Materialism, Positivism and the Politics of Modern Science

I was pleased to read in Crisis “The Origins of Modern Materialism,” in which Theodore Rebard notes the rediscovery of Lucretius’s De Rerum Natura in 1417 and its subsequent employment by Descartes, Hobbes and other modern philosophers in their efforts to formulate a modern synthesis of knowledge based on quantifiability. Professor Rebard also points to some of the consequences of our adoption of the modern synthesis—especially on our intellectual life, among which are a “dogmatic ignorance of quality,” the triumph of emotivism in ethics, the denial of human nature, and a generalized reductionism that truncates reality by reducing it to that which can be measured according to the methods and instruments of physical science.

Another consequence of the triumph of materialism in the modern era is the raising of science to an almost god-like status among intellectuals. This status has in turn given the scientific establishment great political power, thus profoundly affecting the way in which public policy is expected to be justified by most people nowadays. At the same time, since Lord Acton’s maxim that all power corrupts is no less true today than ever before, we should not be surprised to find such corruption at the heart of the scientific enterprise itself. A graphic example of this corruption played out in the field of social science in the spring and summer of 2015.

In “The Case of the Amazing Gay-Marriage Data,” published in Science of Us last year, Jesse Singal provides a detailed account of Michael J. LaCour’s fabrication of data that was ultimately published in Science magazine, one of the premier peer-reviewed scientific journals in the world. Illustrating the power of emotivist ethics when joined with the prestige of modern science, LaCour’s study purported to demonstrate that, when confronted with heart-rending stories about the “hurt feelings” of homosexuals who want to marry, most people will empathize and “come around” to support same-sex “marriage.” The study, which appeared in December 2014, became a powerful weapon in the campaign of same-sex “marriage” proponents during the winter and spring of 2015, helping to bring us to the point at which last summer’s Supreme Court decision outlawing state bans on gay marriage seemed all but a foregone conclusion.

Whether or not Justice Kennedy or any of his colleagues were influenced by LaCour’s fraudulent study in the Court’s Obergefell v. Hodges decision, the whole affair should prompt some reflection on the practice of using social science research in legal reasoning—a practice that has been more and more common since the first appearance of the “Brandeis brief” in Muller v. Oregon in 1908. Indeed, it should prompt reflection on the quality and objectivity of empirical social science research in general, and the extent to which—and the ease with which—such “research” can be made a tool for advancing controversial political agendas. There can be little doubt that the LaCour fraud advanced the same-sex “marriage” agenda in important ways, energizing its base of support and generating something like a “bandwagon” effect as marginal (and marginalized) opponents scrambled to avoid appearing intolerant or mean-spirited in their opposition. Just as there can be no doubt that the fraudulent LaCour study influenced public opinion on the gay “marriage” issue, there can be no doubt that this was the intended result not only for LaCour but for others as well. According to Maria Konnikova in The New Yorker, “The study authors strongly support gay marriage; so, perhaps, did the social scientists who peer-reviewed the study so unskeptically.”

An Epidemic of Bad Science
Although the kind of “wholesale fraud” involved in the gay “marriage” study may be rare, instances of “bad science,” according to Theunis Bates, have become “epidemic.” Richard Horton, editor of The Lancet, a prestigious English medical journal, questions the veracity of roughly half of all scientific papers, many of which stem from researchers who “sculpt data to fit their preferred theory of the world” (The Week, June 12, 2015, p. 5). Robert V. Thomann, an environmental engineer, noted in Crisis that much of the environmental science driving current public policy is unreliable, untestable, unobservable and unverifiable. In a particularly funny example of what can sometimes get into peer-reviewed scientific publications, John B. Shannon reports on an article in the Journal of Clinical Oncology that attempts to lend authority to its findings via citation of a nonexistent book allegedly written by Aristotle in Latin!

Thus the LaCour fraud, while important as an isolated event due to its possible impact on public opinion in a critical public policy arena, should be viewed as symptomatic of larger problems in the scientific community itself and in the relation between science and society more generally. It is a faulty, “data-driven” conception of science that makes it possible for studies like LaCour’s to be published in peer-reviewed scientific journals, that encourages the use of social science research in constitutional decision making, that allows same-sex “marriage” to be imposed on the American public by judicial fiat, and that makes it possible for us to be seriously discussing the hurt feelings of homosexuals who want to marry as somehow relevant to the constitutional issues involved in the same-sex “marriage” controversy. The fact that we are discussing this issue at all is itself a graphic demonstration of the extent to which our culture has overstressed the bearing of emotion or “feeling” on just about every kind of human activity. Our media-driven, “touchy-feely” public life seems to value the emotional outburst above all other forms of expression, including rational discourse.

Science Widely Corrupted by Scientism
Why are researchers able to manipulate (and sometimes fabricate) data to support social, economic, and political agendas? Why are the results of such “research” published in peer-reviewed journals? And why do we believe the conclusions arrived at in these studies? The short answer to all these questions is our culture’s widespread adoption of Scientism, an ideology that combines a faulty conception of science with a worshipful attitude toward that very conception. One of the ominous effects of the advance of scientism in recent years has been the hijacking of science by the political Left. As John West put the matter in an issue of Intercollegiate Review a few years ago:

Whether the issue is embryonic stem-cell research, global warming, sex education, or even partial-birth abortion, if you oppose the policy prescriptions of the Left, you are likely to be smeared as “anti-science.” Underlying such rhetoric is an unthinking scientism: a credulous belief that modern science can answer all important questions about human life and that scientists have the right to dictate public policy merely because of their presumed technical expertise.

It is precisely this effect that is sought by those who propagate and promote studies like LaCour’s in order to advance preconceived social and political agendas. If opponents of same-sex “marriage” can be branded as “anti-science” in the same way that man-made global warming deniers and opponents of neo-Darwinian evolution have been branded as anti-science, then it becomes far less likely that their arguments will receive a fair hearing in a society in the grip of the worshipful attitude toward science that characterizes contemporary American society. It is also less likely that Justice Kennedy and the other liberal justices on the Court, who desperately court the good opinion of America’s intellectual elite, would be willing to suffer the scorn that surely would have followed a decision in favor of traditional marriage.

Our culture’s embrace of scientism did not happen overnight. As Professor Rebard’s article suggests, modern philosophers laid much of the groundwork during the past several centuries. The aim of these philosophers was to discredit teleological views of the cosmos and humanity, substituting reductive accounts in their place. In the seventeenth century, Thomas Hobbes tried to account for the movements of the human psyche via random motion of material particles in the brain, thereby reducing mind to matter. Pursuing a related goal in the eighteenth century, David Hume attempted to reduce all human thought to sensation, at the same time advancing the skeptical belief that the human mind is incapable of attaining philosophical truth or certitude about anything. Additionally, Hume demoted reason to a secondary role in human behavior, dubbing it the “slave of the passions.” In the nineteenth century, Charles Darwin tried to account for biological diversity by positing undirected natural physical processes as the basis for evolutionary change. In the twentieth century, Stephen Hawking advanced the notion that whatever is not measurable by the physicist does not exist, thus reducing being itself to that which is discoverable by the methods of physical science.

Comte Raises Scientism to Next Level
While each of the thinkers mentioned above played their part in laying the philosophical foundations of scientism, it was the mid-nineteenth century French thinker, Auguste Comte, who elevated scientism into a dogmatic educational program that he called “positivism.” Comte is regarded by many to be the founder of modern sociology and also the first modern philosopher of science. The Comtean educational program, little-known outside academic circles, has come to dominate social science disciplines in many colleges and universities, and has had a profound effect on the way in which the public views the whole scientific enterprise. This means that what many of our children are being taught about themselves, their societies, and their universe when we send them to college is the Comtean view. It also means that the research their professors are doing which generates the knowledge they are teaching is based on the academic specialism of the Comtean program. Interestingly, Comte’s Introduction to Positive Philosophy (1842) was first published at about the same time that, according to Professor Rebard, we started using “grades” to “measure” student achievement! I doubt that this is a mere coincidence.

Positivism is based on the idea that science is the only source of genuine knowledge. This means that all other forms of knowledge (particularly theology and metaphysics) are counterfeit. In brief, Comte advanced a three-phase theory of history that begins with a primitive “theological” phase followed by a transitional “metaphysical” phase and culminating in a scientific “positivist” phase. This analysis applies to individuals as well as to civilizations. He declares that we are all theologians in childhood, metaphysicians in adolescence, and positivists as adults. Comte’s main goal is to place social science on par with astronomy, physics, chemistry and biology. Most importantly, this requires emptying the study of human beings and human societies of all notions that transcend the purely physical. In the end, it requires reducing social science to physiology, which in turn requires denying the existence of a distinctive, common, knowable human nature. Referring to the distinction between organic and inorganic bodies in the second chapter of his Introduction to Positive Philosophy, Comte says that

There is no need to ask if the two classes of bodies are, or are not, of the same Nature—that is an insoluble question which is still too much debated in our time owing to the lingering influence of theological and metaphysical habits. Such a question does not enter into the domain of the positive philosophy, which formally declares its absolute ignorance as to the ultimate nature of any body whatsoever.

This declaration of ignorance is self-defeating for the human sciences. If we cannot know the nature of anything, then it follows that we cannot know human nature. And if we cannot know human nature, it follows that the study of human beings and human societies can only proceed as a study of the physical manifestations of human nature, observable human behavior—exactly the program that Comte recommended. One is put in mind of Saint Augustine’s remark about the ancient skeptics in Contra Academicos: “such are those who say, ‘Indeed, we do not know truth, but this which we see is like that which we do not know.’”

The reductive social science that results from this program, often termed “behavioralism,” attempts to understand human behavior by observing and quantifying discrete behavioral events without reference to the ends or purposes that give meaning to that behavior. The behavioralist somehow expects that the data will turn up something important on its own. But this doesn’t often happen because the behavioralist doesn’t really know what he is looking for. He doesn’t know what he is looking for because he is committed to a worldview that doesn’t really allow him to know what the creatures he is studying are trying to do. To know this, he would have to acknowledge the nature of those creatures, and this acknowledgment is prohibited.

The problem here is not the use of methods imported from the physical sciences. There is nothing inherently wrong with collecting and analyzing data. The problem is the importation of the scientistic metaphysics of materialism. This metaphysic has done far less harm to physical science than to social science. Physics can proceed without much difficulty (at least for a while) even if physicists happen to hold an erroneous view of human nature. On the other hand, an erroneous view of human nature, or a denial of it, effectively paralyzes social enquiry. Human beings build the societies that social scientists investigate on the foundation of that very nature that has been misconceived or denied. The most essential characteristic of human nature is its freedom to pursue ends that transcend the purely physical. But freedom to pursue ends beyond the physical is the very thing that materialism and positivism cannot allow. That is why scientism is ultimately fatal to the human sciences.

How Scientism Stifles Scientific Progress
It may also be fatal to science itself in the last analysis. According to philosopher of science Paul Feyerabend, the scientific establishment in the twentieth century has risen to a level of political power similar to that held by the Church in the Middle Ages. One result of this has been to make it possible for leaders in the scientific establishment to enforce conformity to prevailing scientific theories, even in the face of competing theories that may prove more fruitful in the long run. In other words, leaders in the scientific community, in partnership with governments and private corporations, now have the power to propound favored theories dogmatically, therewith stifling creativity and scientific progress. This kind of dogmatism may be found today in the writings of scientistic commentators who accuse those challenging dominant theories in biology, climatology and other areas of being “anti-science.” Feyerabend’s words are apropos here:

And yet science has no greater authority than any other form of life. Its aims are certainly not more important than are the aims that guide the lives in a religious community or in a tribe that is united by a myth. At any rate, they have no business restricting the lives, the thoughts, the education of the members of a free society where everyone should have a chance to make up his own mind and to live in accordance with the social beliefs he finds most acceptable. The separation between state and church must therefore be complemented by the separation between state and science.

Scientism is a form of idolatry and, like all idolatries, its’ ultimate aim is to get rid of God. It is also the form of idolatry to which intellectuals are most obviously prone, for intellectuals are in the knowledge (“scientia”) business and thus are most liable, through the arrogance and self-righteousness that often accompanies learning, to repeat the sin of our first parents. The original act of disobedience was eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, so as to be like God. Thus we are the very people most at risk for committing and recommitting the act that best exemplifies mankind’s fall from grace. For us, a little knowledge (which is really all that any of us has) is indeed a very dangerous thing.

Robert Lowry Clinton


Robert Lowry Clinton is Professor and Chair Emeritus in the Department of Political Science at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, and Adjunct Professor of Political Science at the University of Missouri, St. Louis. He is the author of Marbury v. Madison and Judicial Review and God and Man in the Law: The Foundations of Anglo-American Constitutionalism, as well as numerous academic articles and book chapters. In addition to scholarly journals, Dr. Clinton has appeared in numerous popular periodicals such as First Things, National Review Online, Public Discourse, and New Oxford Review.