Science and History: Scientism

I just read a bulk of Eugene Goodheart’s Darwinian Misadventures in the Humanities. His writing was nowhere as scathing of an attack on evolutionary biology or science in general as I had expected, but is a strong rebuttal to what is called scientism, or the belief that the natural sciences hold sway over other academic disciplines and for those disciplines to be worth anything, they must incorporate a scientific way of understanding the world. This may be a bit exaggerated in the intensity of my language, but it gets the point across.

First of all, this term is unfortunate. What is someone labeled when they believe in scientism… a scientist? I would prefer “scientific exceptionalism” or something to that effect.

Anyway, is scientism valid or completely off base? I think the answer is more nuanced than Goodheart thinks it is. Goodheart focuses on the attempts by evolutionary psychologists to instill their area of work into literary studies, sociology and history and I completely agree with him in that this has been a total waste of time. (I wonder if Goodheart realizes how much controversy evolutionary psychology has caused on the scientific side – many evolutionary biologists take as much issue with the topic as Goodheart does.)

However, just because some evolutionary psychologists have in some ways misrepresented evolutionary biology does not mean scientism is wrong. All that means is that if scientism is acceptable, someone needs to do a better job.

I have begun to see the use of science in the non-science disciplines in a variety of ways:

1. Science as a tool – This includes math, statistics, archeology, and genetics studies

2. Science as a method – This includes using the scientific method as a way of examining evidence and ideas

3. Science as an explanation – This includes using scientific knowledge like evolutionary biology or physical geography as a way to explain, e.g., evolutionary psychology

Science as a tool is, I believe, without controversy. My favorite example of this is the recent genetic and inbreeding analysis of the Spanish Habsburgs – although it merely confirmed what we already knew (the family was heavily inbred), the study gives even more evidence to strengthen the theory.

The second two, methodical science and explanatory science, are on the other hand not without controversy and is where Eugene Goodheart sees problems. A good example of explanatory science is Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel, and methodical science is exemplified also by Jared Diamond, Natural Experiments in History. I have only read bits of GGS but I found Diamond’s arguments provactive – they certainly cannot just be thrown off to the side without analysis and discussion.

Personally, I am neutral; I unlike others see no problem if history were to not be capable of scientific rigor and I do not find that potential to be damning in the least – history would still have valuable things to say.

However, I am only recently jumping into this subject and so… I really do not have much to say. Because “is history a science?” and scientism are centuries-old debates, I have a lot of catching up to do.

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