Science, Scientism, and Steven Pinker

[correction 10/12: In the initial version of this article, Pinker’s given name was spelled “Stephen.”  He spells his name “Steven.” We regret the error.]

I have an essay in Nature this week on how science has shaped human identity, part of their 8-part anniversary series on the history of science over the last 150 years. The response has been overwhelmingly positive — thank you!

There’s always a few cranks, though. What has stuck in some people’s craw is my distinction between science and scientism. Science is a set of practices to investigate nature. Scientism is an ideology that says science is the ONLY way to investigate nature, and the only way to address social problems.

I’m now used to the ritual of Jerry Coyne (@whyevolutionistrue) attempting a takedown of my stuff. To my perverse delight, though, the Harvard psychologist and hair model Steven Pinker took a poke at me. Couldn’t resist that. What follows is the tweet stream I sent out in response, clarifying some points in the article and differentiating further between science and scientism.

So @sapinker is talking trash about me, re: my piece in #Nature150 ( <cracks knuckles>
The delicious comic beauty is how well Pinker’s tweet makes the central argument in my @Nature article. Here’s the tweet in question.

I write satire from time to time, and I’d be hard-put to parody Pinker’s language. So let’s break down his own words:
“Unlike past anti-scientism rants in lit/cult/pol mags, this [my piece] is in Nature.”

My piece is not a rant, @sapinker, either in tone or in argument. It’s an analysis and a plea for more good science and less bad science. (You do believe there’s bad science?)
THIS, now, is a rant.

The key term in @sapinker’s 1st sent. is “anti-scientism.” He *thinks* he’s saying I’m anti-science (on which, see below). But in calling my so-called rant “anti-scientism” he shows he can’t distinguish between the two.

It is literally the MAIN POINT of my article to distinguish science from scientism.
Viz.: “[Enlightenment values have] been a guiding theme of modern times. Which in many ways is a splendid thing (lately I’ve seen enough governance without facts for one lifetime)”;

“I want to suggest that many of the worst chapters of this history result from scientism: the ideology that science is the only valid way to understand the world and solve social problems”;

“Where science has often expanded and liberated our sense of self, scientism has constrained it”;
“The problem is not science, but scientism.”
Could I be clearer?

Yes, I am anti-scientism.
Scientism = science + hubris.
Scientism = science + arrogance.
Scientism = science + vanity.
Scientism = science + cruelty.
Scientism = science + ignorance.
Scientism, in other words, is science plus something shitty.

Pinker writes, “Sci eds often outsource commentary on sci & soc to the clique of historians of sci”. Science editors don’t “outsource” commentary, on science & society or anything else. I think you know that. They *commission* articles on various topics from experts in a given field.

.@Nature commissioning me to write this article is exactly like asking a psychologist to comment on psychology, a protein chemist on protein chemistry, a sociologist on sociology. Does @sapinker believe in expertise? Or could a particle physicist do his job better than he?

Begrudging @nature commissioning an article on #histsci from a historian of science can only mean one thing: Pinker thinks that only scientists should write the history of science, because only they have privileged access to the Truth.
That’s scientism, not science.

Then, @sapinker goes on to deride “…historians of sci who historicize everything…”
Damn historians, historicizing stuff! Lock ‘em up! Build the wall! Make Science Great Again!

Also, Pinker writes, we historians “hate sci’s claim to objectivity and realism.” Yeah, and we hate America too, right? Jesus, you do sound like Trump.
But I don’t “hate” science’s claim to objectivity; I take issue with it, and boatloads of evidence supports me.

The fact that science both shapes and is shaped by culture, society, economics, politics has been established and reinforced for nearly a century, from L. Fleck in the ‘30s to Kuhn in the ‘60s…to ± everything serious historians have written about science since then.

The social construction of science is as solid as biological evolution. It’s an utter commonplace. Most scientists I know understand this. To be a prof at @Harvard of all places and not know this shows a struthian (Mencken; look it up) ignorance that is, well, embarrassing.

The question isn’t *whether* science and society interact, it’s *how.* We can have disagreements on the how—I show you my evidence, you show me yours, we hash it out—but not the whether.
I’m not arguing with a flat-Earther.

Historians don’t “hate realism,” for chrissakes. We’re more realistic than scientists like Pinker who live in an ideal world of pure reason, failing to acknowledge the messiness of the real world.

Thinking you have uniquely privileged access to reality is scientism, not science. It is to live in a sterile, blinkered world, populated only by the stately march of the anointed intellects toward the one & only Truth. That’s like the worst kind of superstitious evangelism.

It’s also chauvinistic, narrow, parochial, and bullying. It’s tyrannical, ham-handed, intolerant of dissent. How unscientific! And if Pinker knew his history, he’d know how science can be—has been—marshaled in the name of tyrannies large and small, across continents, down the centuries.

Science can be great! It makes many, many positive contributions to knowledge & to society. It need not be put in the service of oppression, nor is it always. But it’s indisputable that it has been, many times. You can start with Karl Brandt and work your way down.

The thesis of my @nature piece, then, once again, is that insidious applications of science are due not to the science itself, but to the ideology that sometimes accompanies it: Scientism. Capeesh?

One last thing: @sapinker’s arrogant and bullying scientism is both a symptom and a cause of the WEIRD male gaze that’s dominated science for centuries. His tweet is Exhibit A in the case for why we need more diversity in science. Hence the last point in my essay.

Male scientists who aren’t arrogant, scientistic pricks (and I know many): There’s no need to say, “Not all scientists.” If this doesn’t describe you, it’s not about you, and I doff my hat to you, sir.

<smoothes dander> Other historian-realists who love science but hate scientism #FF: @elmilam @DorothyERoberts @ayahnerd @STS_News @PublicsHealth @LeapingRobot @thonychristie @wellerstein @samhaselby @monicaMedHist @Darwinsbulldog @erikadyckhist @KlineWkline @LundyBraun @jaivirdi

24 thoughts on “Science, Scientism, and Steven Pinker”

  1. Ironically, Pinker almost never writes about his own field of expertise, psychology.

    These celebrity scientists can be a blessing and a curse. It’s great that they promote science and argue for the application of reason to problems. Unfortunately, most scientists get no training whatever in philosophy but many fancy themselves as experts anyway – anyone can do philosophy, right?

    I’m not seeing them keeping up with the literature on the very ideas of reason and rationality for example. They still think in terms of classical theories. You tell them about Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber, for example, and they just ignore you. And then you watch Dawkins trying to communicate things without any reference whatever to the scientific study of religion and belief, or of getting people to change their minds. And it’s just a train wreck at full speed. It takes him a second or two to destroy any hope of communication because the first thing he does is call his interlocutor an idiot. Where is *science* in this situation? Out the fcking window!

    I’m currently reading Adam Becker’s brilliant book about the history of quantum mechanics (What is Real?) and it’s quite clear that apart from Einstein the key players were all lousy philosophers. Unfortunately, everyone listened to the drivel coming out of Copenhagen and decided Einstein was a has been (in fact he’s not even a has been *now*). And then worse, London, Bauer, and Wigner started wittering on about the role of consciousness in the measurement problem creating a huge and ongoing popular misunderstanding.

    The scientist/historian/philosopher I’d most like to see more of right now is Prof Hasok Chang – currently on a long sabbatical. But watch his inaugural lecture on taking up his chair at Cambridge: He is really insightful about how scientists overlook important questions and considerations, and how self-promoting (but inferior) scientists like Antoine Lavoisier have held back progress in science.

  2. It’s troubling to see a thoughtful discourse marred by personal invective and disparaging misreading of a clear text.

  3. As I see it, the main problem with your article is that it seems to blame science for scientism. That seems unreasonable.

    “Scientism, in other words, is science plus something shitty.”

    This is an attempt to rewrite your original article. Yes, the “shitty” part is separate and is not part of science. Perhaps all you were trying to say is “science isn’t everything”. True but it didn’t really need saying.

    • The problem with your comment is that it’s defensive. I do no such thing.
      It’s very clear in my piece that scientism comes from many sources, some within the individual, some within the profession, some external to it. You’re so unwilling to concede that ill influences can infect science at all that you read any criticism as an attack on the entire discipline. And seem to have your feelings hurt.
      As I wrote, if this doesn’t describe you, good for you, and I tip my hat to you. But we can all stand to re-examine our positions once in a while.

      • I’m defensive because I feel science needs defending from people like you.

        “ill influences can infect science”

        I would agree with you if you said “ill influences can infect people”. I see little connection between these ill influences and science. People do bad things and many of our tools are science-based, therefore some bad things will be done using science-based tools. As I see it, you don’t identify some bad element in science itself to support your “infected science” thesis. You do identify that there are other ways to look at the world but that’s a triviality.

        • I’m very much pro good science and anti bad science. You don’t think ill influences affected the science of Karl Brandt? J. Phillippe Rushton? Arthur Jensen? Charles Davenport? Karl Pearson? Samuel Morton? HH Goddard? Science is nothing but the product of the people who practice it.

          Thinking that history, say, or art, is a triviality is itself scientistic. I’m for multiple ways of understanding our world—including, but not limited to, science.

          • I had to look up those guys in Wikipedia which says a lot about how important they were to history. Seems that some of them were behind the eugenics movement. That’s as good an example I suppose.

            Eugenics was not bad science but bad social and political policy. There’s no doubt that eugenics would work on humans as it has on dogs, cattle, etc. The science was good but a policy to improve the human race was bad. The fact that some scientists were in favor of eugenics policy does not make them bad scientists but bad supporters of bad policy. Just before the atomic bombs were dropped in Japan, the questions asked were ethical, tactical, and strategic. They didn’t drop the bombs to see if they worked or not.

            There are many scientific breakthroughs that can be used for ill. I don’t think we can avoid that ill by suppressing the hunt for scientific truth. In fact, when the ethical scientists stop short of making a discovery, it merely leaves it to the unethical scientists to make it. Humans play with dangerous things. They are just going to have to learn to deal with them.

  4. The problem with your response is that it’s defensive. I’m frequently amazed by how aggressive someone defending against a perceived attack can be. I didn’t read the original article, but I’ve read most of Pinker and I can only guess that his response derives from fear of what the other ways of solving societal issues might entail. Scientism, as you define it, is not science. Science knows nothing of hubris, arrogance, and the other human feeling derived challenges science must surmount to attain anything resembling humility. Scientists, as human beings, fall prey all to readily to these barriers to understanding, but science insists that everything it posits as true is actually hypothetical and open to challenge despite any dismissal, condescension, or arrogance on the part of those who assert its truth. Very different from magical thinking, trust your gut, and “I just know” that provide comfort without understanding.

  5. The idea that science is a social construct is ignorant. Can scientists be biased…of course. Is diversity in the science community a good thing…of course. But actual science stands by numbers and facts, and those things are not subjective. Bad science is not an indictment of good science.

    • Oh yeah? Go read any paper on human chromosomes between 1929 and 1955. You will see the solidly established “fact” that humans have 48 chromosomes. I could name further examples all day. Scientific facts are right until they are wrong. It’s incontrovertible that science is socially constructed. That doesn’t mean it’s all false or relative. It means that observations of reality are *always* filtered through human senses, cognition, and technology. It can’t be any other way.

      Most scientists know this and don’t feel their worldview threatened by it.

      “Bad science is not an indictment of good science.” Yes!! Agreed 100%. I make that argument repeatedly, in both the Nature article and the blog post.

      • “Oh yeah? Go read any paper on human chromosomes between 1929 and 1955. You will see the solidly established “fact” that humans have 48 chromosomes. I could name further examples all day. Scientific facts are right until they are wrong.”

        Guys, I think Nathaniel just realized that science is inductive. Someone give him another Ph.D and professorship.

  6. Your essay in nature was incoherent and confused.

    You claim that the problem with science is predicated upon the identities of the scientists themselves. If only more non-whites, and women were present then ‘scientism’ would fall. Because, as we all know, non-whites and women are infallible, and straight white men are evil. (Btw, I am non-white, although I am still a sinner due to my male appendage).

    The very real problem, of which you refer to as ”scientism’ isn’t due to the racial and gender identity of the scientists, but rather due to ideology. Eugenics was a means by which to save the destruction of civilization from the ‘feebleminded.’ Such a sentiment is derived from valuing the welfare of society above that of the individual. Eugenics was perceived as being for ‘the greater good.’ Indeed, every ideology that invariably violates the sovereignty of individuals is concerned with the greater good. It is science in the service of ideology, whether political or religious that is the problem, not science, or the boogeyman of ‘scientism.’ Of course ,you are reluctant to admit as much, as you yourself are an ideologue.

    And your contention that ‘diversity’ will solve such a problem is risible. It’s predicated on the ridiculous notion that non-whites have a different way of knowing that is beyond reproach. Perhaps in your ideal world we should defer to the incoherent pontifications promulgated by African witch doctors?

    Of course you fail to delineate HOW exactly diversity would solve the problem, because you yourself do not know. Your championing of ‘diversity’ is merely a form of virtue signalling. Well done, you’re woke.

    • Btw I am not opposed to diversity per se. I am however opposed to diversity for the sake of diversity, which you clearly favour (please don’t deny it.)

      Also, you claim that there are different ways of looking at the world, other than through science and reason. Such as? Whatever example you give will no doubt be an example of irrationality, i.e., the beliefs derived from such ‘different ways of thinking’ are going to be incongruent with reality.

      In order to solve the various problems the human species faces, knowledge of reality as it is is paramount. Describing reality through your left-wing ideological lens does no one any favours, as you are describing it not how it is but rather how you wish it to be.

      • Yes, diversity is a good thing, in society as in nature. Full stop.

        Such as? Such as history. Cause and effect through time. Contingency and context rather than universal mechanisms.

    • Your response is incoherent and confused, and demonstrates a lack of close-reading skills. I don’t say what you attribute to me, I give examples of things you say I don’t support (e.g., value of diversity), and your inferences are spurious. I wish I had you in class so we could work on those skills—part of the value of a humanities education.

      How diversity addresses problems of inequity in science and medicine is a large specialty and beyond the scope of this article (again, close reading skills are valuable here). But I’d be happy to point you to some of that literature. Start with Alondra Nelson and Kim Tallbear (cited in the piece). Also Dorothy Roberts, Samuel Kelton Roberts, Evelynn Hammonds, Michael Yudell… and on and on.

      • How diversity addresses problems of inequity in science and medicine is a large specialty and beyond the scope of this article (again, close reading skills are valuable here). But I’d be happy to point you to some of that literature. Start with Alondra Nelson and Kim Tallbear (cited in the piece). Also Dorothy Roberts, Samuel Kelton Roberts, Evelynn Hammonds, Michael Yudell… and on and on.

        See also Naomi Oreskes’s new book coming out later this month. Another corrective to the notion that diversity in science is somehow antiscience.

  7. I beg to differ, it may or may not be trivial but simply to assert such doesn’t make your statement true, further it’s *inductive* in and of itself, thus having in essence no truth content in this context, which isn’t trivial. What is the big deal here? A basic tenet of epistemology is there things that we can never know both in kind or nature. Yes, that does imply as in the exact moment of the creation of this universe that the knowledge of it, if ever it can be grasped [sic] is beyond science.

  8. Scientism is a great issue nowadays. But its blind to most people. People dont want to blame science for it, that we are going to a scientific advancements where we must change everything of who we are and in the end the way we are build and think. The question is, do some scientist now this and are trying to avoid the discussion on purpose.

    Scientism is a word thats is nowadays also very populair in Christian and conspiracy circles. But not everything dat those people use is by default wrong. Its way to easy to think like that.

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