Scientism and Skepticism: A Reply to Steven Pinker
Wonder Stories cover, August 1931. Illustration by Frank R. Paul. Via
by Sebastian Normandin
“The great thinkers of the Age of Reason and the Enlightenment were scientists.” So begins Steven Pinker’s recent controversial essay on scientism and its virtues. At the risk of pedantry, it seems important to point out that the word “scientist” didn’t even exist in the period Pinker references; it was coined by the philosopher William Whewell in 1834. Alas, this is only the brazen beginning of Pinker’s presentist plea for the all-embracing panacea of scientific understanding.
What Pinker means when he speaks of scientism is, as he himself admits, unclear. And of course any ism – scientism included – implies ideology and rigidity, neither of which Pinker would defend in arguing for the virtues of science. But here we run across another problem, for what exactly is “science”? Is it a uniform practice reflective of universal phenomena? This is likely an untenable claim. In the words of philosopher of science Paul Feyerabend: “the events, procedures and results that constitute the sciences have no common structure.” Hence the difficulty of speaking of “science” in the singular, and why, as Philip Kircher notes, “French and German wisely retain the plural.”
Pinker further suggests the great thinkers he sees as “scientists” – “Descartes, Spinoza, Hobbes, Locke, Hume, Rousseau, Leibniz, Kant, Smith … crafted their ideas in the absence of formal theory or empirical data.” One can rightly be skeptical of this statement as well, again rooted in a broad generalization that is just sloppy thinking. How can these thinkers whom he calls “scientists” (and who are better understood as natural philosophers) be said to have had no “empirical data”? They had senses, presumably. Here again Pinker runs roughshod over the notion of empiricism, a complex, multi-faceted philosophical conception. In fact, with a thinker like Hume, we are witness to a “formal theory” of knowledge and understanding largely based on the empirical! Leibniz, moreover, helped lay the foundations of modern calculus, which presumably counts as a kind of “formal theory”.
And then there is René Descartes. Descartes developed many of his claims about the function of the body based on anatomical dissections (i.e. “empirical data”) that he performed with some regularity. More importantly, in his Discourse on Method he also laid out the principles of a formal theory of knowledge, foundational in its rational structure to the pursuit of scientific inquiry. At base, the central principle of his “formal theory”, one that remains central today in the sciences, is doubt. Skepticism. Even more than this, a kind of “radical skepticism” which questions the very nature of “empirical data.” This was a philosophical tradition carried forward by thinkers like Hume and John Stuart Mill.
Pinker acknowledges the importance of skepticism in discussing what he sees as one of his two ideals of scientism – that “the acquisition of knowledge is hard” (the other is that the world is “intelligible” – a proposition I will deal with later). Of course, this is the beginning of skepticism. But one could, and in fact one must, go further to suggest that scientific knowledge is also contingent and contextual. There may be universal forces and “laws of nature”, but the models that scientists use to describe them remain, like all human knowledge, ultimately transient and subject to revision and change. This is to say that there needs to be skepticism about scientific knowledge itself. And this is where Pinker misses a key point in his defense of scientism. “Isms”, as mentioned, are bad in science, or at the very least problematic (e.g. consider the history of a controversial concept like vitalism and its many meanings, something I have explored at some length). They imply doctrine, something that, as Pinker argues so vehemently, is antithetical to science.
Ironically, what Pinker is advocating is not even just scientism, it is actually a kind of ossified rationalism that sees an underlying unity in all scientific inquiry where in fact none exists. And this rationalism isn’t even the same as reason itself. Rationalism is to reason as scientism is to science. And both are a kind of fetishistic phenomena – an idealization akin to superstition:
In contrast to reason, a defining characteristic of superstition is the stubborn insistence that something – a fetish, an amulet, a pack of Tarot cards – has powers which no evidence supports. From this perspective, scientism appears to have as much in common with superstition as it does with properly conducted scientific research. Scientism claims that science has already resolved questions that are inherently beyond its ability to answer.
This emerges as a kind of ideology, one that most historians and philosophers of science would find naïve and even troubling. It is, after all, difficult to say that there is any all- encompassing method or mode of inquiry in any field, the sciences included. Karl Popper, a fairly conservative philosopher of science (e.g. not a practitioner of the “disaster of postmodernism, with its defiant obscurantism, dogmatic relativism, and suffocating political correctness” Pinker rails against), argued that the only thing that unified scientific ideas was that they were contingent and could be disproved (i.e. falsifiability).
In discussing the “practices of science,” Pinker points out that they include “open debate, peer review, and double-blind methods”. Excepting double-blind methodology, which is primarily used in medicine, and specifically psychology and clinical trials, the other two practices are not even exclusive to science – they are in fact hallmarks of scholarly inquiry more generally. This further highlights the idea that while espousing the virtues of scientific methodology, it is hard for Pinker to pinpoint exactly what that methodology is. This is because there is no such thing as a universal, monolithic “scientific methodology”; this in spite of the continued folk homage paid to the idea of the “scientific method.”
“With his dawn-is-breaking scientistic cheerleading, Pinker shows no trace of the skepticism whose absence he deplores in others.” Indeed, it is clearly apparent from his unabashed enthusiasm for the potential of science as applied to all realms of human endeavor and experience that Pinker lacks this foundational attitude of the modern scientific mind – radical skepticism. This was the skepticism that led Descartes to doubt even his own sense impressions, and to challenge the “world of appearances” as it then existed. And yet the hubris of scientism would have us believe we can penetrate to the very core of this world, and that we have already made great inroads in this process. We would do well to realize that, even with all the fantastical scientific instruments we have at our disposal – instruments that would seem like pure magic to a thinker like Descartes – there are still fundamental limits to our ability to perceive and interpret the natural world.
Adopting a skeptical stance does not mean that one has to believe knowledge of the world is impossible, but it does echo Pinker’s assertion that it is hard. Very hard. This is where Pinker, I believe, slips up in his scientific claims. For he takes the “facts” obtained by science as direct representations of the real. Moreover, he neglects to mention that these “facts” only have meaning within a given framework – a given paradigm – of understanding. We see this in the type of statements he makes at a point in the essay: “We know that our species is a tiny twig… […] We know that we live on a planet that revolves…”, etc. These findings and facts and theories, and good science has always admitted this, should really be seen as models. Here I differ (and I believe cautious and skeptical scientists should differ) with Pinker on the idea that the world is intelligible. Our understanding and knowledge of the world can be intelligible, but what that says about the world per se (or as Kant would put it, the world as “thing in itself”) we can only guess. Of course, the standard response to this among positivists and those who ascribe to a certain brand of scientism is that the world as we understand it is the world. And yet as scientific inquiry has shown us again and again, there could always be more than meets the eye, or lens, or instrument or mode of quantitative analysis.
What does this mean for Pinker’s claims about the overarching value of scientific inquiry in all realms of understanding? Quite a bit, I believe. For one, this claim implies universality of method and even of reality when in fact none may exist. This is not to admit an unfettered relativism, rather it is merely to remain cautious about reductionism (and a corresponding universalism). As Leon Wieseltier puts it “For the scientizer, they [the differences between realms of human existence] are not differences in kind; they are differences only in appearance, whereas a deeper explanation, a scientific explanation, will expose the underlying sameness. The underlying sameness is the presumption of scientism.” Not only is this an ill-conceived idea from the perspective of epistemology (thinking that the same solutions will work in different contexts and also assuming that reductionism will work in all cases), it is also an idea with other ontological consequences – a universal idea of “science” and the associated notion that science renders a certain sameness to all knowledge. Further, in an age where science leads the charge in colonialist and imperialist ventures, it creates a problematic hierarchy of knowledge forms, with Western science inevitably sitting at the top.
This then is another danger of scientism – the presumption of the inherent validity of any given method. Already here we need to be skeptical that any universality exists but, moreover, should such universality exist, we would do well to still remain skeptical of the application of a universal method across a wide range of endeavor. Again Feyerabend expresses this in clear, succinct terms:
…the success of ‘science’ cannot be used as an argument for treating as yet unsolved problems in a standardized way. That could be done only if there are procedures that can be detached from particular research situations and whose presence guarantees success […] Referring to the success of ‘science’ in order to justify, say, quantifying human behavior is therefore an argument without substance. Quantification works in some cases; fails in others…
It is for these reasons Feyerabend advocates a kind of “epistemological anarchism” we would do well to consider.
The later part of the above quote can be summed up in a view that scientism overlooks, and even rejects outright: “context matters.” The view of science Pinker advocates in speaking of the virtue of scientism, stripped of its particular epistemological claims, is a kind of belief. It is a belief in science. As Pinker should be aware, given his challenging tone in regards to tradition, received wisdom, religion, etc.., any belief is, to the degree that it ossifies thought and knowledge, dangerous. And this includes complete belief in current scientific theories and ideas. The skeptic Michael Shermer is right to point out that our brain may in fact be constructed to believe. This is nothing new, and Kant hinted at this possibility in his Critique of the teleological power of judgment. Both argue that our minds construct a world made up of ordered and objective things that may, in fact, have no direct relation to “things in themselves”.
That belief in the “truth” of our representations, and the associated notion that there is meaning and harmony in the world, Shermer calls “patternicity”. This is, I would argue, as much a problem in scientific thinking as it is in non-scientific or pseudoscientific thinking. It is hard to sit in a place of doubt. Belief, whether in science or religion, gives us succour, makes us feel comfortable about our role in the world. But in the end this does very little to challenge ourselves to think about and rethink our views and assumptions. It is only from this shifting point of questioning and doubt, of skepticism, that truly creative and new ideas emerge. We need to be ever vigilant of complacency and hubris, particularly in an age where technological by-products of scientific research give us such an innate sense of progress and power. In the end, even this is an illusion: “The problem is not why we are so often confused,” Feyerabend says, “the problem is why we seem to possess useful and enlightening knowledge.”
Can we suffer from too much doubt? In the day-to-day realm, perhaps we can. Doubt about every choice we make and action we take in life can be paralyzing. It is a neurosis. In any event, our very physiological and psychological make-up means this is unlikely. And yet, in the realm of knowledge generation, whether in science or otherwise, we should all be obsessively cautious neurotics. Claims need to be checked, methods need to be challenged, and all facts and assumptions should be approached with at least a minimum of skepticism. Judging by some current discussions about the problems with accuracy and legitimacy in recent research, this kind of cautious skepticism is in short supply in contemporary science.
It is also in short supply in Pinker’s essay. He suggests those in the liberal arts “cultivate a philistine indifference to science that shades into contempt.” This is simply an unsustainable claim in the techno-scientific society we live in. He further suggests: “They are commonly misinformed that scientists no longer care about truth but merely chase the fashions of shifting paradigms.” The use of “paradigm” here is an offhand reference to historian of science Thomas Kuhn, who employed the term to add complexity to the idea that science was ever in the business of producing universal, timeless truths. We would do well to consider his argument lest we become complacent about what we currently ensconce as “truth”.
Where Pinker himself further struggles with truth is in some of the bold, unsupported statements in his essay about elements of the recent history of science and medicine. “The Green Revoltion in agronomy alone saved a billion people from starvation.” This is quite a sweeping statement. There is no doubt the technology transfer of agricultural techniques from the west to India and elsewhere was a tremendous boon, increasing productivity immensely. But as some critics have pointed out, increased food production is not synonymous with securing food supply, and in some cases did not lead to major improvements in diet. Combined with the dangers of monoculture, the political undertones of putatively “first world” control of “third world” development, and the overarching issue of colonialism, imperialism, and globalization, we are left with another realization – science and technology exist in sophisticated and subtle social network, and no development is as straightforward as Pinker would have us believe. Scientism oversimplifies the role of science in a very complex human world.
Pinker further calls the Tuskegee syphilis study a “one-time failure” when medical ethics has had a very long and checkered history that continues even today, particularly in the context of a continent like Africa, where the “progress” of medicine remains a question of fierce debate; informed consent, a seemingly basic principle of medical research, took until the late 1950s to become standard practice. Nuremberg Code notwithstanding, US Federal regulation on the use of human subjects in research was only enacted in 1974.
Pinker’s take on eugenics and Social Darwinism is even more bizarre. He says: “Eugenics was the campaign, popular among leftists and progressives in the early decades of the twentieth century, for the ultimate form of social progress, improving the genetic stock of humanity.” Eugenics was more than a “campaign” – it was seen as a legitimate, mainstream scientific theory, widely popular across the political spectrum, and with serious social impacts, including institutionalized racism and the forced sterilization of thousands in the US and world-wide.
But it is not the specific details of these examples that are key. It is the dismissal of any legitimate criticism of the influence of scientific practices, and of the uncritical defense of the use of a “scientific” approach in all realms of inquiry. It is not the incursion of the scientific methodologies into the humanities that is most problematic in Pinker’s argument, for this will in some cases prove fruitful and in others will not be possible at all. What is really troubling is the lack of any criticality or reserve – of a skepticism that was once the hallmark of the scientific mind – in his description of the nature and role of the sciences in human life. This is necessary not only from a methodological (epistemological) perspective. It is also important as a means to provide a certain balance, and allow for the role of the public – that great mass of the unwashed that Pinker too easily tars with the brush of religiosity and superstition – to have a say in what scientists do. This in an age where the scientist’s impact is greater than any priesthood we could ever envision in the human past (and it was precisely at the point in the early nineteenth century where this impact was first being witnessed, and that “scientists” started to be recognized as a distinct group, that the term was first coined).
Philosopher of science Paul Feyerabend once again gives us a way to understand how to balance the role of different realms of inquiry and endeavor:
Again I want to make two points: first, that science can stand on its own feet and does not need any help from rationalists, secular humanists, Marxists and similar religious movements; and, secondly, that the non-scientific cultures, procedures and assumptions should also be allowed to do so, if this is the wish of their representatives. Science must be protected from ideology; and societies, especially democratic societies, must be protected from science. This does not mean that scientists cannot profit from a philosophical education and that humanity has not and never will profit from the sciences. However, the profits should not be imposed; they should be examined and freely accepted by the parties in the exchange. In a democracy scientific institutions, research programmes, and suggestions must therefore be subjected to public control, there must be a separation of state and science just as there is a separation between state and religious institutions, and science should be taught as one view among many and not as the one and only road to truth and reality. There is nothing in the nature of science that excludes such institutional arrangements or shows that they are liable to lead to disaster.
Thomas Jefferson famously said the “cornerstone of democracy rests on the foundation of an educated electorate.” And indeed we should be concerned at the lack of scientific literacy possessed by the average modern citizen. But perhaps more than this we should be concerned at the lack of transparency – and willingness – of an expert scientific and technical elite to share their understandings more broadly and to consider non-specialist reactions to and critiques of their practices. It is this type of discourse that scientism isolates us from, and moreover, encourages the incursion of science into every realm of human existence and understanding. This is a clear danger, and a phenomenon we need be rightly skeptical of.
I differ with Pinker’s assertion that a scientific approach to politics would improve our understanding of it. What Pinker calls “human nature” is not something to be fully understood in scientific terms. In fact, one can easily show that science itself is subject to the vagaries of political ideologies and the tendencies in “human nature” (whole fields like the sociology of science devote themselves to exploring these influences). This idea alone should give us pause and encourage the employ of a more thoroughgoing skepticism about a science of politics, and more generally, of science and politics.
As a card-carrying member of the group of “embattled professors” and “tenure-less historians” that Pinker seems to want to address in his essay, I can only conclude with a reply that simply sums up my argument. Indeed, science is not my enemy. But it is also, quite clearly, not my friend. It is simply a way of knowing, one among many that humans have access to. Furthermore, despite its immense power and possibility, it is not total and all encompassing – it is as flawed and incomplete as any other realm of human understanding.
 Steven Pinker, “Science Is Not Your Enemy: An impassioned plea to neglected novelists, embattled professors, and tenure-less historians,” The New Republic, 6 August 2013.
 Paul Feyerabend, Against Method, 4th ed. Introduction by Ian Hacking (London: Verso, 2010 ), xix.
 Philip Kitcher, “The Trouble with Scientism: Why history and the humanities are also a form of knowledge,” The New Republic, 4 May 2012.
 Pinker, “Science Is Not Your Enemy”.
 It is difficult to call it a “formal theory” without complication since Descartes himself admits that it was soaked in his own subjectivity and could very well be flawed: “Thus my plan here is not to teach the method that everyone must follow in order to guide their reason, but merely explain how I have tried to guide my own.” René Descartes, Discourse on Method and Related Writings, trans. Desmond M. Clarke (London: Penguin, 1999 ), 7. If only a modern argument about scientific methodology were so circumspect!
 Pinker, “Science Is Not Your Enemy”.
 This brings to mind the idea of a “paradigm” as outlined in Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 2nd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970 ).
 Austin L. Hughes, “The Folly of Scientism,” The New Atlantis, Number 37, Fall 2012, 32-50, 50.
 Pinker, “Science Is Not Your Enemy”.
 Karl Popper, The Logic of Scientific Discovery (London: Routledge, 2002 ).
 Leon Wieseltier, “Crimes Against Humanities: Now science wants to invade the liberal arts. Don’t let it happen,” The New Republic, 3 September 2013.
 Pinker, “Science Is Not Your Enemy”. Italics mine.
 Leon Wieseltier, “Crimes Against Humanities”.
 For an alternative perspective and challenge to this kind of knowledge hierarchy, cf. Sandra Harding, Sciences From Below: Feminisms, Postcolonialities, and Modernities (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008).
 Feyerabend, Against Method, xx.
 Feyerabend, Against Method, xvi.
 Pinker, “Science Is Not Your Enemy”.
 Feyerabend, Against Method, xviii.
 On the idea of “human nature” a useful debate is to be found in the dialogue between the philosopher Michel Foucault and linguist Noam Chomsky. Cf. Noam Chomsky and Michel Foucault, The Chomsky- Foucault Debate on Human Nature (New York: The New Press, 2006).
About the Author:
Sebastian Normandin received his Ph.D. from McGill University in 2006. His research focuses on the history and philosophy of biology and medicine, particularly vitalism, a concept he has written about in a recent co-edited volume, Vitalism and the Scientific Image in Post-Enlightenment Life Science, 1800-2010 (Springer, 2013). He is currently an independent scholar writing a book about cultural, medical, historical, and philosophical ideas involving breath and breathing practice in a global perspective. You can find him on Twitter @weirdhistorian.