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Should the Humanities Embrace Scientism? My Postmodern Response to Pinker’s Patronizing “Plea”


Damn you, Gary Stix! I was just about to head off on a vacation when my old Scientific American buddy sent me an email command: "Attack, John!" Gary's email linked to a New Republic essay by Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker: "Science is Not Your Enemy," snidely subtitled, "An impassioned plea to neglected novelists, embattled professors, and tenure-less historians."

Psychologist Steven Pinker says humanities scholars should be "delighted" by science's intrusion on their turf.

I like and respect Pinker. But a more accurate title for his condescending essay would have been, "Kicking the Humanities When They're Down."

He harangues humanities folks—whom I'll call Humists--for resenting science's increasing intrusion into their intellectual territory. According to Pinker, Humists should be "delighted and energized by the efflorescence of new ideas from the sciences," which have become "indispensable in all areas of human concern, including politics, the arts, and the search for meaning, purpose, and morality."

Pinker faults Humists for accusing scientists of "scientism," which could be defined as excessive trust in science. Attempting rhetorical jujitsu, Pinker suggests that science, because it is such a uniquely self-critical and successful generator of knowledge, deserves all our trust. Hence scientism is justified and we should all embrace it!

Now, before I knock Pinker further, let me acknowledge where our views overlap. First, we both believe in the attainability of truth and progress, and we agree that science is by far our most powerful means of understanding and improving our world.

I also get annoyed, like Pinker, when Humists dismiss science out of sheer ignorance. If you want to be taken seriously as an intellectual these days, you should engage with science, including pure and applied science, engineering, medicine and so on. And to engage with science, you should know something about it.

But Pinker's idea of engagement seems to be kowtowing to science's awesomeness. We already have too many prominent Humists serving as shills for science. Take, for example, the philosophers Daniel Dennett and Patricia Churchland, who seem to think that MRI maps of brains are solving the mind-body problem.

Pinker himself grossly overvalues the contributions of fields such as evolutionary psychology, behavioral genetics and neuroscience to our modern understanding of ourselves. And he has insulted the philosopher Thomas Nagel for daring to question whether science in its current form can account for the mysteries of life and consciousness.

So my advice to Humists is this: By all means engage with science, but engage with it critically, because science—contrary to what Pinker suggests--badly needs tough, informed criticism. As I said in a recent column, "it is precisely because science is so powerful that we need the humanities now more than ever."

Here's a more specific suggestion: Just as Pinker proudly, perversely, embraces "scientism," Humists should embrace the much-maligned term "postmodernism." Pinker, of course, loathes postmodernism. "The humanities," he writes, "have yet to recover from the disaster of postmodernism, with its defiant obscurantism, dogmatic relativism, and suffocating political correctness."

Pinker never seems to have understood postmodernism. Postmodern scholarship, like science itself, can be done well or badly, but its animating assumption is simple: All truth claims--whether scientific, religious or political—reflect the prejudices and desires of those who make them. Claims that become dominant in a culture often serve the interests of powerful groups.

Social Darwinism and eugenics are two especially egregious examples of pseudo-scientific ideologies that reflected the racism, sexism and classism of proponents. Pinker depicts Social Darwinism and eugenics as historical aberrations that had little or nothing to do with science--even though their central claims keep reappearing in modern scientific trappings.

Moreover, even a casual survey of modern science—and of this blog--reveals the degree to which science continues to serve the interests of powerful groups. The U.S. health care industry delivers lousy service at exorbitant prices, arguably because it is more concerned with profits than with patients. Modern psychiatry has become little more than a marketing branch of the pharmaceutical industry.

Neuroscience, psychology, artificial intelligence and other fields are increasingly dependent on military funding. Pinker himself has popularized the hypothesis that war is an instinct, rooted deeply in our evolutionary past, which civilization has helped us overcome. This notion serves as a convenient justification for modern U.S. militarism and imperialism.

Postmodernism is, in a sense, simply another expression of a truism of science journalism: If you want to understand modern debates about climate, energy, genetically modified food, economic equality or military policies, you should follow the money. Money certainly doesn't explain everything—and just because a group is rich and powerful doesn't mean that it's corrupt--but it explains a lot.

It's probably obvious by now that I'm really asking Humists to become more like science journalists, especially those who view science skeptically. Like the humanities, science journalism is struggling these days, and we need all the help we can get in providing critical evaluations of science. Together, Humists and science journalists can serve as science's loyal opposition, pointing out how far science often falls short of the idealized portrayals peddled by flaks like Pinker.

Okay, now I'm going to forget about scientism and postmodernism and go for a run on a beach. And Gary, no more emails!

Postscript: To see what I mean by a "postmodern" critique of science, check out my next post: "Why 'Optogenetic' Methods for Manipulating Brains Don't Light Me Up."

Photo of Pinker speaking at TED Conference:

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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