[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 (https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-019-03014-4). <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
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