Pharyngula

When I heard that Steven Pinker had written a new piece decrying the accusations of scientism, I was anxious to read it. “Scientism” is a blunt instrument that gets swung in my direction often enough; I consider it entirely inappropriate in almost every case I hear it used.

Here’s the thing: when I say that there is no evidence for a god, that there’s no sign that there is a single specific thing this imagined being has done, I am not unfairly asking people to adopt the protocols of science — I am expecting to judge by their own standards and expectations. They are praying to Jesus in the expectation of a reward, not as, for instance, an exercise in artistic expression, so it is perfectly legitimate to point out they aren’t getting anything, and their concept of Jesus contradicts their own expectations. When I mock Karen Armstrong’s goofy deepities praising her nebulous cosmic being, I’m not saying she’s wrong because her god won’t fit in a test tube or grow in a petri dish, but because she’s doing bad philosophy and reasoning poorly — disciplines which are greater than and more universal than science.

Science is a fantastic tool (our only tool, actually) for probing material realities. Respect it for what it is. But please, also recognize that there’s more to the human experience than measurement and the acquisition of knowledge about physical processes, and that science is a relatively recent and revolutionary way of thinking, but not the only one — and that humans lived and thrived and progressed for thousands of years (and many still do, even within our technological culture!) without even the concept of science.

Scientism is the idea that only science is the proper mode of human thought, and in particular, a blinkered, narrow notion that every human advance is the product of scientific, rational, empirical thinking. Much as I love science, and am personally a committed practitioner who also has a hard time shaking myself out of this path (I find scientific thinking very natural), I’ve got enough breadth in my education and current experience to recognize that there are other ways of progressing. Notice that I don’t use the phrase “ways of knowing” here — I have a rigorous enough expectation of what knowledge represents to reject other claims of knowledge outside of the empirical collection of information.

It’s the curse of teaching at a liberal arts university and rubbing elbows with people in the arts and humanities all the time.

Which is why I was disappointed with Pinker’s article. I expected two things: an explanation that science is one valid path to knowledge with wide applicability, so simply applying science is not the same as scientism; and an acknowledgment that other disciplines have made significant contributions to human well-being, and therefore we should not pretend to be all-encompassing.

And then I read the first couple of paragraphs of his essay, and was aghast. This was unbelievable hubris; he actually is practicing scientism!

The great thinkers of the Age of Reason and the Enlightenment were scientists. Not only did many of them contribute to mathematics, physics, and physiology, but all of them were avid theorists in the sciences of human nature. They were cognitive neuroscientists, who tried to explain thought and emotion in terms of physical mechanisms of the nervous system. They were evolutionary psychologists, who speculated on life in a state of nature and on animal instincts that are “infused into our bosoms.” And they were social psychologists, who wrote of the moral sentiments that draw us together, the selfish passions that inflame us, and the foibles of shortsightedness that frustrate our best-laid plans.

These thinkers—Descartes, Spinoza, Hobbes, Locke, Hume, Rousseau, Leibniz, Kant, Smith—are all the more remarkable for having crafted their ideas in the absence of formal theory and empirical data. The mathematical theories of information, computation, and games had yet to be invented. The words “neuron,” “hormone,” and “gene” meant nothing to them. When reading these thinkers, I often long to travel back in time and offer them some bit of twenty-first-century freshman science that would fill a gap in their arguments or guide them around a stumbling block. What would these Fausts have given for such knowledge? What could they have done with it?

Hooooly craaaaaap.

Look, there’s some reasonable stuff deeper in, but that opening…could he possibly have been more arrogant, patronizing, and ahistorical? Not only is he appropriating philosophers into the fold of science, but worse, he’s placing them in his favored disciplines of cognitive neuroscience, evolutionary psychology, and social psychology. Does the man ever step outside of his office building on the Harvard campus?

Descartes and Hume were not evolutionary psychologists. He’s doing great violence to the intellectual contributions of those men — and further, he’s turning evolutionary psychology into an amorphous and meaningless grab-bag which can swallow up every thought in the world. The latter, at least, is a common practice within evo psych, but please. Hume was a philosopher. He was not a psychologist, a biologist, or a chemist. He was not doing science, even though he thought a lot about science.

I probably know more about the biological side of how the brain functions than Pinker does, with my background in neuroscience, cell biology, and molecular biology. But I have no illusions. If I could travel in time to visit Hume or Spinoza, I might be able to deliver the occasional enlightening fact that they would find interesting, but most of my knowledge would be irrelevant to their concerns, while their ideas would have broader applicability and would enlighten me. When I imagine visiting these great contributors to the philosophy of science (Hume and Bacon would be at the top of my list), I see myself as a supplicant, hoping to learn more, not as the font of wisdom come to deliver them from their errors. Alright, I might argue some with them, but Jesus…they have their own domains of understanding in which they are acknowledged masters, domains in which I am only a dabbler.

He’s committing the fallacy of progress and scientism. There is no denying that we have better knowledge of science and engineering now, but that does not mean that we’re universally better, smarter, wiser, and more informed about everything. What I know would be utterly useless to a native hunter in New Guinea, or to an 18th century philosopher; it’s useful within a specific context, in a narrow subdomain of a 21st technological society. I think Pinker’s fantasy is not one of informing a knowledgeable person, but of imposing the imagined authority of a modern science on someone from a less technologically advanced culture.

It’s actually an encounter I’d love to see happen. I don’t think evolutionary psychology would hold up at all under the inquisitory scrutiny of Hume.

I tried to put myself in the place of one of my colleagues outside the sciences reading that essay, and when I did that, I choked on the title: “Science Is Not Your Enemy: An impassioned plea to neglected novelists, embattled professors, and tenure-less historians”. How condescending! I know there are a few odd professors out there who have some bizarre ideas about science — they’re as ignorant of science as Pinker seems to be of the humanities — but the majority of the people I talk to who are professors of English or Philosophy or Art or whatever do not have the idea at all that science is an enemy. They see it as a complementary discipline that’s prone to a kind of overweening imperialism. I get that: I feel the same way when I see physicists condescend to mere biologists. We’re just a subset of physics, don’t you know, and don’t really have an independent history, a novel perspective and a deep understanding of a very different set of problems than the ones physicists study.

Just as biologists freely use the tools of physics, scholars in the humanities will use the tools of science where appropriate and helpful. They do not therefore bow down in fealty to the one true intellectual discipline, great Science. I have never known a one to reject rigor, analysis, data collection, or statistics and measurement…although they can get rather pissy if you try to tell them that the basic tools of the academic are copyright Science.

And, dear god, Pinker tells this ridiculous and offensive anecdote:

Several university presidents and provosts have lamented to me that when a scientist comes into their office, it’s to announce some exciting new research opportunity and demand the resources to pursue it. When a humanities scholar drops by, it’s to plead for respect for the way things have always been done.

Oh, fucking nonsense. Humanities scholars are just as interested in making new discoveries as evolutionary psychologists, and are just as enthusiastic about pursuing ideas. What I’ve seen is that university presidents and provosts are typically completely clueless about what scholars do — does anyone really believe Larry Summers had the slightest appreciation of the virtues of knowledge? — so it’s bizarre in the first place to cite the opinions of our administrative bureaucrats. What this anecdote actually translates to is that a scientist stops by with an idea that needs funding that will lead to big grants and possible patent opportunities, and president’s brain goes KA-CHING; humanities scholar stops by with a great insight about French Impressionism or the history of the Spanish Civil War, asks for travel funds (or more likely, pennies for paper and ink), and president’s brain fizzles and can’t figure out how this will bring in a million dollar NIH grant, so what good is it? Why can’t this deadwood get with it and do something with cancer genes or clinical trials?

Perhaps I would have been more receptive to Pinker’s message if I hadn’t sat through a meeting this afternoon with an administrator from the big campus in Minneapolis/St Paul. It was a strange meeting; he’s clearly got grand plans that are of benefit to us, he’s supportive of science, but this was a meeting attended by research faculty in all of the campus disciplines: science, humanities, social sciences, the arts. It was odd to hear all the talk that was focused on a purely science-oriented strategy, when there were all these people around me who are doing research that doesn’t involve equipment grants, NIH funding, and patent opportunities. One of my colleagues spoke up and mentioned that he seemed to be treating the humanities as supporting infrastructure for biology or chemistry, rather than as a respectable scholarly endeavor in its own right.

I was feeling the same way. I’m a biologist, but I do biology because it’s beautiful and I love it and it inspires students. This was all about doing science because it brings in big money to the university. What was in my head was this quote from D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson:

“The harmony of the world is made manifest in Form and Number, and the heart and soul and all the poetry of Natural Philosophy are embodied in the concept of mathematical beauty.”

Substitute “Science” for “Natural Philosophy” (a perfectly reasonable replacement, given what Thompson understood the phrase to mean), and you’ve got a rebuttal to scientism. Heart, soul, poetry, beauty are not grist for the analytical mill of science, but they really are the core, and if you don’t appreciate that, the breadth of your education is lacking.

I’ve been harsh to Pinker’s claims, but you probably shouldn’t see it as a disagreement. Read further into his essay, if you can bear it, and you’ll discover that rather than rejecting scientism he proudly claims it for his own. To accuse him of scientism is no insult, then; it’s only the term for what he happily embraces.

I don’t think I’ll join him in that isolation tank, though.

Comments

  1. #1 John
    New York, NY
    August 9, 2013

    Amen. Pinker oozes all the naivete of 19th century progressivism. But whereas the Victorian materialists were merely optimistic, Pinker comes across as ignorant and childish, because the intervening century should have taught him a thing or two about the limits, especially when it comes to man’s moral dimension, of science and technology.

  2. #2 Constand Konjunkshin
    August 9, 2013

    “Several university presidents and provosts have lamented to me that when a scientist comes into their office, it’s to announce some exciting new research opportunity and demand the resources to pursue it. When a humanities scholar drops by, it’s to plead for respect for the way things have always been done.”
    Yeah, coz every scientific survey of the social media habits of undergrads is so fucking thrilling. (Not that I’m calling for scientifically unsound surveys.)

    The distinction between phil and psych is obviously ahistorical, but Hume was most def doing psychology and certainly anticipated evo influence on mind in intriguing ways.

  3. #3 jane
    August 9, 2013

    This is a stellar essay, although sadly, the Scienceblogs denizens who most need to read and ponder it probably won’t. Though you explicitly repudiate the dehumanization of other or past cultures that is strongly implied by what we might call “orthodox scientism,” you do say:

    “Science is a fantastic tool (our only tool, actually) for probing material realities… but … humans lived and thrived and progressed for thousands of years … without even the concept of science.”

    How do these statements not contradict each other? I have wasted endless time arguing with people who purport to believe (a) that people who do not practice science literally possess no knowledge and (b) that only recent Westerners practice science. How everyone else could even feed themselves for a day without knowledge of the world they lived in is beyond me.

  4. #4 David Marjanović
    Museum für Naturkunde, Berlin
    August 9, 2013

    People of course performed science – they just didn’t have “the concept of science” yet and therefore didn’t carry it very far.

  5. #5 jane
    August 9, 2013

    I would be happy to agree that whenever traditional foraging peoples carefully observed animal behavior or seasonal changes, tested plants for edible or medicinal use, or experimented with new ways of making or using things, they were “doing science,” in the same way that people might adequately reason their way through some situation even without a cultural connection to the classical Greeks who invented formalized logic. However, you would be amazed at the frenzy with which this view is rejected (when it suits them) by at least some scientistic true-believers. Not only does it mean that past or non-westernized, even illiterate peoples can possess knowledge, but it implies that “science” is just a highly formalized and elaborated version of something every normal toddler can do. This does not put the scientist – or more usually, the spokesman for scientism – on anything like the sort of pedestal he thinks he merits.

    By the way, an article on the Chronicle of Higher Education website today indicates that Prof. Pinker is also putting his oar in regarding the forced resignation of a tenured philosopher at the University of Miami for inappropriate conduct towards a grad student. Prof. Pinker apparently thinks it is mean for a man to suffer such oppression just for, e.g., sending emails telling his student he’s fantasizing about her giving him a hand job. Hope he’s not going to try to sell Science as a superior source of values this week.

  6. #6 Jesse
    August 9, 2013

    @jane — I think what a lot of “scientists” are reacting to is when people — especially post-modernist types — go on about “ways of knowing” as though all were equally valid ways of understanding physical reality. Especially when you’re talking medicine it opens up to all kinds of quackery. “Ancient [insert favorite people-du-jour here] thought X, so they must be right about it and we can ignore all the scientific knowledge on the subject.”

    Pre-modern people (in the Western cultural tradition as well) thought all kinds of things that we know are wrong. That doesn’t mean they couldn’t be right about stuff — they had to be at least some of the time. But there’s a tendency to put that kind of knowledge on a pedestal too. The fact is, stuff like relativity works. Modern medicine works. Turning to the practices of 17th century shamanism isn’t going to cure the ills that undoubtedly bedevil modern medicine. Stopped clocks and all that.

    That’s what bugs some folks, myself included, but I also acknowledge that you need other types of human knowledge just to function. After all, we don’t make scientifically based rational decisions about whether to have a ham sandwich or toast in the morning, or whether to play Yes or the Stones while we wash the dishes, or whether to give the spouse a dozen roses or take him/her out to dinner (or both).

    And science without ethics or all that other squishy stuff isn’t terribly useful, anyway.

  7. #7 Anser
    Finland
    August 10, 2013

    Thank you for the post, Pinker’s naive generalizations sure can use a critical look.

    One thing that you write contradicts my previous experience as a humanities student in a Finnish university. You wrote that “scholars in the humanities will use the tools of science where appropriate and helpful”. I hope they do this where you come from, but at least here they often don’t, and that’s where some scientists might start to get the silly “enemy” idea from.

    Here, most (if not all) arts and humanities students don’t have to take even an introductory statistics class, and they might not really know much about methods of any sciences, let alone know how to use them (which, after all, takes practice). When presented with, say, an experimental psychology article that has relevance to their own field of study or interest, they have no skills to engage in conversation over it. They don’t understand what the numbers like p-values mean, they don’t understand what a laboratory experiment could possibly accomplish, and the “worst” of them might just assume that it can’t have any real relevance on how real humans function in the world. In their opinion, qualitative methods are the only proper ones, outside a very narrow understanding of the field of “hard sciences”. So they might not oppose, say, doing medical science but they might shy away from most other fields that try to study the human being in a quantitative way.

    This is, of course, just a crude generalization and I definitely don’t think qualitative study should be replaced with quantitative methods, but I’ve felt that many people in the humanities would benefit from learning about science and empirical study as well. They don’t have to start doing it, but this would allow them to better benefit from and contribute to studies outside of their own niche in the academia. The situation I describe might of course be different in other countries.

  8. [...] Repudiating scientism, rather than surrendering to it When reading these thinkers, I often long to travel back in time and offer them some bit of twenty-first-century freshman science that would fill a gap in their arguments or guide them around a stumbling block. What would these Fausts have given for … Read more on ScienceBlogs (blog) [...]

  9. #9 jane
    August 11, 2013

    Jesse – Some modern medicine works, some doesn’t, and some has potential benefit only for a subset of the people who receive it; some traditional medicine doesn’t work, some does. It’s science-as-process that can best determine which, when funding permits, by doing clinical trials or lab and animal studies, but it’s Science as religion that tells us to ignore the results of actual science, e.g., to get arthroplasty for knee pain even after it’s shown not to work in clinical trials and to abandon echinacea even after it’s shown to work in clinical trials. I see the same pattern in other fields where strong emotional beliefs and big money are involved, e.g., I know of a very competent researcher who has published work showing that endocrine-disrupting chemicals may have effects on human health, yet there are people who will say that expressing any concern about children living awash in bisphenol A makes you “unscientific” and “irrational.” Clearly, for these people, Science is supposed to be a sockpuppet that always validates their favorable opinion of modern American technology. My circumscription of scientism includes any belief system that claims Science requires us to ignore or automatically reject most published scientific data on any question.

  10. #10 Aldo
    Sanlando Springs
    August 11, 2013

    It is interesting to ponder what the results would be if the scientific community worked to prove that there is in fact a god instead of constantly trying to find some reason there is not. Beginning with the belief there is not is an accepted bias. It is interesting to wonder if all this time they sought to prove there is in fact a god what the results might be. God to me is something unexplainable, it is beyond explanation, it is the natural order of things, it is truth, it is light. It is sad to see some think they know better and that they have discerned unequivocally that there is nothing more than we have proven via existing scientific study thus far. Personally my belief is that god is of a dimension not understood by humans so far, that there is a natural order of things and that many of the worlds religions attempt to describe this mysterious force in a way that their various cultures understand. It is something witnesses already know, which is that there is something greater. It is something I know for a fact. It is something those who have seen the light know for a fact. Perhaps physics has come the closest to describing some part of it but it is profound and just, and perhaps best described as the natural order of things. It is the why. When science proves unequivocally the why, you will have found god. My 2c.

  11. #11 David Marjanović
    Museum für Naturkunde, Berlin
    August 12, 2013

    Prof. Pinker apparently thinks it is mean for a man to suffer such oppression just for

    *headdesk*

    Christ, what an asshole.

    After all, we don’t make scientifically based rational decisions about [...] whether to give the spouse a dozen roses or take him/her out to dinner (or both)

    That is a scientific decision: from our knowledge of what they like better, we deduce a hypothesis and then test it.

    :-)

    yet there are people who will say that expressing any concern about children living awash in bisphenol A makes you “unscientific” and “irrational.”

    *headdesk*

    It is interesting to ponder what the results would be if the scientific community worked to prove that there is in fact a god instead of constantly trying to find some reason there is not.

    Uh, science isn’t in the proof business. Proof is for mathematics, formal logic, and American booze. Science deals in disproof. If the observations disagree with the predictions a hypothesis makes, the hypothesis is wrong; if they agree, that could be just random chance (among many other things). The closest science gets are probabilities.

    Science can prove beyond reasonable doubt, sure, but “reasonable” can’t be defined.

    Beginning with the belief there is not is an accepted bias.

    I don’t understand this sentence. Please explain it.

    God to me is something unexplainable, it is beyond explanation

    How do you expect science to deal with that, then? Explaining is what science does!

    It is sad to see some think they know better and that they have discerned unequivocally that there is nothing more than we have proven via existing scientific study thus far.

    There is no reason to assume that there’s anything supernatural.

    Personally my belief is that god is of a dimension not understood by humans so far

    What, if anything, do you mean by “dimension”?

    and that many of the worlds religions attempt to describe this mysterious force in a way that their various cultures understand.

    Then why do they contradict each other and themselves so much?

    It is something I know for a fact.

    Show me.

    That’s how science works: pix, or it didn’t happen. A test that can’t be repeated by other people is not a test. There’s no difference between secret evidence and no evidence.

    and perhaps best described as the natural order of things.

    What do you mean by that?

    It is the why.

    Everything is the way it is because it got that way.
    – J. B. S. Haldane

    All “how” questions are in fact “how” or “what” questions. “Why is it the way it is” = “how did it get that way, what were the influences on this process, what were the potential obstacles, how were they avoided, what were the causes, what are the effects, how did that work”!

    When science proves unequivocally the why,

    Science doesn’t prove.

  12. [...] Repudiating scientism, rather than surrendering to it Pharyngula [...]

  13. #13 Andy
    August 12, 2013

    @Jane: I think the point is precisely that it’s ahistorical to treat all manners of gathering knowledge about the world as “science.” The foragers you talk about certainly did not believe that knowledge of the physical world, of what plants might have medicinal effects, etc. was a *different kind of knowledge* than knowledge of music, of spirituality, etc. Science can’t exist as science if it doesn’t get its own unique sandbox to play in. Nor did they believe that a controlled and refined method was the key to determining truth. Nor, I would assume, would they believe that it was appropriate to “probe material realities” in isolation from other, non-material realities. The idea of taking the non-material completely out of the equation as a necessary step to understanding the deeper material world would be just as alien to the non-modern, non-Western cultures I’m familiar with as would the notion that that deeper world is material at all.

    All of which is to say that, if the point is to value non-scientific cultures, the first step is to embrace the notion that “non-scientific” isn’t a bad word.

  14. #14 MAB
    Earth
    August 13, 2013

    Islam is true.

  15. #15 Lenoxus
    August 13, 2013

    Clearly, for these people, Science is supposed to be a sockpuppet that always validates their favorable opinion of modern American technology.

    Indeed, which is why scientists are the last people you would find supporting the hypothesis of anthropogenic global warming. The pro-technilogy bias of science prevents that idea from ever becoming consensus.

  16. #16 David Marjanović
    Museum für Naturkunde, Berlin
    August 13, 2013

    Islam is true.

    Show us.

  17. #17 jane
    August 13, 2013

    Andy – I am willing to accept that definition, but not any corollary assertion – by others, not you – that traditional peoples therefore possessed no knowledge.

    Lenoxus – You seem to be inappropriately trying to use climatologists and their supporters as a synecdoche for all apparent believers in scientism. Most people are not totally blind to evidence – except those who are actually being paid to be – and therefore when enough evidence mounds up to show the harm of a culturally favored practice, most people without direct economic interests eventually have to accept the facts. However, there are still carbon-company types trying to use the language of Science to dismiss the published results of real climate science. It is far easier to do this for less exhaustively proven hypotheses (harmful effects of endocrine disruptors on us or of neonicotinoids on bees; lack of benefit for lucrative medical interventions or existence of benefit for patient-controlled interventions); if you haven’t seen that rhetoric in use, you haven’t been paying attention.

  18. [...] is precisely what P.Z. Myers has done on his popular anti-ID blogsite Pharyngula in a post entitled Repudiating scientism, rather than surrendering to it.  Never one to mince words, PZ launches right [...]

  19. #19 mikeb
    August 15, 2013

    I read Pinker’s essay, and just loved it. Is that because I’m a “naive” former English major, one who never lost a love of science, even after recognizing I didn’t have the discipline to major in it? I left graduate school after realizing what a relativisitic, gibberish-filled field the humanities were. I would now rather read non-fiction science books rather than fiction.

    So what a surprise it is to see all these people in the sciences jumping all over Pinker as if he is the incarnation of evil. The Blank Slate is one of the best science books, ever. No one can take that away from him.

    As for this quote: “Scientism is the idea that only science is the proper mode of human thought, and in particular, a blinkered, narrow notion that every human advance is the product of scientific, rational, empirical thinking.”

    I don’t think Pinker ever said that.

  20. #20 David Marjanović
    Museum für Naturkunde, Berlin
    August 15, 2013

    It’s not uncommon that good writers get something across convincingly even though it’s wrong. The Blank Slate starts with a strawman… elsewhere, too, Pinker has often extrapolated from bad data or jumped to conclusions without considering more parsimonious alternatives.

    I agree with the conclusions of The Better Angels of Our Nature, though. Can’t say more, because I haven’t read it.

  21. #21 Jordan
    Chicago
    August 16, 2013

    Much of what Pinker wrote is indeed full of fluff and over-generalizations. But if this is his main point:

    “In making sense of our world, there should be few occasions in which we are forced to concede “It just is” or “It’s magic” or “Because I said so.” The commitment to intelligibility is not a matter of brute faith, but gradually validates itself as more and more of the world becomes explicable in scientific terms.”

    that science and not blind faith is the “only” way to view the world (only meaning the way to truth and not guesses) then i think his point is extremely valid.

  22. #22 muhammad
    http://www.widgetbox.com/user/marbleedward2/
    August 19, 2013

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