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!”