The use & misuse of science as “Scientism [1] ” and Scientology




Technology timeline

“findings” “tacit knowing”      “verities”
“fear of death”    
anxiety shapes us
“tolerance & open mindedness”   
ethical relativism
“trivialities of social science” 
common (cues) sense



Criteria                         scientific method reveals:                           example


1) objective facts  46 chromosomes in somatic cells                  human being

2) testable theories        = to mass / square of intervening distance      gravity

3) profound

   understandings descent by means of natural selection            evolution

4) universal laws  E= MC2                                                    relativity



Laplace and certainty of method         “logical positivism”


“knew all the forces by which nature is animated...nothing would be uncertain for him; the future and the past would be equally before his eyes.”    

1790s; “ Age of Enlightenment 



Scientism rests on

         three related ideas:

            1.   natural science methods are applicable to humans

            2.   scientific findings can rationally reorder society

            3.   faith in science is a meaningfully comprehensive view


Visualization of his arguments


1                                           2                                      3

methodology             reorganization           worldview


postman graphic






      reinforces Technopoly


     faith in technical solutions


Science ( 1831 to 1867 ) came into modern use (Oxford English Dictionary!)

immutable laws arising from (determined by) the structure of nature  M. Oakeshott


astronomy                                           not                   astrology

geology                                                                       geomancy

physics                                                                        psychology

chemistry                                                                     sociology

biology                                                                        anthropology              

p. 147-48

Postman’s argument rests on this tight definition of “science


science, then, is the quest to find the immutable and universal laws that govern processes, presuming that there are cause-and-effect relations among these processes.”            

p. 148


“the scientist uses mathematics to assist in uncovering and describing the structure of nature.”                                                                                                          

p. 148-49

Question to the class:


Is this an argument over taxonomy? 

(pp. 148-149?)



That is the classification of what is science and what is pseudoscience --


insufficiency of certain criteria:                                      examples


1. use of numbers, or counting                                        f = m*v

2. observation (use of empirical evidence)                     black holes

3. falsifiable       (Karl Popper)                                       Oedipal



Error of misplaced concreteness                            ( p.151 )


technopolists like to blur the distinctions existing between social, behavioral, and natural sciences.


social                                    behavioral                           natural


political science                    psychological testing            cholera

polling                                  counseling                            chemistry

demography                         epidemiology                        geophysics

economics                            marketing                             astronomy

public health                         medicine                               biochemistry



Example given p. 151:


Stanley Millgram’s experiments on “Obedience to Authority”


“In the face of what they construe to be legitimate authority, most people

will do what they are told.”  regardless of the their impact on the victims.


Everyone “knows” this except for psychiatrists (his sample of) 

(p. 151)


Millgram’s study is not empirical

(p. 152)


there is no “causal relationship between the acceptance of legitimate

authority and doing what you are told.”          [ 35% refused ]

“does not confirm or falsify any theory that might be said to postulate a

law of human  nature.”


Lawrence -- Anglo-American writer of great sensuous literature

Kinsey -- post-war researcher of American sexual behavior

Veblen -- social critic before World War I, Theory of the Leisure Class


“Unlike science, social research never discovers anything.”  (157)


all of them are forms of storytelling -- human attempts to account for our experience in coherent ways.”                                     (159)


but science carries “an awesome measure of authority” (159)


illusion makers & illusion believers have different motives (160)


161-62 he redefines scientism      ¶ 2    [outline it]


he presents more criteria: 

Science is open to challenge, needs

refutation and ought to be tested, otherwise it is mere Scientism.  (162)


culture of contentment breeds pseudoscience:

                                             glorification of commonplace conclusions

Christian science                           health is a spiritual state

Creation science                            humans are special

Scientology                                   how you feel is important

social science                                 characteristics are measurable

behavioral science                         people’s responses are predictable

political science                             voting behavior is indicative


He, Postman, argues that

relegating truth only to science or scientific findings renders older “stories” that embody cultural truths quaint “artifacts” of history but nonetheless unimportant to the maintenance of “Technopoly.” 158-161.


“which is most likely to serve the human interest, and which to prove most deadly...?”                                                                 ( last ¶, 163)


My conclusion (with reference to last month’s readings):

The challenge for environmental science is to separate fact from hypothesis and both from interpretation and opinion.


Ecology must not become a religion, a substitute illusion (Freud’s

belief that the human illusion of God is not therapeutic, (163)

for some external authority to whom we may be answerable.


Key terms to use in writing & research:

social science as opposed to natural science

metaphors & images


trivial, trivialize, trivialities

obvious findings or “expositions of the obvious”



story  as narrative; as exposition; as dialogue; as documentary









evidence (sufficient vs. insufficient)


People to Know more about:

Sigmund Freud

Thorstein Veblen

D. H. Lawrence

Stanley Milgram

Hannah Arendt

Michael Oakeshott

Pierre-Simone de Laplace


Old terms (in blue) to relate to this chapter (new terms in red):

What is the dialectic that Postman argues is necessary to recognize and

 distinguish science from scientism?


What dangers does Postman provide evidence for in his argument that

studies masquerading as science are another form of information

control adding to the confusion between facts and opinions?


Distinguish between two types of questions that ecologists may ask

about nature and natural behavior in the environment: give examples of

scientific facts and contrast these with “truthful” or reliable opinions.






Postman discusses evidence, experiments and philosophers’ opinions about science

He does so to prove his thesis that scientism confuses us.

It saps our ability to distinguish fact & fiction.

Thus information overload may more effectively sustain the culture of expertise and the technicalization of issues separating users from experts and fostering Technopoly.


• His disturbing finding is that stories from great thinkers are no longer valued in our society.

His examination of different modes of story-telling distinguishes fictional narrative from expository or documentary styles;

but both come from evidence of human characteristics.


• Beyond disturbing findings that historically significant writers are no longer valued in Technopoly, Postman proposes that the real danger today persists because we surrender our capacity for judgment -- not because we trust authority more than we distrust our motives -- but because we enjoy our comforting illusions.

The power of illusions enslaves our critical faculties of mind!


• the external “image of ultimate authority” is a deadly delusion.



Postman is developing an argument about information overload and the inability of our information control structures to deal with this flood of data.


He argues that our educational institutions

(media, laboratories, publishers and  practitioners of social science)

foster a misplaced confidence in the processes and practices of analysis.


By systematically using examples from social studies

Postman criticizes our thinking because we are equating of our social data gathering

processes with the skeptical practice of refutable, contestable, and repeatable science.


Just because numbers, observation and analysis are used to derive truths about human behavior Postman argues that social science is magical,

wish fulfillment that reveals nothing about laws of human existence.


That is because human behavior varies due to

historical context (Danish resistance),

cultural inheritance (French & Lithuanian complicity), and

socialization (reading Hannah Arendt on Eichman )

to such an extreme degree that prediction becomes too uncertain to be

of any value.


We are fools to surrender critical mental faculties for dialectically

examining people’s conclusions because dangerous illusions  are

perpetuated by lazy habits of mind, easy examinations and

our yearning to find answers even where there are no ultimate answers!






New York Times  reports the obvious

Auguste Comte’s influence [positivism]

current scientists are more skeptical [uncertainty]

Scientism defined initially as three related ideas

second idea

third idea

spiral into Technopoly

the word science, origins of

philosophy of processes vs. practices

quest to find immutable & universal laws

mathematics as a useful device

observation as empiricism

scientists goals or objectives

corruption of social-science

Oedipus complex & God’s existence are non-refutable


misleading use of social as a science

admiration for Millgram’s “experiment”

non-empirical character of Millgram’s laboratory observations

contradicts his own theory (hypothesis {opinion}) purposefully

human behavior as too non-specific [true vs. false] to be scientific

Lawrence & Kinsey are contrasted


Styles of each: narrative and exposition are called good stories

archetypes and metaphors are essential for great stories

great novelists have been replaced by social researchers

metaphors: social research explain differently from what fiction shows

Christ’s’ parables & Veblen’s  Theory are comparable stories


Technopoly does not want stories, but “hard ... scientific facts”

discusses proof as arising from “objectively determined facts”

storytelling reveals different kinds of truths that Technopoly fears


Why are spectators so willing to perpetuate recognizable illusions?


Deep confusion arises when we consent to maintain dangerous  “.

redefines Scientism: authority of procedures creates illusory facts

applies Freud’s Future of an Illusion to dangers of scientism in

a technical, or automated society.





He returns to the introductory theme of misplaced confidence in the

social data gathering process to prove his thesis: scientism confuses

our ability to distinguish fact & fiction;

in doing so it sustains Technopoly by

fostering comfortable illusions, i.e. “we know”.





Title: Since science is so specific don’t misuse it to mystify people


Question   Is this an argument over taxonomy ?




Trivializing obvious facts as an example of information overload


Extension of scientific methodology to “unscientific” questions


Scientism is based on 3 sustaining errors that nourish Technopoly


Technopoly thrives when confusion persists as to

                  the means we use to reach common ends

                  the limitations of our means

                  the differences in expertise of competing authorities


It may be inappropriate to subject all matters to science

                  truth telling is not the same as error detection

                  certainty is not ultimately attainable

                  story-telling reveals eternal verities


Real science welcomes scrutiny, skeptical challenges & argument


False science thrives on acquiescence, illusion, and mystification




operational knowledge is not the same as critical thinking

                  Technopoly uses operational knowledge

                  critical thinking is required for science

knowledge is at once contingent & conditional

                  illusion arises when we insist that knowing is absolute



Technological systems and science must be based on critical thinking.