Steven Pinker has written a long essay in The New Republic embracing scientism. That's really too bad, because this way Pinker joins a disturbingly long list of scientists (and a few philosophers) who confuse a defense of good science with a knee-jerk reaction against sound criticism of science. [For a good, if partial, response to Pinker from the Left look here; for a far less convincing one, from the Right, look here.]

Pinker begins awfully, waxing poetic about how the Great Thinkers of the Enlightenment were all scientists, and in particular, cognitive neuroscientists, evolutionary psychologists (!!), and social psychologists. Such thinkers include Descartes, Spinoza, Hobbes, Locke, Hume, Rousseau, Leibniz, Kant, and Smith. All, obviously, philosophers. Yeah, I get it, it was a rhetorical opening gamble. But it is precisely the sort of rhetoric that justly pisses off people in the humanities, so why start an essay that way  which ostensibly attempts to reconcile the so-called two cultures?

It immediately gets worse, with Pinker patronizingly fantasizing about going back in time to help out those brilliant minds with a bit of modern scientific knowledge, to see how they would react. Didn't anyone tell him that that would be a flagrant violation of the temporal equivalent of the Prime Directive? Kidding aside, Pinker muses that scholars in the humanities should be delighted at the advances of the sciences and what they can tell them about their own field. Instead, these ungrateful bastards keep whining about something called "scientism." Cue the predictable "scientism is an arbitrary label thrown at things one doesn't like" complaint and you don't need to bother reading the rest of the essay.

So, once again, let's revisit the issue of scientism, this time using a different take, which I hope will help us make some progress. I have begun to think of scientism as in a sense the opposite extreme of pseudoscience: while pseudoscientific notions arise from science badly done (or non-science masquerading as science), scientism is about science overreaching (or science trying to expand into non scientific domains).

Interestingly, the word pseudoscience can also be used to deflect genuine criticism: oh, you are just throwing pseudoscience at me in order to dismiss what I do without argument, says the ufologist (or astrologist, or homeopath, or...). And of course it is perfectly true that both scientism and pseudoscience can indeed be used inappropriately, just like the term science itself can and has been invoked to prop up all sorts of bad doctrines (scientific psychoanalysis, scientific Marxism, phrenology, eugenics, and so forth).

So the problem isn't with the fact that some people misuse a given term, the problem is whether that term actually refers to something worth talking about. Science surely does; and so does pseudoscience. Things are no different for scientism, but we need to talk about concrete examples rather than conceptual generics.

Unfortunately, Pinker's essay is remarkably short on specifics. It reads like one long whining session against the injustices perpetrated on science by unknown and unnamed postmodernists (the favored bugaboo of defenders of scientism) and religious fundamentalists. Indeed, there are only two specific examples throughout the piece of what Pinker thinks are unfair attacks on science: one by historian Jackson Lears, the other by Leon Kass, former G.W. Bush bioethics advisor.

Kass' piece is indeed a religiously (mis-)informed ramble about the evil of materialism (quite a rich accusation, coming from a political party that has made the pursuit of material goods for their self-selected elite a national platform), so Pinker is right in dismissing it. But Lears' target are the writings of Sam Harris, a textbook example of the excesses of scientism if there is any to be found out there! And therein lies the problem: just as in the case of pseudoscience, the devil, so to speak, is in the details. Generic cries of "scientism!" or "pseudoscience!" won't stick, nor should they. But generic dismissals of criticisms of either pseudoscience or scientism shouldn't either. It's just not that simple.

Pinker claims that science couldn't possibly indulge in the excesses that its critics level at it because, you know, the whole process employs a series of safeguards, including open debate, peer review, and double blind experiments. Yes, and when the system works, it works really well. But Pinker seems to ignore much research in the history and sociology of science that shows that sometimes that system goes wrong, occasionally worrisomely wrong (e.g., a lot of medical research on drugs is seriously flawed, particularly - but not only - when the funding for it comes from the pharmaceutical industry). Not to mention that he entirely misses the point of the most frequent cases of scientism: they are not to be found in the technical scientific literature, but rather in popular science writings, when scientists (or people who claim to be interpreting science on behalf of the public) make claims that are simply disproportionate to the evidence (as in many recent instances of neurobabbling).

Science, says Pinker, is committed to two ideals: that the universe is intelligible, and that acquisition of knowledge is hard. Well, I'm not sure why these are "ideals" rather than, say, working assumptions (the first) and acknowledgement of fact (the second). But this is a red herring, of course. Nobody in his right mind is arguing that the universe isn't (to a point, no guarantees!) understandable by us, and certainly nobody is accusing scientists of being lazy. So why bring that up to begin with?

Pinker then moves to another predictable - and, again, largely irrelevant - point: science is under attack by fundamentalist religion, it needs to be defended! Indeed, and many in the humanities (particularly in philosophy) have lent a hand to that defense over the past several years (e.g., in debates about creationism and intelligent design). But bashing once again Stephen Jay Gould's (in)famous idea of two separate magisteria for science and religion, he commits the very same mistake that Gould made: (rational) morality isn't the province of religion, it is a branch of philosophy, and it is philosophers such as myself that have taken to task the scientistic excesses of Harris, Shermer, and co. See? Once again things are more complicated: I am a staunch ally of Pinker when it comes to defending science from religion, but that doesn't mean I cannot raise the issue of scientism when my allies themselves say silly or unsubstantiated things.

Pinker, again predictably, and largely off the topic, goes on to claim that science has contributed enormously to the welfare of humanity, which of course nobody is denying. He also conveniently dismisses or minimizes the problems that science and technology have brought to us: it's ok for science to take credit for vaccines (as it should), but not ok for critics to point out nasty stuff like atomic bombs and biological warfare. See, those aren't really the results of "science," but of bad politicians misusing science. This is such a naive understanding of human power relations, not to mention of the complex social role of science, that it is downright laughable. I keep wondering why serious thinkers like Pinker cannot simply admit science's blunders, graciously acknowledge the criticisms, and genuinely try to forge a better way forward. One would almost suspect that these people are feeling guilty of something.

Moreover, for some reason the accomplishments of science need to be highlighted while at the same time those not attributable to science go acknowledged only parenthetically: "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." Yes, let's not count little things like the abolition of slavery and the defeat of fascism, or perhaps the general improvement in human rights, women rights, gay rights, general education, access to health care (as distinct from the science-based quality of that care), and countless other improvements the human race has managed to make without science. Again, this isn't an attack on science, it's simply a matter of pointing out that science has done great goods as well as the more than an occasional evil, and moreover, that much has been accomplished without a lot of help from science. Nuance, people, nuance.

One more example of the oddly slanted view that Pinker presents: "contrary to the widespread canard that technology has created a dystopia of deprivation and violence, every global measure of human flourishing is on the rise." Well, yes, so is the temperature of the planet, just to mention one example, which may very well put a rather abrupt and unpleasant end to that satisfying rise in human flourishing. And climate change is the result of technology, unless you are a denier of the obvious. (Nuance, people, nuance...)

More: "A demonization campaign anachronistically impugns science for crimes that are as old as civilization, including racism, slavery, conquest and genocide." True, science per se is certainly not to blame for those human moral failings. But (some) scientists have actively contributed to the design and production of technological instruments that have made possible the raising of those crimes to never before seen levels. No blame at all? Not even a little tiny bit?

Pinker then goes on to a surreal analysis of the problems faced by the humanities on college campuses these days: downsizing of programs and faculty. Oh sure, he acknowledges that a number of factors is at play, beginning with widespread anti-intellectualism in our culture and continuing with the commercialization of universities. But, really, the damage is also humanists' own fault. You see, the humanities have not yet recovered from the self-inflicted wound of postmodernism, and their insistence in rejecting science is just downright suicidal. I am no defender of postmodernism, as my readers will hopefully well know, but some postmodernists (Foucault, for instance, and before him the pre-postmodernist Feyerabend) have raised serious questions about the social role of science, the unchecked power of scientific institutions, and so forth. Whenever such critiques degenerate into a wholesale rejection of science, the critics themselves need to be called out. But it is foolish to throw out the bathwater without checking whether there is a baby still inside the bathtub (to use one of Pinker's own metaphors).

"Several university presidents and provosts have lamented to me that when a scientist comes into their office, it's to announce some exciting 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."

Seriously? I am a Department Chair, and regularly talk to Deans, Provosts and Presidents. And I have been on both sides of the divide, beginning my career as a scientist and continuing it as a philosopher. And I say, bullshit. To begin with, administrators don't get excited at the prospect of new scientific discoveries. They get excited at the prospect of the millions of dollars that new research grants will bring into the coffers of the university (see Pinker's own comment above about the deplorable commercialization of universities). Second, I certainly don't go to administrators to plead for respect and tradition. I go to point out that universities are supposed to create the next generation of citizens, voters, and critical thinkers, not just cheap and flexible labor for big corporations. I go to remind them that the humanities are crucial for the understanding of vital social debates about the nature of our democratic system, the rights of various groups of people, the concept and implementation of justice, and so forth. And I also go to remind them that philosophy students consistently score higher than pretty much anyone else on a number of tests that are used as gateways for graduate school, medical school, business school, and law school. So there.

Pinker wraps things up by highlighting some areas where the sciences and the humanities should collaborate, rather than fight. Again, some of these are good suggestions, and if scholars in the humanities reject them then they are science-phobic to their own detriment. Other of the suggestions, frankly, leave me quite cold, and again bring to mind the scientistic attitude of wanting to get science's nose sniffing everywhere, regardless of the utility of doing so.

Yes, quantitative methods can (and should) be used by historians, though this will always likely be complementary to, rather than substitutive of, classical historical methods. And yes, the fruitful collaboration between philosophers of mind and cognitive scientists is a shining example of how to bridge the divide between the two cultures. But no, quantitative analyses of Jane Austin novels interpreted in evolutionary psychological key are frankly ridiculous (I've seen it done), and while clearly the study of the physiology of visual or auditory perception are fascinating fields in their own right, they are far less useful to my enjoyment of a Picasso or a Beethoven sonata than knowledge of the history of art or of music.

Pinker really wasted a good chance here. He has the intellectual stature and public visibility to nudge the debate forward in a positive direction. Instead of embracing scientism as a positive label, he should have acknowledged that some criticism of science is well founded and sorely needed. Instead of telling us again platitudes about the benefits of science (while ignoring its darker side) and chastising the humanities for not embracing it whole heartedly, he could have presented a nuanced examination of where science really is useful to the humanities and where the latter are useful to the sciences - not to mention those several areas where the two can safely ignore each other in pursuit of different goals. Oh well, next time, perhaps.

Originally on Rationally Speaking