Scientism, or a delicious hypocrisy

Made the mistake, once again, of glancing at a blog dedicated to debunking supernatural beliefs (to the blogger’s own satisfaction, anyway). No fooling, this actually turns up the temperature on my rage-o-stat by several degrees. I won’t directly cite or link to the blog in question–I have no interest in starting a flame war–but the gist of it was, as per usual, “there’s always a ‘scientific’ explanation for whatever crazy thing you crazy people believe.”

This is at least the second time I’ve written about this stuff, and I’m thinking it’s going to keep coming up as long as I’m interested in the supernatural. For this I must apologize. To ease the pain, here’s this:

Slimer never used to be this horrifying. I think it’s the front-butt. (The Green Head)

But yeah, the idea that science is the only way to explain or understand or even exist in the world really irks me. There are several terms commonly used by academics for this kind of thinking, but I like scientism the best, because it represents pretty clearly a mockery of the flavor of Western empiricism that imagines itself as the be all and end all of existence.

While I would never call myself a scientist, I am an academic in a discipline that is often regarded as part of the social sciences. Like “hard” scientists, we have as our goal the generation of knowledge based on observation and interaction. Unlike hard scientists, we are interested in humans and the things they do, think, feel, believe; in the mental and cultural systems they construct to govern their interactions with one another; and the ways they in turn generate knowledge about the world in which they live. Further, as humans ourselves, we can relate to the people we study, we can participate directly in their daily lives, and form subjective links that laboratory science deliberately avoids (i.e., we make friends with folks). One result of the ethnographic enterprise has been the development of the notion of cultural relativism, which I’ve written about before. Relativism applies to virtually every aspect of human experience; in terms of systems of knowledge, it forces us to recognize that science is a belief system which, depending on the group and the individual, may stand alongside other belief systems, or in opposition to them.

Now I’m not a hardcore constructivist, but it seems self-evident to me that all things which are the work of human hands are subject to human flaws. This is as true of religious scriptures (regardless of divine inspiration) as it is of “scientific” instruments in a lab (regardless of scientific rigor).

I don’t reject empiricism. Far from it: I won’t really believe anything until I’ve experienced it myself (in a way which, again, satisfies my own standards of “proof”). But I acknowledge that there are many people who have had such experiences, and those experiences inform their beliefs, and those beliefs deserve to be taken seriously. Those experiences constitute the proof that they need, and the approval or disapproval by scientists of this evidence is utterly irrelevant. Here, once again, I side with David Hufford, who in “The Terror that Comes in the Night” argues that scholars should privilege people’s experiences over interpretations thereof.

Too heavy? I’ll try again: science demands proof, repeatable conditions and results, rigorous testing, adherence to formal standards and procedures. Skeptics accept only what can be proven according to these standards. They align themselves entirely with this way of thinking.

But other ways of thinking exist, which generate “proofs” to their own satisfaction. Or, conversely, they don’t concern themselves with the issue of proof at all. They are content with their understanding of things, which must be viable and meaningful for them to remain in place as established systems.

Science is a belief system. That doesn’t mean it’s wrongI myself believe sufficiently in the concept of gravity that I won’t try testing it anytime soon–but then, I’ve already experienced it. But other belief systems have as part of their store of knowledge the idea that there exist other modes or planes of being, of forces outside of our ability to quantify. That these belief systems may fail to satisfy the demands of science is beyond irrelevant.

If science can show a physiological or geological or quantum-mechanical cause underlying a given phenomenon, that’s great, and it should be taken seriously by everyone. And a grilled cheese sandwich that looks like the Virgin Mary may, in fact, represent a basic misapprehension on the part of… somebody. I’m not advocating an abandonment of science in favor of every fringe concept that pops up. But there are areas where science fails to satisfy real people, just as supernatural beliefs frequently fail to satisfy science. These are the places where we need to be careful, and most of all, respectful.

We do not have to accept any belief system as real if it fails to satisfy our own requirements, whatever those may be. But we have to allow them to exist, and we’d do well to consider that our own belief system does not trump those of other people simply because it’s our own. As I think I said once before, that is, essentially, fundamentalism, which is perhaps the worst -ism of all.