Breaking Bad isn’t About Scientism

One interesting strain in critical reactions to Breaking Bad is the argument that the show represents a critique of “scientism”–in particular, the view that scientific progress involves moral and philosophical progress. Proponents of this argument draw together several themes in the show, including the radical nature of Walt’s evil and the contrast between  the gleaming means of modern chemistry that Walt employs in the service of an ancient, tribal moral code. Breaking Bad depicts a “man of science” who nonetheless descends into evil, and thereby drives a wedge between scientism’s connection between scientific and moral progress.

This argument, which echoes long-simmering worries about the relationship between the arts and sciences and human welfare, presupposes that Walter White really is a “man of science.” This premise, however, is false–Walt isn’t a scientist but rather a cook.

While I recognize that my distinction could slide into a “No True Scotsman” fallacy, the difference between science and technique has real bite. Methamphetamine production, as Victor notes at the beginning of season 4, is simply a matter of following a recipe. Walt next proceeds to dazzle Victor with his scientific acumen, but Victor’s essential point remains–Walt’s abilities are principally technical. He simply follows the recipe better than anyone else. Walt never displays the norms of imagination and self-examination prerequisite for truly scientific inquiry.

Walt’s signature accomplishments–blowing up a room with fulminated mercury, killing Gus Fring, and eliminating the Nazi gang with a jerry-rigged machine gun–involve the deliberate application of means to ends. While his ingenuity and theatricality aren’t in doubt, these skills do not reflect on him qua scientist. Science doesn’t advance toward a foreordained conclusion through the skill of scientists, as Karl Popper notes, but rather by incrementally cleaving away false beliefs from true ones. Those who interpret Breaking Bad as a critique of scientism confuse Walt’s use of technology with his use of science, when in fact what Walt is up to is worlds apart from the scientific method.

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