My involvement in the skeptical movement and science blogging has caused me to think about my professional relationship to the concept of science. Archaeology is a social science in the US and one of the humanities in Europe: in neither case is it seen as a natural science, the kind that gets to call itself “science” without any qualifier. Archaeology is dependent on the methods of natural science, but its object is to learn about culture, not nature, a distinction that many including myself find useful.
In Swedish and many other languages, the word for science doesn’t denote the natural variety in the same way as in English. There’s no terminological distinction between a scientist and a scholar. We’re all doing vetenskap, Wissenschaft, science. Yet among Anglophone archaeologists of an aggressively humanistic stripe, there used to be (and still to some extent is) hostility towards “scientism”, often compounded to “naïve scientism” or “vulgar scientism”.
What does this word mean? People who are into communism are called “communists”. People who are into post-modernism are called “post-modernists”. So someone who commits scientism is most likely a “scientist”. This is not an epithet I would mind having thrown at me.
- According to the first of three definitions offered by Wikipedia, scientism is “the view that natural science has authority over all other interpretations of life, such as philosophical, religious, mythical, spiritual, or humanistic explanations, and over other fields of inquiry, such as the social sciences”.
- According to the Public Broadcasting Service’s website, scientism “claims that science alone can render truth about the world and reality”.
- According to much-read skeptical author and editor of Skeptic Magazine Michael Shermer, scientism “is 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”.
Neither of these definitions seem to indicate that scientism is something I would want to oppose. In fact, I find it quite attractive. Natural science does have “authority” over my field of study in that it sets the limits of possible interpretations of my source material.
But I was a doctoral student during post-modernism’s heyday in Swedish archaeology, and what many of my colleagues actually wanted to distance themselves from at the time was the modernistic “New Archaeology”. This was a technocratic white-coated faddish movement of the 60s and 70s that cultivated a lot of systems-theory mumbo jumbo and in many cases tended to natural determinism, that is, the idea that people in the past did what they did largely for economic reasons. The post-modernists in my discipline instead went for symbolic determinism, that is, the idea that people in the past did what they did largely for reasons residing in their imaginations. The truth, in my opinion, is that human behaviour is not deterministically constrained from either direction, but is always both economic and symbolic, and often counteradaptive. Cultures are experiments.
So, what did anti-scientism offer instead? Well, usually it had to do with hermeneutics. Explains Wikipedia,
“Hermeneutics may be described as the development and study of theories of the interpretation and understanding of texts. … It is more broadly used in contemporary philosophy to denote the study of theories and methods of the interpretation of all texts and systems of meaning. The concept of ‘text’ is here extended beyond written documents to any number of objects subject to interpretation, such as experiences. A hermeneutic is also defined as a specific system or method for interpretation, or a specific theory of interpretation.
One influential idea in the usually desperately turgid theoretical writings of post-modernist archaeologists was that material culture is a kind of text, and thus open to hermeneutics, that is, interpretation.
About now, I hope any natural scientists reading this are starting to get a creeping suspicion. Could it be that the anti-scientism archaeologists believed that their work was fundamentally different from natural science because it involved interpretation? Well, in fact, yes. They tended to hint that natural scientists just read their conclusions off of their source material using fancy instruments, and that this would never work with cultural source material. The truth, as anybody who’s ever done real scientific research knows, is that all data must be interpreted in order to be understood and generate knowledge. Hundreds of gigabytes of observational data on quasars from a radio telescope is not astronomical knowledge. It is the necessary raw material of such knowledge. And the first interpretation of such a dataset that is published will not be accepted as knowledge until it has been thoroughly discussed and perhaps repeatedly (though ultimately unsuccessfully) challenged.
So I don’t accept the post-modernist claim of a deep qualitative divide between natural science and other fields. (Nor do I of course accept the even more extreme hyper-relativistic idea that all knowledge is socially determined.) In my opinion, there is only one kind of science, Wissenschaft, vetenskap, that is, the one that aims at finding out the truth about what the world is or has been like. From a fundamental philosophical perspective, archaeology and physics work just the same: not because I think physics are so great and archaeology is too, but because I think the road to solid scientific knowledge in physics is open but precarious, and that it is in archaeology too. As Michael Shermer pointed out, empiricism and reason is what allows us to find out about the real world. Ask clearly phrased questions, look at the evidence (quasars, amber bead hoards, census data, Victorian novels), draw clearly phrased rational conclusions, present your work to your peers for scrutiny, see who salutes.
Unfortunately, I find that this proudly scientistic attitude to my discipline does alienate me from some scholars in the humanities. Particularly the aesthetics people, who by long academic tradition are happy to just comment on art, but others as well. The wordier and more theoretically minded they are, the less they tend to like me, and I them.
I was recently invited to critique the manuscript of a PhD thesis in a neighbouring discipline. I found to my dismay that the author had been given the task to apply an “interpretive framework” in the form of certain historical texts to an archaeological source material. When offering my verbal comments, I suggested that what this really meant was that she was asking the rather vague real-world scientific question whether the selected texts fit the selected finds or not. She denied this, indicating that she wasn’t trying to test any hypothesis at all, but just applying the framework to the data as a worthwhile exercise in its own right. I of course believe that all neighbouring humanistic disciplines of archaeology exist solely to find out what life was like for people long ago. And in this particular case, I found that we are not helped in understanding the finds in question by the selected texts — nor indeed by any surviving texts.
In my opinion, the basic setup of this project was flawed as it didn’t really involve any question about the real world. Here, the interpretive framework that the student was told to apply happened to be a collection of historical matter, which was sort of a saving grace. But I’ve seen many cases where the task has been to apply the writings of e.g. Lévi-Strauss, Bourdieu, Foucault, Marx or simply the thesis advisor to a sample of data. This is not science, it is a glass bead game, or, shall we say, academic masturbation. And it’s something I hope my field, no, the entire faculty of the humanities, will rid itself of in my lifetime. Even if it means that a number of current university disciplines will be relegated to the criticism pages of newspapers and magazines.
Jeff over at Blue Collar Scientist offers a heroic tale from optical astronomy about just how much interpretation is involved in hard science.