Science, Scientism, Society And Steven Pinker

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Can you be a strident defender of science and still be suspicious of the way it is appropriated within culture? Can you be passionate about the practice and promise of science, yet still remain troubled by the way other beliefs and assumptions are heralded in its name? If such a thing is possible, you may be pro-science but anti-scientism. And, if that is the case, then Steven Pinker may have just pissed you off. But, as we'll see, it might be hard to tell.


Scientism is getting a lot of play these days. It's a difficult word to pin down because it takes on a wide range of meanings depending on who is throwing it around. According to Merriam-Webster online, scientism is:

an exaggerated trust in the efficacy of the methods of natural science applied to all areas of investigation (as in philosophy, the social sciences, and the humanities).

Thus, scientism is the "science can explain everything," (or, at least, "science explains everything important"), kind of position some folks take in arguments about religion, philosophy, the value of the humanities, etc.

Steven Pinker has now waded into the scientism debate with a New Republic essay entitled "Science Is Not Your Enemy: An impassioned plea to neglected novelists, embattled professors, and tenure-less historians." For Pinker there really is no such thing as scientism, which, he claims, is "more of a boo-word than a label for any coherent doctrine."

Written By: Adam Frank
continue to source article at npr.org

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  1. Scientism is just a label people use to discredit science when its investigating issues that people with various agendas don’t want to see investigated or providing evidence that they find conflicts with their preconceived beliefs. Rather than respond with rational arguments or alternative data they just label the things they don’t like scientism.

    • In reply to #1 by Red Dog:

      Scientism is just a label people use to discredit science when its investigating issues that people with various agendas don’t want to see investigated or providing evidence that they find conflicts with their preconceived beliefs. Rather than respond with rational arguments or alternative data they…

      Indeed!

  2. ” The power and promise of science is not compromised by understanding that we live in a world saturated by its fruits and poisons. Pinker is quite right that scientism is not a coherent doctrine. But that doesn’t mean the term is empty. “

    Then the ” doctrine ” of scientism is incoherent! It the strict sense of the word it does not cohere, it does not hang together and is of many disparate and contradictory parts.

    So it’s not empty? Perhaps, Adam Frank, but the ” doctrine is still useless in any intellectual discussion.

    • Well it is, actually – the death throws are just sometimes noisy and a little drawn out.
      In reply to #5 by Christiana Magdalene Moodley:

      Science HAS done an excellent job of explaining.Indisputable.Religion( God did it) has explained nothing.Religion should lie down quietly and die.

      • In reply to #6 by rzzz:

        Well it is, actually – the death throws are just sometimes noisy and a little drawn out.
        In reply to #5 by Christiana Magdalene Moodley:

        Science HAS done an excellent job of explaining.Indisputable.Religion( God did it) has explained nothing.Religion should lie down quietly and die

        The death throes are rather too protracted for my liking and what with new ‘messiahs’ ( see a previous thread) being born and suchlike goings on, I just don’t know…

  3. Thus, scientism is the “science can explain everything,” (or, at least, “science explains everything important”), kind of position some folks take in arguments about religion, philosophy, the value of the humanities, etc.

    I stopped reading here. If this is the definition of “scientism” Mr. Frank is going to discuss in the rest of the article, I need not read on. It is a strawman.

    No one of any credibility argues that “science can explain everything,” nor even that “science explains everything important.” I repeat, NO ONE. People who drag out the stupid perjorative “scientism” almost always make this false characterization. Even the most ardent defenders of science (including Prof. Pinker in the article under discussion) freely admit the limitations of our current scientific understanding, the uncertainty of scientific progress, and the fact that discoveries can be used for “evil” as easily as they can for “good.”

    The point which these “anti-scientism” critics consistently miss, is that none of these deficiencies in science lends the slightest credibility to any other way of learning about and knowing things. It is simply true that any objective truth about the universe which we are capable of discovering and knowing can only be discovered and known through scientific processes. Period. Mankind has never, in all our history come up with any other reliable way to explore the world and to weed delusion and fallacy from our thinking. Every other option is a complete failure, so science – however flawed it may be – is the only tool we have.

    Criticize science all you want. Science will even join you! The entire enterprise is based upon relentless self-criticism and the testing of every assumption to the breaking point. Just don’t for a moment imply that such criticism is the same as making a case in favor of any other means of gaining knowledge. It doesn’t work that way.

    As for devotees of the humanities who drag out “scientism” in misguided attempts to defend their “turf,” they need only understand and acknowledge that subjective “knowledge” may be profound, beautiful and of great value, but it is not really “knowledge.” This insistence on using concrete the same words for subjective experience is the real source of all the trouble. That in no way means that the Arts or the humanities are not “important.” It merely recognizes that our emotional lives are not a source of information about the world outside our mind.

    This is the real problem with religion. It is the foolish, and dangerous insistence that we can know objective truths about the Universe by looking within rather than making direct observations. Gould’s “magisteria” are a failure because religion never has and never will limit itself from treading on science’s turf. Let other human endeavors learn that lesson and there will truly be no conflict.

  4. As I frequently say, I am not a scientist. I have always been taught that science discovers and explains, and technology applies. The fault, the cause of nuclear weapons, pollution, Monsanto, therefore lies with technology, not with science.

    • In reply to #9 by Kevin Murrell:

      As I frequently say, I am not a scientist. I have always been taught that science discovers and explains, and technology applies. The fault, the cause of nuclear weapons, pollution, Monsanto, therefore lies with technology, not with science.

      As a technologist obliged to do the legal bidding of investors I pass the buck (quite properly) to a government failing to understand a market and impose sensible regulation unilaterally and seeking to lead a global, multilateral consensus.

      • In reply to #10 by phil rimmer:

        In reply to #9 by Kevin Murrell:

        As I frequently say, I am not a scientist. I have always been taught that science discovers and explains, and technology applies. The fault, the cause of nuclear weapons, pollution, Monsanto, therefore lies with technology, not with science.

        As a technologist obl…

        Phil, I didn’t mean to have a go at technology, much less at you. Technology lots of very good things, vaccines, medicines, productive farms, warm safe houses, low emission vehicles….My point is that science, ie knowledge, is neutral; it finds things out. What we do with its discoveries is another matter.

  5. When I encountered this passage, I had to pause:

    What Pinker fails to see … is that it is precisely the enormous power and the enormous success of science that put it in a unique position for misuse by those who claim to speak in its name.

    Three assumptions were made, and immediately jump out:

    • Science is unique

    • Science is automatically dangerous

    • Science is only (or usually) misused by people who like science

    I asked myself to think carefully: Are any of these assumptions true?

    They are not.

    Frank then builds on each of these assumptions:

    The efficacy of science generates a powerful attraction for advocates … who seek to cloak their beliefs in the legitimacy of the scientific enterprise.

    This is muddying the waters; is Frank talking about advocates who are charlatans – like the pseudo-scientists – or scientists simply speaking up for their discipline? Frank may have written this with no conscious agenda, but his inclination is already showing.

    In fact it’s the very efficacy of [science’s] tools that allows cultural misappropriations of science to go unnoticed.

    This is a straight falsehood. It is the poor quality of science and philosophy education that allows cultural misappropriations of science to go unnoticed. Frank is dissembling here.

    … science is so good at providing explanations, [we tend to say] explanations are all that matter.

    This is surely a grotesque misrepresentation – even of the vast majority of scientists and the science project, let alone of the general public? Mystery, discovery and exploration are what drive science.

    … for example, it leads to cartoon arguments between Richard Dawkins and fundamentalists about who started the universe.

    Given that Richard Dawkins has always been clear on the fact that there was no Who at the ’start’ of the Universe (whatever that might mean), that is indeed a caricature.

    Missing are the varieties of reasons people feel “spiritual” longing … [etc]

    Missing from what? I see no drought of spiritual wonder in science – or the suppression of pontificating, philosophising and dreaming in the World at large. Frank is just making this tosh up as he goes along. Demonstrate what you mean Frank, show some actual examples.

    The power and promise of science is not compromised by understanding that we live in a world saturated by its fruits and poisons.

    Oh yes it is – it is very much compromised by inappropriate comparisons to simple nouns and false analogies of the dichotomy between good and bad. Pop philosophy is never a good option Mr. Frank.

    Science, as noted above, is first and foremost about exploration – it’s about seeking out truth. Science is humanity’s greatest adventure – the frontier of our understanding of what is and what isn’t.

    It may be true that science, in its progress, has trampled on some dreams. It is in the nature of science that science is neutral – that truth can be uncomfortable, uncompromising and inconvenient to those whose disciplines are largely creative without reference to fact.

    Pinker is quite right that scientism is not a coherent doctrine. But that doesn’t mean the term is empty.

    Well forgive the rest of us, Mr. Frank, if we adjourn while you go out and actually build a case to support that contention.

    Scientism is an unfortunate consequence of the success science has had explaining the natural world

    Scientism is a made-up word looking for a meaning – and you show every symptom of groping for one, without one scintilla of success.

    It would, in fact, be useful to clarify how scientism manifests itself.

    Go for it.

    That would help us understand the damage it [science] does to the real project that lies ahead of us: building space for the full spectrum of human being in a culture fully shaped by science.

    I really had to work hard here at a reply that didn’t involve swearing like a trooper. It occurred to me that this last sentence is so incoherent it may have been generated by a Postmodernism Generator. This is full-on pseudo-intellectualism. This comment is so irrationally vacant it competes with dark energy as the largest area of empty space known to man. This thought is so devoid of structure, truth and meaning it might even count as theology.

    Peace.

  6. According to Merriam-Webster online, scientism is: an exaggerated trust in the efficacy of the methods of natural science applied to all areas of investigation (as in philosophy, the social sciences, and the humanities). Thus, scientism is the “science can explain everything,” (or, at least, “science explains everything important”), kind of position some folks take in arguments about religion, philosophy, the value of the humanities, etc.

    Firstly, most criticisms of something the critics call scientism accuse those who are allegedly guilty of it of thinking only science is efficacious, not of thinking science is more efficacious than it is. Secondly, arguments about religion, philosophy and the value of humanities don’t claim science can explain everything; they critique some attempted alternative approaches to justifying beliefs. Note that both of my points are about a conflation of the merits of science or lack thereof with the merits or lack thereof of things other than science.

    For Pinker there really is no such thing as scientism

    He defined the word his own way, then advocated his definition of it.

    The problem with Pinker’s essay is that his main purpose is to convince friends in the humanities (history, literature, etc.) that adoption of methods from the science side of the campus poses no threat to their disciplines… But there is a much deeper question about science and culture and Pinker seems to step right over this bumpy ground without even noticing.

    It seems the two questions being contrasted here are those of whether science’s current place in culture is appropriate and whether a bigger role for it in the humanities than it currently has would be appropriate. Pinker actually discusses both of these in his essay, e.g. when he points out that so far its medical achievements greatly outweigh the harm achieved with scientific knowledge and in experiments designed to gain more of it, and when he argues science does not deserve blame for the latter (for reasons I won’t repeat here). Therefore, Frank’s without-even-noticing accusation is false.

    What Pinker fails to see in this passage is that it is precisely the enormous power and the enormous success of science that put it in a unique position for misuse by those who claim to speak in its name.

    It might have a unique place, but Pinker has nonetheless exposed a fallacy by pointing out that, while this approach could be used with other disciplines, it would be unfairly one-sided. Indeed, science’s benefits have surely been far too great for focusing on its harm in this way to be reasonable, especially when other disciplines are spared this hostility.

    The ability to harness that practice to create powerful change (via wealth creation or military power) has always carried its own dangers.

    Yes, and Pinker showed it’s still mostly good in its effects. But what does any of this have to do with whether historians and literary scholars could benefit from statisticians’ assistance?

    The efficacy of science generates a powerful attraction for advocates of (often unspoken) philosophical assumptions. These are people who seek to cloak their beliefs in the legitimacy of the scientific enterprise. This is where scientism raises its ugly head.

    Firstly, Pinker stated exactly what his assumptions were (the world is comprehensible and this requires effort), and they weren’t assumptions anyway; they’ve been empirically shown again and again. Therefore, if there are any unspoken assumptions of which Pinker is guilty in his essay, name one or more of them. Secondly, if people pretend their beliefs are backed by science when they’re not, that’s pseudoscience, not scientism. Or perhaps Frank means some beliefs genuinely are backed by science, but are still unreasonable. Care to explain how that’s even possible?

    [Pinker’s] easy dismissal of scientism as a “boo-word” misses the point that science gets used within culture for more than just legitimate purposes. In fact it’s the very efficacy of its tools that allows cultural misappropriations of science to go unnoticed.

    Does Frank have anything to say about Pinker’s “the humanities need more science” thesis or not?

    Part of this misappropriation comes from thinking that, since science is so good at providing explanations, explanations are all that matter.

    Is anyone provably guilty of that? Science is good at showing us which beliefs are reasonable on empirical grounds; the explanations among those beliefs are just a subset. If Frank had accused people of thinking empirical and, in the case of mathematics, formal justifications are all that matters, he would have been more accurate (although he’d still need to explain why such a thought is suspect).

    It’s an approach that levels human experience in ways that are both dangerous and sad. In discussions of human spirituality and science, for example, it leads to cartoon arguments between Richard Dawkins and fundamentalists about who started the universe. Missing are the varieties of reasons people feel “spiritual” longing that have nothing to do with asking how the moon got there.

    Really? Science has already investigated what those reasons are, and will continue to do so in greater detail. But the bottom line is that our non-tautological beliefs should be grounded in empiricism, and the question of why in practice they often aren’t is yet another example of an issue about which we can have non-tautological beliefs (which are subject to the aforesaid bottom line, too) and which science can and already does investigate. Dawkins himself has discussed this issue on several occasions.

    Pinker is quite right that scientism is not a coherent doctrine. But that doesn’t mean the term is empty.

    What Pinker says is that scientism is not a coherently used word by “its” critics. What may be empty is the set of people genuinely guilty of being examples of these accusations. Frank is basically sidestepping the question of whether or not critics of scientism are guilty of straw man arguments. I have shown above for a fact that on several counts he himself misrepresents the Pinker essay he’s responding to here.

    It would, in fact, be useful to clarify how scientism manifests itself.

    We can do that for each definition of scientism of interest (Frank’s dictionary’s, Pinker’s and the one I’ve noticed in critics of scientism), in the same scientific way we’ve looked into why people believe religion and any number of other unscientific things (e.g. denying th reality and severity of anthropogenic climate change) – in short, we can look at this question in such sociological disciplines as agnotology (the science of human ignorance). But we’re not going to successfully clarify how scientism manifests itself using only armchair arguments rather than empirical methods, and we’re certainly not going to do it by misrepresenting each other several times in a short discussion of the issue.

    That would help us understand the damage it does to the real project that lies ahead of us: building space for the full spectrum of human being in a culture fully shaped by science.

    Why is being italicised? What does that even signify? Just say what you actually want to see done.

    • In reply to #12 by Jos Gibbons:

      Firstly, most criticisms of something the critics call scientism accuse those who are allegedly guilty of it of thinking only science is efficacious, not of thinking science is more efficacious than it is.

      Scientism in common parlance I agree with Pinker – basically that it is an invention theists resenting science debunking their claims. I have yet to see scientists ” exaggerating trust in the efficacy of the methods of natural science applied to all areas of investigation”. What I do see is scientists looking at the most likely probabilities often well into gaps in theists personal knowledge.

      The common accusation of “scientism” I have encountered, is the theist who makes a gapolgy god claim, and then accuses scientists “scientism” when they “fail to disprove” the vacuous assertion, but reject the claim on the basis of absence of evidence.
      The claim of “scientism” comes from the theist’s dislike of the scientists insistence on empirical evidence, and refusal to accept “revealed notions”. Essentially the theist claim that science cannot be applied to gods or the supernatural. – The classic “get-out-of-evidence-and logic” ploy.

      Secondly, arguments about religion, philosophy and the value of humanities don’t claim science can explain everything; they critique some attempted alternative approaches to justifying beliefs. Note that both of my points are about a conflation of the merits of science or lack thereof with the merits or lack thereof of things other than science.

      The classic fallacy of “science cannot explain everything therefore it can explain nothing” and anything goes – with the claim of “scientism” as a pseudo-response from those who are stuck for an answer when challenged for evidence.

  7. If you are not learning of the unknown via observation and experimentation just how do you expect to learn? Pursuing knowledge of the natural world requires that we study and test what we observe. Make believe, also known as the supernatural, does not require observation; it is imaginary and cannot be observed nor tested, even though it can be taught and believed. Make believe is falsely applied knowledge.

    When we look at a topic like spiritualism only a scientific approach to the subject will provide answers grounded in reality; whether those answers are liked or hated is irrelevant because they are answers which rely on the observable natural world. All other explanations regarding spiritualism will be wishy, make believe, mouth farts centered on a personal goal rather than actual fact.

    • In reply to #16 by aquilacane:

      If you are not learning of the unknown via observation and experimentation just how do you expect to learn? Pursuing knowledge of the natural world requires that we study and test what we observe. Make believe, also known as the supernatural, does not require observation; it is imaginary and cannot…

      Actually, spiritualism was debunked thoroughly by Harry Houdini, who spent years uncovering the frauds they perpetrated. He never encountered a spiritualist that he could not expose. Still, they keep trying, and inevitably some people are taken in. Scientists are not well equipped to uncover fraudulent use of magic.

      • In reply to #19 by Kevin Murrell:

        In reply to #16 by aquilacane:

        Actually, spiritualism was debunked thoroughly by Harry Houdini, who spent years uncovering the frauds they perpetrated. He never encountered a spiritualist that he could not expose. Still, they keep trying, and inevitably some people are taken in. Scientists are not well equipped to uncover fraudulent use of magic.

        And that’s the scientific process at work. Spiritualism = bullshit; some people like that answer, some people do not but science doesn’t give a damn because it’s based on the observable, testable world and not make believe.

        • In reply to #28 by aquilacane:

          In reply to #19 by Kevin Murrell:

          In reply to #16 by aquilacane:

          Actually, spiritualism was debunked thoroughly by Harry Houdini, who spent years uncovering the frauds they perpetrated. He never encountered a spiritualist that he could not expose. Still, they keep trying, and inevitably some peopl…

          I agree, but the trouble is that scientists cannot see what professional magicians can. Richard himself has said that in witnessing a magic show he didn’t have the faintest clue about how the tricks could have been performed. Takes a thief to catch a thief!

  8. I’m wondering whether the word “scientism” is also a label people use to express their fear of hierarchy. If you take scientific methodology to its reasonable conclusion, there shouldn’t be any question that its results should be the starting point of every discussion on ehtics and politics. But I’m guessing that some people are afraid that if knowledge is power, the scientists will hold sway in this arena, sort of in the way priests used to be able to wield power because people believed that they held the secrets to appeasing a capricious god.

    As a child I was not particularly athletic; it was natural for me to decry the notion that people with physical prowess should have any advantage in society over others. So perhaps people say “scientism” in a similar way — because they cannot compete with the scientists.

    • In reply to #17 by Erik:

      But I’m guessing that some people are afraid that if knowledge is power, the scientists will hold sway in this arena, sort of in the way priests used to be able to wield power because people believed that they held the secrets to appeasing a capricious god.

      They should be afraid, unlike the pretender priests those who are devoted to science hold real power

      As a child I was not particularly athletic; it was natural for me to decry the notion that people with physical prowess should have any advantage in society over others.

      Natural yes, but equally stupid. Though quite athletic, I’m blind in one eye. Did I resent those who could catch a ball? Yes! Did I begrudge this (to me) amazing achievement of natural selection? No!

    • In reply to #22 by Smill:

      In reply to Peter grant, post 21. That one eye you’re blind in, would that be your third eye?

      Actually it’s my left eye and I’m only partially blind. The condition is called lazy eye (which seems appropriate) and I only have peripheral vision on that side which is insufficient for depth perception. My “third eye” only seems to function when I take acid.

      • In reply to #23 by Peter Grant:

        In reply to #22 by Smill:

        In reply to Peter grant, post 21. That one eye you’re blind in, would that be your third eye?

        Actually it’s my left eye and I’m only partially blind. The condition is called lazy eye (which seems appropriate) and I only have peripheral vision on that side which is insuff…

        I have excellent eyes, but I’m very tall and awkward. Cricket is my first, second and third love. My biggest regret is that I never made the Australian test team, or the local team, or …..even the school team. Still, in a house match I hit the top batsman in the school in the ear, with a very well placed bouncer.

  9. I seem to remember a certain Mary Midgley ( philosopher) coined the term “scientism”, whilst she was having a go at The Selfish Gene. It seems the poor old girl couldn’t face up to scientific realities !

    A clear case of baby, pram, rattle !

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