Column: Science is the Answer! Now what was the question?

Science is the Answer! Now what was the question? 

Daniel Sprockett (formerly of ‘Just 10% Human’) broadens his scope to look at scientific issues and stories more generally in ‘Shot of Science.’ This week, he discusses the idea of “scientism,” which was recently defended by Steven Pinker in a long essay for The New Republic.



Earlier this month, Harvard cognitive scientist Steven Pinker published an essay in the New Republic that caused quite an uproar in some academic circles. It focused on the topic of scientism, a pejorative term that critics sometimes use to mean something vaguely akin to using science as a religion, although its definition seems to change based on the user and the specific situation to which it is being applied. This accusation has most often been lobbed at Pinker and other scientists who dare to comment on subjects deemed “outside” their main scientific disciplines, including Stephen Hawking, Richard Dawkins, and last year’s Festival of Dangerous Ideas keynote speaker Sam Harris.

I caught wind of this essay before it was published via physicist Lawrence Krauss’s facebook newsfeed, and was really looking forward to reading it. However, to my great surprise, instead of distancing himself from scientism, Pinker redefines it entirely!

The term “scientism” is anything but clear, more of a boo-word than a label for any coherent doctrine. Sometimes it is equated with lunatic positions, such as that “science is all that matters” or that “scientists should be entrusted to solve all problems.” Sometimes it is clarified with adjectives like “simplistic,” “naïve,” and “vulgar.” The definitional vacuum allows me to replicate gay activists’ flaunting of “queer” and appropriate the pejorative for a position I am prepared to defend.

At first glance, the best response to critics is probably is probably not to simply redefine their criticisms. This seems akin to saying, “oh yeah? Well today is opposite day, so ugly actually means awesome! So there!”

But Pinker is just building his argument covertly. Since the definition of scientism can vary, one appropriate response is to seek out a core set of concepts common to all (or at least most) of the definitions. The earliest known use of the word scientism was in the play Back to Methuselah, published by George Bernard Shaw in 1921, but the concept has been examined formally by philosophers like Karl Popper since the 1970’s and discussed in a wide variety of contexts. An analysis of scientism revealed that its usage generally falls into one of two categories:

1. The belief that science can be used to describe and understand the entirety of knowledge, or is the only valid source of knowledge.

2. The inappropriate application of scientific methods and/or theories to other fields.

Pinker could have unpacked these definitions individually to show they simply don’t apply to people with a so-called scientistic worldview, but instead he chose to redefine scientism in such a way that dismantles these criticisms by emphasizing its positive values. He says that his version of the scientistic outlook holds the working assumption that the world is intelligible, and that the acquisition of knowledge is hard. The world is intelligible because the structure of the cosmos is uncoverable, at least in principle, through observation of the natural world. These observations are specific examples of more general patterns, and that those patters are explainable by increasingly generalizable phenomena, which in turn are ultimately governed by a set of universal principles. Pinker then draws a sharp distinction between intelligibility and what he calls the sin of reductionism:

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.

Here Pinker succinctly dispatches with the straw-man argument that scientism means science is the only valid source of knowledge and progress. Even though religious conservatives like to endlessly repeat this falsehood, I’ve never actually met anyone who supports this absurd statement.

But this bleeds into the second meaning of the word scientism – when science unjustly intrudes into other fields. This is the crux of the article, which is fundamentally an open letter to neglected novelists, embattled professors, and tenure-less historians, as the subtitle states.

Some authors, researchers, and professors of the humanities and, to a lesser extent, the “soft sciences,” are resistant to bridging what C.P. Snow described in this 1959 lecture, The Two Cultures of the sciences and humanities. For example, in late 2010, the American Anthropological Association removed mentions of “science” from its long-range plan at the behest of cultural anthropologists who don’t consider the their work to be “science.” Last year, the L.A. Times ran an Op-Ed from Timothy D. Wilson, a psychologist pleading for the “hard sciences” to stop bullying the “soft sciences” by questioning the rigor of their methodologies.

The reality is that complex phenomena are often explainable on multiple nested levels of analysis. Investigating a more fundamental level of causality doesn’t remove or replace the subordinate ones. Quantum physics alone can’t explain why the E. coli in your gut makes you sick, even though the existence of the E. coli (and you, as well) is absolutely dependent on quantum physical forces. The assumed conflict that results when these levels of explanation intersect has been hilariously illustrated by this comic from XKCD:

But in reality, I’ve rarely experienced any such snobbery from fields further up the “purity” chain. I’ve worked on several projects that brought me, a biologist, into contact with chemists and mathematicians, and if anything, arrogance freely flowed in both directions. They assumed I was overcomplicating something that should be relatively simple (…its just biology, after all), while I saw them as grossly oversimplifying a complex and nuanced system. This frustration is illustrated by this other XKCD comic:

But this is simply ego born of ignorance! I don’t respond to these situations by firing off accusations of physicism – that they believe physics is the only sources of knowledge – I defend the validity of my field by pointing out how the application of theirs tools is insufficient to explain the phenomena in question. If the humanities and soft sciences are unduly overrun or oversimplified by those of us in the hard sciences, then it is up to those working in the field to show us why our approach fails…

…Except, of course, when it doesn’t fail. A common extension of this critique of scientismists is that they’re not only inappropriately applying the scientific method to questions outside their expertise, but in area that should only ever be examined in the context of philosophy or theology. What this critique misses is that many such questions, when formulated properly, are actually propositions about the natural, physical world. As biologist P.Z. Myers recently described on his blog Pharyngula:

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.

For now, I’ll refrain from discussing some of my problems with Pinker’s commentary (for example, his egotistical subsumption of broad swaths of philosophers into his own field of evolutionary psychology), because on the whole I think it is a valuable read.

In the end, I strongly believe that scientists, philosophers, critics, and other public intellectuals should continue engaging in cross-disciplinary public discussions. Alan Lightman, a physicist at MIT, has described three hierarchical levels of the public intellectual, or person trained in a particular discipline that writes for a larger audience than their professional colleagues.

Level I: Speaking and writing for the public exclusively about your discipline.

Level II: Speaking and writing about your discipline and how it relates to the social, cultural, and political world around it.

Level III: The intellectual has become elevated to a symbol, a person that stands for something far larger than the discipline from which he or she originated. A Level III intellectual is asked to write and speak about a large range of public issues, not necessarily directly connected to their original field of expertise at all. After he became famous in 1919, Einstein was asked to give public addresses on religion, education, ethics, philosophy, and world politics. Einstein had become a symbol of gentle rationality and human nobility.

Charges of scientism – of the overextension of science – will continue to be hurled at those scientists transitioning to Level II and III public intellectual. Perhaps this was Pinker’s motivation for reappropriating the word scientism, instead of repudiating it. Either way, anyone who argues that the tools of science should stay locked away in laboratories and ivory towers is doing a grave disservice to progress and humanity in general.



Daniel Sprockett is a researcher at the Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine in Cleveland, Ohio. He currently resides in Double Bay with his wife, Andrea, while she completes a Master’s of International Public Health at the University of Sydney. Dan will return to the United States in September, when he begins his PhD in Microbiology and Immunology at Stanford University.



Read more of Daniel’s articles here.


(Top image from Chase Clark)