Steven Pinker, who seems determined to outdo Bryan Caplan in wrongheadedness, devotes “Science Is Not Your Enemy” (The New Republic, August 6, 2013), to the defense of scientism. Actually, Pinker doesn’t overtly defend scientism, which is indefensible; he just redefines it to mean science:
The term “scientism” is anything but clear, more of a boo-word than a label for any coherent doctrine. Sometimes it is equated with lunatic positions, such as that “science is all that matters” or that “scientists should be entrusted to solve all problems.” Sometimes it is clarified with adjectives like “simplistic,” “naïve,” and “vulgar.” The definitional vacuum allows me to replicate gay activists’ flaunting of “queer” and appropriate the pejorative for a position I am prepared to defend.
Scientism, in this good sense, is not the belief that members of the occupational guild called “science” are particularly wise or noble. On the contrary, the defining practices of science, including open debate, peer review, and double-blind methods, are explicitly designed to circumvent the errors and sins to which scientists, being human, are vulnerable.
After that slippery performance, it’s all smooth sailing — or so Pinker thinks — because all he has to do is point out all the good things about science. And if scientism=science, then scientism is good, right?
Wrong. Scientism remains indefensible, and there’s a lot of scientism in what passes for science. You don’t need to take my word for it; Pinker’s own words tell the tale.
But, first, let’s get clear about the meaning and fallaciousness of scientism. The various writers cited by Pinker describe it well, but Hayek probably offers the most thorough indictment of it; for example:
[W]e shall, wherever we are concerned … with slavish imitation of the method and language of Science, speak of “scientism” or the “scientistic” prejudice…. It should be noted that, in the sense in which we shall use these terms, they describe, of course, an attitude which is decidedly unscientific in the true sense of the word, since it involves a mechanical and uncritical application of habits of thought to fields different from those in which they have been formed. The scientistic as distinguished from the scientific view is not an unprejudiced but a very prejudiced approach which, before it has considered its subject, claims to know what is the most appropriate way of investigating it…..
The blind transfer of the striving for quantitative measurements to a field in which the specific conditions are not present which give it its basic importance in the natural sciences, is the result of an entirely unfounded prejudice. It is probably responsible for the worst aberrations and absurdities produced by scientism in the social sciences. It not only leads frequently to the selection for study of the most irrelevant aspects of the phenomena because they happen to be measurable, but also to “measurements” and assignments of numerical values which are absolutely meaningless. What a distinguished philosopher recently wrote about psychology is at least equally true of the social sciences, namely that it is only too easy “to rush off to measure something without considering what it is we are measuring, or what measurement means. In this respect some recent measurements are of the same logical type as Plato’s determination that a just ruler is 729 times as happy as an unjust one.”…
Closely connected with the “objectivism” of the scientistic approach is its methodological collectivism, its tendency to treat “wholes” like “society” or the “economy,” “capitalism” (as a given historical “phase”) or a particular “industry” or “class” or “country” as definitely given objects about which we can discover laws by observing their behavior as wholes. While the specific subjectivist approach of the social sciences starts … from our knowledge of the inside of these social complexes, the knowledge of the individual attitudes which form the elements of their structure, the objectivism of the natural sciences tries to view them from the outside ; it treats social phenomena not as something of which the human mind is a part and the principles of whose organization we can reconstruct from the familiar parts, but as if they were objects directly perceived by us as wholes….
The belief that human history, which is the result of the interaction of innumerable human minds, must yet be subject to simple laws accessible to human minds is now so widely held that few people are at all aware what an astonishing claim it really implies. Instead of working patiently at the humble task of rebuilding from the directly known elements the complex and unique structures which we find in the world, and of tracing from the changes in the relations between the elements the changes in the wholes, the authors of these pseudo-theories of history pretend to be able to arrive by a kind of mental short cut at a direct insight into the laws of succession of the immediately apprehended wholes. However doubtful their status, these theories of development have achieved a hold on public imagination much greater than any of the results of genuine systematic study. “Philosophies” or “theories” of history (or “historical theories”) have indeed become the characteristic feature, the “darling vice” of the 19th century. From Hegel and Comte, and particularly Marx, down to Sombart and Spengler these spurious theories came to be regarded as representative results of social science; and through the belief that one kind of “system” must as a matter of historical necessity be superseded by a new and different “system,” they have even exercised a profound influence on social evolution. This they achieved mainly because they looked like the kind of laws which the natural sciences produced; and in an age when these sciences set the standard by which all intellectual effort was measured, the claim of these theories of history to be able to predict future developments was regarded as evidence of their pre-eminently scientific character. Though merely one among many characteristic 19th century products of this kind, Marxism more than any of the others has become the vehicle through which this result of scientism has gained so wide an influence that many of the opponents of Marxism equally with its adherents are thinking in its terms. (Friedrich A. Hayek, The Counter Revolution Of Science [Kindle Locations 120-1180], The Free Press.)
After a barrage like that (and this), what’s a defender of scientism to do? Pinker’s tactic is to stop using “scientism” and start using “science.” This makes it seem as if he really isn’t defending scientism, but rather trying to show how science can shed light onto subjects that are usually not in the province of science. In reality, Pinker preaches scientism by calling it science.
The new sciences of the mind are reexamining the connections between politics and human nature, which were avidly discussed in Madison’s time but submerged during a long interlude in which humans were assumed to be blank slates or rational actors. Humans, we are increasingly appreciating, are moralistic actors, guided by norms and taboos about authority, tribe, and purity, and driven by conflicting inclinations toward revenge and reconciliation.
There is nothing new in this, as Pinker admits by adverting to Madison. Nor was the understanding of human nature “submerged” except in the writings of scientistic social “scientists.” We ordinary mortals were never fooled. Moreover, Pinker’s idea of scientific political science seems to be data-dredging:
With the advent of data science—the analysis of large, open-access data sets of numbers or text—signals can be extracted from the noise and debates in history and political science resolved more objectively.
As explained here, data-dredging is about as scientistic as it gets:
When enough hypotheses are tested, it is virtually certain that some falsely appear statistically significant, since every data set with any degree of randomness contains some spurious correlations. Researchers using data mining techniques if they are not careful can be easily misled by these apparently significant results, even though they are mere artifacts of random variation.
Turning to the humanities, Pinker writes:
[T]here can be no replacement for the varieties of close reading, thick description, and deep immersion that erudite scholars can apply to individual works. But must these be the only paths to understanding? A consilience with science offers the humanities countless possibilities for innovation in understanding. Art, culture, and society are products of human brains. They originate in our faculties of perception, thought, and emotion, and they cumulate [sic] and spread through the epidemiological dynamics by which one person affects others. Shouldn’t we be curious to understand these connections? Both sides would win. The humanities would enjoy more of the explanatory depth of the sciences, to say nothing of the kind of a progressive agenda that appeals to deans and donors. The sciences could challenge their theories with the natural experiments and ecologically valid phenomena that have been so richly characterized by humanists.
What on earth is Pinker talking about? This is over-the-top bafflegab worthy of Professor Irwin Corey. But because it comes from the keyboard of a noted (self-promoting) academic, we are meant to take it seriously.
Yes, art, culture, and society are products of human brains. So what? Poker is, too, and it’s a lot more amenable to explication by the mathematical tools of science. But the successful application of those tools depends on traits that are more art than science (bluffing, spotting “tells,” avoiding “tells,” for example).
More “explanatory depth” in the humanities means a deeper pile of B.S. Great art, literature, and music aren’t concocted formulaically. If they could be, modernism and postmodernism wouldn’t have yielded mountains of trash.
Oh, I know: It will be different next time. As if the tools of science are immune to misuse by obscurantists, relativists, and practitioners of political correctness. Tell it to those climatologists who dare to challenge the conventional wisdom about anthropogenic global warming. Tell it to the “sub-human” victims of the Third Reich’s medical experiments and gas chambers.
Pinker anticipates this kind of objection:
At a 2011 conference, [a] 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.
But the Tuskegee study was only a one-time failure in the sense that it was the only Tuskegee study. As a type of failure — the misuse of science (witting and unwitting) — it goes hand-in-hand with the advance of scientific knowledge. Should science be abandoned because of that? Of course not. But the hard fact is that science, qua science, is powerless against human nature, which defies scientific control.
Pinker plods on by describing ways in which science can contribute to the visual arts, music, and literary scholarship:
The visual arts could avail themselves of the explosion of knowledge in vision science, including the perception of color, shape, texture, and lighting, and the evolutionary aesthetics of faces and landscapes. Music scholars have much to discuss with the scientists who study the perception of speech and the brain’s analysis of the auditory world.
As for literary scholarship, where to begin? John Dryden wrote that a work of fiction is “a just and lively image of human nature, representing its passions and humours, and the changes of fortune to which it is subject, for the delight and instruction of mankind.” Linguistics can illuminate the resources of grammar and discourse that allow authors to manipulate a reader’s imaginary experience. Cognitive psychology can provide insight about readers’ ability to reconcile their own consciousness with those of the author and characters. Behavioral genetics can update folk theories of parental influence with discoveries about the effects of genes, peers, and chance, which have profound implications for the interpretation of biography and memoir—an endeavor that also has much to learn from the cognitive psychology of memory and the social psychology of self-presentation. Evolutionary psychologists can distinguish the obsessions that are universal from those that are exaggerated by a particular culture and can lay out the inherent conflicts and confluences of interest within families, couples, friendships, and rivalries that are the drivers of plot.
I wonder how Rembrandt and the Impressionists (among other pre-moderns) managed to create visual art of such evident excellence without relying on the kinds of scientific mechanisms invoked by Pinker. I wonder what music scholars would learn about excellence in composition that isn’t already evident in the general loathing of audiences for most “serious” modern and contemporary music.
As for literature, great writers know instinctively and through self-criticism how to tell stories that realistically depict character, social psychology, culture, conflict, and all the rest. Scholars (and critics), at best, can acknowledge what rings true and has dramatic or comedic merit. Scientistic pretensions in scholarship (and criticism) may result in promotions and raises for the pretentious, but they do not add to the sum of human enjoyment — which is the real aim of literature.
Pinker inveighs against critics of scientism (science, in Pinker’s vocabulary) who cry “reductionism” and “simplification.” With respect to the former, Pinker writes:
Demonizers of scientism often confuse intelligibility with a sin called reductionism. But to explain a complex happening in terms of deeper principles is not to discard its richness. No sane thinker would try to explain World War I in the language of physics, chemistry, and biology as opposed to the more perspicuous language of the perceptions and goals of leaders in 1914 Europe. At the same time, a curious person can legitimately ask why human minds are apt to have such perceptions and goals, including the tribalism, overconfidence, and sense of honor that fell into a deadly combination at that historical moment.
It is reductionist to explain a complex happening in terms of a deeper principle when that principle fails to account for the complex happening. Pinker obscures that essential point by offering a silly and irrelevant example about World War I. This bit of misdirection is unsurprising, given Pinker’s foray into reductionism, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, which I examine here.
As for simplification, Pinker says:
The complaint about simplification is misbegotten. To explain something is to subsume it under more general principles, which always entails a degree of simplification. Yet to simplify is not to be simplistic.
Pinker again dodges the issue. Simplification is simplistic when the “general principles” fail to account adequately for the phenomenon in question.
If Pinker is right about anything, it is when he says that “the intrusion of science into the territories of the humanities has been deeply resented.” The resentment, though some of it may be wrongly motivated, is fully justified.
Related reading (added 08/10/13 and 09/06/13):
Bill Vallicella, “Steven Pinker on Scientism, Part One,” Maverick Philosopher, August 10, 2013
Leon Wieseltier, “Crimes Against Humanities,” The New Republic, September 3, 2013 (gated)
Related posts about Pinker:
Nonsense about Presidents, IQ, and War
The Fallacy of Human Progress
Related posts about modernism:
Speaking of Modern Art
Making Sense about Classical Music
An Addendum about Classical Music
My Views on Classical Music, Vindicated
But It’s Not Music
A Quick Note about Music
Modernism in the Arts and Politics
Taste and Art
Modernism and the Arts
Related posts about science:
Science’s Anti-Scientific Bent
Modeling Is Not Science
We, the Children of the Enlightenment
Analysis for Government Decision-Making: Hemi-Science, Hemi-Demi-Science, and Sophistry
Scientism, Evolution, and the Meaning of Life
The Candle Problem: Balderdash Masquerading as Science
Mysteries: Sacred and Profane
The Glory of the Human Mind