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Protest against scientism

Melanie Phillips gives a pop version of objections to attempts by scientists and their hangers-on and popularizers to claim that something like modern natural science can explain everything.

The basic problem, I think, is that modern natural science achieves its amazing power through clarity and concentration, which means it achieves it through narrowness. It can’t deal with all issues, or with the most general and important issues. It can’t support itself, for example: scientists rely on each other, and they don’t determine whether someone is a scientist, how to understand his claims or whether those claims are believable by running physical tests on the purported scientist or the journal in which his claims appear. Such things are a matter of common sense and expertise, and therefore to some extent of personal or social predilection, since common sense and expertise involve a combination of habit, preconception, moral commitment, social connections and loyalties, and all the other things that determine how human beings interpret the world and act in it. Science itself can’t be made quite scientific.

It follows that science can’t be treated as an ultimate general authority. The more someone treats it as such the more evident it becomes that he doesn’t know what he is talking about. He’s in the grip of a metaphysical illusion, and depending on personality and position he may be in danger of becoming a crank.