The HPedia: Scientism bait-and-switch

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This is a proposed name for a tactic often used to insulate metaphysical, magical, or theological claims against criticism in the context of science.  It exploits the real danger of scientism, i.e. extending the authority of science beyond the evidence, to advance an extraordinary claim.

Its form is simple: first, (1) establish that some things are beyond the scientific method by pointing out that science cannot measure in a laboratory such things as truth or love, then (2) introduce your favored theory (be it a claim of magic, divinity, mystical energy, or what have you) as if all things not measurable by science are now equally believable.  Cry “scientism” against any attempt to critique the latter, on the grounds that science cannot critique the former.

This is a classic bait-and-switch that lures the listener in with a claim most anyone would agree with (truth and love are real, though not measurable by science), then switches to a claim much fewer would agree with (magic, divinity, etc., are real, though not measurable by science).

What is particularly pernicious about this tactic is that the extraordinary claim tends to carry with it objective aspects open to scientific investigation (does magical healing have an effect above placebo or not?), but these drop out of sight due to misdirection of attention toward the subjective aspects analogous to love or truth (science can’t measure whether the magical healer perceives the disease in the patient or not!).

One effective strategy to counter this tactic may be to call attention back to the objective aspects of the extraordinary claims.

Check out other entries in our HPedia.

9 Comments on “The HPedia: Scientism bait-and-switch

  1. The second paragraph, in particular, seems worded very aggressively or a little condescendingly; I don’t know if that’s needed to reveal the fallacy of the tactic. Many people who use this line of reason do so innocently, thinking they’re making a good point – in other words it’s a fallacy, not a tactic.

    That said, it seems like a very accurate description of said fallacy. It will actually help me explain what’s wrong with this line of reasoning next time someone invokes it.

    Should the name of it include the word “fallacy”? “Scientism bait-and-switch” at first made me think of a problem caused by scientism, which is clearly not the case here.

  2. The notion presented here of “bait and switch” suggests that scientism is just a ploy of those who do not like science. I would suggest that scientism is an attitude and ideology of people who use the prestige as of science as a kind of cudgel with which they attempt to bludgeon those who ask questions that are in beyond the power of science to address, which is to say philosophical questions.

    As a person who usually has a greater knowledge of both science and philosophy than the typical devotees of science, I have often had the pleasure of wresting the cudgel from them and using it to give them a good intellectual beating.

    Giving one of the dweebs of scientism a sound intellectual whomping is one of life’s sweet little pleasures.

    • I agree Thomas. I think the idea here is not that scientism is a ploy, but that it is used as a ploy. Scientism is a very really attitude, with problems of its own, but the entry here does not seek to define scientism; it defines a fallacy in which the existence of (real) problems in scientism are used as an obfuscade for (equally real) problems in supernatural thinking.

      But the title threw me, and I also thought the term “scientism bait-and-switch” was going to claim scientism doesn’t exist or that scientism is a-okay. I think the fallacy should be named something clearer.

      • Good points, Thomas and Drew. On the HPedia page, I’ve renamed it “Scientism Fallacy” and reworded it in line with Drew’s earlier critique. I suspect the title still needs some work to avoid giving the wrong impression, though. Suggestions welcome. 🙂

        Thomas, this article says that scientism is a “real danger”, but that it gets “exploited” in the way mentioned. Is that not clear enough yet to avoid giving the impression that scientism is “just a ploy for those who do not like science”?

        • Sorry, I didn’t recognize that there was another piece defining scientism. The main article does a good job of defining it.

          My own definition is simply that scientism is the ideology of science, and like any other ideology it is based on conscious and unconscious assumptions about the nature of the world. These assumptions are not themselves part of the “facts” of science, yet at least the more naive proponents of scientism seem to think they are.

  3. Thomas wrote:
    >Sorry, I didn’t recognize that there was another piece defining scientism.

    No prob. 🙂

  4. Minor quibble: at the beginning of the second paragraph, “it’s” should be “its”. I checked in the HPedia, and the typo is still there.

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