it is assumed that there must be some other type of matter, this additional source is called dark matter. But dark matter has not yet been discovered or observed. In a sense, it isn’t genuinely known to exist, but the math says that it should.
We all walk around with the assumption that we are consciously experiencing the world around us. However, science hasn’t yet found the seed of consciousness or been able to completely map out the parts of the brain that create awareness. Scientists have been able to figure out how parts of the brain relate to parts of the body and functions, like speaking. But a complete overall assessment is not something we can expect anytime soon.
The broader universe is often missing from our understanding and explanations. Put into perspective, we are a tiny little dot next to another tiny dot, next to a vast open space with billions of other small dots. The thing is, we are so small and know nothing about what is happening on all those other small dots throughout outer space.
The point is that there are so many unknowns, that surely we can’t comprehend how much we truly know. Even worse, we don’t know what we don’t know. Being fair, in many fields, like microbiology, as described above, we could say we know less than a fraction of a percent of the facts.
What People Think Scientists Do?
What scientists do, is hard to say, as it isn’t always clear. But there is a seeming belief that scientists know a lot about everything. They are often seen as the authoritative source on all questions related to science, any science at that.
Take Bill Nye or Neil deGrasse Tyson as an example. These guys are so-called superstar scientists, although only one of them is a trained scientist. They are often seen on TV and talk about what they know and think. People have faith in their expertise and feel that they are valid sources of information. In many ways this is true, they know lots of things, but to what extent are they an authority on what they are talking about?
People also have a vague sense of what a scientist is due to what they see on TV shows and movies. We like characters like Sheldon Cooper and the other personas on Big Bang Theory. But these are more extreme examples of genius or nerds, rather than scientists per se.
What do Professional Scientists do?
Scientists are generally super experts on super specific niche topics. Which is to say, a scientist may be an expert on the electron spins of a particular atom. Or how species of insects, birds or bacteria interact and reproduce.
To do this, a scientist tends to spend years working hard at making a discovery in a particular niche. Sometimes they even spend years replicating work that has already been done. Or they make developments that are a small addition or update to an already made discovery.
The point is that professional scientists are looking at something very particular. So they spend years becoming a specialist on something that only they and a few others know about. They are not experts on a vast range of topics; instead, as a scientist will tell you, they are experts on something very particular.
All this said, training as a scientist teaches people to realize how difficult it is to know something for sure. For this reason, scientists are often more aware than regular people of how little they truly understand and comprehend.
How is Scientism Applied?
This is the problem, often people don’t know the facts or don’t do the science. They may say they have heard things on TV or read summaries in magazines, newspapers or on the internet. But most peoples knowledge is often limited to what could be called pseudoscience.
Consider the Gell-Mann amnesia effect, which is described as “the phenomenon of an expert believing news articles on topics outside of their field of expertise even after acknowledging that articles written in the same publication that are within the expert’s field of expertise are error-ridden and full of misunderstanding.” [wikipedia] The Gell-Mann amnesia effect is an example of the problem with pop science vs real science.
To honestly know something you must ask an expert or read the original research, but then you only know the facts about one particular perspective. Also, you won’t know all the facts, just some. Science is more of a dialectic than a one answer fits all. There is also the risk of trusting too much in the expertise of other people. Are they indeed an expert in the topics they speak about? Do they know anything more about the subject than you do?
Where Do We Find Scientism?
Scientism often applies to complicated systems or topics that science can’t explain or make sense of. It is true that we can’t prove that God exists, but it is also true that we can’t prove that God doesn’t exist. Herein lies the problem, is the god question even a testable hypothesis? If it isn’t, then it isn’t a topic to be covered by science and is instead a question for a philosopher.
A perfect example of pop science vs real science is Global warming. Inevitably humans pollute and make a mess of the planet. But it is difficult enough to predict tomorrows weather. How can we be sure about a substantially more complex global weather phenomenon? This isn’t to say climate change isn’t a real thing, just that it is incredibly complicated and saying that science has an answer is missing the point of what science can tell us.
Scientism is taking hugely complicated issues, and saying they are solved by science. At the same time not ever having read a single scientific paper nor understanding the methodology or interpretation of the results for yourself. Science and the world are incredibly complicated, the simple answer is often straightforward for a reason, and that is that it isn’t accurate.
More Could Be Possible Than We Think
People often discredited strange ideas quickly based on the assumption that they are not within their expectations of what is possible. It is easy, to say that something has been explained or isn’t real because it hasn’t been proven by science.
But the problem with these sorts of statements is that they are founded on the assumption that the question has been asked. Even worse, often the person making the comments rarely have been exposed to accurate information on the topic. For most people, this is a matter of pop science vs real science. Popular science is what people hear about, real science is mostly out of mind.
Undoubtedly, specific facts have been proven false by science, but on the other hand, many questions have never been put to the test. And that is a concern, how much science has to be done before we can say the science is out on a topic?
Take astrology as an example, admittedly the simplified representation of it sounds fake. But how would you create a valid experiment to test it? How would you gather the evidence, and how would you test your hypothesis? Has anyone done this before? Is it even worth doing?
This is the predicament with many complicated questions. We can’t test them, at least not quickly and they often aren’t profitable enough to honestly examine. In many cases, we can stick with the pragmatic Occam’s razor, which states the most obvious and straightforward explanation is usually correct. At the same time, without evidence, we don’t have an affirmative, just an assumption.
Most of the things we take for granted as being false or fake haven’t been considered, and we have no real reason to believe them to be true or false. We just don’t know. But then, if we are honest, we don’t know many things, and in fact, we hardly know anything. But that isn’t the way we usually act.
Maybe We Don’t Know Much About Anything
This is the thing; science has mostly gone after the low hanging fruit, it has only tested the obvious and practical. There could be way more things to discover, and there are tons of things we know nothing about. This being the case, we should assume that we don’t understand rather than being sure that we do.
We often have the false sense that us humans have got everything figured out, but that just isn’t the case. It is quite the opposite, we hardly know anything about the world around us and are often only grasping at straws.
We can look to experts, and they can give us answers, but for a lot of questions, they are just as limited as we are. I’m not suggesting that you avoid a doctor when you are sick, rather know when an expert is indeed an expert and when they are a talking head.
In truth, we don’t know what is possible or what is right, because, for the most part, the science is still out.