From New World Encyclopedia

The term scientism has been used with different meanings in literature. The term is often used as a pejorative[1][2] to indicate the improper usage of science or scientific claims.[3] The charge of scientism often is used as a counter-argument to appeals to scientific authority in contexts where science might not apply,[4] such as when the topic is understood to be beyond the scope of scientific inquiry. In contrast with this was its usage in the early twentieth century, which was as a neutral descriptive and roughly synonymous with logical positivism.[5] The term scientism can also be used, sometimes with a more neutral tone, to describe the view that science has authority over all other interpretations of life, such as philosophical, religious, mythical, spiritual, or humanistic explanations. It has also been applied to the view that the natural sciences have authority over other fields of inquiry such as social sciences. The terms "scientific imperialism" and "scientific fundamentalism" have occasionally been used to refer to some of these concepts in an almost exclusively pejorative manner.[6]

In light of shifting modes of thought in recent decades, by the early twenty-first century scientism with the meaning scientific imperialism has become prevalent. Physics, the original bastion of a mechanistic, reductionistic, and thus scientistic worldview, gave way by the mid-twentieth century to the much softer, less dogmatic quantum theory, which is grounded in probability and uncertainty and accords a place of central importance to human consciousness in determining the nature of the world. At the other end of the scientific spectrum, psychology has seen the psychoanalysis of Sigmund Freud and the behaviorism of B.F. Skinner supplanted by psychologies recognizing the essential nature of humanity as lying outside the bounds of reasoned, scientific analysis. Examples include the cognitive psychology of Aaron Beck and the positive psychology of Martin Seligman pursuing authentic happiness.

Between physics and psychology, biology remains the last stronghold of scientism as epitomized by the Selfish Gene of Richard Dawkins and the Consilience of E.O. Wilson. Yet even in biology, the foundations of scientism are vulnerable on the one hand to the recognitions that quantum fluctuations may be significant at the cellular level and on the other by recognition that cooperation and synergies may be as important to evolutionary development as competition.


Reviewing the references to scientism in the works of contemporary scholars, Gregory R. Peterson[7] detects two main broad themes:

  • (1) it is used to criticize a totalizing view of science that presumes science is capable of describing all reality and knowledge, or as if it were the only true way to acquire knowledge about reality and the nature of things;
  • (2) it is used to denote a border-crossing violation in which the theories and methods of one (scientific) discipline are inappropriately applied to another (usually non-scientific) discipline and its domain. Examples of this second usage are labeling as scientism the attempts to claim science as the only or primary source of human values (a traditional domain of ethics), or as the source of meaning and purpose (a traditional domain of religion and related worldviews).

According to Mikael Stenmark in the Encyclopedia of science and religion[8] while the doctrines that are described as scientism have many possible forms and varying degrees of ambition, they share the idea that the boundaries of science (that is, typically the natural sciences) could and should be expanded so that something that has not been previously considered as a subject pertinent to science can now be understood as part of science, (usually with science becoming the sole or the main arbiter regarding this area or dimension). In its most extreme form, scientism is the view that science has no boundaries, that in due time all human problems and all aspects of human endeavor will be dealt with and solved by science alone. Stenmark proposes the expression scientific expansionism as a synonym of scientism.

Relevance to the science and religion debate

Gregory R. Peterson remarks that "for many theologians and philosophers, scientism is among the greatest of intellectual sins".[7] In fact, today the term is often used against vocal critics of religion-as-such.[9] For instance, the philosopher of science Daniel Dennett responded to criticism of his book Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon by saying that "when someone puts forward a scientific theory that [religious critics] really don't like, they just try to discredit it as 'scientism'".[10] Meanwhile, in an essay that emphasizes parallels between scientism and traditional religious movements, The Skeptics Society founder Michael Shermer self-identifies as "scientistic" and defines the term as "a scientific worldview that encompasses natural explanations for all phenomena, eschews supernatural and paranormal speculations, and embraces empiricism and reason as the twin pillars of a philosophy of life appropriate for an Age of Science."[11]

Scientific imperialism

Scientific imperialism is a term that appears to have been coined by Dr. Ellis T. Powell when addressing the Commonwealth Club of Canada on September 8, 1920. Though he gave a definition of imperialism as, "the sense of arbitrary and capricious domination over the bodies and souls of men," yet he used the term 'scientific imperialism' to mean "the subjection of all the developed and undeveloped powers of the earth to the mind of man." [12]

In modern parlance, however, scientific imperialism more often means "the tendency to push a good scientific idea far beyond the domain in which it was originally introduced, and often far beyond the domain in which it can provide much illumination." (John Dupre. "Against Scientific Imperialism." 2006) It can thus mean an attitude toward knowledge in which the beliefs and methods of science are assumed to be superior to and to take precedence over those of all other disciplines. "Devotees of these approaches are inclined to claim that they are in possession not just of one useful perspective on human behavior, but of the key that will open doors to the understanding of ever wider areas of human behavior."[13]

It is also apparent in "those who believe that the study of politics can and should be modeled on the natural sciences, a position defended most forcibly in the United States, and those who have dissented, viewing this ambition as methodologically unjustified and ethically undesirable."[14]

Critique of power

Scientism has also been defined as the "pursuit of power through the pursuit of knowledge,"[15] and its pejorative use arguably reflects the frustration felt by some with "the limitations of reductive scientism (scientific imperialism)."[16] And "the myth that science is the model of truth and rationality still grips the mind of much of our popular and scientific culture. Even though philosophers of science over the past few decades have gutted many of the claims of this scientific imperialism, many thinkers, knee-jerk agnostics, and even judges persist in the grip of this notion."[17] Such critics of science even question whether we should "automatically assume… that successful scientific theories are true or approximately true models of the world,"[17] and periodically express a desire to "dethrone science from an imperialistic stance over philosophy and theology." Retrieved August 3, 2007.[17]

Unreal expectations

It is claimed that some scientists harbour "unreal expectations and mistaken assumptions, their hubris and their imperialism,"[18] in the sense that they wish to extend the methods and ideology of science into all regions of human investigation.

Religion of intellectuals

Scientific imperialism, "the idea that all decisions, in principle, can be made scientifically - has become, in effect, the religion of the intellectuals," [Staddon] for it is doubtless "a natural tendency, when one has a successful scientific model, to attempt to apply it to as many problems as possible. But it is also in the nature of models that these extended applications are dangerous."[19]

This attitude can come to involve power, coercion and domination over other disciplines. In its most virulent forms it can seek to intimidate and subordinate 'non-believers,' or those it perceives as being insufficiently educated in the ways of science. It can thus involve some zealotry, an over-adherence to strict dogma and a rather fundamentalist belief that science alone stands supreme over all other modes of inquiry. In this it may come close to gangsterism and cultural imperialism. It may then be seen as a rigid and intolerant form of intellectual monotheism.


People who do not stress this absolute domination of science or who are more laissez-faire in their attitude, perhaps displaying insufficient science zeal, may find themselves marginalized, deviantized, and even demonized as wimps, as religious romantics, and as irrational. Only those who adhere strictly to the dogmas of the science 'mother church' are accorded the greatest credibility and reverence. Such behavior clearly seeks to extol the virtues of the scientific paradigm over all other viewpoints and modes of interpreting Nature, the world, and human behavior. This attitude tends to foster a patronizing and arrogant notion that scientists belong to an elite class of people who deal with matters of much greater importance than the average person. [20]

In medicine

Another meaning of this term is shown when it is claimed that "poor people in developing countries are being exploited in research for the benefit of patients in the developed world."[21]In such an example, it is clear that, "the scientific community has a responsibility to ensure that all scientific research is conducted ethically."[21] Another example lies in the alleged misappropriation of indigenous drugs in poor countries by drug companies in the developed world: "Ethnopharmacology involves a series of sociopolitical, economic and ethical dilemmas, at various levels...frequently host country scientists, visiting scientists, and informants disagree...research efforts are (often) perceived as scientific imperialism; scientists are accused of stealing plant materials and appropriating traditional plant knowledge for financial profit and/or professional advancement. Many governments, as well as indigenous societies are increasingly reluctant to permit such research...historically neither native populations nor host countries have shared to a significant extent the financial benefits from any drug that reaches the market...unless these issues are amply discussed and fairy resolved, medicinal plant research runs the risk of serving ethically questionable purposes."[22]

Alternate usages

Standard dictionary definitions include the following applications of the term "scientism":

  • The use of the style, assumptions, techniques, and other attributes typically displayed by scientists.[23]
  • Methods and attitudes typical of or attributed to the natural scientist.[24]
  • An exaggerated trust in the efficacy of the methods of natural science applied to all areas of investigation, as in philosophy, the social sciences, and the humanities.[25]
  • The use of scientific or pseudoscientific language."[26]
  • The contention that the social sciences should be held to the somewhat stricter interpretation of scientific method used by the natural sciences. [27]
  • The belief that the social sciences are not sciences because they commonly do not hold to the somewhat stricter interpretation of scientific method used by the natural sciences.[28]
  • The belief that scientific knowledge is the foundation of all knowledge and that, consequently, scientific argument should always be weighted more heavily than other forms of knowledge, particularly those which are not yet well described or justified from within the rational framework, or whose description fails to present itself in the course of a debate against a scientific argument. It can be contrasted by doctrines like historicism, which hold that there are certain "unknowable" truths. [29]
  • As a form of dogma: "In essence, scientism sees science as the absolute and only justifiable access to the truth."[30]

See also

  • Positivism
  • Pseudoscience
  • Pseudoskepticism
  • Scientistic materialism
  • Technologism
  • Techno-utopianism

Philosophy Portal


  1. Scientism: "an exaggerated trust in the efficacy of the methods of natural science applied to all areas of investigation (as in philosophy, the social sciences, and the humanities)" definition from: Martin Ryder, "Scientism." Encyclopedia of Science Technology and Ethics, 3rd ed. (Detroit: MacMillan Reference Books, 2005.)
  2. Scientism: "Pejorative term for the belief that the methods of natural science, or the categories and things recognized in natural science, form the only proper elements in any philosophical or other inquiry. The classic statement of scientism is the physicist E. Rutherford's saying 'there is physics and there is stamp-collecting.'," definition from The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy n.d.
  3. After reviewing the usage of the term by contemporary scholars, Gregory R. Peterson concludes that "the best way to understand the charge of scientism is as a kind of logical fallacy involving improper usage of science or scientific claims." (753). From: "Gregory R. Peterson, (2003) Demarcation and the Scientistic Fallacy. Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science 38 (4), 751-761. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-9744.2003.00536.x"
  4. Scientism by Martin Ryder from from Encyclopedia of Science, Technology, and Ethics.(Macmillan Reference) University of Colorado. (Accessed: July 05 2007)
  5. Abel Rey, "Review of La Philosophie Moderne." The Journal of Philosophy, Psychology and Scientific Methods 6(2) (1909): 51-53.
  6. For an example see Barney Zwartz, "Let's have a proper scientific debate," The Age, August 18, 2005. Retrieved August 3, 2007.
  7. 7.0 7.1 Gregory R. Peterson, (2003) Demarcation and the Scientistic Fallacy. Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science 38 (4):751-761. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-9744.2003.00536.x"
  8. As described by Mikael Stenmark, author of the article about the topic of Scientism in: J. Wentzel Vrede van Huyssteen (ed). Encyclopedia of science and religion, 2nd ed. (Detroit: Thomson Gale. 2003), 783
  9. Marilynne Robinson, "Hysterical Scientism: The Ecstasy of Richard Dawkins." Harper's Magazine (Nov. 2006).
  10. Sholto Byrnes, "'When it comes to facts, and explanations of facts, science is the only game in town'" New Statesman (Apr. 10, 2006). Retrieved August 3, 2007.
  11. Michael Shermer, "The Shamans of Scientism." Scientific American (June 2002). Retrieved August 3, 2007.
  12. Ellis T. Powell, LL.B. D.Sc. Scientific Imperialism an Address, Sept 8, 1920.
  13. John Dupré. 1994. "Against Scientific Imperialism." PSA: Proceedings of the Biennial Meeting of the Philosophy of Science Association 1994: 374-381 [1] accessdate 2007-07-16.
  14. D. Bell, 2006. "Beware of false prophets: biology, human nature and the future of International Relations theory." International Affairs 82 (3): 493-510 [2] accessdate = 2007-07-16. Retrieved August 3, 2007.
  15. Worlds Together Worlds Apart. online book tutorial, Chapter 5: The Scientific Voyages of Captain Cook. Retrieved August 3,
  16. Arthur Peacocke. 1993. Theology for a Scientific Age: Being and Becoming-Natural, Divine and Human (Augsburg Fortress Publishers; Enl Sub edition ISBN 978-0800627591). Retrieved August 3, 2007.
  17. 17.0 17.1 17.2 J. P. Moreland. 1989. Christianity and the Nature of Science. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House) (review [3]). Retrieved August 3, 2007.
  18. Ted Nield: The Madness of Scientists - scientific misunderstanding of public and media. Retrieved August 3, 2007.
  19. John Dupré: The Disunity of Science (2006) Interviewed by Paul Newall. Retrieved August 3, 2007.
  20. Brian Martin & Sharon Beder, The arrogance of scientists, Chain Reaction, 68, Feb 1993, pp.16-17. Retrieved August 3, 2007.
  21. 21.0 21.1 Peter Wilmshurst, | title = Editorial, Scientific imperialism | journal = British Medical Journal | volume = | issue = | pages = | date = 22 March 1997 | url = | doi = | id = | accessdate = }}. Retrieved August 3, 2007.
  22. Elisabetsky, E. (1991). Sociopolitical, economical and ethical issues in medicinal plant research.. J Ethnopharmacol 32 (1-3): 235-9.. Retrieved August 3, 2007.
  23. Random House Dictionary of the English Language. 1987.
  24. Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary. 1983.
  25. Webster. 1983.
  26. Webster. 1983. Definition #3 for Scientism.
  27. Webster. 1983. Definition #2 for Scientism.
  28. Webster. 1983. Definition #2 for Scientism.
  29. The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language: Fourth Edition. 2000. Retrieved August 3, 2007.
  30. Faith and Reason. Glossary.[4] "Scientism" Retrieved August 3, 2007.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Aeschliman, Michael D. The Restitution of Man: C.S. Lewis and the Case against Scientism. Grand Rapids, Mich: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co, 1983. ISBN 0802819508
  • Bannister, Robert C. Sociology and Scientism: The American Quest for Objectivity, 1880-1940. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1987. ISBN 0807817333
  • Beck, Aaron T. Love Is Never Enough: How Couples Can Overcome Misunderstandings, Resolve Conflicts, and Solve Relationship Problems Through Cognitive Therapy. HarperCollins Publishers, 1988. ISBN 9780641809644
  • Haack, Susan. Defending Science—Within Reason: Between Scientism and Cynicism. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2003. ISBN 9781591021179
  • Moreland, J.P. [1989] 1999. Christianity and the Nature of Science. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House. ISBN 0801062497
  • Olafson, Frederick A. Naturalism and the Human Condition: Against Scientism. London: Routledge, 2001. ISBN 9780415252607
  • Peacocke, Arthur. 1993. Theology for a Scientific Age: Being and Becoming-Natural, Divine and Human. Augsburg Fortress Publishers; Enl Sub edition ISBN 978-0800627591
  • Postman, Neil. Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology. New York: Vintage Books, 1993. ISBN 0679745408
  • Schoeck, Helmut, and James W. Wiggins. Scientism and Values. Princeton, NJ: Van Nostrand, 1960.
  • Seligman, Martin. Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment. New York: Free Press, 2004. ISBN 9780743222983
  • Sorell, Tom. Scientism: Philosophy and the Infatuation with Science. International library of philosophy. London: Routledge, 1991. ISBN 9780415033992
  • Stenmark, Mikael. Scientism: Science, Ethics, and Religion. Ashgate science and religion series. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2001. ISBN 9780754604464

External links

All links retrieved January 25, 2023.

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