Written by Dr. Hannes Nel
Why do academics write less about scientism than about most other paradigms?
Is it because paradigms deal with philosophy while natural scientists are more interested in cause and effect, exact data and timeless facts?
If this is the case, is research in natural science always more objective, accurate and valid than research in social science?
Or do natural scientists keep the philosophy about their research methods divorced from philosophical arguments?
I discuss the nature and elements of scientism in this article.
Scientism is the belief that science and its method of sceptical inquiry is the most reliable path to the truth. As such it represents the technicist group of paradigms.
Scientific researchers tend to believe that the methods normally used to investigate natural sciences are the only true way in which to investigate any academic problem or topic. Some even believe that any research that is not “scientifically” conducted is not true science at all. This is often called scientific imperialism because of the exaggerated trust in the validity and accuracy of the quantitative methods as opposed to qualitative research methods.
Supporters of the scientism paradigm claim that it is based on the “rule of law” of science. The “rule of law” of science refers to the prescription of a domain, a set of practices and an attitude to the world, which should match the development of new knowledge. This implies that the truth can only be known through scientific proof.
Scientism believes that scientific research can be applied to almost any field of research, not only natural sciences. Although a quantitative research approach is more suitable, some scientists believe that the methods of science are not only appropriate for discovering physical truth, but also all other truths, including those traditionally utilised in philosophy, ethics and morality, political and cultural philosophy, and the rights and wrongs of human interaction. This often leads to a mixed approach.
Scientism developed from empiricism. By extending the scope of scientism, it tends to overlap with other technicist paradigms, for example positivism, modernism and rationalism.
Constructivism and post-positivism reject scientism because of its etic approach, which is regarded as divorced from reality and not providing for qualitative arguments, such as morality and philosophy in general. Scientism, in turn, rejects the former two paradigms because of their emic (participatory) approach, which is regarded as unscientific.
Scientism, furthermore, creates a closed system of knowing, that certifies itself by scientific discoveries or evidence that fits its own closed system of paradigm understanding. If the new knowledge does not fit the paradigm, it is usually assumed that there was something wrong with the methodology that produced it, rarely with the paradigm understanding itself. In terms of the nature of research this is a rather risky point of view.
Research should always provide for the possibility that a hypothesis can be disproven, which does not mean that there is anything wrong with the research process, gathered information or conclusions made. It might be possible that not sufficient information was gathered or that the information was not sufficiently corroborated. However, questioning the methodology because you do not agree with the research findings may well be subjective and unscientific.
Scientism belongs to the group of technicist paradigms.
Many natural scientists regard it as the most reliable path to the truth.
They also regard natural science as the only true science.
Social scientists regard the attitude of the natural scientists as scientific imperialism.
Scientism is mostly used with quantitative research methods.
Scientism can be associated with empiricism, positivism, rationalism and modernism.
Scientism is opposed to constructivism and post-positivism.
Points of criticism against scientism include:
- That it is a closed system of knowing.
- It ignores qualitative arguments.
- And natural scientists tend to blame the research process if the project fails.