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?
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.