Steven Pinker and the Scientific Worldview

The scientific mindset, Steven Pinker argues, is "indispensable in all areas of human concern, including politics, the arts, and the search for meaning, purpose, and morality."

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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A map of America’s most famous – and infamous

The 'People Map of the United States' zooms in on America's obsession with celebrity

Image: The Pudding
Strange Maps
  • Replace city names with those of their most famous residents
  • And you get a peculiar map of America's obsession with celebrity
  • If you seek fame, become an actor, musician or athlete rather than a politician, entrepreneur or scientist

Chicagoland is Obamaland

Image: The Pudding

Chicagoland's celebrity constellation: dominated by Barack, but with plenty of room for the Belushis, Brandos and Capones of this world.

Seen from among the satellites, this map of the United States is populated by a remarkably diverse bunch of athletes, entertainers, entrepreneurs and other persons of repute (and disrepute).

The multitalented Dwayne Johnson, boxing legend Muhammad Ali and Apple co-founder Steve Jobs dominate the West Coast. Right down the middle, we find actors Chris Pratt and Jason Momoa, singer Elvis Presley and basketball player Shaquille O'Neal. The East Coast crew include wrestler John Cena, whistle-blower Edward Snowden, mass murderer Ted Bundy… and Dwayne Johnson, again.

The Rock pops up in both Hayward, CA and Southwest Ranches, FL, but he's not the only one to appear twice on the map. Wild West legend Wyatt Earp makes an appearance in both Deadwood, SD and Dodge City, KS.

How is that? This 'People's Map of the United States' replaces the names of cities with those of "their most Wikipedia'ed resident: people born in, lived in, or connected to a place."

‘Cincinnati, Birthplace of Charles Manson'

Image: The Pudding

Keys to the city, or lock 'em up and throw away the key? A city's most famous sons and daughters of a city aren't always the most favoured ones.

That definition allows people to appear in more than one locality. Dwayne Johnson was born in Hayward, has one of his houses in Southwest Ranches, and is famous enough to be the 'most Wikipedia'ed resident' for both localities.

Wyatt Earp was born in Monmouth, IL, but his reputation is closely associated with both Deadwood and Dodge City – although he's most famous for the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, which took place in Tombstone, AZ. And yes, if you zoom in on that town in southern Arizona, there's Mr Earp again.

The data for this map was collected via the Wikipedia API (application programming interface) from the English-language Wikipedia for the period from July 2015 to May 2019.

The thousands of 'Notable People' sections in Wikipedia entries for cities and other places in the U.S. were scrubbed for the person with the most pageviews. No distinction was made between places of birth, residence or death. As the developers note, "people can 'be from' multiple places".

Pageviews are an impartial indicator of interest – it doesn't matter whether your claim to fame is horrific or honorific. As a result, this map provides a non-judgmental overview of America's obsession with celebrity.

Royals and (other) mortals

Image: The Pudding

There's also a UK version of the People Map – filled with last names like Neeson, Sheeran, Darwin and Churchill – and a few first names of monarchs.

Celebrity, it is often argued, is our age's version of the Greek pantheon, populated by dozens of major gods and thousands of minor ones, each an example of behaviours to emulate or avoid. This constellation of stars, famous and infamous, is more than a map of names. It's a window into America's soul.

But don't let that put you off. Zooming in on the map is entertaining enough: celebrities floating around in the ether are suddenly tied down to a pedestrian level, and to real geography. And it's fun to see the famous and the infamous rub shoulders, as it were.

Barack Obama owns Chicago, but the suburbs to the west of the city are dotted with a panoply of personalities, ranging from the criminal (Al Capone, Cicero) and the musical (John Prine, Maywood) to figures literary (Jonathan Franzen, Western Springs) and painterly (Ivan Albright, Warrenville), actorial (Harrison Ford, Park Ridge) and political (Eugene V. Debs, Elmhurst).

Freaks and angels

Image: Dorothy

The People Map of the U.S. was inspired by the U.S.A. Song Map, substituting song titles for place names.

It would be interesting to compare 'the most Wikipedia'ed' sons and daughters of America's cities with the ones advertised at the city limits. When you're entering Aberdeen, WA, a sign invites you to 'come as you are', in homage to its most famous son, Kurt Cobain. It's a safe bet that Indian Hill, OH will make sure you know Neil Armstrong, first man on the moon, was one of theirs. But it's highly unlikely that Cincinnati, a bit further south, will make any noise about Charles Manson, local boy done bad.

Inevitably, the map also reveals some bitterly ironic neighbours, such as Ishi, the last of the Yahi tribe, captured near Oroville, CA. He died in 1916 as "the last wild Indian in North America". The most 'pageviewed' resident of nearby Colusa, CA is Byron de la Beckwith, Jr., the white supremacist convicted for the murder of Civil Rights activist Medgar Evers.

As a sampling of America's interests, this map teaches that those aiming for fame would do better to become actors, musicians or athletes rather than politicians, entrepreneurs or scientists. But also that celebrity is not limited to the big city lights of LA or New York. Even in deepest Dakota or flattest Kansas, the footlights of fame will find you. Whether that's good or bad? The pageviews don't judge...

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