Steven Pinker’s Queer Take On Scientism

From scientism to a scientific humanistic philosophy

Posted Sep 04, 2013

A pointed essay last month by the renowned Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker reignited the academic culture wars between the sciences and humanities. In the article, Science is Not Your Enemy: An Impassioned Plea to Neglected Novelists, Embattled Professors, and Tenure-less Historians, Pinker chides those in the humanities for resisting to fully embrace the sciences. He even goes so far as to embrace the concept of scientism—a term usually used in the pejorative sense to denote when scientists overstep their knowledge with arrogance and a sense of intellectual superiority—to be redefined to mean a strong embrace of the joint notions that the world is intelligible, but that knowledge about the world is hard won. He justified his co-opting of the term as being akin to how gay activists re-appropriated the word "queer".

Given Pinker's stature and the provocative nature of the claims, the essay predictably elicited many reactions, some very pro, some mixed, others very con. Although I admire Pinker in general, my take is that he is off base in the article. From the vantage point of the unified theory, the article is a symptom of the fragmented state of human knowledge and the deep, and long standing confusion about the relationship between the sciences and humanities (and facts and values). A similar debate ensued following the release of E. O. Wilson’s Consilience: The Unity of Knoweldge, which many saw as an attempt of a scientist to cannibalize the humanities. I think the analysis that I offered of Consilience is relevant for the current discussion. In addition to the need for clarity following Pinker's essay, it is my contention that his claims about re-appropriating scientism are misguided. Below I address both of these issues. 

Pinker's essay and the many reactions it spawned resulted in many different accusations and claims and it is easy for readers to get confused about what the issues are. Indeed, I am in general agreement with Massimo Pigliucci, who scolds Pinker for adding much more heat than light regarding the complicated nature of the relationship between the sciences and humanities. Here are some key points to keep in mind to keep the confusion to a minimum.  

1. On Facts and Values. It is naïve to assume there is always a simplistic and clean distinction between facts and values (see #3). Nevertheless, there is indeed a deep and basic distinction between determining whether claim “X” is an accurate, factual claim, as opposed to whether "X" is a good or bad state of affairs. The scientific method is good for deciphering accuracy and, at its core, silent on the latter issue of value. Of course, as Sam Harris points out in his book The Moral Landscape, once one makes some basic value claims, then many issues of fact follow and thus the engine of science does have crucial implications for what we value. Nonetheless, at bottom, science remains inert in fundamentally justifying what we ought to value, which is why science is obviously not all there is to knowledge.

2. The Academy Needs Both the Sciences and Humanities. Virtually no one, including the “zealous prosecutors” of science that Pinker cites, actually considers science and scientific knowledge, broadly defined, to be the enemy per se. (See, e.g., the response from Lears posted at the end of Pinker's essay). Likewise, virtually no one, including Pinker, claims that science is the sole knowledge system that can answer all our problems and to which all else must be reduced. Thus, essentially everyone is in basic agreement that the academy needs both scientific and humanistic traditions of knowledge and inquiry. The debates hinge on the relationships between the two domains.

3. The Fundamental Difference Between the Natural and Human/Social Sciences. The goal of the natural sciences is to develop the most accurate, objective descriptions of the (nonhuman) world as is humanly possible. Although those descriptions do have implications, generally speaking the knowledge humans have of the nonhuman world does not directly impact or change the nature pf the world (complications from quantum mechanics notwithstanding). In direct contrast, the theories and ideas that (social) scientists generate about people directly impact and change people. For example, claims of scientists that people are inherently selfish or that outcome is determined more by nature than effort or that one gender is more aggressive than the other or that one “race” is more intelligent (or even whether the concept of human races is itself legitmate) feedback on and influence the very nature of people themselves. Thus, as noted in #1, the relationships between presumably objectively discovered facts and human values are very much intertwined and complicated, especially when the supposed facts are about the nature of humans. Technically, this is called the problem of the "double hermeneutic” and it is at the core of what differentiates the social sciences from the natural sciences. This complicated dynamic is at the heart of many of the issues and debates. If it is not explicitly labeled and addressed much heat and little light in these kinds of discussions will be spread.

4. The Issue of Reductionism versus Emergence. Are we humans, at bottom, just complicated arrangements of energy and matter? Or are we something more? If we are more, what is the nature of what makes us more? Many in the humanities see science as reductionistic, meaning that they see the sciences as reducing people to just complicated arrangements of matter and energy. Although Pinker claims these are a minority and rightly points out the importance of thinking in terms of information and emergence, I see quite a few scientists being what I would call “greedily reductionistic” (see here and here). The issue is particularly relevant because of #5, and Pinker doesn't really acknowledge it as a problem.

5. There is no shared, macro-level view of scientific knowledge. From the vantage point of the unified theory, at the heart of the confusion behind these kinds of debates is the lack of a clear, comprehensive, workable understanding of the picture scientific knowledge creates of human kind and its relationship to and place in the natural world. The heated reaction to E.O. Wilson’s Consilience strongly confirmed the absence of a shared meta-representation of scientific knowledge. Basically, this means that there is not a shared, general sense of what science says about humanity. As such, it can mean so many different things that you inevitably get very different reactions to claims about what science says or the role it should play in values. The unified theory explicitly attempts to fill this gap and claims there is a way to represent knowledge in a holistic unified way that explains the issues of facts and values, the place of the natural and social sciences and humanities, and the complicated issues of reductionism and emergence.

6. Worldview Differences. Pinker argues that science has essentially settled the worldview issue. There is no god, minds are emergent properties of brains, and we humans have no a priori purpose, but must construct what we value. I essentially agree with him that this is the picture of scientific knowledge currently offers. But I don’t think it is justifiably follows that therefore all religious faiths can be wholeheartedly dismissed as primitive myths. It is the case that science has demolished, in my opinion, fundamentalist religious views that attempt to defend a literal and concrete vision of God and the Heavens. But what about religiousness in the abstract sense, as an intutive sense that guides people to think metaphorically about the holistic universe and encourages them to look to religious teachings for wonder and purpose and abstract insight? This sense that allows so many to derive a meaningful worldview? Has anything in science definitively resulted in the banishment of such perspectives? Consider the conundrum here that if the goal of science is to improve well-being (as Harris and Pinker seem to argue), if anything science has found that being religious is positively associated with happiness and well-being. So now what? The bottom line, from the vantage point of the unified theory, is that secular and liberal religious worldviews can peacefully co-exist, although fundamentalism ought to be ousted, regulated to the dustbin of primitive myth.

Although these issues are embedded in Pinker's essay and the reactions they spawned, I have not found much clarity in the discussion. I like to think we do a better job articulating these issues at the program in professional psychology I direct and the scientific humanistic philosophy we espouse.

If anything is really new about Pinker's essay, it is the idea that scientism ought to be re-appropriated and turned into a positive term for the Enlightened. What about that? Well, the first thing I would note is that the analogy to how gay activists appropriated queer does not really hold. Why? Because the context is that science is growing in dominance and the humanities are in the one down position. Thus, it isn't really the case that scientists are in need of linguistic jujitsu to help empower them (see here for additional criticisms of Pinker's linguistic turn). Indeed, the term is used because scientists are indeed in power in many contexts and there are times in which that power is over-extended. As Pigliucci rightfully points out, the key to this debate is in the details and in the question: Are there clear instances of scientism as it is normally defined (not as Pinker redefines its)? If so, then the word has important uses and should be retained.

My perspective, as a clinical psychologist, is absolutely yes. Indeed, I see one of the major movements in the training of professional psychologists, the so-called clinical scientist movement, as being riddled with scientism (here is its "manifesto"). An excerpt from my book, shared below, narrates key aspects of my position. The point here is that it is certainly the case that, at least within my discipline of clinical psychology, there are streams of thought that at least bump up against scientism and thus the word serves a very useful cautionary complaint. The bottom line is that Pinker's usually incisive analytic mind may have become a bit too enthralled with science and lost some perspective on its limitations and the fact that people do wield it toward questionable political ends.  

From A New Unified Theory of Psychology (Henriques, 2011), see pages 200 to 205.

After describing some concerns and debates associated with the Empirically Supported Treatment movement and other "clashes" between scientists and practitioners in the field, I write:

"One does not need to look hard to see the struggle regarding the relationship between research and practice playing out in the field. A recent editorial in Newsweek (Begley, October 12, 2009) proclaimed baldly that psychologists (note that she meant professional practitioners) ignore scientific evidence, and she explicitly called for the public shaming, stigmatization, and marginalization of practitioners who fail to employ cognitive or cognitive behavioral treatments for depression, anxiety, bulimia, PTSD, and other conditions. The editorial was based on a recent report (Baker, McFall, & Shoham, 2009), which in turn was accompanied by a strongly endorsing foreword by the noted psychologist Walter Mischel (2009). The Baker et al. (2009) report is notable mostly for the vigor and militant voice with which the authors make their case, rather than the novelty of the message. The content of the message is straightforward: Cognitive and cognitive behavioral interventions have been shown to reduce symptoms associated with many psychiatric disorders equal to or better than competitors, and, consequently, there is an ethical obligation to train psychological practitioners in these methods, and ensure that they employ them. Moreover, the argument continues, many psychological practitioners are soft thinkers, often anti-science, and tend to go on personal experience rather than scientific evidence, and this is a trend that, if anything, has gotten worse over time. Consequently, researchers, and psychological policy makers (i.e., accreditors) need to insist on better scientific training and greater conformity to the manuals that have been supported by the hard fought, scientific data gathering process.

"As one who worked directly with the Father of Cognitive Therapy on a randomized controlled clinical trial and who now directs a practitioner-oriented doctoral program, I have a rather unique vantage point on this perennial arm wrestle within the field. From my perspective—a view that is informed by the unified theory and my personal experiences on “both sides of the aisle”—the resolution proposed by Baker et al. (2009) and endorsed by Begley and Mischel is doomed to failure. That is, instead of working toward achieving their stated goal of closing the gap between science and practice, it will almost certainly add to the antagonisms and splits between scientists and practitioners. The reason is quite simple. Like many clinical researchers, the authors are methodological fundamentalists and thus tend to be blind to larger issues of theory, conceptual analyses, and sociopolitical forces. By this I mean that the authors believe in the power of the scientific method to reveal divine truths that all should pay homage to, while failing to recognize that facts and fact gathering via the scientific method are only part of the equation…

"Although Baker et al. (2009) frame the issues in terms of good scientific researchers committed to the truth versus feel-good anti-science practitioners that go with their gut, the fact of the matter is that the conceptual and theoretical issues are muddled and debatable, and their emphasis at the empirical level is clearly influenced by political horse racing. Yet the authors pay virtually no attention to these issues, and certainly offer nothing in the way of resolving them. Consequently, I can say with much confidence that their argument will be seen by those who have different conceptual and theoretical frameworks for psychotherapy as simply another power play, an effort to ensure the dominance of cognitive and cognitive behavioral interventions over humanistic and psychodynamic ones. As one who saw firsthand the manner in which the limitations of such frames can combine with ego investment and political aspirations to result in the somewhat biased reporting of particular data, I am inclined to agree."