Pinker on Scientism …

So, Stephen Pinker has decided to take on scientism, in an article where he implores those in the humanities to not consider science an enemy. However, as I argued through my Scientism 101 series, most of the humanities don’t consider science an enemy, and are often more than happy to consider its input if they think it will help them solve their problems. Philosophy, for example, has a long history of trying to integrate science and its successes into its own methodology … with at best mixed results. For the most part, when philosophers say “Science isn’t going to help here” they aren’t saying that because they’re afraid of science encroaching on their field, but instead because they’ve looked at what science can bring to the table and discovered that it really can’t being much. And in pretty much all the fields where science could have any bearing, the question of whether or not science could help us solve the problems keeps getting raised … by philosophers. While one can argue that religion tends to treat science like an enemy, it’s hard to see how philosophy and most of the humanities treat it that way.

But this strikes at one of the major issues with Pinker’s essay. He starts with this:

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.

So who were these “scientists”?

These thinkers—Descartes, Spinoza, Hobbes, Locke, Hume, Rousseau, Leibniz, Kant, Smith— …

It’s very interesting to call these thinkers “scientists”, considering that of those about the only one that you might find talked about at all in any course under the Faculty of Science at most universities is Descartes … and that would be for his mathematics, mostly. All of these thinkers and those great and important thoughts that Pinker mentions are covered in … philosophy courses. You won’t get through Philosophy 101 without hearing a lot about Descartes, and you’ll probably at least get Hobbes, Locke, Hume and Kant there as well. When you start talking about ethics, you’ll hear about Hobbes, Locke, Hume, Rousseau and Kant. There are entire graduate level courses in philosophy dedicated to Spinoza and Leibniz. Smith, assuming that I’m thinking of the right one, gets talked about in economics and poltical science courses. These “scientists” that Pinker talks about are people who are major figures in the humanities, but are never or rarely talked about in formal science courses. The humanities revere them and think of them as important, while the sciences mostly ignore them. So how in the world can you justify calling them scientists? It would be like treating Newton as primarily a philosopher even though his philosophical work is mostly ignored in philosophy and his actual scientific work is fundamental to science and taught in introductory science courses. There is no reason to treat these thinkers as scientists and not philosophers.

That’s a big issue in Pinker’s essay: while he spends a lot of time talking about the impact of science on religion and how the humanities can use science to get past that, he tends to completely ignore the actual humanities in those discussions … and yet he wants to claim that science will not displace the humanities or subsume them under science, but that instead science will simply help. To that end, focusing more on what the humanities bring to the table, demonstrating that he understands what they can bring to the table and the limits to what science itself can do. He handwaves at that at times, but the fact that the humanities themselves get mostly ignored and that some of the things he says are flat-out ignorant of the history of the questions and fields he presents means that his essay fails to hit the point; he demonstrates the problems of scientism while attempt to demonstrate that there are no such problems.

Though everyone endorses science when it can cure disease, monitor the environment, or bash political opponents, the intrusion of science into the territories of the humanities has been deeply resented.

In the major journals of opinion, scientific carpetbaggers are regularly accused of determinism, reductionism, essentialism, positivism, and worst of all, something called “scientism.”

But the reason that they are accused of that is, generally, because they are guilty of it. Jerry Coyne, for example, insists that the world is deterministic and that this means that there is no free will, and he opposes compatibilists who are trying to bridge the two and preserve an interesting notion of free will, and he isn’t alone. We do see a lot of reductionism, particularly in philosophy of mind. And the series on scientism referenced above has to deal with people who advocate positivist positions. Add in that in that series I outlined what I considered scientism and demonstrated that it does seem to occur — especially “broad scientism” — it seems that they are accused of it because, well, they engage in it. And considering that all of the issues listed there other than scientism are long-standing debates in those fields — especially philosophy — it’s perfectly understandable that people might resent science wandering into those debates claiming to have all the answers when what they’re saying is, really, nothing new (the reaction to Krauss and Hawking on the “Something from Nothing” question seems to be that sort of comment).

But “scientism” is indeed often vaguely defined, and I’m certainly not going to claim that no one who decries scientism is doing so more out of, say, an idea that their preferred methodology is the right one as opposed to a real, solid argument, so let’s look at what Pinker calls “scientism” and why he wants to adopt that as a good thing as opposed to a bad thing:

It is distinguished by an explicit commitment to two ideals, and it is these that scientism seeks to export to the rest of intellectual life.

The first is that the world is intelligible. The phenomena we experience may be explained by principles that are more general than the phenomena themselves. These principles may in turn be explained by more fundamental principles, and so on. 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. The processes of life, for example, used to be attributed to a mysterious élan vital; now we know they are powered by chemical and physical reactions among complex molecules.

The second ideal is that the acquisition of knowledge is hard. The world does not go out of its way to reveal its workings, and even if it did, our minds are prone to illusions, fallacies, and super- stitions. Most of the traditional causes of belief—faith, revelation, dogma, authority, charisma, conventional wisdom, the invigorating glow of subjective certainty—are generators of error and should be dismissed as sources of knowledge. To understand the world, we must cultivate work-arounds for our cognitive limitations, including skepticism, open debate, formal precision, and empirical tests, often requiring feats of ingenuity. Any movement that calls itself “scientific” but fails to nurture opportunities for the falsification of its own beliefs (most obviously when it murders or imprisons the people who disagree with it) is not a scientific movement.

The problem here is that Pinker’s two ideals don’t seem particularly scientific, meaning particular to it. Sure, to be science one may have to adopt them, but it doesn’t seem reasonable to suggest that, say, philosophy hasn’t embraced these two principles, and yet seems to have a methodology that’s different from science … and it should know, considering that it originally spawned science and considered it a subset of its method — natural philosophy — rather than the whole method itself. But take a look again at that list of things that should be dismissed as sources of knowledge … and that he seems to say should simply be dismissed as sources of knowledge: faith, revelation, dogma, authority, charisma, conventional wisdom, subjective certainty. If he’s going to go after religion and try to import these things to it, he’s going to have to recognize that faith, revelation and dogma are things that they think work, which means that he’s going to have to argue against it, and argue against it with something that both sides agree works. If science a priori rejects those things, then that isn’t going to work well at all. And authority, conventional wisdom, and subjective certainty seem to be things that, philosophically, we’ve demonstrated can, at least at times, produce knowledge, and even knowledge where science simply can’t get anything like knowledge, or at least where it’s very difficult. The amazing success of folk psychology over the scientifically infused psychology demonstrates that sometimes conventional wisdom works out really well, and thus can even justify itself. In order to solve this problem, Pinker needs something like philosophy, something that doesn’t presume what can generate knowledge but argues for what can and what can’t at a base level that, for the most part, everyone can accept.

So, these two ideals are philosophically questionable, and to the extent that they aren’t questionable they aren’t explicitly scientific. So it seems that right off the bat Pinker is at best claiming things as being fundamentally scientific when they aren’t (they’re fundamental to science, certainly, but not fundamentally scientific) and making claims of what is valid and reasonable about other fields by appealing to justifications that those fields don’t accept. Ignoring the other fields, what they do, and what they need is not a good way to start assuaging the fears of those who aren’t happy about the encroachment of science into the humanities.

In other words, the worldview that guides the moral and spiritual values of an educated person today is the worldview given to us by science. Though the scientific facts do not by themselves dictate values, they certainly hem in the possibilities.

The problem here is that he says that we are guided in our moral and spiritual values by science … as a conclusion to a paragraph that talks entirely about how science disproves religion. And so those possibilities that are hemmed in by science? Well, religious ones. So, here he’s basically arguing that science eliminates religion — ie that it will subsume/eliminate religion because it should — and so that those who are religious are right to fear its encroachment … while ignoring the humanities who are also fearing that, and who he’s trying to calm. And when he outlines this new replacement:

And in combination with a few unexceptionable convictions— that all of us value our own welfare and that we are social beings who impinge on each other and can negotiate codes of conduct—the scientific facts militate toward a defensible morality, namely adhering to principles that maximize the flourishing of humans and other sentient beings. This humanism, which is inextricable from a scientific understanding of the world, is becoming the de facto morality of modern democracies, international organizations, and liberalizing religions, and its unfulfilled promises define the moral imperatives we face today.

… he ignores that this was done philosophically, without any of these modern scientific facts, by Hobbes. His statement here is nothing more than Hobbesian Social Contract, which is not a particularly popular position in moral philosophy, for good reason: It relies on Ethical Egoism, and is seen as being incompatible with an altruism worthy of the name. It is not, despite popular belief, the equivalent of Utilitarianism. Now, none of this means that this isn’t right, but this isn’t new either, and any new facts that can be brought to the table don’t help it, at all. And the conclusion itself is controversial, and it isn’t even clear that this is a view that is inextricable from a scientific understanding of the world. Pinker is, again, taking philosophical positions, claiming them to be science, and then saying that science can help because look at what it brings us? It’d be nice if he’d understand the actual positions of the humanities and the work they’ve done before proclaiming what science can do to help them.

Moreover, science has contributed—directly and enormously—to the fulfillment of these values. If one were to list the proudest accomplishments of our species (setting aside the removal of obstacles we set in our own path, such as the abolition of slavery and the defeat of fascism), many would be gifts bestowed by science.

Few argue that science, in and of itself, has not provided benefit. The scientism debate is not normally one over whether or not science is good; most accept that it is. Even his comments about the criticisms of those who list the contributions science has made to attrocities generally only do it to point out that it’s difficult to claim that science can define our moral values when it has been invoked to support moral attrocities as well as moral progress. Science is descriptive and valueless. It tells us how to achieve our values once we figure out what they are, and so once we decide what our values are we can use science to help us achieve them … depending on what those values are, of course. So it is certainly the case that science will be of use to morality … but it will not particularly help us define what it means to be moral in the first place.

Though science is beneficially embedded in our material, moral, and intellectual lives, many of our cultural institutions, including the liberal arts programs of many universities, cultivate a philistine indifference to science that shades into contempt. Students can graduate from elite colleges with a trifling exposure to science. They are commonly misinformed that scientists no longer care about truth but merely chase the fashions of shifting paradigms.

Well, here’s the thing: students can graduate from elite colleges in the sciences with only a trifling exposure to any of the humanities. Note that in philosophy at least, science gets covered quite a bit, especially since a lot of its fields benefit in at least some way from it. The idea of “paradigm shift” comes from Kuhn … who developed that by empirically studying what scientists actually do. In short Kuhn did science on science and came up with that conclusion … and in philosophy that’s expressed as one idea while the Popperian ideal is stressed as being what the scientific method is really about. Again, Pinker reveals that he knows little about what actually goes on in the humanities while chastising them for not respecting science enough. And, sure, philosophy and the humanities do indeed do similar things to science, but that hardly helps his case.

I can testify that this recrimination is not a relic of the 1990s science wars. When Harvard reformed its general education requirement in 2006 to 2007, the preliminary task force report introduced the teaching of science without any mention of its place in human knowledge: “Science and technology directly affect our students in many ways, both positive and negative: they have led to life-saving medicines, the internet, more efficient energy storage, and digital entertainment; they also have shepherded nuclear weapons, biological warfare agents, electronic eavesdropping, and damage to the environment.” This strange equivocation between the utilitarian and the nefarious was not applied to other disciplines. (Just imagine motivating the study of classical music by noting that it both generates economic activity and inspired the Nazis.) And there was no acknowledgment that we might have good reasons to prefer science and know-how over ignorance and superstition.

The interesting thing here is that the benefits that Harvard cites are pretty much what he and others cite as the reasons why science has been successful and what it has done to help humanity. Noting that science and technology have also had downsides is not necessarily a bad thing, particularly for something that so many people — Pinker himself — tend to cite as unvarnished goods. And the reasons to prefer science over ignorance are given by … the benefits listed in the first part. Hello? So this seems to be nothing more than a gripe that they didn’t just stand up and say that science is great and wonderful and we should just all follow it. Sure, maybe they didn’t say similar things about other fields, but classical music, for example, is not about those benefits, nor does it justify itself by appealing to them. Science does. And so listing the benefits really is important in understanding and accepting science’s role and its success, and why we should value it … and so for completeness we should list its problems as well. Shouldn’t we?

At a 2011 conference, another colleague summed up what she thought was the mixed legacy of science: the eradication of smallpox on the one hand; the Tuskegee syphilis study on the other. (In that study, another bloody shirt in the standard narrative about the evils of science, public-health researchers beginning in 1932 tracked the progression of untreated, latent syphilis in a sample of impoverished African Americans.) The comparison is obtuse. It assumes that the study was the unavoidable dark side of scientific progress as opposed to a universally deplored breach, and it compares a one-time failure to prevent harm to a few dozen people with the prevention of hundreds of millions of deaths per century, in perpetuity.

Sure, the syphilis study isn’t an unavoidable dark side … but it isn’t prevented by science either. There is nothing in the scientific method that says that you shouldn’t study syphilis that way or through one of the many horrific ways we have gained knowledge in the past. It’s morality and moral values that do that, and moral values do not come directly from science, which is generally valueless. In fact, science unvarnished puts gaining knowledge as its top goal, and that implies that you do it any way you can. So learning through atrocities is perfectly compatible with science … but not with morality. Which should, then, make one thing clear: science, in and of itself, does not have moral values and so we must watch science carefully, and hold it to the standards of morality provided by … philosophy. A humanity, you will note. We need ethics boards carefully examining scientific experiments like we have in psychology. That is, indeed, what we have to take from the mixed legacy of scientific investigation. Which does not prove science bad, but rather proves it, well, valueless, in the moral sense.

The humanities are the domain in which the intrusion of science has produced the strongest recoil. Yet it is just that domain that would seem to be most in need of an infusion of new ideas. By most accounts, the humanities are in trouble. University programs are downsizing, the next generation of scholars is un- or underemployed, morale is sinking, students are staying away in droves. No thinking person should be indifferent to our society’s disinvestment from the humanities, which are indispensable to a civilized democracy.

It isn’t the lack of new ideas that is causing the problems in the humanities, nor is it the case that science is necessarily providing them. The problem is the attitude that science is the hallmark of all knowledge worth having, and so things that work the way science does and, more importantly, produce results of the same sort and frequency as those of science — mostly of direct application to our daily lives — are the only things that really have value or are worth studying. Instead of trying to infuse these fields with science to make them more appealing, we need to look at these fields as these fields and demonstrate how they are indeed important. We don’t want these fields to bleed their respect from science, and gain respect only insofar as they work as science or can be considered to be such. Thus, we need to treat the fields not as subfields of science, but as fields in their own right, with the own problems, goals, and methodologies.


3 Responses to “Pinker on Scientism …”

  1. Crude Says:

    The problem is the attitude that science is the hallmark of all knowledge worth having, and so things that work the way science does and, more importantly, produce results of the same sort and frequency as those of science — mostly of direct application to our daily lives — are the only things that really have value or are worth studying.

    Emphasizing this to say, if this attitude persists, I think quite a lot of ‘science’ may suffer the same fate as the humanities.

    More than that, the combination of Pinker’s praise of evolutionary psychologists and the fact that evolutionary psychology seems to be the model for what he thinks is a successful example of a science-humanities mix is pretty damn odd.

    • verbosestoic Says:

      I think it’s already happening. I think it was Sarah Palin who made a comment about what benefit we got out of studies of fruit flies, ticking off a lot of scientists. But I don’t think that she was the first to make that precise comment, and we all hear about odd scientific studies that we look at a bit askance.

      Science has an advantage in that in its history it has a number of cases of investigations and discoveries that we didn’t think would have an impact on the world that ended up being the basis for important, real applications later. But taking that tack means that scientists can justify their work on the basis that it simply adds knowledge and that getting more knowledge is good for its own sake. And if they abandon that, then we’ll see — as we’re seeing already — that getting new research funded will depend on being able to demonstrate that it will produce results that will have an impact on our everyday lives, with then, perhaps, full fields getting underfunded simply because they can’t prove that they can do that.

  2. Héctor Muñoz Says:

    Isn’t a dogmatic attempt to justify the superiority of a moral system based on the idea that it supposedly derives from science a fallacy since all moral systems require the acceptance of a dogma?

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