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Steven Pinker
Nick Cunard/Writer Pictures/AP
Steven Pinker

Science supremacists

Science | An aggressive scientism seeks to take charge of spheres well beyond science’s expertise

Issue: "Going it alone," Nov. 2, 2013

There’s a fight going on in the pages of The New Republic. Over the last couple of months, evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker has been duking it out with Leon Wieseltier, literary editor of the magazine, over two great human endeavors:

In this corner: “Science,” with a string of obvious successes that directly benefit mankind, as well as ultimate weapons, like the atomic bomb, responsible for the death of millions.

And in that corner, “the Humanities,” once the cornerstone of the university system, now damaged by trendy social theories and political correctness, whose actual benefits to humanity are subtle.

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At a cursory glance, it would seem that the deck is stacked in favor of science. STEM degrees (majors in science, technology, engineering, and math) generally promise the highest salaries and greatest job security. And though public faith in science is not what it used to be, back in the days of eugenics and “better living through chemistry,” the erosion of objective truth has landed science in the default position for determining what is factual.

Nevertheless, Steven Pinker seems hurt. Scientists may be sitting pretty, but the discipline has been accused—unjustly, in his view—of taking too much on itself. Advocates for the humanities are writing journal pieces about “something called ‘scientism’” and insisting that science should know its place. To the contrary, Pinker says: science is “indispensable in all areas of human concern, including politics, the arts, and the search for meaning, purpose, and morality.”

All these areas established themselves long before the scientific revolution, a fact Pinker does not acknowledge. In his opening salvo, titled “Science Is Not Your Enemy,” his case that science is a trustworthy partner to the humanities is riddled with unproven assumptions. Such as:

1) Pinker explicitly rejects scientism, while demonstrating it. In my dictionary, the word is defined as “the theory that investigative methods used in the natural sciences should be applied to all forms of inquiry.” The scientific method succeeded so brilliantly because it knew its limits and focused on that which could be quantified. To imply that everything can be quantified is a gigantic non sequitur.

2) He carelessly dismisses other forms of knowledge—faith, revelation, experience—as “generators of error.” Science, he admits, may be subject to error but self-corrects in time, while all other ways of knowing never escape their human biases.

3) Similarly, he rejects any nonscientific examinations into morality and meaning. “The moral worldview of any scientifically literate person—one who is not blinkered by fundamentalism—requires a radical break from religious conceptions of meaning and value.”

4) He uses criteria to judge the effects of religious belief (witch hunts, inquisitions, persecution of heretics) that he refuses to apply to the effects of scientific atheism (eugenics, social Darwinism, totalitarianism—also persecution of intelligent-design heretics).

The implication, of elephant-in-the-room magnitude, is that Pinker is not merely asking to be admitted to the humanities table—he’s demanding the chairman’s seat. In a long, breathtaking paragraph, he asserts “We know” a number of facts we actually don’t know, but only assume if the God hypothesis has been proven false. Which it hasn’t. Theism and atheism are both assumptions that cannot be proved scientifically, because the necessary evidence lies outside science. No matter: To Pinker, empirical knowledge trumps all other forms of knowledge. Neurology, he implies, holds the key to finally understanding the human “soul”—even though there’s no such thing.

He offers no moral justification for science involving itself in art, history, philosophy, et al., except that “humanity must take responsibility for itself” in order to “maximize the flourishing of humans and other sentient beings.” For this grand, if vague, task science can provide the answers and settle disagreements about methodology. Cognitive psychology, linguistics, behavioral genetics, and data mining offer the humanities a way to take apart the machine and understand better how it works.

But understanding how doesn’t explain why, and once the machine is thoroughly dismantled, science can’t put it back together. Politically and socially, this spells disaster. Spiritually, it is death.

Janie B. Cheaney
Janie B. Cheaney

Janie lives in Missouri, is a columnist for WORLD, writes novels for young adults, and is the author of the Wordsmith creative writing series. She also reviews books at Follow Janie on Twitter @jbcheaney.


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