Tuesday, August 13, 2013 ... /////

Steve Pinker is right to defend "scientism"

A week ago, Harvard's top evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker wrote an essay for The New Republic,

Science Is Not Your Enemy: An impassioned plea to neglected novelists, embattled professors, and tenure-less historians,
that defends the application of the scientific method to various fields, including those that used to be monopolized by the tools of humanities and other methods and non-methods. I think that both Pinker and your humble correspondent think that the would-be expletive "scientism" is being mostly used for the idea that scientific reasoning shouldn't be confined just to the traditional places but it should be extended to new realms.

If that's so, count me as a scientist! Or what's the word for the champion of scientism? ;-)

To be sure, I have met people who were applying naive, science-inspired models to very complex systems and they would deserve to be criticized or told why they were wrong. But in my experience, these were not the primary recipients of the label "scientism".

Pinker starts by saying that the great folks of the Enlightenment were scientists, science has improved our lives in many ways, the understanding itself is extremely valuable (in contrast with a despicable statement in the 2006-2007 Harvard general education requirement that offended me as much as it offended Pinker).

He says that science is facing a coalition of the religious fundamentalists and postmodernists – I agree with that – and that the defenders of science don't claim that real-world scientists are infallible or the wisest ones. On the contrary, science is based on two ideals – that the world may be studied and get increasingly familiar; and that this process of learning is hard and should be hard.

My degree of agreement with Pinker is so high – it's not the first time – that reviewing his ideas could be boring. I guess that you expect some polarization so I chose to criticize a critic of Pinker called Massimo Pigliucci, a department head in an NY philosophy department, a self-described non-postmodernist, and a postmodernist. In Rationally Speaking, he wrote a critique with the title
Steven Pinker Embraces Scientism. Bad Move, I Think (Science 2.0 copy)
I find his surname too complicated so I will refer to him as the Liberian because this man educated in Rome, Italy was born in Liberia.
Pinker begins awfully, waxing poetic about how the Great Thinkers of the Enlightenment were all scientists, and in particular, cognitive neuroscientists, evolutionary psychologists (!!), and social psychologists. Such thinkers include Descartes, Spinoza, Hobbes, Locke, Hume, Rousseau, Leibniz, Kant, and Smith. All, obviously, philosophers. Yeah, I get it, it was a rhetorical opening gamble. But it is precisely the sort of rhetoric that justly pisses off people in the humanities, so why start an essay that way which ostensibly attempts to reconcile the so-called two cultures?
OK, these men were (also/primarily) "philosophers" but all of them also practiced natural science and held dear its principles. Pinker calls them "thinkers of the Age of Reason and Enlightenment" which is a neutral label, I guess, and the claim that they "were scientists" doesn't mean that they were "nothing else"; this description of the men is not mutually exclusive with other propositions about them. That's why the Liberian's (and other philosophers'?) irritated reaction seems irrational to me.

Pinker clearly wants to suggest that the big men of the Enlightenment were much more into science than the contemporary philosophers and it's a pity! Those men of the Enlightenment really did symbolize a peaceful co-existence of the two "cultures"; it's no cliché.

This – the very suggestion that the folks in the humanities should be interested in science because it may enrich them – is already too much for the Liberian so he makes a lousy joke about the "Prime Directive" when Pinker says (a serious and important thing) that the men of the Enlightenment would be happy to see some modern scientific findings. The Liberian is quickly eager to say that Pinker is not worth reading. Why?
Cue the predictable "scientism is an arbitrary label thrown at things one doesn't like" complaint and you don't need to bother reading the rest of the essay.
Wow, that was fast. It's a fact that the word "scientism" is mostly used exactly in the way that Pinker describes. It is an arbitrary label that people use to reject scientific arguments, findings, facts, and methods whenever they don't like where they would lead. It's an enchantment designed stop a serious discussion before it starts. Does the Liberian have some arguments against Pinker's claim? Perhaps it's the following paragraph:
So, once again, let's revisit the issue of scientism, this time using a different take, which I hope will help us make some progress. I have begun to think of scientism as in a sense the opposite extreme of pseudoscience: while pseudoscientific notions arise from science badly done (or non-science masquerading as science), scientism is about science overreaching (or science trying to expand into non scientific domains).
That may sound nice to him except that as far as I could see, the rest of his essay doesn't contain a glimpse of evidence that science is overreaching, examples when it is overreaching, and evidence that it is a bad thing. So yes, the Liberian's words are just another proof of Pinker's definition of "scientism". It's a label meant to stop a discussion about something before any sensible arguments or thoughts may be raised at all. The word is a weapon meant to protect irrationality's control over whole domains of human activity "because we just want it to be this way forever". The Liberian has a word, "scientism", and this word seems enough to him to identify Pinker as a counterpart of pseudoscientists. The only problem is that Pinker isn't analogous to pseudoscientists at all.
Interestingly, the word pseudoscience can also be used to deflect genuine criticism: oh, you are just throwing pseudoscience at me in order to dismiss what I do without argument, says the ufologist (or astrologist, or homeopath, or...). And of course it is perfectly true that both scientism and pseudoscience can indeed be used inappropriately, just like the term science itself can and has been invoked to prop up all sorts of bad doctrines (scientific psychoanalysis, scientific Marxism, phrenology, eugenics, and so forth).
Well, the objection by the ufologist might even be considered legitimate. If someone just screams expletives such as "pseudoscience" at him, he isn't providing the ufologist with counter-evidence. The difference between "pseudosciences" and "scientism" is that one may also present perfectly scientific, rational, nearly rock-solid arguments supporting the conclusion that pseudosciences are wrong (better arguments than just the screaming of the word "pseudoscience"). One may show how easy it is to create UFOs terrestrially in many ways, how it is impossible that planets or constellations affect the human lives, and so on. On the other hand, one can't present any sensible evidence that the scientific method is bound to fail when applied to human affairs and fields previously dominated by the humanities.

So unlike the opponents of pseudosciences who are backed by pretty much all the content of science, the opponents of "scientism" are only supported by the childish screaming of the would-be insult "scientism". That's the reason why the "scientism" isn't analogous to "pseudosciences" and their opponents aren't analogous, either.
But Jackson Lears' target [JL was criticized by Pinker; he angrily responds beneath Pinker's TNR article] are the writings of Sam Harris, a textbook example of the excesses of scientism if there is any to be found out there! And therein lies the problem: just as in the case of pseudoscience, the devil, so to speak, is in the details. Generic cries of "scientism!" or "pseudoscience!" won't stick, nor should they. But generic dismissals of criticisms of either pseudoscience or scientism shouldn't either. It's just not that simple.
The comment about Sam Harris is off-topic because Pinker has only mentioned his name – but none of his views – above the segment about Lears (which is started by a quote from Lears' review that seems independent of Harris: it's a far-left tirade equating 20th century science with eugenics and imperialism). On the other hand, even though the Liberian opened this new topic, he hasn't written an epsilon of a sensible criticism of Sam Harris, either. Are people supposed to be in the "consensus" that Sam Harris represents "excesses of scientism" without any evidence it's so? Sorry, I haven't read Sam Harris' work but (or: and therefore?) I won't do that. Philosophers may be in the "consensus" that they dislike Sam Harris and his writing but they can still be wrong.

If one demonstrates that the criticisms of "scientism" are nothing else than vacuous anti-scientific babbling, then generic dismissals of the criticism of "scientism" should stick.
Pinker claims that science couldn't possibly indulge in the excesses that its critics level at it because, you know, the whole process employs a series of safeguards, including open debate, peer review, and double blind experiments. Yes, and when the system works, it works really well. But 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).
Looking at the comment about the "Big Pharma", you see that the Liberian is just a far left activist. People like him are doing no science or impartial analyses of anything. They are on a crusade to hurt the big corporations because they're unhinged fanatical dirty commies. I am not 100% sure that Steven Pinker would use exactly the same wording ;-) but Massimo Pigliucci is a shitty dishonest jerk.

He is on a crusade not only against the corporations but against the natural sciences, too. That's why he's so obsessed with the – mostly worthless – research trying to hurt the (surely not only) medical research. Much of the medical research is flawed. Some scientific disciplines are more successful or follow the scientific standards more carefully than others. But those that are more sloppy or distorted also enjoy a smaller percentage of Pinker's defense. When science doesn't work properly, it doesn't work properly. It's not really proper science and it's not quite what Pinker is defending. So why shouldn't Pinker "ignore" that?

Of course that he may also write an essay against bad science – and he has written such essays, too. But this essay wasn't about bad science; it was about the bogus label "scientism" which is why different topics were ignored by Pinker. Do you understand it, the Liberian? On the contrary, it's a case of demagogy when the Liberian tries to connect Pinker with the bad science. There isn't any evidence that the bad medical research should be associated with Pinker.
Not to mention that he entirely misses the point of the most frequent cases of scientism: they are not to be found in the technical scientific literature, but rather in popular science writings, when scientists (or people who claim to be interpreting science on behalf of the public) make claims that are simply disproportionate to the evidence (as in many recent instances of neurobabbling).
The popular literature may often print many hypotheses or claims that aren't established and that are sometimes wrong. Sometimes they're shockingly and horribly wrong. On the other hand, it's completely normal that ideas about portions or disciplines of science that aren't quite established or born appear in the popular literature. So if there are no scientific departments dedicated to the scientific research of traditionally humanities-based topics, of course that the discussion about these potential future disciplines has to occur elsewhere.
Science, says Pinker, is committed to two ideals: that the universe is intelligible, and that acquisition of knowledge is hard. Well, I'm not sure why these are "ideals" rather than, say, working assumptions (the first) and acknowledgement of fact (the second). But this is a red herring, of course. Nobody in his right mind is arguing that the universe isn't (to a point, no guarantees!) understandable by us, and certainly nobody is accusing scientists of being lazy. So why bring that up to begin with?
Why bring that up? Because the critics of "scientism" don't have any respect for these basic ideals of science – even though they are critically important. The Liberian has no respect for them, either. You can see this fact on his very attack on the word "ideals". They're just not ideals in his opinion! He explicitly says so.

To a scientifically inclined mind, the two propositions are ideals. The scientists like the apparent fact that the Universe is intelligible and they're decided not to give up the attempts to understand the world ever more intimately. It's their mission so the justification of the mission is an ideal. Similarly, the insight that the scientific method to get familiar with the world is hard is also an ideal because it means that the scientists are ready to avoid the temptation of easy solutions and shortcuts and they're ready for hard work and work that requires patience. They're not scared by this vision – on the contrary, they think it's a part of their method's superiority. That's also why the description of this superiority deserves to be called an ideal.
But bashing once again Stephen Jay Gould's (in)famous idea of two separate magisteria for science and religion, he commits the very same mistake that Gould made: (rational) morality isn't the province of religion, it is a branch of philosophy, and it is philosophers such as myself that have taken to task the scientistic excesses of Harris, Shermer, and co. See?
No, I don't see anything of the sort.

Science and religion are sometimes about different questions but sometimes they're not. Sometimes conflicts arose and still arise. One shouldn't deny the fact that the religion sometimes wants to protect its territory against science even though the scientific evidence is getting strong. Gould has arguably argued that science and religion are guaranteed not to overlap and Pinker criticized him for this naive wishful thinking.

Also, Pinker hasn't used the term "rational morality" or "(rational) morality". The word "rational" was inserted by the Liberian. Clearly, morality has been and still often is under the directorate of religions. Pinker suggests that science influences morality as well – the science-inspired morality is the search for a better happiness of individuals and flourishing of the mankind. Well, I have argued that it's impossible to "scientifically prove" that one principle is moral and another one is not. On the other hand, it would be foolish to deny that science influences our opinions about morality. If we learn that someone has certain preferences since the birth, perhaps hardwired in his DNA, it's silly to try to reeducate him – and perhaps even silly to chastise him for that. Science, when it tells us what are the actual causes of various things and whether they can be changed and what someone may really feel and so on is surely influencing our opinions about morality. Most generally, science has really established that the animals and humans weren't created for a purpose and that the bulk of the religious moral values linked to the worshiping of deity are indefensible (along with the murders committed in the name of deity). All these insights surely do affect a pro-scientific person's morality. So the moral questions can't really be completely "defended" against science; science can't be confined to another "magisterium".

A branch of philosophers also studies morality but it's questionable whether they're much more rational about it than the religious defenders of morality. And I think that Pinker is right when he's trying to convince these philosophers to adopt some scientific approaches as well.
Once again things are more complicated: I am a staunch ally of Pinker when it comes to defending science from religion, but that doesn't mean I cannot raise the issue of scientism when my allies themselves say silly or unsubstantiated things.
It doesn't mean that. It's also true that when you "raise some issues", it doesn't mean that your babbling makes any sense.
Pinker, again predictably, and largely off the topic, goes on to claim that science has contributed enormously to the welfare of humanity, which of course nobody is denying.
Well, the critics of "scientism" are denying a related (although not equally unquestionable) thing, namely that based on the previous experience, it is likely that the propagation of the scientific method to new realms is likely to contribute to the welfare of humanity in the future. This is what Pinker is effectively suggesting and the Liberian doesn't like it.
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. I keep wondering why serious thinkers like Pinker cannot simply admit science's blunders, graciously acknowledge the criticisms, and genuinely try to forge a better way forward. One would almost suspect that these people are feeling guilty of something.
Pinker criticized the awful education requirements at Harvard from 2006-2007, the early post-Summers era, that (among other bad things) singled out science because science became the only field of the human activity that was criticized for something like nuclear weapons.

Science gives us tools that may be used for good goals as well as bad goals. It amplifies the people's power. The good things have arguably prevailed because people ultimately have more good inside them them the bad.

But the negative description could have been added to the humanities as well. It's really the humanities that have manipulated the societies into the thinking supporting the Inquisition, NSDAP, and others. No philosopher is being forced to apologize for Nietzsche whose philosophy inspired the Nazis, to a significant extent. No philosopher is being routinely asked to apologize for Marx and Lenin whose musings led to the crippling of 1/2 of Europe for much of the 20th century, not to mention tens of millions of murders committed by Stalin (they're not asked to do so even though their philosophy is often nearly identical to that of Marx or Lenin or Stalin or others from this clique). It's only science (and scientists) who are supposed to be this submissive. The education requirement at Harvard was undoubtedly written by science haters with the clear goal to suppress the students' love for science and their idealistic ideas that science is a pure thing. These bastards dreamed about convicting science as a principle.

It makes absolutely no sense to hold Pinker – or any other scientists today – more responsible for the casualties in Hiroshima and Nagasaki than it is to hold professors in humanities responsible for the Auschwitz. The Liberian likes the former but he doesn't like the latter. He has double standards.

I will personally not "graciously accept the criticisms" of this kind (that science should be ashamed for Hiroshima etc.) because the authors of this criticism are dishonest scum. Moreover, I think that it was a good idea to throw the bombs on Japan – it was a decision that has saved millions of people, too. Scientific results may help both the good and the bad and because I think that the U.S. was on the better side of the war than Japan, it shouldn't be unexpected that I also believe that the atomic bomb played an overall positive role because it was developed by the better side.
Moreover, for some reason the accomplishments of science need to be highlighted while at the same time those not attributable to science go acknowledged only parenthetically: "If one were to list the proudest accomplishments of our species (setting aside the removal of obstacles we set in our own path, such as the abolition of slavery and the defeat of fascism), many would be gifts bestowed by science." Yes, let's not count little things like the abolition of slavery and the defeat of fascism, or perhaps the general improvement in human rights, women rights, gay rights, general education, access to health care (as distinct from the science-based quality of that care), and countless other improvements the human race has managed to make without science.
It's disingenuous to claim that the abolition of slavery had nothing to do with science (and technology, which is related). Slavery could only be abolished without brutal consequences for the economy because some slaves could have been gradually replaced by machines.

It's equally crazy to claim that the defeat of fascism was made "without science". It's not nust the military technology that mattered. The strategic planning etc. was also done in a rather "scientific" way.

The human rights were also improved because the society could afford it and this couldn't quite work without science. And it's not quite a coincidence that the modern human rights are linked to the Enlightenment that was started by the pro-science men from the beginning of this whole story. Women rights and gay rights, to the extent that they are justifiable, are justified by science, too. It's about the scientific findings on where gayness comes from and what women may or may not actually do and whether allowing this or that may seriously harm the society.

Without science, the general education would be pretty much general brainwashing. The access to health care couldn't be universal because the society couldn't even afford a sufficient number of people employed as doctors and nurses. Science (and technology) is not just about the quality of healthcare. It's also about the ability to reserve the people who can do this job which is a "luxury" for the society.

But don't get me wrong. I agree that those historical developments are not "primarily" stories about science. But what the Liberian completely neglects is Pinker's important point that these victories just removed some obstacles that other people had previously placed in the mankind's path. So when it comes to the "non-scientific" advances that are worth celebrating, the total progress equals zero: bad policies were introduced and they were later abolished. In this sense, the purely non-scientific progress represents a random walk of a sort. The change is equally likely to be positive and negative. But science is different because it systematically brings new benefits. It isn't just undoing our sins from the past.
Again, this isn't an attack on science, it's simply a matter of pointing out that science has done great goods as well as the more than an occasional evil, and moreover, that much has been accomplished without a lot of help from science. Nuance, people, nuance.
The Liberian is trying to suggest that societies "with science" and "without science" have achieved the same things so it doesn't matter etc. But it greatly matters. The human race has lived without science for a few million years and it has achieved almost nothing. Pretty much everything we associate with the civilization of the last 6,000 years depends on science in one way or another and one should sensibly compare how the mankind looked in those recent millennia with our ideas about the lives of the Homo Habilis.

Of course, the far left activist can't omit this topic:
One more example of the oddly slanted view that Pinker presents: "contrary to the widespread canard that technology has created a dystopia of deprivation and violence, every global measure of human flourishing is on the rise." Well, yes, so is the temperature of the planet, just to mention one example, which may very well put a rather abrupt and unpleasant end to that satisfying rise in human flourishing. And climate change is the result of technology, unless you are a denier of the obvious. (Nuance, people, nuance...)
Pinker correctly said that every global measure of human flourishing is on the rise. This is a comment that contradicts the doomsayers of various kinds – and most of the doomsayers are anti-scientific Luddites of one way or another. They may be motivated religiously or by analogous far left-wing ideologies but the result is pretty much the same.

Climate change isn't the result of "technology"; it's a nearly tautological result of basic laws of astronomy, heliophysics, hydrodynamics, thermodynamics, and especially atmospheric physics in general, laws that have been operating for billions of years. The denial of this trivial observation is also a denial of science as a principle. The recent contamination of the climatology departments by environmentalists, Marxists, carbon regulators, doomsayers, Luddites, and deniers of the Ancient Earth who claim that the Earth was only changing in recent 100-200 years is an example of the opposite trend to scientism – the propagation of dishonest and unscientific jerks, ideologically motivated activists, and imbeciles to disciplines that used to belong to science.

The global mean temperature isn't a standard measure of human flourishing. Moreover, it's been constant for 16 years or so. However, if we strangely decided that the global mean temperature is a standard of human flourishing and took a longer time scale, 30 years or 100 years, it would still confirm Pinker's general thesis because the global mean temperature – our new measure of human flourishing – rose in the last 30 or 100 years. Unless you are a complete idiot, you know that the warmer, the better, and this relationship would hold even if the Earth were 10 °C warmer than it is today. The same comment would apply to CO2 concentrations that have increased by 40 percent since 1700 which improved the life for all plants and, directly or indirectly, to all life forms on Earth. So you may count the CO2 concentration as another measure of human flourishing.
More: "A demonization campaign anachronistically impugns science for crimes that are as old as civilization, including racism, slavery, conquest and genocide." True, science per se is certainly not to blame for those human moral failings. But (some) scientists have actively contributed to the design and production of technological instruments that have made possible the raising of those crimes to never before seen levels. No blame at all? Not even a little tiny bit?
No. This paragraph is another clear indication that the Liberian doesn't understand what science is. Science isn't just another example of the worshiping of some particular people. Science is something else than the the union of acts of people who are called scientists. Only some particular activity of the people – usually people who are called scientists but not necessarily so – is science. So if someone also helped to commit some big crimes – and I have already said that I don't count Hiroshima and Nagasaki to this group – it's not something that science as the process of systematic rational learning of the Nature should be blamed for. Not even a little tiny bit.
You see, the humanities have not yet recovered from the self-inflicted wound of postmodernism, and their insistence in rejecting science is just downright suicidal. I am no defender of postmodernism, as my readers will hopefully well know, but some postmodernists (Foucault, for instance, and before him the pre-postmodernist Feyerabend) have raised serious questions about the social role of science, the unchecked power of scientific institutions, and so forth.
Holy crap. I am no postmodernist, well, except for Feyerabend and occasional Foucault: I just love rants by Foucault, especially his rants against science! Is this guy joking? Foucault represents some of the most typical and most outrageous delusions ever written against science from the postmodern viewpoint.
Whenever such critiques degenerate into a wholesale rejection of science, the critics themselves need to be called out. But it is foolish to throw out the bathwater without checking whether there is a baby still inside the bathtub (to use one of Pinker's own metaphors).
Except that Foucault's – and similar critics' – bathtub only contains bathwater and no baby.
"Several university presidents and provosts have lamented to me that when a scientist comes into their office, it's to announce some exciting research opportunity and demand the resources to pursue it. When a humanities scholar drops by it's to plead for respect for the way things have always been done."
This comment by Pinker may have been a shortcut but it surely reflects a general difference between scientific fields and the non-scientific ones. The cold, objective, meritocratic results are much more important in the former; people's sometimes excessively special relationships are more important in the latter.
Seriously? I am a Department Chair, and regularly talk to Deans, Provosts and Presidents. And I have been on both sides of the divide, beginning my career as a scientist and continuing it as a philosopher. And I say, bullshit. To begin with, administrators don't get excited at the prospect of new scientific discoveries. They get excited at the prospect of the millions of dollars that new research grants will bring into the coffers of the university (see Pinker's own comment above about the deplorable commercialization of universities).
Interesting. Just a few paragraphs above, he wrote that no one is denying science has made wonderful contributions to the well-being of the human society. Now we learn that no administrators actually care about it! Needless to say, this comment that "no one cares" is nothing else than the Liberian's attempt to spit on science.

Moreover, in the real world, scientific advances are often – although surely not perfectly – correlated with the financial gain. There is nothing wrong about it. On the contrary, the world would be a better place if the correlation were tighter than it is. If the administrators get excited about the gain, it's a proxy of their being excited about the science itself. If they don't understand the inner workings of the science, the material benefits that the science brings is their way of seeing a glimpse of the science's power.
Second, I certainly don't go to administrators to plead for respect and tradition. I go to point out that universities are supposed to create the next generation of citizens, voters, and critical thinkers, not just cheap and flexible labor for big corporations.
It's amazing that a chap may openly say that he thinks that his mission is to hurt big corporations and a university in the New York state may appoint this asshole a department chair of a philosophy department. What's your problem with big corporations, you communist shithead? They have surely done better things to improve the life of the mankind than assholes like you. Where's your facility where I can buy a cheeseburger, tank gasoline, or where is your new operating system or online payment system?
I go to remind them that the humanities are crucial for the understanding of vital social debates about the nature of our democratic system, the rights of various groups of people, the concept and implementation of justice, and so forth. And I also go to remind them that philosophy students consistently score higher than pretty much anyone else on a number of tests that are used as gateways for graduate school, medical school, business school, and law school. So there.
We hear that the humanities are crucial but how do they really influence these topics? Is there any reason to think that the net impact is positive rather than negative? As Pinker pointed out, the humanities-driven progress is mostly about the undoing of some societal changes that were done previously. How do we know whether the current changes are "positive" or "negative"?

Philosophy students' scores are close to the average in the table that is led by physics, mathematics, computer science, economics, and four engineering specializations.
Pinker wraps things up by highlighting some areas where the sciences and the humanities should collaborate, rather than fight. Again, some of these are good suggestions, and if scholars in the humanities reject them then they are science-phobic to their own detriment. Other of the suggestions, frankly, leave me quite cold, and again bring to mind the scientistic attitude of wanting to get science's nose sniffing everywhere, regardless of the utility of doing so.
I would guess that he likes the suggestions that would want something from his enemies in the humanities but hates the suggestions that want himself and his friends to do something. But in both cases, the humanities chaps have no arguments to reject science.

The purpose of science isn't just "utility"; the purpose of science is finding the truth. And indeed, "sniffing" is needed for that. If someone wants to invite the scientific method only if he sees the utility, then he is a utilitarian, not a friend of science. If someone actually likes science, he invites science for the intrinsic purpose of science that doesn't need to be "reduced" to any other purpose – for learning the truth. The Liberian is obviously not a friend of science in this sense.
Yes, quantitative methods can (and should) be used by historians, though this will always likely be complementary to, rather than substitutive of, classical historical methods. And yes, the fruitful collaboration between philosophers of mind and cognitive scientists is a shining example of how to bridge the divide between the two cultures. But no, quantitative analyses of Jane Austin novels interpreted in evolutionary psychological key are frankly ridiculous (I've seen it done), and while clearly the study of the physiology of visual or auditory perception are fascinating fields in their own right, they are far less useful to my enjoyment of a Picasso or a Beethoven sonata than knowledge of the history of art or of music.
Quantitative analyses of Jane Austin novels depend on Jane Austin novels and this "not quite essential" topic automatically restricts the possible value of the quantitative research, too. (I am taking no stance on the quantitative Jane Austin novel analyses; they may be silly, they may be interesting, I am not familiar with them.) However, there are many other topics that are more important than Jane Austin novels for which the quantitative analyses are both sensible and valuable.
Pinker really wasted a good chance here. He has the intellectual stature and public visibility to nudge the debate forward in a positive direction. Instead of embracing scientism as a positive label, he should have acknowledged that some criticism of science is well founded and sorely needed.
Does the Liberian have any evidence that Pinker should have done so? Pinker clearly shouldn't have defended this opinion because he doesn't believe it and scholars shouldn't defend opinions they believe to be incorrect. And I don't believe these things, either. The Liberian and people in the humanities are probably personifying science in some way. Because no people they know are "perfect", they believe that science can't be "perfect", either. But the reality just doesn't work in this way. When science is really what it should be, it is perfect so any criticism of the scientific method as a principle is bound to be a symptom of the critic's idiocy. Pinker isn't defending any particular research project or claim about science that may be right, wrong, serious, or silly. He is defending the scientific method as such and he can't be wrong about that.
Instead of telling us again platitudes about the benefits of science (while ignoring its darker side) and chastising the humanities for not embracing it whole heartedly, he could have presented a nuanced examination of where science really is useful to the humanities and where the latter are useful to the sciences - not to mention those several areas where the two can safely ignore each other in pursuit of different goals. Oh well, next time, perhaps.
Sorry but the humanities aren't useful in science. It's a defining feature of science that it is independent of all social conventions and human idiosyncrasies and the humanities are pretty much only about them, to the extent that they're pure humanities. It's fun for a scientist to be a human and a part of a culture, an individual influenced by many things, perhaps even when it comes to science, but the more we talk about the human culture-dependent influences, the less scientific the chatter is.

Pinker's goal wasn't to rate hundreds of particular scholarly attempts to cross the border, so to say. His goal was much more general or grander, if you wish. It was about the fallacies that pretty much all criticisms of science as a principle share. Too bad that the Liberian – a representative of the far left in the anti-science coalition with some religious fundamentalists – hasn't understood the point or he considers it a heresy. I am afraid that next time, he won't be any better.

snail feedback (27) :

Dear Lubos,

To be sure, I have met people who were applying naive, science-inspired models to very complex systems and they would deserve to be criticized or told why they were wrong. But in my experience, these were not the primary recipients of the label "scientism".

In my experience these are, as they should be, the primary recipients of the label 'scientism.' Exhibit number one, in my book, is mathematical economics when it claims to be an empirical science. I am especially irked when a spurious application of calculus is used to give the appearance of a hard science. There are no measurable, mathematical "functions" in economics to any meaningful degree (you almost never see error bars) and therefore, strictly speaking, no algebraic equations. The use of more than and less than (>, <) on the other hand does seem to me legitimate as, for instance, when we describe the "laws" of supply and demand.

Would Lubos prefer the term pseudoscience to cover these cases?

The greats of the Enlightenment were generally polymaths who understood much mathematics and science along with a wide reading in the humanities and philosophy. Today, there are only a tiny number of humanities academics and writers who have any understanding of mathematics and science and very few polymath geniuses. Most scientists have an insatiable curiosity about the natural world. Most
humanities types have a curiosity about human social structures only.

Dear me,

the Higgs field surely is everywhere. It is a *field*. A field means a collection of functions such as h(x,y,z,t) that are defined for every point in space and time given by coordinates x,y,z,t. It has to be everywhere. The electromagnetic field, the Dirac field, the gravitational field etc. are the same in this respect: everywhere.

(In braneworlds, most of the fields except for gravity - that is always everywhere - are only defined on branes but these branes still stretch in the directions x,y,z,t so everywhere in these 4 coordinates, there is value of the field.)

Now, in weakly coupled QFT, particles definitely *are* excitations of the fields (which are promoted to quantum fields before that). Every field becomes an infinite-dimensional harmonic oscillator whose energy levels are discrete and the raising operator is interpreted as adding one particle.

The presence of fields in the spacetime doesn't violate the principles of relativity. Instead, fields are indeed required for a relativistic description of particles! So the photon is an excitation of the electromagnetic field and this is what allows relativity (Lorentz symmetry) to be preserved.

The key difference between the electromagnetic or Higgs field on one side and the ether on the other side is that the vacuum is really "empty" in the first case - it picks no preferred frame associated with a material and carries no entropy density. Ether has an entropy density and tries to decelerate moving objects to its own frane and simply picks a preferred inertial system for other reasons, so it violates relativity.

The Higgs field in the real world isn't really "empty". It has a vev, the vacuum expectation value, the condensate. But this condensate, h(x,y,z,t) = v where v is nonzero (246 GeV), is a scalar quantity so even though this "stuff" fills the space, the Lorentz symmetry is still perfectly preserved. It still picks no preferred direction in spacetime.

I don't believe you may know anything useful about the Batalin-Vilkovisky formalism if you have problems to understand why QFT doesn't violate the Lorentz invariance. The BV formalism is one of the most technical, esoteric topics in QFTs; the Lorentz invariance is one of the simplest properties of QFTs. There are years of learning in between.

Come on, Luke, you're surely not saying that economics and the economy should be studied without functions of real variables, are you?

..."The world does not go out of its way to reveal its workings...."

We think it mazing, thats just what the saucermen think too. How on earth did Pinker guess?

I agree 100 percent so I don't have anything really do add to this, except that in addition to opposition to "scientism" there exists another as yet unnamed but related species, whose main characteristics is opposition to the use of mathematics in various fields of which economics is the prime but not the only example. Typically it's supporters lack any understanding of the things they criticise and argue on the principle "if I don't understand it, it can't be anything worth understanding". Actually, some of the most important achievements in modern economics are not accessible by "common sense" arguments favoured by the anti-math crowd and require graduate-level mathematics. To give just one out of hundreds of examples: recursive economics (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Recursive_economics) based on the Bellman equation, the Kalman filter etc.

A lot of people tend to mix "scientism" with "scientology" (in France). They might believe that scientism leads to scientology :-).

Boss, but you forgot to add ".... and that's the memo BITCHAYZ!!" at the end.

LOL, yes, I did. Tx for the feedback. ;-)

I did confuse it myself. ;-)

Dear lucretius, I had never heard of "recursive economics" but if you say that it's relevant, I will take your word for it. And yet, I cannot shake the suspicion that "graduate-level mathematics" being insufficiently widespread is not a pressing concern, at least not when so many highly influential people -- politicians, public intellectuals, senior media editors -- have trouble even adding up two plus two... or they very cleverly pretend to.

Here is a recent example that made me so angry I nearly punched a hole through my computer monitor. The most read item on www.social-europe.eu currently is an interview with Prof. Ulrich Beck, best-selling author (in Germany) and extremely well-connected advisor to politicians. Read this:

The German objection to countries spending more money than they have is a moral issue which, from a sociological point of view, ties in with the ‘Protestant Ethic’. It’s a perspective which has Martin Luther and Max Weber in the background. But this is not seen as a moral issue in Germany,
instead it’s viewed as economic rationality. They don’t see it as a German way of resolving the crisis; they see it as if they are the
teachers instructing southern European countries on how to manage their economies.

This creates another ideological split
because the strategy doesn’t seem to be working so far and we see many forms of protest, of which Cyprus is the latest example. But on the other hand there is still a very important and powerful neo-liberal faction in Europe which continues to believe that austerity policies are the answer to the crisis.

The Orwellian rhetoric must be read and re-read to be savored in its subliminal yet soul-crushing effectiveness. Translated to plain speak, he is saying that the simple maxim that you should live within your means -- not spend more than you take in -- is a cultural conceit, a Protestant superstition, with no grounding in reality (otherwise why isn't it working already?) and the rest of the world is patiently waiting for those stuck-up Germans to drop their silly prejudices because, apparently, you can spend, spend, spend like there is no tomorrow.

Math, let alone graduate-level math, has nothing to do with it! Rather, this is simple arithmetic, at the level of two plus two. But try reasoning with the slack-jawed man or woman who has just heard a snake-oil salesman like Beck speak on television. It's hopeless, like trying to snap a zombie out of a trance.

Well said. I think modern philosophers are bitter because their body of 'knowledge' is small and largely irrelevant in the context of the big and profound discoveries of the hard sciences. And the gap will only keep growing.

How would you even calculate simple things like yields after X years?

Do you mean prospective yields or retrospective yields. After the fact is easy to calculate, but that is not science. Before the fact calculations can only be based on speculation about future interest rates, which cannot be predicted with any precision.

I would go further and say even something as simple as the price of a basic commodity in the retail market cannot be measured with much precision except in an ideal Platonic world. Why not? Because it varies from moment to moment and from place to place, most of which moments and places are not accessible to any observer. It's not like this in the natural sciences.

When it comes to national and international economic statistics in general the problems are even worse because various economic actors have incentives to lie or otherwise misrepresent the data which they report, and for lots of other reasons as well. I always keep a copy of Oskar Morgenstern's book On the Accuracy of Economic Observations on my desk to remind me of this truth.

I believe you can construct a kind of mathematics based on the principle of diminishing returns and the laws of supply an demand in a competitive market based on such simple relationships as convexity and concavity of relationships alone. Is there a name for it? You would know better than I.

In physics you have so-called "effective" theories do you not, whose approximate truth is sufficient for the scale being studied. Mightn't something similar apply to the social sciences? Maybe someday economic relationships will become know to a greater degree of precision than is possible today, at which point the use of calculus might become useful, but that is nowhere close to where we are now.

I would also say there are ways of understanding and predicting human behavior which don't depend upon math and physics, but rather on the so-called "theory of mind" which we all develop in the process of growing up among other human beings. It's not science but it is useful. That is a truism and I hope you don't take offense. I respect the empirical sciences just as much as you do, even if I don't know or understand them to anything like the same degree you do. It's when we get into areas that are at present beyond science that I think I have a leg up on you, at least in some cases, though you say a lot of true and interesting things even in those areas.

Well, as for “relevant” - it depends on what you want it to be relevant to. If you mean “is it going to make the national economy better” (where for “national” you can substitute the country of your choice) the answer is “probably not” for several reasons, one of which is related to what you write about, which is that in the real world it is politics and not economics that drives economic policies.

Don’t forget the in marxist economics there is essentially no such thing as “cost” except for the cost of labour. All value comes from labour so naturally should return to “labourers” since nobody else creates any value. Under such a theory austerity indeed does not make sense - everybody should be employed even if (in fact) they are “subtracting value” by making things whose market price is lower than the price of the raw materials that were used to produce them (this sort of thing really used to happen in the Soviet Union where consumer products sometimes did not work from the moment they were sold). This sort of attitude has been adopted even by leftist who do not acknowledge a relationship with Marx. I still recall hearing (in the early Thatcher era) a British trade union leader saying some thing to the effect “we reject the right wing dogma that you can’t have something just because you can’t afford it”.

(Now that I touched upon Mrs. Thatcher - it is worth remembering that she was the only British Prime Minister with a science degree and it always showed. She studied chemistry at Oxford and in the her last year was involved in research under the direction of Dorothy Hodgkin - a Nobel prize winner. Dorothy Hodgkin was a communist but she and Mrs Thatcher remained friends for life. Hodgkin thought quite highly of Margaret’s scientific abilities. She wrote “I came to rate her as good. One could always rely on her producing a sensible, well-read essay and yet there was something that some people had and she hadn’t quite got”. )

Anyway, there is also another reason why you can’t expect that advance in economic theory will actually make economic policy more effective. A great deal of this advance is about understanding concepts and their logical relations. Understanding economic is certainly helpful for running an economy but obviously does not guarantee success. Also, understanding can often be negative - quite often when your understanding increases you see that certain policies don’t work, but this does not necessarily means that you can find a replacement. The situation is not unlike that you come across quite often in medicine.

One such example was Milton Friedmann’s destruction of the Keynesian Philips curve, that was the basis of the economic policies practiced by most Western countries in the 1960s.

A famous example of a major “negative” advance in understanding was the so called Sonnenschein–Mantel–Debreu theorem, which played a role somewhat analogous to Godel’s theorem in mathematics - it showed that the decades of efforts to built solid microeconomic foundations for macroeconomic analysis are (probably) a wild goose chase.

a British trade union leader saying some thing to the effect “we reject
the right wing dogma that you can’t have something just because you
can’t afford it”

LOL this is priceless. A big thumbs up to that union leader, however, for coming right out and being candid about his beliefs. Note that the website on which Beck's interview appeared is a German trade union project, apparently with some funding from the Bertelsmann foundation (Germany's equivalent to George Soros).

I guess what infuriates me more than anything is the slippery, eel-like style of Beck. Everyone knows what he wants people to believe and most people eagerly lap it up. Yet when pressed, he can say, "Oh but I did not actually say that," and indeed, he carefully chose his words so as to maintain plausible deniability :(

Dear Luke, first of all, it's not even true that interest rates have to be variable. There are also fixed interest rates in various products.

Now, in most situations, the predictions depend on the future evolution of certain quantities which is unknown. But economics doesn't claim that everything is known. A point is that one may still show that various other quantities or their functions will remain related by some calculable relationships so the number of independent degrees of freedom that really driving the evolution is vastly smaller than the number of predictions one can make. And economics is about these relationships and ways to make predictions.

I am not denying that economics is also flavored with politics and arts in the real world. But what I totally disagree is your opinion that it can't be approached quantitatively and scientifically. It's not just about the economics itself, it's also about the people. You are also effectively saying that some friends or ex-coleagues of mine - some of whom are trained physicists - are idiots when they're writing mathematically heavy papers about economics topics. They're not. Some papers are better than others but it's surely legitimate to do economics quantitatively and get as far as one can instead of your vague and ultimately morally completely wrong criticism of *any* quantitative scientific analyses in economics.

Lubos - can you give some references to the papers you mentioned?

I can't resist the temptation to quote here a fragment of one of my favourite novels (Robert Musil's "The Man Without Qualities") which illustrates that much has really changed during the last 80 years or so.

"There is really no need to belabor the point, since it is obvious to most of us these days that mathematics has taken possession, like a demon, of every aspect of our lives. Most of us may not believe in the story of a Devil to whom one can sell one's soul, but those who must know something about the soul (considering that as clergymen, historians, and artists they draw a good income from it) all testify that the soul has been destroyed by mathematics and that mathematics is the source of an evil intelligence that while making man the lord of the earth has also made him the slave of his machines. The inner drought, the dreadful blend of acuity in matters of detail and indifference toward the whole, man's monstrous abandonment in a desert of details, his restlessness, malice, unsurpassed callousness, money- grubbing, coldness, and violence, all so characteristic of our times, are by these accounts solely the consequence of damage done to the soul by keen logical thinking!
Even back when Ulrich first turned to mathematics there were already those who predicted the collapse of European civilization because no human faith, no love, no simplicity, no goodness, dwelt any longer in man. These people had all, typically, been poor mathematicians as young people and at school. This later put them in a position to prove that mathematics, the mother of natural science and grandmother of technology, was also the primordial mother of the spirit that eventually gave rise to poison gas and warplanes."

Here is a typical example of what I mean: pure math masquerading as empirical science:

2. THE MODEL
There are finitely many persons who have different skills and thus earn different wage rates
per hour, w
h
, where h=0, 1...H and 0≤w
0
0 on its support [w
0
, w
H
]. The actual skill distribution of the finite
economy is given by probability masses f
0
=F(0)>0 and f
h
=F(w
h
) –F(w
h–1
) for all h>0. Each
person with wage rate w
h
(person h, for short) chooses some consumption c
h
and some labor
supply
h
such that the commodity bundle (c
h
, ✁
h
) belongs to the uniform consumption space ✂
=✄o+×[0; ☎
max
], where ✆
max
>0. A person’s gross income is denoted as y
h
=w
h ✝h
.
The uniform utility function u: ✞ ✟ is continuous, strictly monotonically increasing in c,
strictly monotonically decreasing in ✠ and strictly concave on its entire domain. At least in the
interior, it is twice continuously differentiable with partial derivatives uc(c, ✡)>0 and
u☛(c, ☞)<0 and a negative definite Hessian.

1. This is certainly not “pure mathematics”.

2. Nothing here is “masquerading as empirical science”.

3. This is a probably an introduction to a paper on equilibrium theory or some related area. This is a very old (over 100 years) and established branch of theoretical economics, which is concerned with understanding concepts such as demand, supply, price, money etc. Ignorant people use these concepts every day and don’t realize that they have not invented them themselves but borrowed n-th hand (where n>1) from classical economics usually after a lot of distortion. I am sure you imagine that such concepts can be used commonsensically without any mathematics but if you do so the chances are high that you will soon start talking nonsense and even if not, it will take you a page to express as much as can be done in a one line formula.

The assumptions the author is making are sensible (in a limited context) and after translation into ordinary “commonsense” language, they sound pretty unremarkable. There are also some serious theorems that you need to know that make clear that they are quite innocuous. One of them is the Von Neumann–Morgenstern utility theorem (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Von_Neumann–Morgenstern_utility_theorem) which shows that the assumption of the existence of a utility function is a very mild one.

Of course it makes no sense for me to try to convince you that such staff can be useful. The fact that lots of Nobel prizes in economics have been awarded for this sort of stuff you will probably just shrug off. However, let me remind you of the example I mentioned in an earlier post: the work of John Nash on non-cooperative game theory. This kind of game theory (which complements the work of Von Neumann–Morgenstern) is widely used by private companies which pay huge (by academic standards) salaries to top class experts in the field. In fact Nash’s work complemented the earlier work of Von Neumann–Morgenstern on zero-sum games which has been widely used by the military (because war is a pretty good example of a zero-sum game) Nash’s work, which considered non-zero sum games has been found much more suitable for modelling business behaviour. Of course you may still insit that all these companies are run by fools who are wasting their money but that it not something that we can settle here.

Hi Lubos, this comment is probably too late but I was just looking into the physical basis of the so-called law of diminishing returns. There is almost nothing out there, even in the original context of agricultural economics: why adding additional doses of fertilizer does not lead to proportional increases in yield. Aside from the old joke that if the law didn't apply you could grow the whole world's food supply in a flower pot, there seems to be no rigorous attempt to describe the problem mathematically. One researcher did report some experimental data from a hundred years ago suggesting the phenomenon could be modeled by a decreasing geometrical series but he didn't explain why. I did find this sketchy note on the physical foundations of diminishing returns and a simple formula, all from early in the last century. At mid-century there was a so-called proof of the law of diminishing returns by a guy at Berkeley at mid-century but it looks more like pure math rather than empirical science to me.

No doubt you Lubos could shed some real light on this problem and I would certainly be interested in anything you have to say.

But probably this is too late to deserve your attention.

Dear Luke, it's pure logic - sort of common sense - that allows one to understand the origin of the law of diminishing returns. In fact, very analogous laws exist in thermodynamics, a similarly behaved discipline of physics. Ecology is full of such things, too. It's not just a specific law of economics.

The reason is that the returns depend on several variables. Pick a particular variable, like the number of workers. If it's low, they have everything they need but the number of workers is the main factor that restricts their production.

When you increase the number of workers 10 times, for example, each worker finds out that he is missing some other things that were plentiful when the number of workers was low. They start to "fight" for the raw materials, space in the working place, and many other things. So other variables become more important. At some level, adding new workers becomes nearly worthless because they don't have enough work to do.

Thanks. Right, I understand the problem intuitively. It has to do with the fact that two things can't occupy the same space at the same time, which I suppose makes it a problem in plane geometry or as you suggested thermodynamics. What I'm interested in is how to model this relationship mathematically. It is always an inverse exponential function? Does it necessarily have anything to do, as one experimenter suggested, with decreasing geometrical series?

Dear Luke, the contexts are sociologically different but gases and liquids are mathematically analogous and don't differ "qualitatively" from pieces of solids such as people - they are composed of atoms, after all.

The law of diminishing returns doesn't imply the precise functional relationship. It just says that the returns are diminishing - an inequality for the time derivative. Such laws are common in thermodynamics, too.

The relationship between geometric series and exponential functions is a borderline basic school maths, sorry. The exponential of P, i.e. exp(P), is literally equal to e to the power of P, i.e. e^P, where e=2.718... Powers with different bases, x^y, may be written as exponentials as well, x^y=exp(y*ln(x)). Just the exponent is linearly rescaled.

The analogous laws in different bases don't have to have and usually don't have the same "microscopic description". Quite on the contrary, whatever are the microscopic details, these laws may emerge in analogous ways mathematically. So I wouldn't call it the same "physical basis" because I reserve the words "physical basis" for the fundamental inner workings and those can be very different even though the emergent approximate laws are analogous or the same.