Why Pinker is wrong

Steven Pinker has made something of a splash with his defense of science—as if science were under attack—in the humanities.[1] Jerry Coyne wrote a rave review that essentially amounts to declaring Pinker’s piece a “must-read,” and attached a cartoon that reduces Pinker’s opponents to two persons who appear vaguely like a stereotypical “new age” adherent, and a stereotypical Islamic or Sikh adherent, the latter wearing a headdress that fits neither tradition well.[2] Ross Douthat, a conservative columnist for the New York Times, while finding Pinker’s essay interesting, concludes:

But it’s intellectually parochial and logically slipshod, and it’s also depends on a kind of present-ist chauvinism: His argument seems vaguely plausible only if you regard the paradigmatic shaped-by-science era as the post-Cold War Pax Americana rather than, say, the chaos of 1914-45, when instead of a humanist consensus the scientifically-advanced West featured radically-incommensurate moral worldviews basically settling their differences by force of arms.[3]


Unfortunately, Pinker is essentially arguing, first, against a literal reading of creation myths; second, by saying, “Look at all the neat toys,” toys which, by no small coincidence have absolutely nothing to do with the humanities, so “therefore, science should be excused;” and third, with an appalling misunderstanding of the charge of reductionism. And thus, Pinker provides further evidence for the illogic of those positivists who insist that they are logical.[4] Consider the following:

To begin with, the findings of science entail that the belief systems of all the world’s traditional religions and cultures—their theories of the origins of life, humans, and societies—are factually mistaken. We know, but our ancestors did not, that humans belong to a single species of African primate that developed agriculture, government, and writing late in its history. We know that our species is a tiny twig of a genealogical tree that embraces all living things and that emerged from prebiotic chemicals almost four billion years ago. We know that we live on a planet that revolves around one of a hundred billion stars in our galaxy, which is one of a hundred billion galaxies in a 13.8-billion-year-old universe, possibly one of a vast number of universes. We know that our intuitions about space, time, matter, and causation are incommensurable with the nature of reality on scales that are very large and very small. We know that the laws governing the physical world (including accidents, disease, and other misfortunes) have no goals that pertain to human well-being. There is no such thing as fate, providence, karma, spells, curses, augury, divine retribution, or answered prayers—though the discrepancy between the laws of probability and the workings of cognition may explain why people believe there are. And we know that we did not always know these things, that the beloved convictions of every time and culture may be decisively falsified, doubtless including some we hold today.[5]

You actually could stop reading that paragraph after the first sentence. No one currently argues that humans from Africa are from a different species than humans from Europe or Asia. No one except a few fundamentalist nutcases—who should simply be excused from any serious intellectual discussion—argues against evolution or that the earth is the center of the universe. Even Richard Weaver, a Southern traditionalist conservative, limited his critique to a recital of supposed inadequacies in the theory, but—and this is the important part—he stopped short of actually claiming that evolution was wrong.[6] Pinker further excludes any consideration that creation myths might be treated as symbolic rather than literal. Pinker’s is a straw person argument that violates a principle of charity in refusing to consider its targets in their most favorable rather than their least defensible light.

But then Pinker makes a leap into the unknown, which is particularly astonishing given his claim that his “is not the dogma that physical stuff is the only thing that exists”[7]:

We know that the laws governing the physical world (including accidents, disease, and other misfortunes) have no goals that pertain to human well-being. There is no such thing as fate, providence, karma, spells, curses, augury, divine retribution, or answered prayers—though the discrepancy between the laws of probability and the workings of cognition may explain why people believe there are.[8]

How does he know? Certainly not through scientific method. Science can neither support nor refute such claims. These are the stuff of faith. Importantly—and this is where many adherents of scientific method go astray—this does not make such claims false. They are empirically, that is, through one way of knowing, and one way only, unproven.

It’s that last part that is the problem with Pinker’s leap into the unknown that sheds light on an actual critique of ‘scientism’, which is that positivists insist that theirs is the only acceptable way of knowing, and that their methods are the only acceptable means of inquiry.[9] Should there be any doubt on this, Pinker begins the very next paragraph with a sentence that includes the claim that “the worldview that guides the moral and spiritual values of an educated person today is the worldview given to us by science.”[10] Notice that he doesn’t say “a worldview,” as in one among a number. He says “the worldview,” as in the only worldview, that is, the only worldview he, like any positivist, considers acceptable.

From here, Pinker argues,

And 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. The numbers show that after millennia of near-universal poverty, a steadily growing proportion of humanity is surviving the first year of life, going to school, voting in democracies, living in peace, communicating on cell phones, enjoying small luxuries, and surviving to old age. The Green Revolution in agronomy alone saved a billion people from starvation. And if you want examples of true moral greatness, go to Wikipedia and look up the entries for “smallpox” and “rinderpest” (cattle plague). The definitions are in the past tense, indicating that human ingenuity has eradicated two of the cruelest causes of suffering in the history of our kind.[11]

First, one could point out that this “dystopia of deprivation and violence”[12] simply hasn’t arrived yet. The nuclear and biological weapons that science has also brought us could easily yield just such a scenario—and we have absolutely no evidence, contrary to Pinker’s mystical claim that “the scientific facts militate toward a defensible morality, namely adhering to principles that maximize the flourishing of humans and other sentient beings,” that science can protect us from a rapacious elite that is entirely too content to flirt with disaster.[13] Rather, if anything, positivism, with its rigid approach, functions to support the authoritarian status quo, as researchers who seek to illuminate the perspectives of the colonized can tell you.[14] And it is that status quo that poses an existential threat to our species.[15]

Further, the ironically misnamed “Green Revolution” has been far from an unmitigated blessing, as Indian farmers who have committed suicide because they couldn’t pay their debts might tell you—if they were still alive—and as crops planted in ecosystems for which they are ill-suited spread environmental disaster around the world.[16] But the gadgets, yes, the glorious gadgets, it seems, are Pinker’s defense against any claim—an exception to the rule, he is sure—that science may not be entirely beneficent:

Just as common, and as historically illiterate, is the blaming of science for political movements with a pseudoscientific patina, particularly Social Darwinism and eugenics. Social Darwinism was the misnamed laissez-faire philosophy of Herbert Spencer. It was inspired not by Darwin’s theory of natural selection, but by Spencer’s Victorian-era conception of a mysterious natural force for progress, which was best left unimpeded. Today the term is often used to smear any application of evolution to the understanding of human beings. Eugenics was the campaign, popular among leftists and progressives in the early decades of the twentieth century, for the ultimate form of social progress, improving the genetic stock of humanity. Today the term is commonly used to assail behavioral genetics, the study of the genetic contributions to individual differences.[17]

“Pseudoscience” indeed, but one which, it seems, is very much still with us, and which positivist attitudes have not only failed to dispel but which they have enabled, as seen with work done by Jason Richwine and by Stephen Hsu, because positivists really believe, again contrary to Pinker’s mystical notions of “humanistic” science, that values can be separated from facts.[18] But more profoundly, one cannot argue against Social Darwinism with positivism. The argument simply isn’t there. This reaches into an area of theory which Pinker is clearly unfamiliar with as he rails against the equation of reductionism with simplification. Here, Pinker writes,

Demonizers of scientism often confuse intelligibility with a sin called reductionism. But to explain a complex happening in terms of deeper principles is not to discard its richness. No sane thinker would try to explain World War I in the language of physics, chemistry, and biology as opposed to the more perspicuous language of the perceptions and goals of leaders in 1914 Europe. At the same time, a curious person can legitimately ask why human minds are apt to have such perceptions and goals, including the tribalism, overconfidence, and sense of honor that fell into a deadly combination at that historical moment.[19]

But this is far from the only critique of reductionism. The problem with reductionism is best illustrated in complexity theory (perhaps Pinker thinks simplification theory—which I’ve never heard of—is the opposite of complexity theory?) which points out in the concept of emergent properties that the whole is different from the sum of the parts, that is, that our universe is best viewed as an agglomeration of systems within systems, none of which can be understood by examining just their components or just their interactions. Indeed, the nature of emergent properties is that they are inherently unforeseeable from an examination of those components or their expected interactions,[20] hence, by the way, a serious limitation in climate change forecast models. Complexity theory happens to be of great value in understanding natural systems—hence, Fritjof Capra’s book on the topic.[21] And this is one case where we can extrapolate to human beings: if emergent properties are difficult to foresee in relatively simple systems such as those which physicists and chemists deal with, how much more so with human beings?[22] Pinker doesn’t address any of this. But astonishingly, Pinker moves from here to an argument for data mining:

Political events are buffeted by many forces, so it’s possible that a given force is potent in general but submerged in a particular instance. With the advent of data science—the analysis of large, open-access data sets of numbers or text—signals can be extracted from the noise and debates in history and political science resolved more objectively. As best we can tell at present, the answers to the questions listed above are (on average, and all things being equal) no, no, no, yes, no, yes, and yes.[23]

This is an appallingly bad argument. It is the same argument that justifies three-letter agency (as in N.S.A. and F.B.I.) collections of all the data they can manage to hoover up, even as they send mixed messages about whether they’re data mining or not. Just as any human is much, much more than any combination of numbers—and remember that quantitative data is the only kind of data that can be mass-processed with computers—any correlations found in that data will be based on a superficial rendering of human beings.[24] Pinker couldn’t have chosen a worse time to make this argument, that is, unless he wanted to wait for horror stories to emerge of the full weight of the National Security State bearing down on individuals based on spurious correlations—and they will.

Finally, Pinker turns the argument that positivism limits acceptable ways of knowing and acceptable methods of inquiry on its head with the following:

Those ways do deserve respect, and there can be no replacement for the varieties of close reading, thick description, and deep immersion that erudite scholars can apply to individual works. But must these be the only paths to understanding? A consilience with science offers the humanities countless possibilities for innovation in understanding. Art, culture, and society are products of human brains. They originate in our faculties of perception, thought, and emotion, and they cumulate and spread through the epidemiological dynamics by which one person affects others. Shouldn’t we be curious to understand these connections? Both sides would win. The humanities would enjoy more of the explanatory depth of the sciences, to say nothing of the kind of a progressive agenda that appeals to deans and donors. The sciences could challenge their theories with the natural experiments and ecologically valid phenomena that have been so richly characterized by humanists.[25]

Again, this is a straw person argument. Humanities scholars do not claim that “close reading, thick description, and deep immersion that erudite scholars can apply to individual works” are “the only paths to understanding.” That is something positivists do when they claim that theirs is the only valid way of knowing, when they claim that theirs is the only acceptable means of inquiry.[26]

In sum, Pinker has piled one straw person argument on after another, and added in other bits of illogic, to create a defense of science against an attack that isn’t really taken seriously in mainstream academia anyway. But what he actually reveals is his own attachment to the very thing he claims to object to when he lumps humanities scholars, whom he derides as “plead[ing] for respect for the way things have always been done,”[27] with those who believe in “fate, providence, karma, spells, curses, augury, divine retribution, or answered prayers.”[28] His is a faith—yes, a faith—in science, that is, scientism in its worst form, that places it beyond challenge, even as he objects to “[a]ny movement that calls itself ‘scientific’ but fails to nurture opportunities for the falsification of its own beliefs.”[29]

  1. [1]Steven Pinker, “Science Is Not Your Enemy: An impassioned plea to neglected novelists, embattled professors, and tenure-less historians,” New Republic, August 6, 2013, http://www.newrepublic.com/article/114127/science-not-enemy-humanities
  2. [2]Jerry A. Coyne, “Pinker debones the “scientism” canard,” Why Evolution is True, August 7, 2013, http://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2013/08/07/pinker-debones-the-scientism-canard/
  3. [3]Ross Douthat, “The Scientism of Steven Pinker,” New York Times, August 7, 2013, http://douthat.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/08/07/the-scientism-of-steven-pinker/
  4. [4]Timothy Williamson, “On Ducking Challenges to Naturalism,” New York Times, September 28, 2011, http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/09/28/on-ducking-challenges-to-naturalism/
  5. [5]Pinker, “Science Is Not Your Enemy.”
  6. [6]Richard M. Weaver, Visions of Order: The Cultural Crisis of our Time (Louisiana State University, 1964; repr., Wilmington, DE: Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 1995). Citations refer to the Intercollegiate Studies Institute edition.
  7. [7]Pinker, “Science Is Not Your Enemy.”
  8. [8]Pinker, “Science Is Not Your Enemy.”
  9. [9]David Benfell, “For those who still aspire to a natural science approach,” November 8, 2011, https://parts-unknown.org/wp/2011/11/08/for-those-who-still-aspire-to-a-human-science-approach/
  10. [10]Pinker, “Science Is Not Your Enemy.”
  11. [11]Pinker, “Science Is Not Your Enemy.”
  12. [12]Pinker, “Science Is Not Your Enemy.”
  13. [13]David Benfell, “Where’s the revolution?” August 2, 2013, https://disunitedstates.org/?p=5756
  14. [14]David Benfell, “From Authoritarian Boast to Awe and Wonder: A Transformation of the Understanding of Knowledge,” November 21, 2011, https://parts-unknown.org/wp/2011/11/21/from-authoritarian-boast-to-awe-and-wonder-a-transformation-of-the-understanding-of-knowledge/
  15. [15]David Benfell, “‘We have found the enemy, and he is us’ — and our system of social organization,” March 6, 2013, https://parts-unknown.org/wp/2013/03/06/we-have-found-the-enemy-and-he-is-us-and-our-system-of-social-organization/; David Benfell, “Towards Sustainability,” April 11, 2013, https://parts-unknown.org/wp/2013/04/11/towards-sustainability/; David Korten, “The Moment for Turning: Living as if Peace and Sustainability Really Mattered,” in Peace Movements Worldwide, vol. 1, History and Vitality of Peace Movements, ed. Marc Pilisuk and Michael N. Nagler (Santa Barbara: CA Praeger/ABC-CLIO, 2011; copy supplied by Marc Pilisuk); Igor Matutinovié, “An Institutional Approach to Sustainability: Historical Interplay of Worldviews, Institutions and Technology,” Journal of Economic Issues 41, no. 4 (December 2007): 1109-1137.
  16. [16]Benfell, “‘We have found the enemy, and he is us’ — and our system of social organization;” Angana P. Chatterji, Violent Gods: Hindu Nationalism in India’s Present (Gurgaon, India: Three Essays Collective, 2009); Paolo Scopacasa, “Vandana Shiva – In Her Own Words,” Ecoworld, March 6, 2004, http://www.ecoworld.com/government/vandana-shiva-in-her-own-words.html; Laura Winton, review of Biopiracy: The Plunder of Nature and Knowledge, by Vandana Shiva, Synthesis/Regeneration 14 (Fall 1997), http://www.greens.org/s-r/14/14-21.html
  17. [17]Pinker, “Science Is Not Your Enemy.”
  18. [18]David Benfell, “Scientific Method as Harmful,” May 29, 2013, https://disunitedstates.org/?p=5544
  19. [19]Pinker, “Science Is Not Your Enemy.”
  20. [20]Fritjof Capra, The Web of Life: A New Scientific Understanding of Living Systems (New York: Anchor, 1996); Joanna Macy, Mutual Causality in Buddhism and General Systems Theory (Delhi, India: Sri Satguru, 1995); Edgar Morin, On Complexity (Cresskill, NJ: Hampton, 2008).
  21. [21]Capra, The Web of Life.
  22. [22]Morin, On Complexity
  23. [23]Pinker, “Science Is Not Your Enemy.”
  24. [24]Matthew M. Aid, “Inside the NSA’s Ultra-Secret China Hacking Group,” Foreign Policy, June 10, 2013, http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2013/06/10/inside_the_nsa_s_ultra_secret_china_hacking_group; James Bamford, “They Know Much More Than You Think,” New York Review of Books, August 15, 2013, http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2013/aug/15/nsa-they-know-much-more-you-think/; David Benfell, “Why you should be scared shitless,” June 11, 2013, https://disunitedstates.org/?p=5598; Glenn Greenwald and Spencer Ackerman, “NSA collected US email records in bulk for more than two years under Obama,” Guardian, June 27, 2013, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2013/jun/27/nsa-data-mining-authorised-obama; Natasha Lennard, “Revealed: “Boundless Informant,” NSA’s powerful datamining tool,” Salon, June 9, 2013, http://www.salon.com/2013/06/09/revealed_boundless_informant_nsas_powerful_datamining_tool/; Jane Mayer, “Is Thomas Drake an enemy of the state?” New Yorker, May 23, 2011, http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2011/05/23/110523fa_fact_mayer; James Risen and Eric Lichtblau, “How the U.S. Uses Technology to Mine More Data More Quickly,” New York Times, June 8, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/09/us/revelations-give-look-at-spy-agencys-wider-reach.html; Charlie Savage, “U.S. Relaxes Limits on Use of Data in Terror Analysis,” New York Times, March 22, 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/23/us/politics/us-moves-to-relax-some-restrictions-for-counterterrorism-analysis.html; Charlie Savage, “Total Information Awareness: Sweeping New Surveillance Measures Approved in the US,” Truthout, March 23, 2012, http://truth-out.org/news/item/8067-total-information-awareness-sweeping-new-surveillance-measures-approved-in-the-us; Charlie Savage, “N.S.A. Said to Search Content of Messages to and From U.S.,” New York Times, August 7, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/08/08/us/broader-sifting-of-data-abroad-is-seen-by-nsa.html; Bruce Schneier, “Restoring Trust in Government and the Internet,” Schneier on Security, August 7, 2013, http://www.schneier.com/blog/archives/2013/08/restoring_trust.html; Jonathan Turley, “New York Times: Government Conducting Broader Searches Of Emails and Text Messages Than Previously Reported,” August 8, 2013, http://jonathanturley.org/2013/08/08/new-york-times-government-conducting-broader-searches-of-emails-and-text-messages-than-previously-reported/f
  25. [25]Pinker, “Science Is Not Your Enemy.”
  26. [26]Benfell, “For those who still aspire to a natural science approach.”
  27. [27]Pinker, “Science Is Not Your Enemy.”
  28. [28]Pinker, “Science Is Not Your Enemy.”
  29. [29]Pinker, “Science Is Not Your Enemy.”

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