On August 6th, Steven Pinker, the well-known Psychology Professor from Harvard, had an article in New Republic entitled Science is Not Your Enemy, in which he lambasts those who decry scientists for propounding scientism. You’d expect rebuttals of Pinker to come from the likes of Wesley J. Smith who indeed took Pinker to task in an article in National Review Online, which we discussed here at UD as well. You wouldn’t expect attack from your own side, however, but that is precisely what P.Z. Myers has done on his popular anti-ID blogsite Pharyngula in a post entitled Repudiating scientism, rather than surrendering to it. Never one to mince words, PZ launches right in:
When I heard that Steven Pinker had written a new piece decrying the accusations of scientism, I was anxious to read it. “Scientism” is a blunt instrument that gets swung in my direction often enough; I consider it entirely inappropriate in almost every case I hear it used.
Here’s the thing: when I say that there is no evidence for a god, that there’s no sign that there is a single specific thing this imagined being has done, I am not unfairly asking people to adopt the protocols of science — I am expecting to judge by their own standards and expectations. They are praying to Jesus in the expectation of a reward, not as, for instance, an exercise in artistic expression, so it is perfectly legitimate to point out they aren’t getting anything, and their concept of Jesus contradicts their own expectations. When I mock Karen Armstrong’s goofy deepities praising her nebulous cosmic being, I’m not saying she’s wrong because her god won’t fit in a test tube or grow in a petri dish, but because she’s doing bad philosophy and reasoning poorly — disciplines which are greater than and more universal than science.
Science is a fantastic tool (our only tool, actually) for probing material realities. Respect it for what it is. But please, also recognize that there’s more to the human experience than measurement and the acquisition of knowledge about physical processes, and that science is a relatively recent and revolutionary way of thinking, but not the only one — and that humans lived and thrived and progressed for thousands of years (and many still do, even within our technological culture!) without even the concept of science.
From this opening statement, you’d think PZ actually thinks that there may indeed be other legitimate ways of knowing besides the deliverances of science. But you’d be mistaken as PZ himself seems a bit confused on the very point he’s trying to make. In the very next paragraph he writes:
Scientism is the idea that only science is the proper mode of human thought, and in particular, a blinkered, narrow notion that every human advance is the product of scientific, rational, empirical thinking. Much as I love science, and am personally a committed practitioner who also has a hard time shaking myself out of this path (I find scientific thinking very natural), I’ve got enough breadth in my education and current experience to recognize that there are other ways of progressing. Notice that I don’t use the phrase “ways of knowing” here — I have a rigorous enough expectation of what knowledge represents to reject other claims of knowledge outside of the empirical collection of information.
It’s the curse of teaching at a liberal arts university and rubbing elbows with people in the arts and humanities all the time.
It’s that sentence “I have a rigorous enough expectation of what knowledge represents to reject other claims of knowledge outside of the empirical collection of information” that throws a monkey wrench into his entire argument. He seemingly wants to take Pinker to task for being guilty of the sin of scientism, but in the process seems to promote the core idea of scientism anyway. His confusion stems from trying to parse a distinction between “ways of progressing” and “ways of knowing”. Well, how does one make progress without knowledge? In the context in which he’s using the term progress here, it seems clear that Myers is thinking of the progress of humanity over the long march of history – the advances of science, culture, language, communication, social structures and so forth that have marked the progress of human history. It is difficult to see how one can contemplate that progress without recognizing that each step of the progression entailed an increase in knowledge…of learning something…that is to say knowing something new that allowed the progress to take place. Thus the distinction Myers wants to make between “progressing” and “knowing”, doesn’t really amount to much, as the progressing depends on the knowing.
Note Myers next comment:
Which is why I was disappointed with Pinker’s article. I expected two things: an explanation that science is one valid path to knowledge with wide applicability, so simply applying science is not the same as scientism; and an acknowledgment that other disciplines have made significant contributions to human well-being, and therefore we should not pretend to be all-encompassing.
Even though the rest of Myers post sounds a bit like Wesley J. Smith’s critique (referenced above), this statement, indeed the remainder of the post, is completely at odds with his earlier statement when Myers makes clear that he thinks that knowing comes from the “empirical collection of information”…that is to say through science (in the way that Myers and those of his ilk understand and use the term)…the very point of Pinker’s article that Myers wants to criticize. For both Myers and Pinker, the bottom line is that there really isn’t any legitimate way to acquire real knowledge other than through science and its methods(there’s that scientism again!) To his credit, Myers does elevate and even praise the contributions to human thought and well-being from other academic quarters, but it is against the backdrop that real knowledge can only come from science. For Myers to rail against Pinker on this matter is little more than the pot calling the kettle black…they both advocate for and practice scientism. Myers concludes with:
I’ve been harsh to Pinker’s claims, but you probably shouldn’t see it as a disagreement. Read further into his essay, if you can bear it, and you’ll discover that rather than rejecting scientism he proudly claims it for his own. To accuse him of scientism is no insult, then; it’s only the term for what he happily embraces.
I don’t think I’ll join him in that isolation tank, though.
Not to worry, we don’t see it as a disagreement – its the pot and kettle thing!