by Jerry O’Driscoll
Some recent controversies move me to take up the topic within the limitations of a blog post. Many years ago (1956), Fritz Machlup ably addressed the issue in an essay titled “The Inferiority Complex of the Social Sciences.” He rejected limiting the term science to particular subject matters or methods. He concluded that “there is no epistemologically defensible borderline short of the widest meaning of scientific method, defined in the Encyclopedia Brittanica as ‘any mode of investigations by which impartial and systematic knowledge is acquired.’”
I endorse Machlup’s broad definition of science as any systematic study of a subject. As he observed in a footnote, the German Wissenschaft is more inclusive: “the historians of literature, the philologists, the philosophers, the mathematicians, the sociologists, they are all scientists (Wissenschaftler).” In French, science is knowledge and one can speak of la science infuse, intuitive knowledge. La science de l’art is simply the systematic study of art.
A common barb to launch against an opponent is that he espouses religion, not science. By what criteria? Is it his subject matter or method? As Machlup reminds us, neither is a legitimate criterion for separating science from non-science. The charge is an exercise in confusion. There certainly can be a science of religion, i.e., a systematic study of religion. For contemporary examples, look at the works of the sociologist Rodney Stark. Moreover, the barb assumes religion itself cannot be reason based. Stark’s The Victory of Reason is an antidote for that unsubstantiated belief.
By all means let us disagree. But let us shed our inferiority complexes and not wrap ourselves in the mantle of science as defense. That is scientism, not science.