Steven Pinker’s New Scientism

Yesterday, The New Republic published a big article by bestselling Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker. The title says it all: “Science Is Not Your Enemy.” Or does it? After all: whose enemy is science supposed to be? Pinker’s answer is there in his subtitle: the targets of his “impassioned plea” are “neglected novelists, embattled professors, and tenure-less historians.”

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/8/83/Steven_Pinker_2005.jpg

Humanists: according to Pinker, science isn’t your enemy—it’s your friend. Or your extremely successful younger sibling. Its methods and results are yours if you want them—all you have to do is ask. The problem is: you don’t want them—you shy away from science, or reject it outright.

Pinker’s got a solution, and he’s calling it “scientism.”

As Pinker points out, “scientism” is a term of abuse. It’s usually hurled at “reductionist” efforts to pose scientific solutions to all sorts of problems. And, as a barb, it’s often hitched to times when bad politics wore a scientific mask—Social Darwinism, say, or eugenics. According to Pinker, this is how some people paper over ignorance and fear of the sciences.

By appropriating the term, Pinker hopes to wipe the slate clean (sorry). He sees the new “scientism” as a campaign to both “export” scientific ideals to “the rest of intellectual life” and add scientific ideas to the stock of existing “tools of humanistic scholarship.” I’ll come back to both this idea of exportability and the metaphor of the toolkit in a bit.

But first: why all the fuss? Pinker’s “scientism” is supposed to help solve the widespread (if perhaps unwarranted) sense that “something is wrong” with the humanities. As Pinker points out, “anti-intellectual trends” and “the commercialization of our universities” are part of the problem. But so is “postmodernism”—in a sense, the humanities have made their own bed.

John Brockman—a self-described “cultural impresario” about whom I’ve written before—shares Pinker’s sense of what’s wrong. In the preamble to a re-posting of Pinker’s piece, Brockman is even more polemical: “the official culture” has “kicked [science] out” and “elite universities” have “nudged science out of the liberal arts undergraduate curriculum.” He sees scientific intellectuals—bestselling authors, MacArthur fellows, TED talkers—as a sort of renegade “subculture.”

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/d/de/John_Brockman_at_DLD.jpg

Does this sound right? It seems to me that, even within the academy, work that spans “the two cultures” is consistently rewarded—most obviously, with prizes and grants. The cutting edge is often that which is most engaged with the sciences. Say what you want about the digital humanities or experimental philosophy—they seem to be doing alright for themselves.

Interestingly, what Pinker points out as quintessentially humanistic modes of inquiry—”close reading” and “thick description”—stemmed from precisely this sort of engagement. Stefan Collini and John Guillory have revealed the roots of “close reading” in interactions between literary critics and scientific psychologists in the 1910s and ’20s. And we owe “thick description” to Clifford Geertz and the cross-pollination of anthropological field-work and cultural history in the 1960s and ’70s.

It could be that something similar—a new paradigm, even—is emerging from the adoption of digital tools, statistical methods, and fMRI scans by humanists today. Or not. The point is that such engagement is going on, and has a legacy that spans the twentieth-century—on either side of C.P. Snow’s “Two Cultures” diagnosis fifty years ago.

But I don’t want to rest on rejecting Pinker’s premise. Whether or not the humanities are in crisis, lots of people think they are—and many agree with Pinker that the sciences might offer a way out. What I want to highlight is the consequences of imagining this interaction in the terms I noted above: the “export” of ideals or the “toolkit” approach to rapprochement.

This view of intellectual life is a common one, well-illustrated by the title of a recent book by the philosopher Daniel Dennett: Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking. It’s no accident that Dennett is a leading philosopher of evolution: this view of cognition as tool-using is profoundly Darwinian. As a result, it represents, all by itself, the success of a particular scientific “export.”

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/2/21/Daniel_dennett_Oct2008.JPG

This model of human agents—as embedded bricoleurs doing their best with the cultural resources (“tools”) at hand—is something we’ve argued about on this blog before. And it might well be the correct view. It’s certainly a very compelling one. Pinker, Dennett, and many of their peers in cognitive science and human evolution adhere to it.

And so do humanists—or at least historians. Limiting ourselves just to the history of science, let’s think over how the human agents at the heart of recent works are characterized. For the most part, I’d argue, they’re painted in a light very similar to the Pinker-Dennett-evolutionary model.

It wasn’t always this way, though. Time was, there were earnest efforts by historians to cast human actors in Marxist or Freudian—rather than a Darwinian—roles. In the last half-century, however, such accounts have gone the way of the Dodo, leaving us with one that’s extremely assimilable to reigning scientific views.

Here’s the rub. Pinker might be right about “two cultures” angst. But in adopting the toolkit model, he’s also put his finger on a prevailing assumption that ties the two sides together. This might explain both the promise and the peril perceived in the sort of “scientism” he’s proposing. Such shared assumptions are essential for bridge-building. But if humanists are uncomfortable with them, then the theory of agency underlying our accounts might merit further scrutiny.

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4 thoughts on “Steven Pinker’s New Scientism

  1. Willy D.

    Great stuff, Hank.

    I think you put your finger on the essential issue when you point out that the what needs most interrogation is Pinker's implied model of human interaction and the image of interdisciplinarity that rest upon it. What I think frustrates me most about Pinker is the implicit methodological determinism: knowledge is made by “information,” information is one-directional in its growth, new information produces new intellectual tools, and we ought to use those better tools rather than obsolete one. In a way, it reduces intellectual history to a kind of technological determinism. (But as we well know, technology doesn't even fit any model of technological determinism.)

    I think the crux of the problem comes in his discussion of “Descartes, Spinoza, Hobbes, Locke, Hume, Rousseau, Leibniz, Kant, Smith.” To him, those are great thinkers who could have been better if they had tools that hadn't been invented yet. They are sort of tragic figures to him. (“When reading these thinkers, I often long to travel back in time and offer them some bit of twenty-first-century freshman science that would fill a gap in their arguments or guide them around a stumbling block. What would these Fausts have given for such knowledge?” he asks.) It's not that simple. New (even “scientistic”) perspectives cloud and even foreclose alternative perspectives. If you gave Descartes an fMRI, he probably wouldn't have come up with anything remotely Cartesian. The use of certain intellectual “tools” requires trade-offs. (Economists might point out that we need to pay more attention to our budget constraints.)

    And, if my students in Columbia's Contemporary Civilization class are any indication, today's undergrads need no prompting to bring the findings of evolution and neuroscience into conversation with Descartes and Rousseau and Hume. Of course we should do that. But the way Pinker describes that conversation, it sounds awfully one-sided.

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  2. Hank

    Thanks Willy D.! I like the point about technological determinism especially. And you're right that students don't need any help bridging the two (especially in HOS courses, where lots of students are extremely well-versed in current science) – much the opposite!

    I'd be curious to see a list of current projects coming out of, say, Harvard's English department, that Pinker thinks could use an injection of current scientific ideas (or ideals). I'm reminded of one a popular put-down amongst philosophers: “That's not interesting – it's empirical.”

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  3. Patrick McCray

    Nice piece…when I read Pinker's essay, I immediately thought of the “Two Cultures” debate and wondered how this new variation would play out. I doubt it will spark the same cottage industry that the Snow/Leavis exchanges did but Stinker Pinker's essay does certainly speak to the crisis – real or perceived – in the humanities today.

    BTW – Brockman has always been an interesting character. I was intrigued by him for his Edge.com stuff as well as the fact that he was a book agent for some f the characters in The Visioneers.

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  4. Hank

    Thanks Patrick – I agree, and I think comparing this moment to Snow's fifty years ago could be instructive. As a side note: nowhere does Pinker pack a zinger quite like Snow's line about asking his literary friends about the meaning of mass (the equivalent, he says, of them asking him “Can you read?”). It ends with this:

    “So the great edifice of modern physics goes up, and the majority of the cleverest people in the western world have about as much insight into it as their neolithic ancestors would have had.”

    I agree about Brockman! Will have to deal with him as a major player when I get into the more recent history of evolutionary psychology and public intellectuals..

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