Part 5: Science, Human Action, The Search for “Truth”, and Consequences

Thinking on the Potential Dangers of Science Myopia (Photo: Joao Silas, Unsplash.com)

Hayek’s Fallacy of Scientistic Prejudice (5/20)

© 2018, Barry L. Linetsky. All Rights Reserved.

The consideration of the existence of a single scientific method – a prejudice towards a methodology for studying the world of human action using a scientific method developed for the study of a mechanistic world of natural laws – was referred to by economist F.A. Hayek as the fallacy of scientistic prejudice, or scientismfor short. Hayek wrote a series of essays about this problem that were published in 1952 as The Counter-Revolution of Science: Studies in the Abuse of Reason. (All page citations for Hayek to The Counter-Revolution of Science (2nd Ed.), LibertyPress, Indianapolis, 1979.)

Hayek argues that prior to the 19thcentury, a feature of science was its choiceof appropriate methods to study disciplines of knowledge, including the study of politics, history, and economics. Following in the footsteps of Aristotle, science covered both the natural sciences and the social sciences. “The term science,” Hayek wrote, “had not yet assumed the special narrow meaning it has today, nor was there any distinction made which singled out the physical or natural sciences and attributed to them a special dignity.” (19-20)

On the heels of vast advancements in knowledge of the natural world emanating from the discovery, application, and refinement of scientific methodologies favoring experimentation and the application of mathematics, in the first half of the 19thcentury “a new attitude made its appearance.” (20)

Hayek explains:

The term science came more and more confined to the physical and biological disciplines which at the same time began to claim for themselves a special rigorousness and certainty which distinguished them from all others. Their success was such that they soon came to exercise an extraordinary fascination on those working in other fields, who rapidly began to imitate their teaching and vocabulary. Thus the tyranny commenced which the methods and techniques of the Sciences in the narrow sense of the term have ever since exercised over the other subjects. These became increasingly concerned to vindicate their equal status by showing that their methods were the same as those of their brilliantly successful sisters rather than by adapting their methods more and more to their own particular problems.  (20-21).

The result of this change in sentiments and social pressure for those engaged in the study of the “social sciences” was the desire and ambition among social scientists to lift themselves to the status of the one-and-only Science, and not be seen as second-class citizens in the pursuit of knowledge by failing to adopt quantifiable methods. Hayek notes the results of two hundred years of the social sciences jumping on the bandwagon of the success of the methods of the physical sciences:

Science in its methods rather than its spirit has now dominated social studies, it has contributed scarcely anything to our understanding of social phenomena… it continue[s] to confuse and discredit the work of the social disciplines, [and] demands for further attempts in this direction are still presented to us as the latest revolutionary innovations which, if adopted, will secure rapid undreamed of progress.” (21)

Hayek is not anti-science and recognizes the importance and validity of proper scientific methods applied to the appropriate sphere of inquiry. What Hayek is drawing our attention to and fighting against is not the importance of the “general spirit of disinterested inquiry, but with the slavish imitation of the method and language of Science” where and when it is not warranted, i.e., in the realm of the social sciences pertaining to human action. (24)

It is Hayek’s observation that the scientistic prejudice is primarily one of “an attitude which is decidedly unscientific in the true sense of the word, since it involves a mechanical and uncritical application of habits of thought to fields different from those in which they have been formed. The scientistic as distinguished from the scientific view is not an unprejudiced but a very prejudiced approach which, before it has considered its subject, claims to know what is the most appropriate way of investigating it.” (24)

It is this “slavish imitation” and hence inappropriate application of methodology where not warranted that sabotages the human quest to understand the social world of human interaction and gain new and productive knowledge in the search for truth that constitutes Hayek’s scientistic fallacy and reveals scientistic prejudice.

NEXT: Part 6. Jordan Peterson, Sam Harris: A Clash of Scientific Worldviews?

Mises: The A Priori Nature of Human Action (pdf)

Barry Linetsky has learned a considerable amount from the writings of Mises and Hayek. Barry makes his living specializing in value-driven strategic management, and is the author of the acclaimed business biography The Business of Walt Disney and the Nine Principles of His Success (Theme Park Press, 2017) and Free Will: Sam Harris Has It (Wrong), both available from amazon. He frequently blogs at www.BarryLinetsky.com and has been published in the Ivey Business Journal and Rotman Magazine. Twitter @BizPhilosopher.

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