The perils of scientism

This post will be familiar ground for those who actually read my stuff. Indeed, it is composed largely from memory. I can, however, point at some books which, of course, are much too long to read, and whose length therefore justifies an ignorance that refuses to consider alternatives:

  • For the first three, it will probably suffice to get the newer edition of The Sage Handbook of Qualitative Research available in a single volume, edited by Norman Denzin and Yvonna Lincoln.[1] Each new edition contains much new and different material, so it is not an equivalence, but the general thrust will be the same as what I relied upon when I was taking the introductory classes in my Ph.D. program. The Sage Handbook can be acquired as a single volume, but has, at least in the past, been available broken up into three volumes and it happens that I had one of the volumes from my Master’s program, so the latter way is the way I acquired it.:
    • Collecting and Interpreting Qualitative Materials.[2]
    • The Landscape of Qualitative Research.[3]
    • Strategies of Qualitative Inquiry.[4]
  • Mindful Inquiry in Social Research, by Valerie Bentz and Jeremy Shapiro.[5]
  • Qualitative Inquiry and Research Design: Choosing Among Five Approaches, by John Creswell.[6]
  • Climate Change in Prehistory: The End of the Reign of Chaos, by William Burroughs.[7]
  • The Idea of Wilderness, by Max Oelschlaeger,[8] which I see as a companion volume to The Passion of the Western Mind: Understanding the Ideas That Have Shaped Our World View, by Richard Tarnas.[9]
  • Victims of Progress, by John Bodley.[10]
  • Culture and Imperialism, by Edward Said.[11]

Most of these are books I cite again and again, because they form a basis for a significant part of my inquiry in the time I’ve been at Saybrook University, and there will be more such books that I specifically cite in what follows. There are also several papers I have written, which because I take a certain bit of advice[12] from Colin Robson[13] to heart, I make public on my research journal:

Hence the futility of this posting. It is directed at those who won’t read, but claim to know, and are so satisfied with what they know that they are self-righteous about what they think they know. I am finding many such people, particularly on Facebook, but as well on other social networks. And it is becoming extremely annoying.

Ironically, the claim at hand is that science is a superior means of knowledge. This is an ironic claim because those who advance it argue from ignorance and arrogance. And ignorance and arrogance are not scientific values. In fact, the simple claim that any one thing is superior to another thing is, itself, a value judgment. And scientific method, in its claim to objectivity, rejects value judgments. This, in itself, leads to all sorts of ethical hazards, as there is a contest between an approach that derives its validity from a value-free approach and the fact that we are living beings on a planet who need to co-exist.

Beyond that, the claim that science is a superior means of knowledge is an extremely dangerous claim. First, it is a universal claim. Notice that there are no qualifiers on this claim whatsoever. Therefore, we are to interpret it as meaning that science is the superior means of knowledge for all people everywhere.

That makes it a colonial claim, because in the context of Western society, if I believe my way of knowing is superior to yours, then I am likely to impose my way of knowing on you. I will do this by force, by invading your land, and exploiting your resources, which I believe you are allowing to go to waste, and which I need to sustain my lifestyle. Further, when you resist, I will regard you as lazy, obstinate, and degenerate. In fact, I will consider you less than fully human. And that will justify your subjugation, expulsion, and extermination.

Second, when we speak of experimental method, this involves performing a test of some hypothesis on an experimental group and on a control group. The idea is that if a stimulus is in fact a cause of a particular response, applying that stimulus to the experimental group will produce the expected response, and not applying that stimulus to the control group will fail to produce the response. This is the notion of linear cause and effect. It is, of course, a very simplistic way of viewing the universe, and that is one reason I recommend complexity theory.[19]

But it turns out that control has another, more nefarious meaning. Because if I can predict behavior based on certain causes, then I can control that behavior. Applied to human beings and other sentient life, this is a dominating attitude. It effectively reduces a sentient life to the condition of a machine or a unit of production. This is why Chandra Mohanty[20] and so many of the authors in Critical and Indigenous Methodology[21] regard all except the rich and powerful in our society to be colonized people: Our existence has been reduced to a means to elite ends.

Third, and as I alluded to above, within the last ten thousand years, we have gone from being a species that lived in small, mostly sustainable, low density populations that had existed for millions of years to one that has run amok on the planet and now possibly faces extinction. Instead of living in harmony with nature, we exploit it, just as we are encouraged to do with each other. This is how, in what John Bodley calls commercial society,[22] we are successful and prosperous. It is also how we face depletion of many resources essential to our survival and why we have a civilization-threatening problem with climate change. I have also written about this:

A lot of this is about technology. It is the outcome of a notion that we can predict outcomes and therefore control them.[25] But there is also certain obstinance in a widespread refusal to consider a vegan diet, the single and by far most effective thing that could be done to make our presence on this planet sustainable.

But gee, obstinance is what this post is all about, isn’t it?

  1. [1]Norman K. Denzin and Yvonna S. Lincoln, eds., The SAGE Handbook of Qualitative Research, 4th ed. (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2011).
  2. [2]Norman K. Denzin and Yvonna S. Lincoln, eds., Collecting and Interpreting Qualitative Materials, 3rd ed. (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2008).
  3. [3]Norman K. Denzin and Yvonna S. Lincoln, eds., The Landscape of Qualitative Research, 3rd ed. (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2008).
  4. [4]Norman K. Denzin and Yvonna S. Lincoln, eds., Strategies of Qualitative Inquiry, 3rd ed. (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2008).
  5. [5]Valerie Malhotra Bentz and Jeremy J. Shapiro, Mindful Inquiry in Social Research (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 1998).
  6. [6]John W. Creswell, Qualitative Inquiry and Research Design: Choosing Among Five Approaches, 2nd ed. (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2007).
  7. [7]William J. Burroughs, Climate Change in Prehistory: The End of the Reign of Chaos (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University, 2008).
  8. [8]Max Oelschlaeger, The Idea of Wilderness (New Haven, CT: Yale University, 1991).
  9. [9]Richard Tarnas, The Passion of the Western Mind: Understanding the Ideas That Have Shaped Our World View (New York: Harmony, 1991).
  10. [10]John H. Bodley, Victims of Progress, 5th ed. (Lanham, MD: AltaMira, 2008).
  11. [11]Edward W. Said, Culture and Imperialism (New York: Vintage, 1994).
  12. [12]David Benfell, “Hello world! A research journal,” July 29, 2011,
  13. [13]Colin Robson, Real World Research, 3rd ed. (Chichester, West Sussex, UK: John Wiley and Sons, 2011).
  14. [14]David Benfell, “What Positivism Did,” October 4, 2011,
  15. [15]David Benfell, “Humanistic inquiry: Flailing away at truth?” October 24, 2011,
  16. [16]David Benfell, “Of course hermeneutic inquiry is bound to culture—and a few other things,” October 26, 2011,
  17. [17]David Benfell, “For those who still aspire to a natural science approach,” November 8, 2011,
  18. [18]David Benfell, “From Authoritarian Boast to Awe and Wonder: A Transformation of the Understanding of Knowledge,” November 21, 2011,
  19. [19]Fritjof Capra, The Web of Life: A New Scientific Understanding of Living Systems (New York: Anchor, 1996); Joanna Macy, Mutual Causality in Buddhism and General Systems Theory (Delhi, India: Sri Satguru, 1995); Edgar Morin, On Complexity (Cresskill, NJ: Hampton, 2008).
  20. [20]Chandra Talpade Mohanty, Feminism Without Borders: Decolonizing Theory, Practicing Solidarity (Durham, NC: Duke University, 2003).
  21. [21]Norman K. Denzin, Yvonna S. Lincoln, and Linda Tuhiwai Smith, eds., Handbook of Critical and Indigenous Methodologies (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2008).
  22. [22]John H. Bodley, Victims of Progress, 5th ed. (Lanham, MD: AltaMira, 2008).
  23. [23]David Benfell, “Towards Sustainability,” April 11, 2013,
  24. [24]David Benfell, “Change For The Improbable: Change For Human and Non-Human Survival,” September 27, 2013,
  25. [25]Jacques Ellul, The Technological Society, John Wilkinson, trans. (New York: Vintage, 1964); Neil Postman, Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology (New York: Vintage, 1993).

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