The Dangers of Scientism Revisited

Recently I saw the report of a survey conducted on behalf of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). A portion of the survey compared the views of scientists and the general public. To the surprise and chagrin of the authors, the study showed some significant disparities between the two groups.

For example, 88% of scientists surveyed felt it was safe to eat genetically modified food while only 37% of the general population thought likewise. 68% of scientists felt it was safe to eat food treated with pesticides but only 28% of regular folks agreed. 89% of scientists felt it was appropriate to use animals for research while just 47% of the others felt the same way.

While these disparities are interesting, differences were also pronounced on topics with more profound implications. For example, while 88% of scientists believed in man-made climate change, only 50% of regular folks felt the same. 82% of scientists believe that a growing world population is a problem; just 59% of the general public agreed. Most importantly, there was a major discrepancy between the groups about an idea that has had an enormous impact on the secularization of our world. A whopping 98% of scientists believe that humans evolved over time while 65% of lay people hold the same belief. It is a long survey and I won’t bore the reader with more citations. The entire report can be found here:

The study got me to thinking. When it comes to ideas with major potential consequences such as man-made climate change, overpopulation and human evolution, why do differences of opinion exist at all? And are these differences really as great as they first appear?

I was reminded of an article that Brother Francis wrote in 1946 entitled The Dangers of Scientism. ( In it, Brother describes the self-imposed blinders that students accept when they choose a scientific discipline as a career. There is no corrective for these blinders if they also failed to receive a solid foundation in religion and the liberal arts. While the “scientific method” is an incredibly useful tool and the source of most modern advancements, Brother decries what he called “scientism ”— the abuse of legitimate science. Limitations imposed by the intense specialization required by each of the disciplines, such as chemistry, physics, biology, etc., have led to abuse when scientists speculate on matters outside of their particular disciplines.

Brother Francis explained that common sense is by far the greater part of our knowledge. It is undivided and unclassified; certain and probable knowledge is mixed. “Common sense knowledge,” Brother wrote, “has qualities which are easily lost when knowledge gets to be artificially methodical.” Common sense is knowledge within a perspective; but, with common sense alone, one cannot build bridges, automobiles and space ships. This requires scientific knowledge, but, with its specialization, the scientist can lose every perspective of relevance. “He [the scientist] is trained to know a part of reality and in a manner that is systematically artificial so he develops more as a function than as a person.”

Unfortunately, because scientists have done spectacularly well in exploring the universe and providing technological wonders, it is easy for them to feel justified in granting more weight to their opinions and for the general public to support their cloistered, often errant views on matters outside of their purview. But, as can be seen from the survey, common sense has not been completely subverted. While 98% of scientists may have been fooled into believing the evolution myth and, even though the secularized education system has done its best to indoctrinate students into believing it, 35% of regular folks do not fall for it.

When I was young and aspired to be a “scientist,” I was assigned to read a book on the philosophy of the scientific method. The author described the “Five W’s and one H” (who, what, when, where, why and how) that are considered basic to gathering information. He then explained in detail that scientists never attempt to answer the question “why.” They are trying to answer the question “how” and only occasionally were they interested in “who, what, when and where.” Effectively, the scientific method removes the entire element of teleology —the reason or purpose for things. The author asserted that the question of “why” is one to be answered by the philosophers not modern scientists. “Why” gets at the question of purpose and since purpose goes beyond mere physical causes, they want nothing to do with it. Even if a scientist uses the term “why,” he really means “how.” Scientists deal exclusively with proximate causes1.

Empiricism2 is the guiding light of the modern scientific method. The only things of concern are those that can be observed with the senses and quantified. It limits man’s knowledge by design. A recent article on the scientific method provides this succinct summary: “The scientific method involves the statement of a problem, the development of hypotheses, the testing of hypotheses, the reporting and analysis of results, and the proposal of theories.” (

The methodology admits only the surface accidents3. The substance4 of things and final causes5 are not their concern. Thus, most modern scientists are entirely devoid of a sense of purpose; and, by default, ethics and metaphysics are not their concerns either. But, this fact does not stop them from pronouncing their views on these topics, such as renowned physicist Stephen Hawkings assertion that there are no miracles and there is no God. The greater questions — such as where did we come from, why are we here and what is the difference between right and wrong — are asked by nearly every man who has ever lived, and scientists have the natural desire to answer them despite the narrow view created by their training. The problem is not that they use the scientific method; it is that the scientific method is all they have been trained to use. Scientism is the abuse of legitimate scientific inquiry.

While the differences between the general public and scientists are notable, they are not great enough to provide too much comfort for those who are concerned about the decline of Western Civilization. The influence of science on the views of the general population is still profound. For example, if 65% of regular folks believe in the evolution myth, if 50% are taken in by global warming propaganda, and if 59% believe the earth is in danger of overpopulation, society is still in deep trouble.

It seems to me that the fact that any difference exists between scientists and average adults is because there is still a significant reservoir of common sense in our culture. A good portion of our population has not experienced the direct, narrowing effects of a formal education in the scientific method. Unfortunately, despite the remnant of common sense, most people have been indirectly influenced by the powerful, all-pervasive impact of scientism — which seems to explain why these differences are not greater.

So what is to be done to correct the effects of the misuse of science? In 1946, Brother Francis offered the remedy — even though its implementation has been difficult and progress has been slow. “We must restore philosophy, religion and common sense, as valid means of knowledge, or else, we are going to die from the sickness of scientism.” But Brother also warned us, “As for common sense, little can be done for it deliberately…. Common sense cannot formulate or defend its convictions against the attacks of false philosophies and false religions, and therefore, unless the fundamental certitudes of common sense are developed and defended by good philosophy, false doctrines are bound to arise.”

The good news is several Catholic institutions of higher learning have begun to offer a curriculum that includes the classic liberal arts6. Education of this sort has the potential of providing a real corrective to the problems described above. In 1946, Brother Francis was a “voice crying in the wilderness;” but, beginning in the 1970’s, scientists such as Thomas Kuhn, Paul Feyerabend, and Norwood Hanson, among others, have been leading the charge against scientism from within the scientific community. While these two trends are positive, there is still a long way to go before good schools and honest scientists influence enough students, scientists, intellectuals and members of the liberal press to effectively correct the error of scientism. Our role in this movement against scientism is to follow Brother’s admonition to educate ourselves in true philosophy and the true religion so we can offer authoritative corrections whenever we are confronted by scientism’s purveyors.

1 A proximate cause is an event immediately responsible for causing some observed result.

2 Empiricism is the practice of relying on observation and experiment.

3 An accident is an unessential characteristic of a substance such as quantity, quality, place, etc.

4 Substance is a being which exists by itself.

5 Final cause is the reason or purpose for a thing’s existence.

6 The classic liberal arts are usually considered to be: the Trivium—logic, grammar and rhetoric, and the Quadrivium—arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy. For a more complete discussion of the liberal arts, please see: For a true corrective of the false views of modern science, we recommend the Saint Augustine Institute of Catholic Studies: