Steven Pinker Embraces Scientism

At The New Republic, Steven Pinker comes out swinging against those who direct the pejorative term “scientism” at atheists and agnostics. Pinker thinks that, just as gays turned tables on the bigots and came to embrace the pejorative term “queer,” atheists and agnostics should embrace “scientism”:

Scientism [...] is not the belief that members of the occupational guild called “science” are particularly wise or noble. On the contrary, the defining practices of science, including open debate, peer review, and double-blind methods, are explicitly designed to circumvent the errors and sins to which scientists, being human, are vulnerable. Scientism does not mean that all current scientific hypotheses are true; most new ones are not, since the cycle of conjecture and refutation is the lifeblood of science. It 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. And it is not the dogma that physical stuff is the only thing that exists. Scientists themselves are immersed in the ethereal medium of information, including the truths of mathematics, the logic of their theories, and the values that guide their enterprise. In this conception, science is of a piece with philosophy, reason, and Enlightenment humanism.

In other words, Pinker means to set fire to the straw man that science, for many atheists and agnostics, amounts to a religion; a static, intolerant, and mass-exploiting ideology with an institutional priesthood. Instead, to be scientistic, in Pinker’s positive sense, is to embrace the best of what came out of the Anglo-French Enlightenment: “[S]cience is of a piece with philosophy, reason, and Enlightenment humanism.”

In this sense, scientism, writes Pinker, “is distinguished by an explicit commitment to two ideals, and it is these that scientism seeks to export to the rest of intellectual life.” These two ideals are the following:

  • Intelligibility. Those who are scientistic believe things are ultimately intelligible and are committed to making them so. Here’s how Pinker fleshes out this idea: “[T]he world is intelligible. The phenomena we experience may be explained by principles that are more general than the phenomena themselves. These principles may in turn be explained by more fundamental principles, and so on. In making sense of our world, there should be few occasions in which we are forced to concede ‘It just is’ or ‘It’s magic’ or ‘Because I said so.’ The commitment to intelligibility is not a matter of brute faith, but gradually validates itself as more and more of the world becomes explicable in scientific terms. The processes of life, for example, used to be attributed to a mysterious élan vital; now we know they are powered by chemical and physical reactions among complex molecules.”
  • Difficulty. It’s difficult to get at the truth of matters–to distinguish, in Nate Silver’s phrase, “the signal from the noise.” And contra Keats, the truth is not always with beauty or especially pleasant to discover. So to be ideally scientistic, one tries to avoid Oedipus’s fate–the plucking out of one’s eyes in either exhaustion or despair. Instead, seeing that getting at the truth of matters is hard work and frequently goes against the grain of our hopes, the scientistic person nevertheless steels herself for battle, as when Orwell writes the following: “To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.” Pinker puts it this way: “[T]he acquisition of knowledge is hard. The world does not go out of its way to reveal its workings, and even if it did, our minds are prone to illusions, fallacies, and superstitions. Most of the traditional causes of belief—faith, revelation, dogma, authority, charisma, conventional wisdom, the invigorating glow of subjective certainty—are generators of error and should be dismissed as sources of knowledge. To understand the world, we must cultivate work-arounds for our cognitive limitations, including skepticism, open debate, formal precision, and empirical tests, often requiring feats of ingenuity. Any movement that calls itself “scientific” but fails to nurture opportunities for the falsification of its own beliefs (most obviously when it murders or imprisons the people who disagree with it) is not a scientific movement.”

So this is scientism as Pinker embraces it. I embrace it as well. How about you? Are you a scientistic kind of person?

My difficulty is with the words “scientism” and “scientistic” as monikers pointing to a worldview. The word “scientist,” after all, seems the proper designation for one committed to scientism (as “atheist” goes with “atheism”), but it can’t be used as a self-designation by lay people (for obvious reasons). You can’t just go around calling yourself a scientist because you believe in scientism. And “scientific” also has a very particular meaning, and so it can’t replace “scientistic.” The pejorative use of scientism thus seems to have a built-in buffer against easy counter usage. Too bad, because Pinker is otherwise right to hijack the term from the religious right and postmodern left.


Two more quick thoughts: I wonder if “scientism” started as shorthand for scientific realism. Hmm.

And given the limited options, might “sciencers” be a good designation for people oriented toward Pinker’s brand of scientism? “I’m a sciencer, she’s a sciencer, he’s a sciencer. If you buy scientism, you’re a sciencer too!”

Or better (though it sounds a bit lewd): “I’m a Pinker, she’s a Pinker, … If you like Dr. Pinker, you’re a Pinker too!”

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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3 Responses to Steven Pinker Embraces Scientism

  1. Staffan says:

    “It 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.”

    Why have artists if we can understand and reproduce it mechanically? Anything less than that would be mumbo jumbo.

    We had a guy in school with this attitude. He even produced a program that would generate music and played to the rest of us in class. He couldn’t understand our lack of appreciation. I met him years later and he had snapped out of it after a nervous breakdown.

    When you try to get rid of human nature it always re-asserts itself. Do away with social hierarchy and the Chairman looks suspiciously like an emperor. Do away with collectivism and you end up with Ayn Rand’s Collective – irony aside, still a group of likeminded people. And do away with religion and you end up with something like scientism, or a cult of personality – there will be a great Pinker who no one will dare to offend (although I don’t think he would encourage it, he seems like a nice guy).

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      I don’t think that it’s either/or (and neither does Pinker). Of course music is generated by math. It’s also generated by the pattern recognition areas of our brains (which we learn from neuroscience). We also know (from anthropology) that primates love novelty. In other words, math and the sciences–including the behavioral and social sciences–can give us ways to reflect on why we like certain forms of music (or literature), and perhaps not others.

      In the case of the machine generated music, and why it went unappreciated, an expert in primate behavior or anthropology might have something informative to contribute concerning the fact. For example, perhaps it went unappreciated in part because of our shared human assumptions about the self, responsibility, and agency. We, as homo sapiens, don’t tend to like things that aren’t done on purpose; it doesn’t impress us so as to form judgments about the author (whether to esteem him or her more highly in the hierarchy of the tribe or whether we want to sleep with him or her).

      In other words, the sciences can bring things to the table for discussion without overwhelming the discussion or reducing it to only such factors.

      And science has already invaded the humanities, just in disguise. Sophocles’s Oedipus, for example, has an Oedipus Complex (as Freud rightly discerned) precisely because we are hierarchical animals in competition with alpha males (fathers) for sex and power. Freud overtheorized it, but in the main his intuition is completely legitimate. This was not spelled out explicitly by the sciences until after Sophocles, Darwin, and Freud, but competition for mates and resources was intuited by them and came to inhabit their imaginations and theories before it could all be formalized in the language of anthropology as it’s practiced today.

      Likewise entropy. Nothing is more fundamental to physics, and it’s all over literature and literary criticism (shit happens; good fortune is fragile; a lot more can go wrong than can go right). What is Nietzsche’s tension between Apollo and Dionysus that he discerned in Greek tragedy but a mythic way to talk about entropy in literature?

      And when Freud is brought to literature–his id, ego, and superego–what is really being talked about is the limbic system (the more primitive and emotional part of the brain) in conflict with the prefrontal cortex (the most recently evolved executive portion of the human brain). Plato’s model of the horse and charioteer as the model for the mind is also an early intuition of the modular nature of the brain and the fact that one part is wild and the other part is regulatory and inhibitive of the wildness, checking it’s course and trying to redirect it.

      Likewise, when Marx is brought to bear upon literature, we’re also in the realm of primate hierarchy, tribalism, alpha males hoarding resources and mates against resentful and unorganized beta males, etc.

      Yet another example: when Stephen Greenblatt’s New Historicism is brought to bear upon literary analysis, the insights of history–including evolutionary issues, like contingency and the survival of memes in competition–are in play. Such issues receive formal analysis in numerous areas outside the arts and literature proper.

      So we’ve always talked about science in the literature classroom, just under guise of other things, and the most lasting literary criticism is in contact with reality (or else it wouldn’t last). It’s why Freudian analysis is still applied to texts in a literature course. It’s not necessarily because English professors are hopelessly uninformed about contemporary psychology. It’s because Freud says things that are true about characters and their motivations, and in an interesting way, and these truths are also spelled out in formally scientific fashion in other disciplines. To bring those points in does not undermine the humanities, but shows how the sciences and the humanities have consiliences.

      The last paragraph of your own above on hierarchy (for example) is more than a value judgment or a conservative metaphysical premise on your part. It’s pretty much what anthropology has formalized as well, and both your way of talking about hierarchy and anthropology’s way can be brought into the discussion and debated (as to what consequences to draw from the fact). It’s not a zero-sum game.


  2. Pingback: Scientism, Signifying, and Meaning

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