Scientism: Rationalizing Cultural Polarization

By Eryn Slankster-Schmierer, PhD on May 20, 2021

The goal of this piece is to highlight the division that is running rampant through our country. I find the majority of arguments these days are built on assumption and polarization. Instead of arguing productively, we just angrily shout at our metaphorical neighbors over the fence that they’re living the wrong way. I believe the world is struggling to understand each other, and this is my futile attempt to get people on the same page.

Scientism.

Scientism is “an exaggerated trust in the efficacy of the methods of natural science applied to all areas of investigation” (Merriam-Webster). Scientism is the belief that the practice of science holds the answers to all problems; society should universally base all decisions and rule on experimental design. Superficially you might think, how in the world could this be negative?  Scientism is creating “science fans” obediently worshipping an unapologetic authority of anyone dubbed a scientist or health professional. Let me explain.

Reductionism oversimplifies problems

Modern-day science relies almost exclusively on reductionism. (I was introduced to this theory by Dr. T. Colin Campbell in his book The Future of Nutrition.) We take a scientific question out of its natural context, put it in a proverbial petri dish by limiting all environmental differences and genetic diversity, and study specific effects of said drug, treatment, or condition. Therefore, the results of the experiment can be directly attributed to the single condition we tweaked. Most people would agree this makes not just good, but the best science. Ideal science.

“Resulting from this system is a sea of highly specific, technical details and particular observations, removed from the context of our observable world.” -Campbell, T. Colin. The Future of Nutrition

The problem with reductionist science is these conditions never exist in isolation, out of context. We accidentally dub the “system” as irrelevant by intentionally omitting the complex cross-talk that occurs within it. We simplify this complex system down to a singular cause/effect and apply a universal “condition” (rule, law, conclusion) over the entire “system” to address a now in-context “problem.” We treat this rule like proverbial gospel: superior and irrefutable. Doesn’t that sound like scientism?

Reductionism is removing all steps between “problem” and “solution,” and Scientism is getting outraged when people disagree with how you got here.

Reductionist scientism nurtures animosity towards opposition.

I firmly attest that it is not the actual science that drives today’s aggression and polarization (as so many insist), but rather the application of reductionist scientism.

Our society has lost the ability to pinpoint the foundation of our disagreements; instead, we have allowed polarization to drive our disputes. To exemplify my point, I am going to present several modern-day polarizing topics.

  • Polarizing Topic, Debate Format:
    • Reductionist Science: I will provide a simplistic, relatively well accepted scientific finding.
    • Resulting Scientism: Then, I will give you an example of how the generally accepted reductionist scientific evidence is taken out of the experimental context and used to justify overarching rule (scientism). And finally, I will illustrate how this scientism causes polarization.
    • Counter: Here I will present an evidence-based argument against the scientism-based-ruling. It is important to notice, it never refutes the reductionist science. 
    • The Real Disagreement: And for clarity purposes, I will reiterate that the underlying disagreement is never the science, as society would have you believe, but the overarching rule born in scientism.
  • Polarizing Topic 1, Climate Change:
    • Reductionist Science: Studies have shown that specific human activities have increased carbon emissions and have negative environmental impacts.
    • Resulting Scientism: Scientists collectively believe climate change is a problem, and that humans are responsible for counteracting these effects. Anything that refutes a single point of climate change is supporting climate change deniers and should be rejected. Not only is it rejected, our society has deemed it acceptable to “shame” or “cancel” individuals who refute the consensus. When climate change comes up, cite “science,” or say “do your research,” and you have invalidated the “climate-change denier”.
    • Counter: Climate change and carbon dioxide levels are historically cyclical despite human activity. Therefore, humans shouldn’t be responsible for intervention.
    • The Real Disagreement: Humans are responsible for countering climate change effects.
  • Polarizing Topic 2, COVID & Masks:
    • Reductionist Science:  It is scientifically proven that face coverings reduce viral particle aerosolization.
    • Resulting Scientism: Since scientists and medical professionals generally recommend face coverings to prevent the spread of disease, that means mandatory face coverings are an effective method of disease control. If someone raises skepticism over wearing a mask, that person is “anti-science” and they clearly hate grandma and sick children.
    • Counter: This method of societal disease prevention has not been proven effective, and acting “in an abundance of caution” is not acting in a science-based fashion. Furthermore, if you wear a mask, you are a freedom-hating sheep.
    • The Real Disagreement: Mandatory face coverings are an effective method of disease control.
  • Polarizing Topic 3, Animal Rights:
    • Reductionist Science: Humans have higher intelligence than all other animal species.
    • Resulting Scientism: Because animals are less intelligent, humans are superior to all other animal species, and we should not grant animals autonomy (rights). For this reason, we can consume and experiment on animals under “humane” conditions. Anyone who disagrees is waiting to cash their check from the “vegan agenda” committee.
    • Counter: Animals have proven sentience and intelligence that compares with different stages of human development, therefore deserve the exact same right to autonomy as humans. Under no circumstance should animals be used in food or experimentation.
    • The Real Disagreement: Humans are superior to all other animal species, and we should not grant animals autonomy (rights).

Did you disagree with the generally accepted scientisms, you “cherry picker”?

You may also recognize the “Counter” arguments under the popular catchphrase “cherry picking.” And if you’re someone who challenges popular opinion often -like myself- you’ve collected a lot of cherries. Once society arrives at a consensus on a generally accepted rule, anyone who refutes it with data, despite the legitimacy of experimental design, is referred as “cherry picking.” This label, this misconception of “cherry picking” is a scientism-justified bias that attempts to delegitimize anything that conflict with the consensus world-view. It is a science fan’s favorite excuse to justify polarization.

Hasbro, Teaching kids to cherry pick since 1960.

Holistic compromise: Address scientism to dissolve scientific polarization

My take on these polarizing topics is irrelevant; the examples are used strictly to clarify my point: Scientism leads to polarization.

In terms of political polarization, addressed in this essay, I believe the recent political climate triggered science polarization. Feeling attacked, the general scientific and healthcare community put their most influential scientists on display. Society became “Science Fans” and responded by worshiping their gospel. Incidentally, I think scientism has entitled modern day scientists -who are by the way just as fear driven as the average citizen- to use their authority to achieve their desired effect. I am not saying these figures are right or wrong; I am saying the universal application of their reductionist findings is scientism.  

In my doctoral mentor’s cancer research, he found tumors recruited bone marrow stem cells as a mechanism of tumor growth. Simultaneously, other researchers definitively declared that stem cell recruitment does not play a role in tumor development. Based on reductionist principles, we can spend our lifetimes defending our side and rejecting the other. Or we can examine the data in a broader holistic context: stem cells are recruited as a mechanism for specific types of tumor growth, and context matters. Rejecting that is not advantageous.

The answer may not be as clear as we like, but by realizing that both scientific findings are valid within the right context will help us advance. Rejecting someone’s argument with a polarizing comment after they have given you science-based evidence or rational concern does not magically enlighten them to your side of the story. It reinforces isolation. It reinforces that they can’t trust you. It reinforces animosity and division from you.

I’m fully aware that I don’t hold the solution to the world’s problems such as the ones mentioned above (although I openly invite insightful conversations in the comments, below). But the constant polarization in our country is rotting us from the inside out. If we can’t pinpoint where we disagree, we can’t come up with ways resolve it. Screaming “you’re racist” at someone who genuinely does not think they are racist (or isn’t) does not lead them to the epiphany you’re hoping for, just like I don’t believe screaming “meat is murder” at you is going to make you drop your Whopper and become an animal advocate. To have any fighting chance to dissolve this crippling polarization, we need to lean how to have productive arguments again. We must learn to identify -not assume- the precise point where our understandings divide. And we have to learn to incorporate -not reject- each other’s world-views into our own.

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