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Think Tank

Steven Pinker and the Scientific Worldview

Steven Pinker has caused quite a stir with his appropriation of the word "scientism," which he says is "more of a boo-word than a label for any coherent doctrine."

Indeed, scientism has existed up until this point as a term of abuse: you must believe that science has answers to all questions!

To be clear, Pinker makes no argument that science, and science alone, has all the answers. In the field of literary scholarship, for instance, Pinker says science can do things like "illuminate," "provide insight" and "update" our understanding of language, cognitive psychology and behavioral genetics, respectively. 

What Pinker has done is recast the definition of scientism as both a full-throated defense of science against its detractors, as well as a wide embrace of the tools of science across the disciplines. Pinker then goes further. Scientism, in its broadest sense, is a worldview. "The facts of science, by exposing the absence of purpose in the laws governing the universe, force us to take responsibility for the welfare of ourselves, our species, and our planet," Pinker writes.

It is worth reading Pinker's essay in The New Republic in full here, and it is also worth following, as we have outlined below, how Pinker's scientism  meme has taken on a life of its own. 

It is not surprising that Pinker's attempt to rescue the word scientism, indeed his flaunting of it, as he puts it, has touched a nerve and launched a number of spirited responses. And yet, even among his critics, relatively few have qualms with Pinker's argument that science needs to be defended against attacks by fundamentalist religion or radical philosophy. On the other hand, science should also not be isolated from sound criticism, as people like Massimo Pigliucci say Pinker's argument implies. Scientism, in fact, is a real problem. Pigliucci, Professor of Philosophy at the City University of New York, writes:

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). 

For the record, Pinker states that "scientists, being human, are vulnerable." And yet, there is perhaps a certain slipperiness in the way Pinker freely substitutes science and scientism that is bound, at the very least, to cause confusion.  

One of the most widespread criticisms of Pinker's argument involves what some see as the overly-promiscuous application of science across the disciplines. While science has certainly enriched other fields, critics argue that important lines need to be drawn.  writes in Harvard Political Review:

Interaction between disciplines doesn’t mean that there aren’t any boundaries. The humanities draw much of their value from the fact that they can’t be reduced to technocratic decomposition and analysis. This is what Steven Pinker doesn’t get.

When it comes to subjects like politics and ethics, it is especially important to delineate the kinds of questions that science can and cannot answer. On this point Ross Douthat finds scientism to be "empirically overconfident, intellectually unsubtle, and deeply incurious about the ways in which human beings can rationally disagree."

The longstanding (and not always rational) disagreement between science and the humanities is one particularly troublesome impasse that Pinker hopes to resolve. "The intrusion of science into the territories of the humanities has been deeply resented," Pinker notes. And yet, scientism is not "an imperialistic drive to occupy the humanities; the promise of science is to enrich and diversify the intellectual tools of humanistic scholarship, not to obliterate them."

In other words, Pinker proposes that scientific ideals be exported "to the rest of intellectual life," so that, for instance, they might be used alongside tools such as close reading, thick description, and deep immersion. 

It must be noted, as his critics have acknowledged, that Pinker is not a scientific polemicist, but an exemplary practitioner. Pinker masterfully defended a controversial thesis in his book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, by drawing from multiple disciplines. The same tools are out there for everyone to use as well. 

That seems like a very straightforward and defensible position, but what about this whole scientific worldview thing? Pinker writes:

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.

To which Douthat objects:

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! 

In essence, Douthat claims Pinker has pulled a Sam Harris - a reference to Harris's problematic book that argued science vindicates utilitarianism - adding "what [Harris] really meant was that if you assume utilitarian goals, science can help you pursue them." A fine suggestion?

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