The limits of Scientism: John Gray on Jonathan Haidt - RSA

The limits of Scientism: John Gray on Jonathan Haidt

Blog 1 Comments

  • Social brain

I just read a fascinating review of Jonathan Haidt's acclaimed new book: The Righteous Mind, which he spoke about recently at the RSA.

John Gray was the author, and it featured in The New Republic magazine.

The review felt quite balanced- he praises Haidt for his sophisticated attack on naive forms of rationalism, but he also highlights what he views as the limitations of Haidt's argument, particularly for failing to grasp the important ways in which utilitarianism and pluralism are at odds.

Some highlights:

"...The literature of scientism has three defining features, which help explain its enduring popularity as well as its recurrent failures: large and highly speculative hypotheses are advanced to explain developments that are extremely complex and highly contingent in nature; fact and value are systematically confused; and the attractively simple theories that result are invested with the power of overcoming moral and political difficulties that have so far proved intractable."

"...This illustrates a fundamental problem with scientism. A shift of meaning occurs when “morality” is used as a theoretical category in a putative scientific discipline. In everyday parlance, “morality” is a term heavily freighted with value: to call something moral is to distinguish it from things that are immoral or amoral, or to which moral judgments simply do not apply. When “morality” features as a theoretical category, this prescriptive element falls away. When “morality” becomes a term of art in a supposedly scientific discipline, there is no longer any difference between good and bad moralities."

"...Scientism has been shown to be an illusion time and time again. But it is another illusion to imagine that scientism will go away. Looking to science for deliverance from the tragicomedy of history is part of what it means to be modern. The tracts that come and go in airport bookstores, promising solutions to problems that have baffled the greatest minds, are symptoms of a confusion that is incurable. We may expect many more books that offer to extricate us from conflict by sprinkling the magic dust of science on our disorders."

Join the discussion


Please login to post a comment or reply

Don't have an account? Click here to register.

  • Hi Jonathan,

    That sounds like a review I should definitely take a look at.

    As you know, my own long discussion of Jonathan's new book is here:

    Despite the length, these are very much my quick thoughts - I have a lot more mulling over still to do ;-)

    (I somehow feel I should point out that it was all written outside work time too...)

    Matthew Mezey

Related articles

  • How can we give up bad habits for good?

    Ian Burbidge

    With the post-Christmas resolutions looming, when we try to address the worst of our seasonal over-indulgences, the question remains: how can we give up bad habits for good?

  • Why fake news doesn't swing elections

    Tony Greenham

    Fake news doesn’t swing elections, but neither does ‘truth’. We have always filtered new information to fit our existing prejudices. The real danger to our democracy is not an absence of truth, but an absence of trust.

  • Tell me a story? Or give me the figures?

    Nathalie Spencer

    What is the best way to influence stakeholders and generate change? Different approaches to generating change have different strengths, when should each be used to the best effect?