June 21, 2013

Symptoms of Scientism

Filed under: Life,Philosophy,Politics — camcintosh @ 1:45 pm

Over the past few years I’ve noticed an increasing number of “Recent studies show…” articles where the ellipsis is filled by something so painfully obvious and commonsensical that it hardly deserves colloquial mention, much less a “study” to confirm.

For example, consider the recent groundbreaking study showing that infants are comforted when held by their mothers, or the mind-blowing study indicating that a sedentary lifestyle may contribute to obesity. And, surprisingly, we now have evidence suggesting that parents can influence their children’s decisions on drug-use! Equally surprising, a new study has found that sibling aggression can lead to an increase in depression and anxiety in children! Who knew?! (Examples could be multiplied ad nauseam, if you’re not experiencing nausea already).

Who knew? We all did. Except that we didn’t. What we are seeing are symptoms of crass scientism cancerously rampant in the social sciences. The aforementioned and other items of conventional knowledge aren’t considered knowledge until “Science sez so.” We need that good ol’ time Science, the great Arbiter of Knowledge, to give us permission to know what we already know. There is no item of commonsense that’s common or sensical enough to be immune to infection.

And while bullshit studies like these are fecklessly funded, humanities departments are pinched or chastised for not being science or math departments, effectively being treated as sickly for not having the disease.



  1. I think this is a forest for the trees sort of a situation you’re experiencing. Sure, we all know that crying infants are comforted by their mothers. But that’s not the point of these studies. The infant study you provided a link to, for example, already acknowledges this. The premise of the study is: we have observed that crying infants are comforted by their mothers. The point of the study is to identify WHY that happens. What is the physiological process that causes that reaction, and then how can it be applied to other people?

    I don’t know if you actually read the study cited in the article. If you did, you’d find a much clearer idea of why the study was done and what the broader applications of the research are. When you just read an article created for digestion by the undereducated masses, you miss that. Find the actual study with the abstract, the methodology, the data, and the conclusions.

    I can’t help but feel like the conclusions you’re drawing here are a bit disingenuous. Science isn’t trying to confirm commonsense observations. It’s attempting to explain why they happen in the first place. Questioning why things happen is the basis of science and advancement.

    Comment by ryan59479 — June 21, 2013 @ 2:02 pm | Reply

  2. Thanks for the comment, Ryan. The study’s answer to why crying infants are comforted by their mothers is that the infant’s heart rate drops. This is just to technically describe what “calming” is. Re-describing items of commonsense in technical jargon and pretending some nontrivial “advance” has been made is exactly the symptom of scientism I’m calling attention to. To not see that is just be be victim to the disease.

    I’ll acknowledge that studies often don’t bear their more interesting results in their chopped-down titles, but I stand by the points I make in the post.

    Comment by camcintosh — June 21, 2013 @ 2:30 pm | Reply

  3. To respond to the comment by ryan59479:

    I feel the main point camcintosh is trying to make is this need to be able to say “well science proves…” Society holds science to be the ultimate authority in any discussion. Since science is placed on such a pedestal, it receives more attention and resources than other facilities, such as science’s father: philosophy.

    To respond to the original post by camcintosh:

    Many studies or research findings are written diving into the reasons behind something commonly held. They aren’t out to confirm a commonsense idea, but they want to explain the background or foundation of the idea, which was already justified through experience. An issue you see is: the media plays into things by starting off saying the study they are reporting on proves a commonsense idea (see the difference?). This form of “journalism” must intrigue enough readers to read the article for the “journalist” to use that attention grabbing tactic.

    Now, to muddy the waters a bit: I am very closely tied to the realm of scientific academia (electrical engineering to be exact) and I have noticed a few practices that weaken the world of publishing studies. 1) There are people out there that are after one statistic: how many papers have you gotten published? This leads to many useless papers which describe how they copied an experiment that has been copied multiple times and the results were the same as all the other copies. Or they do seek to “prove” something simple and already known so it is easy to assure the study returns positive results. I will not say that this category is very prevalent, however there is a strong drive to be published in academia so some resort to what is quick. 2) It is very hard to get a paper published, or at least popular, that has results that are inconclusive or show there is no correlations found. It will grab more readers attention (and the publisher for a journal is included in this term “readers”) if you are able to state: cause for something found. It is less attractive to read an article that states: these factors have no correlation to this outcome (even though I feel this is just as important to publish if not more!). So you are more likely to come across a study that can put a finger on a cause for something (which can result in you reading about a volume of studies pointing the finger at a cause for something which we have already been able to infer from personal experience).

    Another observation I have is the attitude that science and philosophy are different areas seems to be an unspoken rule.

    Comment by Tech — June 21, 2013 @ 3:06 pm | Reply

  4. Science journalism is often a major culprit here. Editors of science mags/sections are under enormous pressure to relate findings to “common sense” or “everyday life”, so the actual point of many studies is lost in translation. NYT is no exception, they’ve published some howlers in the recent past, including: “Neuroscience Shows That You Love your iPhone…Literally”.

    Nonetheless, I think that there are genuine examples of the sort of thing you’re talking about. Pat Churchland’s recent “Braintrust” is a particularly galling example of an academic’s obsession with providing FMRI data which corroborates such cutting-edge ideas as “people feel sympathy for one another” and “we are more likely to care for those closer to us”. That’s scientism in a nutshell.

    Comment by HermioneRon4evr (@HermioneRon4evr) — June 22, 2013 @ 11:47 am | Reply

  5. “This is just to technically describe what “calming” is.”

    When HIV was discovered to be the cause of AIDS, was that “just technically describing what disease is”?

    Comment by Staircaseghost — June 22, 2013 @ 7:45 pm | Reply

    • “Staircaseghost,”

      That HIV is the cause of AIDS is not exactly the stuff of commonsense. If you didn’t already know that your heart rate drops when calming, maybe these kinds of asinine articles are good for you.

      Comment by camcintosh — June 23, 2013 @ 1:56 am | Reply

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