Scientism – When you use a made up term to criticize a straw man of your opposition and accuse them of making things up just like you…

Unfortunately I can’t find the thread, but was involved in an interesting debate a few days ago. It was in one of those atheist vs theist debate groups that someone wrote a post criticizing “scientism”. In context he was attempting to refute atheism.

The post, which I can’t remember exactly, was aimed at positing that atheism, referred to as scientism, is as dogmatic as theism. My comment was a response to the author, who took offense to someone else (correctly) calling him out for a tu quoque fallacy.

But let’s rewind a little… What is scientism? According to Wikipedia:

Scientism is the promotion of science as the best or only objective means by which society should determine normative and epistemological values. The term scientism is generally used critically, implying a cosmetic application of science in unwarranted situations considered not amenable to application of the scientific method or similar scientific standards.

But what does that mean? The term seems immediately suspicious to me. Atheism is the disbelief in various god claims. One does not need to resort to philosophy (epistemology) and the meaning of truth, belief, scope, and so on, unless one is more interested in deliberate obfuscation because one has no actual evidence of god to defend.

What does it mean to apply science in unwarranted situations? The scientific method is just that, a method we use to ask that things be proven before being accepted as true. Being opposed to evidence is not a valid position because you are then left to assume faulty hypotheses are true (which is of course what the theist does unknowingly), but is rather an excuse to avoid questioning dogmatism, with the added bonus of this particular argument then accusing the opposing side of being equally dogmatic.

Science itself is what we use to explain what we don’t understand, and interesting though it may be, it isn’t the reason that I am an atheist. Science may be correct or incorrect – I honestly don’t care, but I do see when someone conflates the scientific method with science itself. And scientism is certainly not a real thing. And even if it was a thing, it would be quite different to atheism.

In the comments I went onto explain to the person what I understand a tu quoque fallacy to be, since he clearly missed the point. The simplest explanation I have is this: When a child, typically around 3 or 4 years old, figures out that they can respond to being reprimanded with “But you are also naughty”… that’s it – to accuse somebody of hypocrisy by pointing the finger and saying “You too”. It’s clever for a 3 year old, but damn childish for an adult to use the same argument.

In this case, they’re claiming that atheism is also a belief system, also dogmatic, etc. So in that sense it’s also a straw man – a convenient caricature of atheism to refute, one where atheism is somehow an equally invalid explanation of the world, one where we explain the world using science. This would be a valid criticism if that was indeed what atheism was about, but instead atheism itself is merely the rejection of made up explanations, the rejection of a specific kind of magical thinking.

Actually this follows on nicely with another post I have been trying to write for a few months, but have not yet managed to express to my satisfaction, so I’ll use the opportunity to introduce it here…

Introducing Jerome’s Law

Jerome’s Law, which I have arrogantly named after myself, states that: We inherently prefer complicated solutions to simple problems, but the complicated solutions are almost always wrong.

You can apply my law to just about everything: arguments, software design, belief, conspiracy theories… anything. Of course there is already a well known rule called Occam’s razor, which states that the solution with the smallest number of assumptions is correct. My “law” is kind of an extension of that, but focuses more on the convoluted solutions we come up with. My law is really about us tending to prefer the convoluted but wrong solution. And the more convoluted it is, the more wrong it becomes. My father used to have a few favourite expressions, one of which always sticks with me: “Bullshit baffles brains”.

For example, sticking with today’s subject, there is only one answer to the question: Where did it all come from? And that answer is: We don’t know. Any other answer, which is made up, whether it involves thousands of gods, creation myths, redefining the meaning of truth, scope and fact in order to refute those who doubt the made up answers, is wrong. And the more complicated the answers are, the more appealing they become. And also the more wrong. Entire fields of thought exist solely to obfuscate away that it is all bullshit. You can spend your whole life devoted to made up fields like theology and immerse yourself completely, lose yourself in… layer upon layer of made up nonsense that fools you into thinking it isn’t just made up nonsense. And all because we tend to think complicated solutions are correct. We gravitate towards sophistication but often can’t tell the difference between true complexity and sophisticated bullshit.

There’s a line from the original Shrek movie that I love for its irony, where he describes Ogres as complicated… layered like an onion. What makes the line so clever is that onions are not complex. They have layers, but all the layers are exactly the same. They’re just thin membranes repeated over and over again. But it sounds clever because we think layers imply complexity. In reality, bad designs, bad arguments, are always complex, always layered… always over-engineered.

I see the same pattern in software design over and over again. Look at any well written code, and one thing will always stand out: The code is easy to follow and it keeps things simple. This applies to all code, from the simplest little application to the programming framework itself. Bad code, on the other hand, is complicated. Bad code takes one or two simple concepts and then instead of representing them as easy to understand abstractions, splits them into thirty or forty obscure components, tied together in unimaginably poor ways that are difficult to comprehend the first time and easy to forget. Or we get the other end of the stick… a single method takes variable or dynamic inputs and then does different things in different cases, creating a cyclomatically complex monstrosity.

Conspiracy theories follow the same pattern… In order for them to be true, millions of people and shady organisations need to be involved in elaborate cover-ups of the truth, in setups so bizarre that such things would be absurdly impossible to achieve because of the cooperation required alone, and when you look closer, there is never any reason for the secrets. The secrets themselves are part of the reason the narrative becomes so complicated. Like any poor design or bad argument, the complexities exist as part of the solution but then twist the problem into something else, creating more problems than they solve, involving those who swear by them in even more effort to understand the complicated “solutions” which turn out not to solve anything at all.

Worst of all, debate groups are filled with idiots who can’t tell the difference between complex solutions and sophisticated nonsense. Not that it matters because 90% of complex solutions are just noise anyway. Maybe I’ll refer to Jerome’s Law again and maybe I won’t… This is the best attempt at introducing it so far, so this time I’m publishing it.

3 thoughts on “Scientism – When you use a made up term to criticize a straw man of your opposition and accuse them of making things up just like you…

  1. Hi, I just found your blog yesterday, looking for a link between meth use and conspiracy theories. It seems to me that tweakers love conspiracy theories for some reason.
    Anyway, for some reason I feel you and I would get good if we ever met hahaha.
    That being said, Scientism is not a void term, even if it used sometimes in a meaningless way. One clear example is the way adiction is treated, you cannot put it in doubt because is “science” you cannot say that addiction is a choice because in reality the science says that is a ” chronic disease” like an “allergy”. At the same time, we believe that psychiatric drugs are harmless, but there is too much evidence that shows that it isnt. But put it in doubt and you are called somebody who hates science and believes in conspiracy theories, hahaha the ironey back to the same thing.
    To be honest bro, I started using amphetamines two months ago because 1.- I wanted to see what all the fuzz was about, I have a meth head friend, but I am worried about him, he is loosing his mind, but the guy is loyal. 2.- I had developed tolerance for cofee, and I was on a deadline and 3.- Amphetamines are the only thing that has reversed my sexual disfuncion caused by anti-depresants that were given to me by coercion.
    I am not planning to continue using meth or amphetamines, I have seen the effects.
    Also If you are interested in critical thinking may I recommend “Introduction to Logic” by Copi, he was a student of Russel.
    There are two kinds of fallacy, but you may already know this, informal and formal. Informal fallacies are the ones in which the premise itself is irrelevant, you cannot derrive true knowledge from it (e.g, naturalistic fallacy, appeal to novelty or its contrary appeal to tradition, appeal to authority, tu quoque) formal fallacies are ones in which, the form of the argument is flawed, (e.g. fallacy of ambiguity, affirming the consequent or fallacy of the converse).
    I am not a coder, thought I have taken courses online on coding. I recommend you that book, you will love it because you are a coder. After you learn Boolean algebra and first order logic, you start to see arguments and thought systems as codes.
    Anyway, but you may already know this.

    I am worry about my friend, but he gets angry everytime I tell him meth is making him delusional and illogical, thought the point that he tells me that “logic” is a social construct or something akin to that.
    The guy is a medical student and he believes that Covid is a conspiracy theory, he is loosing trust from everyone who is with him.

    What do you recommend amigo?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Also, I met a former doctor in rehab… He was addicted to heroin and only about 28 years old but had lost his license to practice. He then relapsed and died around the same time I left. Hard drugs and a practice in medicine don’t work. Even if your friend makes it through med school, it will all end very badly. Worst case scenario is malpractice, possibly the death of a patient and some kind of criminal charges.


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