Science, Scientism and Psychiatry


The notion that science is pristinely “objective,” value-free, and productive of necessary and certain truths is a misleading vestige of logical empiricism (also called logical positivism)—the philosophical school that emerged from the “Vienna circle” of philosophers during the 1920s and 30s.

Following the devastating critique of W.V.O. Quine and other philosophers, logical empiricism was largely discredited by the 1960s [12]. Yet in the public consciousness, the notion of a purely objective, value-free medical science has persisted—accompanied by persistent attempts to segregate psychiatry from the rest of medicine.

Thus, we often hear critics of psychiatry claim that, “unlike other medical specialties, psychiatry has no objective, biological tests”; or “psychiatrists, unlike other doctors, simply vote their diagnoses into or out of existence.”

These fallacious claims are expressions of both scientism and an outdated “triumphalist” account of science—not science as understood by most modern philosophers of science. Thus, philosopher Adam Morton notes that the idealized image of science as the objective discoverer of Nature’s Truths is largely fiction.

Rather, as we have just seen with respect to thyroid cancer, “…most scientific theories are eventually rejected and replaced with alternatives; and in retrospect, the reasons given for their adoption often do not look very impressive…[moreover] contemporary science is a large and rambling structure, incorporating many different disciplines from theoretical astronomy to sociology and psychology…” [13].

Psychiatry, like all medical disciplines, aims at discovering useful facts about the human condition, in order to reduce suffering and incapacity and enhance life. But, like all the other medical specialties, psychiatry must use judgment and interpretation in the service of these goals, knowing that scientific “truths” are always tentative–and often temporary.


Acknowledgments: I wish to thank Dr. Bernard J. Carroll and Dr. Jose de Leon for helpful comments and/or references related to this article.  Thanks to Dr. Bret Stetka and Medscape for their permission to reprint this piece []

Science, Scientism and Psychiatry

Ronald Pies, MD

Ronald Pies, MD, is Professor of Psychiatry and Lecturer on Bioethics & Humanities at SUNY Upstate Medical University, Syracuse, NY; and Clinical Professor of Psychiatry, Tufts University School of Medicine, Boston. His latest book is entitled, Don't Worry -- Nothing Will Turn Out All Right!: The Optipessimist's Guide to the Fulfilled Life. He is also the author of the essay collection, Psychiatry on the Edge (Nova Publishing); as well as the novel, The Director of Minor Tragedies (iUniverse) and the poetry chapbook, The Myeloma Year. He is a regular contributor to Psych Central.


APA Reference
Pies, R. (2016). Science, Scientism and Psychiatry. Psych Central. Retrieved on January 22, 2020, from


Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 27 May 2016
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 27 May 2016
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