Scientism, the “social sciences,” and the assault on the human self
Maybe it’s the rise of “positive psychology,” “happiness studies,” “happiness economics,” and other attempts to quantify human happiness and gain a “scientific understanding” of it that has gotten under my skin. Maybe it’s the veritable tsunami of poll results and policy recommendations flooding through the collective consciousness during the current American presidential campaign season, all with the purported purpose of telling us what we think and how we should vote. Whatever the provocation, the following passages are hitting me really hard right now, and I commend them to your reflective reading.
From Neil Postman,Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology (1992):
Technopoly wants to solve, once and for all, the dilemma of subjectivity. In a culture in which the machine, with its impersonal and endlessly repeatable operations, is a controlling metaphor and considered to be the instrument of progress, subjectivity becomes profoundly unacceptable. Diversity, complexity, and ambiguity of human judgment are enemies of technique. They mock statistics and polls and standardized tests and bureaucracies…It becomes necessary, then, to transform psychology, sociology, and anthropology into “sciences,” in which humanity itself becomes an object, much like plants, planets, or ice cubes. That is why the commonplaces that people fear death and that children who come from stable families valuing scholarship will do well in school must be announced as “discoveries” of scientific enterprise. In this way, social researchers can see themselves, and can be seen, as scientists, researchers without bias or values, unburdened by mere opinion. In this way, social policies can be claimed to rest on objectively determined facts.
[…] Unlike science, social research never discovers anything. It only rediscovers what people once were told and need to be told again. If, indeed, the price of civilization is repressed sexuality, it was not Sigmund Freud who discovered it. If the consciousness of people is formed by their material circumstances, it was not Marx who discovered it. If the medium is the message, it was not McLuhan who discovered it. They have merely retold ancient stories in modern style.
[…] [Scientism] is the desperate hope, and wish, and ultimately the illusory belief that some standardized set of procedures called “science” can provide us with an unimpeachable source of moral authority, a suprahuman basis for answers to questions like “What is life, and when, and why?” “What is death, and suffering?” “What is right and wrong to do?” “What are good and evil ends?” “How ought we to think and feel?”…To ask of science, or expect of science, or accept unchallenged from science the answers to such questions is Scientism. And it is Technopoly’s grand illusion.
From Theodore Roszak, Where the Wasteland Ends: Politics and Transcendence in Post-Industrial Society (1972):
Can one help concluding that there is something more radically corrupted than humanist intellectuals suspect about a standard of intellect which requires a lifetime of professional study and strenuous debate, much ornate methodology and close research to produce at last a meager grain of human understanding, cautiously phrased and nearly drowning in its own supporting evidence? That people are very likely not machines…that love is rather important to healthy growth…that “peak experiences” are probably of some personal and cultural significance…that human beings have an emotional inside and are apt to resent being treated like stastical ciphers or mere objects…that participating in things is more rewarding than passively watching or being bossed about…how many books do I take up each year and abandon in anguished boredom after the first two chapters, because here once again is some poor soul offering me a ton of data and argument to demonstrate what ought to be the axioms of daily human experience? If our paleolithic ancestors were presented with these “controversial new findings,” surely far from applauding our deep-minded humanism, they would only wonder “Where along the line did these people become so stupid that they now much prove to themselves from scratch that 2+2=4?”