Science is not a Movement: Reflections on Steven Pinker and his Critics

Until about a month ago (ie., Aug 2013), I’d never even heard of Steven Pinker. Or Leon Wieseltier, or Massimo Pigliucci, or even Daniel Dennett. I do have a background in science, in a ‘previous life’, but more than 15 years ago my career shifted sideways, via software development project management to sales and marketing (which seems to rank with used car salesmen, real estate agents, and lawyers for nobility of professions).

I’m a complete newcomer to discussions involving scholarly philosophy, having only recently joined in a handful of online debates that seemed to have drawn battle lines between scientific rationalism and theology. Nothing more (or less) than an opinionated layperson directed by a little bit of reading and some common sense.  I’ve never had any respect for religious beliefs, but have been comfortable generally to live and let live. Provided the believers don’t force their beliefs onto me, hijack our secular public institutions, or try to indoctrinate my children, they can continue to practice harmlessly whatever they want.

I had always assumed that religious beliefs were a result of a particular upbringing, combined with a tendency to superstition, a deep faith, and various other psychological factors and symptoms of ignorance. So I was surprised to find recently that there are intelligent and articulate Christians in Australia that actually believe that rational approaches, empirical evidence and science in general provide support for their beliefs in God. Indeed, in one particular Facebook debate I found myself buried in, one particular theist (apparently a PhD student in philosophy) declared that “an empirical approach [to life] should lead to belief [in God]”.

The attitudes of some of these articulate Christians is that science is not capable of providing answers to some of our most profound human questions, and in fact philosophy and theology are the only relevant tools to address such things. Some go further and assert that empiricism is a rather less important approach than is philosophy in our collective goals of learning about our universe. But more on this later.

Following an unassuming Twitter lead, I discovered Steven Pinker’s recent piece referring to scientism. Here was another ‘thing’ I hadn’t really encountered until now, but in light of the arguments I was having with theists, his essay made complete sense. In fact, I found it truly inspirational – this section in particular:

…As for literary scholarship […] Linguistics can illuminate the resources of grammar and discourse that allow authors to manipulate a reader’s imaginary experience. Cognitive psychology can provide insight about readers’ ability to reconcile their own consciousness with those of the author and characters. Behavioral genetics can update folk theories of parental influence with discoveries about the effects of genes, peers, and chance, which have profound implications for the interpretation of biography and memoir—an endeavor that also has much to learn from the cognitive psychology of memory and the social psychology of self-presentation. Evolutionary psychologists can distinguish the obsessions that are universal from those that are exaggerated by a particular culture and can lay out the inherent conflicts and confluences of interest within families, couples, friendships, and rivalries that are the drivers of plot. And as with politics, the advent of data science applied to books, periodicals, correspondence, and musical scores holds the promise for an expansive new “digital humanities.” The possibilities for theory and discovery are limited only by the imagination and include the origin and spread of ideas, networks of intellectual and artistic influence, the persistence of historical memory, the waxing and waning of themes in literature, and patterns of unofficial censorship and taboo…

It’s no surprise that Pinker’s piece would attract criticism. But what is surprising is the nature of that criticism and how aggrieved the critics seem to be with his goal of the collective discovery of truths using science as a key source of knowledge.  From Leon Wieseltier:

…Is the beauty of ancient art nullified by the falsity of the cosmological ideas that inspired it? I would sooner bless the falsity for the beauty. Factual obsolescence is not philosophical or moral or cultural or spiritual obsolescence…”

Scientists have no issue with the ‘beauty of ancient art’.  What they do have an issue with is when this is declared to be truth. Wieseltier’s attitude seems to be that the humanities, including the arts, have some grasp on intrinsic human truth that science has no access to. The suggestion seems to be that the ‘false beauty’ of the humanities is more important than the truth offered by scientific investigation. No doubt this will be a debate without end any time soon, but I have to disagree with this view with extreme prejudice. Scientists don’t claim to have all the answers, but are accused of arrogance when venturing opinions outside of their original fields of study. This attitude of keeping ‘science’ in its own well-demarcated box is classic hypocrisy by virtue of arrogance!

Science is concerned with the truth of nature. It can provide some insights into the aesthetics of nature and art and human reasoning, but this in no way diminishes the beauty of those things. But more importantly, it can – and should – replace any claims of the natural ‘truth’ of those things.

This ‘scientism’ thing – if it really is a ‘thing’ and not just a pejorative label – might be a movement.  I suspect it isn’t really though, despite Dr. Pinker’s embrace of the term. Science, on the other hand, definitely is not a movement.

As I mentioned previously, scholarly philosophy is something very new to me, and while I am yet to appreciate that it has a whole lot of practical value, in past few days I had started to warm to the ideas of Massimo Pigliucci. However, I have been left disappointed by the views expressed in this piece.  Here are a few selective snippets:

…Pinker seems to ignore much research in the history and sociology of science that shows that sometimes that system goes wrong, occasionally worrisomely wrong (e.g., a lot of medical research on drugs is seriously flawed, particularly – but not only – when the funding for it comes from the pharmaceutical industry).

…He also conveniently dismisses or minimizes the problems that science and technology have brought to us: it’s ok for science to take credit for vaccines (as it should), but not ok for critics to point out nasty stuff like atomic bombs and biological warfare. See, those aren’t really the results of “science,” but of bad politicians misusing science. This is such a naive understanding of human power relations, not to mention of the complex social role of science, that it is downright laughable.

…he should have acknowledged that some criticism of science is well founded and sorely needed.”

Pigliucci isn’t using the terms science and scientism interchangeably here. A distinction between these terms is implicit but clear throughout his piece. The thoughts behind these statements (and throughout the article) seem to position science as some kind of worldview, or movement, with some kind of coherent collective agenda.

Science is not a movement. It is a method. It is a collection of tools, an approach to understanding our universe and our ourselves. Science has no agenda.

While there are various processes that can help us formulate ethics, nothing can be said about the ethical accountability of the processes themselves. A process, in general terms, does not belong to any category that can have an ethical position as one of its attributes! (I learnt the language of category errors from some recent reading in philosophy.)

While science can be ‘hard’ (even according to Pinker), it is a technique accessible to anyone.  Having some formal training can make one better at doing good science. But anyone can formulate a view, test with empirical data, and form a conclusion and/or modify their original views. Here is a good summary by Richard Feynman (thanks to Prof. Brian Cox for referencing this in a recent lecture I found on youtube). This is ten minutes long, but the key part is in exactly the first one minute:

Throughout the history of scientific discoveries, the role of philosophy as an authority to explain nature, including our existence, has been edged gradually and progressively out of relevance.  This does not mean that the importance of the humanities in the large has declined. Arts, as far as I can tell, are no less valuable today than they were in antiquity. The role of ethical studies and discourse for our institutions, both public and private, may have even increased in recent times, supported strongly by empirical data.

But ‘science’ does not over-step its boundaries.  I don’t accept – and nor should anyone – that scientists shouldn’t be allowed to venture opinions outside their main field, nor attempt to apply the scientific method and conclusions to questions that they couldn’t attempt previously. Scientists deserve to attract criticism for their interpretation of the evidence and their reasoning, but not for the fact that their formal training was in a discipline outside their main area of research. Challenging arguments is valid discourse. Ad hominem (or perhaps, ‘ad communis’?) arguments are not.

Science is simply a process. It helps us discover what is true and real. It doesn’t discriminate. Science can even help us explore the realities behind ‘the beauty of ancient art’. But intrinsically, it doesn’t care whether we like those realities or not.