Is Stephen Pinker’s Controversial Polemic in Defense of Scientism As Bad As They Say?

Conservativesliberalsatheist biologists, and intelligent-design advocates all agree: Steven Pinker’s recent essay in the New Republic is trash. “Unbelievable hubris,” writes biologist PZ Meyers of the essay, titled “Science Is Not Your Enemy: An impassioned plea to neglected novelists, embattled professors, and tenure-less historians.” “Empirically overconfident” and “intellectually unsubtle” fumes Ross Douthat. “Steven Pinker may have just pissed you off,” notes NPR, unnecessarily.

Pinker’s essay offers a defense of scientism—in other words, it advocates the application of scientific methodology to every form of inquiry. By defining science very, very broadly, Pinker tries to give the concept a less pejorative connotation. Here’s his thesis: 

The mindset of science cannot be blamed for genocide and war and does not threaten the moral and spiritual health of our nation. It is, rather, indispensable in all areas of human concern, including politics, the arts, and the search for meaning, purpose, and morality.  

Religion, of course, fits into science’s purview:  

To begin with, the findings of science entail that the belief systems of all the world’s traditional religions and cultures—their theories of the origins of life, humans, and societies—are factually mistaken.  

Now, instead of religious belief systems,

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…The scientific refutation of the theory of vengeful gods and occult forces undermines practices such as human sacrifice, witch hunts, faith healing, trial by ordeal, and the persecution of heretics. 

These are glib statements, designed to provoke, and they have that awful tendency to conflate “factual” and “morally right.” Cue the outrage, and fears that the steely certainties of the laboratory are trying to conquer the rich, organic thrumming of the human world.

Still, Pinker doesn’t quite deserve the across-the-political-spectrum thrashing that he’s received. For Pinker, science isn’t just a method of hypothesis testing. It’s a broad methodology, with two overarching principles: First, that the world is intelligible: it has certain larger principles, and there “should be few occasions in which we are forced to concede ‘It just is,’ or ‘It’s magic’…” And second, that knowledge doesn’t come easily. It requires rigor and methods—“work-arounds for our cognitive limitations,” writes Pinker, “including skepticism, open debate, formal precision, and empirical tests.”

Really, these principles shouldn’t seem all that alien to humanities scholars—who are, it should be noted, the target audience for this essay. As Pinker acknowledges, scientific overtures to the humanities have often been bumbling, reductionist disasters (see: Religion, Evolutionary Psychology of). But he’s right to point out that scholars share a common mindset, and that many of the disciplinary walls we erect are more the result of territorial narrow-mindedness than any fundamental discord.

These principles are also pretty compatible with liberal religion. They are not, you’ll note, especially compatible with fundamentalist movements; nor with totalitarianism, as Ross Douthat implies.

The problem with science’s big cheerleaders, though, isn’t that they make bad arguments. It’s that they make decent arguments, and then wildly overstep. And, in this regard, Pinker delivers.

“Most of the traditional causes of belief—faith, revelation, dogma…are generators of error and should be dismissed as sources of knowledge,” he writes. Really? Sure, faith and revelation may not be valid sources for your dissertation, but if Pinker’s just talking to academics here, he needs to make that more explicit.

And if he’s talking to everyone, then Pinker has a serious problem. We have a few thousand years of evidence that faith and revelation can be powerful, useful, and nuanced sources of knowledge, especially when yoked to other kinds of inquiry. To dismiss them entirely from human affairs would be impractical, unintelligible, and certainly imprecise—in fact, downright unscientific.

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