Pinker on “scientism”

Steven Pinker’s got an essay in the New Republic headlined Science Is Not Your Enemy: An impassioned plea to neglected novelists, embattled professors, and tenure-less historians. Pinker is a great science writer — I particularly admire his first general-audience book, The Language Instinct — but the more polemical he gets, the less I like his writing. Although I agree with some of what I think he’s trying to say in this essay, it strikes me as a largely unhelpful contribution to the endless science vs. humanities discussion.

For one thing, although Pinker claims to be arguing for a truce, he seems to go out of his way to say thing to fire up the scientist camp and irritate the humanities camp. He also seems to be arguing against straw men a lot of the time. Massimo Pigliucci does a good job detailing some of these problems.

Pinker seems to be claiming that scientists are themselves the victims of straw-man arguments: when charges of “scientism” (a word used to bash overweening scientists) get leveled, he claims, the word often seems to refer to extreme positions that no scientist actually holds. Sometimes, that’s probably true. In fact, as Sean Carroll suggests, it might be best to retire the word altogether, since its meaning is unclear and it functions more as a scare term than a useful descriptor. But at least some vocal scientists do believe that science can and will extend beyond its traditional boundaries, in ways that other people disagree with. Those claims might be right or they might be wrong, but they are out there.

Take Sam Harris as an example. He wrote a book subtitled “How science can determine human values.”  From Harris’s web page:

In this explosive new book, Sam Harris tears down the wall between scientific facts and human values, arguing that most people are simply mistaken about the relationship between morality and the rest of human knowledge. Harris urges us to think about morality in terms of human and animal well-being, viewing the experiences of conscious creatures as peaks and valleys on a “moral landscape.” Because there are definite facts to be known about where we fall on this landscape, Harris foresees a time when science will no longer limit itself to merely describing what people do in the name of “morality”; in principle, science should be able to tell us what we ought to do to live the best lives possible.

Whether or not Harris is right about this (I think he’s wrong), he is making a claim that lots of people find preposterous. Whether or not you like the word “scientism,” you can’t deny that he’s claiming a mandate for science that goes far beyond what many people think correct. It’s simply not the case that the people who accuse Harris of “scientism” are attributing to him extreme positions that he doesn’t hold.

It’s not every day that I find myself agreeing with Ross Douthat, but I think that his view of Pinker’s essay has a lot that’s right:

If this is scientism then obviously no sensible person should have a problem with it. But the “boo-word” version of the phenomenon — the scientism that makes entirely unwarranted claims about what the scientific method can tell us, wraps “is” in the mantle of “ought” and vice versa, and reduces culture to biology at every opportunity — is much easier to pin down than Pinker suggests.

This is an impressively swift march from allowing, grudgingly, that scientific discoveries do not “dictate” values to asserting that they “militate” very strongly in favor of … why, of Steven Pinker’s very own moral worldview! You see, because we do not try witches, we must be utilitarians! Because we know the universe has no purpose, we must imbue it with the purposes of a (non-species-ist) liberal cosmopolitanism! Because of science, we know that modern civilization has no dialectic or destiny … so we must pursue its “unfulfilled promises” and accept its “moral imperatives” instead!

Like Sam Harris, who wrote an entire book claiming that “science” somehow vindicates his preferred form of philosophical utilitarianism (when what he really meant was that if you assume utilitarian goals, science can help you pursue them), Pinker seems to have trouble imagining any reasoning person disagreeing about either the moral necessity of “maximizing human flourishing” or the content of what “flourishing” actually means — even though recent history furnishes plenty of examples and a decent imagination can furnish many more.

One thing I did like about Pinker’s essay: he describes Rocks of Ages as Stephen Jay Gould’s “worst book.” I haven’t read all of Gould’s books, so I suppose I can’t confirm this with 100% certainty, but Gould’s idea of “non-overlapping magisteria,” laid out in this book, is one of his more stupid creations.

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Ted Bunn

I am an associate professor of physics at the University of Richmond. In addition to teaching a variety of undergraduate physics courses, I work on a variety of research projects in cosmology, the study of the origin, structure, and evolution of the Universe. University of Richmond undergraduates are involved in all aspects of this research. If you want to know more about my research, ask me!

One thought on “Pinker on “scientism””

  1. I think I have read all of Gould’s books except this one, and based on what I have heard, I probably won’t read it.

    It is interesting that many scientists who are well known as popular writers, such as Gould, Pinker and Penrose, are not exactly mainstream within their own field. No idea which is cause and which is effect or indeed if there is a common cause or perhaps coincidence.


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