Peer Review

Scientism, Human Consciousness, and the STIRS Imperative

From its inception in 2012, the Scientific Thinking and Integrative Reasoning Skills (STIRS) project has served as a call to action for faculty to develop and implement curricula in every discipline that will prepare students to address the most pressing global and local challenges of the day. The integrative learning framework upon which STIRS was founded recognizes the critical importance of cross-disciplinary thinking; the need to interrogate what constitutes evidence in proposing and constructing evidence-based solutions; and the imperative that decision making be grounded in the ethical principles of respect for persons, justice, and beneficence.

A More Comprehensive Approach to Examining Scientific Inquiry

As someone whose teaching and research career has focused on applied ethics in medicine, law, and public policy, I am reminded daily of the ways in which technological advancements often precede thoughtful reflection regarding the ethical, legal, and social implications of the use of that technology. This is one of the many reasons why I welcomed the broadening of the Medical College Admission Test to include a more comprehensive approach to examining scientific inquiry within the context of behavioral and social sciences and the humanities, along with the development of STIRS to aid in student preparation.

In an age of electronic medical records, the ability to apply theories, methods, and skills in analyzing complex problems and make connections among concepts and experiences is more important than ever. Far from a panacea, the proliferation of data available to clinicians makes it impossible to keep pace. The availability of vast amounts of emerging information within data warehouses is meaningless in the absence of a physician’s capacity to collate data sources or interpret the results. Fortunately, there are experts in various specialties who can be relied on to synthesize research findings. Nevertheless, the clinician is still required to have the ability to make sense of that data and evaluate its reliability in a manner that serves the needs of individual patients.

For instance, if a physician is considering a drug for a patient that carries a 5 percent risk of internal bleeding over a five-year period and reads a study indicating that an alternative drug reduces that risk by 40 percent, she needs to be able to determine whether the reduction of a bleeding risk to 2 percent over that same period is worth tripling the cost for the patient. In addition, if the drug carries a greater risk of heart attack in patients with a history of heart disease, the physician will need to spend time with the patient discerning and weighing that particular risk in relation to others.

The complexities don’t stop there. A patient’s team of physicians might include an oncologist, surgeon, pulmonologist, cardiologist, palliative care specialist, hospitalist, and family practitioner, some of whom may arrive at different and conflicting conclusions about the best course of action for treatment. Under such circumstances, the patient becomes the nexus for decision making. In the past, family practitioners were the most likely to have the fullest understanding of whether a given medical decision was authentic—consistent with the way the patient has lived her life—after engaging in a values inventory over a period of years. Yet, in the case of hospitalized patients, a hospitalist may replace the family practitioner, and the system of Relative Value Units used in the United States to determine reimbursement for physician services has placed pressure on physicians to see more patients for shorter amounts of time, posing a challenge for the type of comprehensive information gathering necessary to act in the best interest of the patient.

Developing the type of deeper-level understanding across subject areas promoted by STIRS, connecting knowledge to experience, and adopting a holistic approach to evidence-based problem solving that incorporates diverse, sometimes contradictory points of view, is more important than ever—not only in preparing medical students, but for all undergraduate and graduate students to address the twenty-first century’s unscripted problems. Employers, educators, and professional accreditors alike are advocating integrative, evidence-based learning as essential preparation for student success upon graduation. For instance, the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET) advances an integrative approach to engineering education, with students working in multidisciplinary teams to apply their knowledge and skills in real-world contexts.

A First-Hand Observation of Incorporating the STIRS Approach

I had the opportunity to observe first-hand the benefits of incorporating the STIRS approach into an engineering curriculum when I was leading an interinstitutional, multidisciplinary vertical research team to facilitate clean water solutions, sustainable agriculture, and entrepreneurship for residents in Kenya’s West Lake District near Lake Victoria from 2008–2012. The communities we collaborated with had a 33 percent HIV rate, a 69 percent poverty index, and an 80 percent rate of polygamy. The practice of widow inheritance, in which a woman is expected to have unprotected sex with a male relative of her husband upon his death, was still prevalent. In addition, the symptoms of AIDS were regarded by many community members as not resulting from a virus, but rather the effects of violating cultural taboos, including a refusal to be inherited.

The Centers for Disease Control Kenya joined a number of government agencies and nonprofit organizations to provide medication and social services to those who tested HIV-positive. Yet, many of the residents were dying from AIDS-related illnesses, dysentery, and diarrhea that were caused by a lack of access to clean water. Though the US Agency for International Development (USAID) had constructed a well for residents in one of the villages a few years earlier, when a piece of the pump broke there was no mechanism to fix the problem. To avoid this type of obstacle to sustainability in the future, the objective of our team was to engage in community action planning with residents to develop simple engineering solutions, such as clay pot water filtration, sand filtration, and Moringa seeds as natural flocculants, to provide clean water using local materials.

Partnering with students and professors at Kenyan universities, together with the community members themselves, we appealed to local epistemologies in order to identify the best way to harvest sand from local riverbeds without machinery and to create grass kilns, which at times turned out to be more effective than those designed in our engineering labs. While the ultra-affordable engineering solutions were developed rapidly, their implementation was often challenged due to the behavior change necessary for residents to take advantage of the technology in a manner that was effective in preventing disease. For example, while clay pot water filtration with a coating of colloidal silver on the rim was the most effective, the process of purifying water this way took longer, which led to resistance. While less efficacious, Moringa seeds provided some beneficial filtration, but the trees were regularly harvested by residents for fuel. In order to identify the best solution for each community, the psychologists, sociologists, and Africana studies team members undertook extensive qualitative research using interviews to determine any psychosocial, environmental, or economic barriers to success and the optimal means of overcoming them.

Yet, beyond addressing the psychosocial issues, scaling up with regard to whatever sustainable local solution was decided upon required communicating effective techniques to a broad population, most of whom were illiterate. Since women and girls were the ones gathering and distributing the water, students and faculty from the engineering, hydrology, and environmental economics departments worked with our artists and graphic designers to engage community members in creating visual messages that could be printed on kanga cloths—the traditional dress of women in the region—and disseminated widely. Throughout the project, every member of the team was involved in cross-disciplinary, collaborative, problem-based, integrative, evidence-based learning.

Moreover, the project was designed so that the benefits extended to those who could not be with us in the field. Subsequent sets of problems identified by the community through action planning, invariably involving additional layers of complexity, were brought back to the classroom in each discipline for a semester- or year-long problem-based learning project. Thus, at one institution, clay samples were brought back from a particular region for students in a civil and environmental engineering class to analyze in relation to the appropriate mixture of clay and sawdust to recommend for the construction of filtration pots. Business students from another institution were assigned to work on a business plan for securing microloans to support entrepreneurship around the production and marketing of kanga cloths. And at another university, medical students focused on research regarding the most successful techniques for serving non-adherent, at-risk populations of patients and developing the cultural competence necessary to be effective.

Contesting Scientistic Trends with Integrative Liberal Education

As a foundational principle of STIRS, evidence-based problem solving is an integrative approach that seeks to close the divide between knowledge and experience in preparing all students to respond to complex problems. The integrative liberal education being advocated as a necessary condition for this preparation contests the trend toward scientism, described by Paul Feyerabend in his book Against Method (1975). Scientism is a doctrine according to which all genuine knowledge is scientific knowledge, reifying the scientific method as the only legitimate form of inquiry. Thus, Feyerabend distinguishes science from scientism by foregrounding the latter as an exaggerated trust in the efficacy of the methods of natural science applied to all areas of investigation, creating a hegemony of one tradition over others.

Unfortunately, the success of science in explaining the world has led to a cultural misappropriation of science in a way that has conflated science with scientism. The profound societal impact of this conflation has led astrophysicist Adam Frank (2013) to challenge defenders of scientism by calling for a clarification of how scientism manifests itself in order to “help us understand the damage it does to the real project that lies ahead of us: building space for the full spectrum of human beings in a culture fully shaped by science.”

Taking up Frank’s charge to consider how scientism manifests itself, and in particular how the metaphysics of consciousness offers the tools necessary for building the space to which he refers, we need to ask, “What would we lose, if anything, by reducing all learning and engagement to practices only rooted in the sciences?” In response, and with STIRS in mind, what needs to be contrasted is not science and the humanities, arts, and social sciences, but rather scientism as a competing ideology to a liberal arts sensibility that we bring to all disciplines, including the sciences. This fact is highlighted by philosopher Mark Kingwell (2013) in his Harper’s article, “Beyond the Book,” which focuses on the future of the book—given the burgeoning of technology—and more importantly, on the future of reading as a matter of human consciousness.

Kingwell points to the rise of the educated reading public as inextricably linked to the emergence of democratic liberalism in the Western world (15). Likewise, he highlights the development of the novel as conjoined with the idea of open public discourse and rational/critical debate. Yet, most compelling is Kingwell’s unpacking of Marshall McLuhan’s contention that the printing press spawned, among other phenomena, “a psychological mode of introspection or inner direction” that attends reading. Through literature, readers are able to “substitute the consciousness of a (fictitious) other person for their own. This doubling and suspension of consciousness is, paradoxically, essential to enriching one’s own sense of interiority or inwardness. Reading offers a heady way of identifying with another, mirroring and reinforcing the self” (Kingwell 16).

For Kingwell, reading “objectively summons a subjectivity that belongs to each one of us,” making printed books and the democratized culture of reading, in his view, the most significant development in human consciousness since the advent of writing (Kingwell 17). Individual human consciousness will dictate the presence of what he refers to as “long-form reading,” according to Kingwell, not because books make us better people but because they “give...respite from the incessant noise of existence” (Kingwell 19). He maintains that this type of humanistic engagement provides a necessary, even if illusory, hypothetical narrative of the self.

What we lose by replacing humanism with scientism, then, is a long-form engagement with the world. The practice of science is, by its very nature, a short-form practice. It is an evidence gathering exercise dependent upon the banking of empirical data. To be sure, this type of practice positively influences our lives in a multiplicity of ways. And, it is what we rely on in times of medical crises, when we, or a loved one, are diagnosed with a life-threatening disease. On the other hand, questions about difficult situations such as “How should I live my life now that I have cancer?” or “Should a loved one accept a particular treatment that will extend life at the cost of quality during his or her remaining months?” are philosophical matters that cannot be resolved by data gathering. They require long-form contemplation.

The illumination of human consciousness through literature, philosophy, music, and the arts enriches the experience of individuals alone and as members of a community, allowing us to flourish fully as human beings. The illumination and the inquiry are themselves intrinsic goods that thwart the notion of scientific knowledge as singularly capable of responding to the world’s challenges, precisely because they may turn out to be just as valuable in fostering a capacity to grapple with complexity that cannot be resolved through the scientific method.

As Feyerabend reminds us, true scientists are not scientistic—they possess a much more nuanced and complex understanding that sensibilities cannot be gained through scientific practices. Science is a tool to investigate metaphysical and epistemological claims. But, there is also value that comes from reflecting on experiences in a way that arouses the very sensibilities that enable us to deal with the metaphysics of being human and conscious of living in the world. The liberal education we offer to our students is a sensibility rather than a group of subjects. Good critics of literature can bring us into a sphere of experience that combines allusions to the past with what is happening in the world right now. Like philosophers, artists, and historians, they are capable of speaking to a universality of experience, and it is unnecessary to measure how many people were illuminated to understand the impact of what they offer. In the end, it is this phenomenological engagement with the liberal arts that is incapable of being translated through scientism.

Giving Faculty the Necessary Time and Tools

To successfully incorporate this type of integrative learning into curricula across institutions, faculty need to be given the necessary time and tools. Institutions must also examine their own structures, policies, and practices and take account of how these either hinder or facilitate integrative, evidence-based learning across curricula. Administrators and senior colleagues should recognize the value of this type of intensive teaching, advising, and cross-disciplinary collaboration in the tenure and promotion process. Disciplinary silos, traditional standards of practice pressuring faculty to publish narrow peer-reviewed journal articles above all else, and program contribution analyses that do not give sufficient credit for collaborative teaching and research can create obstacles to implementing a STIRS curriculum and should be examined. In the process, faculty and administrators should be encouraged to come together to discuss whether there is a need to revise existing reward structures to support emerging innovative pedagogies.

Experiences in the world are neatly compartmentalized to conform with departmental and divisional modes of thinking. The blurred lines of the challenges students will face upon graduation should be mirrored in the problems on which we ask them to practice through curricular and cocurricular activities. Regardless of one’s major, the capacity to apply knowledge across disciplines, using multiple perspectives offered by those from radically different backgrounds, is a necessity in our rapidly changing, globally interdependent world. STIRS provides a framework for promoting quality in liberal education and inclusive excellence by ensuring that all students have the tools necessary to thrive in a future we can only partially comprehend. 


Feyerabend, Paul. 1975. Against Method. London: Verso.

Frank, Adam. 2013. “The Power of Science and The Danger of Scientism.” National Public Radio, August 13.

Kingwell, Mark. 2013. “Beyond the Book.” Harper’s Magazine, August.

Lynn Pasquerella, president, AAC&U

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