Replies to Steven Pinker

Steven Pinker’s essay from last week on ‘scientism’ obviously stirred some pots, and there have been a couple of thoughtful replies, from both scientists and humanities scholars. For the most part, people argue that he spent too much time defending science itself (which few people recognize has a bad thing) and not enough time discussing what the limits of science are (an open and interesting question).

One reply is from philosophy professor Massimo Pigliucci on his blog Rationally Speaking: Steven Pinker embraces scientism. Bad move, I think. (via 3quarksdaily). For one thing, he disagrees with Pinker’s rebranding of the word ‘scientism’ as some good thing, and instead prefers to reserve it for the circumstances when science over steps its bounds.

I have begun to think of scientism as in a sense the opposite extreme of pseudoscience: while pseudoscientific notions arise from science badly done (or non-science masquerading as science), scientism is about science overreaching (or science trying to expand into non scientific domains).

Most of the response is about how Pinker did too much to drive a wedge between science and the humanities, and not enough to bring them together. He summarizes

Pinker really wasted a good chance here. He has the intellectual stature and public visibility to nudge the debate forward in a positive direction. Instead of embracing scientism as a positive label, he should have acknowledged that some criticism of science is well founded and sorely needed. Instead of telling us again platitudes about the benefits of science (while ignoring its darker side) and chastising the humanities for not embracing it whole heartedly, he could have presented a nuanced examination of where science really is useful to the humanities and where the latter are useful to the sciences – not to mention those several areas where the two can safely ignore each other in pursuit of different goals.

And physicist Sean Carroll says that a lot of this argument is just semantics (see his post Let’s Stop Using the Word “Scientism”)

The working definition of “scientism” is “the belief that science is the right approach to use in situations where science actually isn’t the right approach at all.” Nobody actually quotes this definition, but it accurately matches how the word is used. The problem should be obvious — the areas in which science is the right approach are not universally agreed upon. So instead of having an interesting substantive discussion about a real question (“For what kinds of problems is a scientific approach the best one?”) we instead have a dopey and boring definitional one (“What does the word `scientism’ mean?”).


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