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.