The economist Friedrich Hayek originally popularized the term ‘scientism’ in his 1952 book The Counter-Revolution of Science as a synonym for pseudoscience. The word later came to represent the expansion of science into domains where it really has nothing to say, such as evolution into atheism. Nathaniel Comfort now positions ‘scientism’ as the abuse of science in ways that obscure today’s concerns for equity, inclusion and diversity (see N. Comfort Nature 574, 167–170; 2019).
Comfort condemns this version of scientism, in which practices and policies endorsed by scientists have had adverse consequences for vulnerable groups in society — although he is careful not to brand the scientists involved as malicious or ignorant. The implication is that history should help to ensure that such scientism will not happen again.
In my view, it is a misuse of history to oversee the future. What counts as good and bad in scientific practice or in science-based policies can be understood only in retrospect, because our judgement depends on witnessing the consequences. As we move forward in history, those judgements will change. It follows that the moral character of any action is indeterminate at the time it happens. Science itself is a quantum phenomenon — and ‘scientism’ is its observer effect.
Nature 575, 51 (2019)