Sam Harris’s Subtle Attack on Science

What do you do if you are an activist who does not do science, but want your activism to be perceived as science so you can exploit the cultural authority of science to carry out your activist agenda? Well, you do what activist Sam Harris does – you dumb down the definition of science so it becomes nothing more than “adhering to the highest standards of logic and evidence.”

Harris, who spends most of his day practicing his martial arts, meditating, reading, and writing, wants all this to be perceived as science. That way, he can posture as a “scientist” when advocating for his activist agenda. Going into the lab, developing a testable hypothesis, doing the actual experiments, analyzing the data, well, that’s all superfluous fluff when compared to Sam sitting in his armchair using the “highest standards of logic and evidence” to pound out a new chapter for his upcoming book on atheist spirituality.

Unfortunately, I have become quite busy again and don’t have the time to dissect his intellectual slop and expose its errors. Fortunately, New Atheist arguments are a dime-a-dozen, and it just happens to turn out that his activist allies, Jerry Coyne and Stephen Pinker, have been making similar subtle attacks on science. And I do have unanswered responses to their “arguments.” So I’ll repost those responses below:

Dumbing down science to advance an agenda

I’ve long noted that Gnu atheists toy around with the definition of science in order to advance their cultural agenda. Recently, Jerry Coyne has acknowledged that he uses a watered-down definition of “science”:

In fact, I construe “science” broadly: as the use of reason, empirical observation, doubt, and testing as a way of acquiring knowledge. Those methods can indeed apply to history and some of the humanities. But Kitcher’s own conception of science seems to be “the brand of inquiry practiced by natural scientists”: physicists, biologists, chemists, and so on. And so he construes “scientism” as scientists’ attacks on fields like anthropology and history. I think Kitcher’s criticism is misguided because his conception of what is “scientific” is too narrow.

Kitcher uses a rigorous definition of science because when most people hear the word “science,” they think of “the brand of inquiry practiced by natural scientists”: physicists, biologists, chemists, and so on.” They don’t just think of using reason and observation.

For if science is nothing more than “the use of reason, empirical observation, doubt, and testing as a way of acquiring knowledge,” then dating, planning family vacations, and grocery shopping are all science. We’re all scientists! In fact Coyne is even willing to drag the definition of science down to this level:

In the end, then, many of Kitcher’s arguments against “scientism” seem misguided—unless you conceive “science” narrowly as “what self-described scientists do.” But science is more than a profession; it’s a method—a method of inquiry that arose from the Enlightenment. In that sense, plumbers and car mechanics practice science when they diagnose problems.

Okay, Coyne thinks plumbing is science. We’re all scientists!

Yet when Gnus use the word “science” to advance their anti-religious crusade, I don’t think they want people to think of dating, planning family vacations, grocery shopping, and plumbing. After all, where are the “Grocery Shopping is Incompatible with Religion” postings? Oddly missing. On the contrary, in this context, the Gnus want us to think of “science” narrowly as “what self-described scientists do.” They want us to think of “the brand of inquiry practiced by natural scientists”: physicists, biologists, chemists, and so on.” Jerry Coyne certainly did this when he wanted to paint a contrast of science and religion just a few days before complaining about Kitcher’s definition of science.

He writes:

Since one’s faith is almost completely an accident of birth, then, one should be highly skeptical about whether one’s faith is correct.

 

And promotes a global map of differing religious views compared to the global uniformity of scientific belief about the big bang, germ theory, and genetics:

 

Well, the last time I checked, such uniformity derives from “the brand of inquiry practiced by natural scientists”: physicists, biologists, chemists, and so on.” Does Coyne believe he would find such a uniform map if we surveyed dating behavior or shopping behavior around the globe? Even plumbing (which is science according to Coyne) seems to be “an accident of birth.”

For that matter, the Gnus are often proud of the fact that as a group, they represent so many different opinions on things. But this just means the Gnu community itself shows us the mere use of reason, empirical observation, doubt, and testing as a way of acquiring knowledge is not sufficient for generating consensus about truth. Yet they brag that science is sufficient for generating consensus about truth. What gives?

Clearly, the Gnus are engaged in a form of propaganda that uses two different definitions of science. They water down the definition of science when they want to disguise their scientism and pat themselves on the back. But when they want to make their scientism into a truth detector, they tighten up the definition of science and adopt Kitcher’s definition.

Steven Pinker’s Subtle Attack on Science

Steven Pinker relies on some rather impressive sleight of hand to defend his scientism. Like most advocates of scientism, he postures as if he is merely defending science when he wants to defend the extreme views of scientism. He is the Champion of Science and leading Cheerleader For Science. As for his scientism? He tries to confuse his readers by making it look like scientism does not even exist:

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.

I’m not sure why Pinker couldn’t use google to find Wikipedia and see how it is defined there instead of implying it is nothing more than a “boo-word.” Then again, if he did that, his sleight of hand would not be as effective.

Of course, it is hypocritical for Pinker to complain “the term “scientism” is anything but clear” given that the term “science” is anything but clear. No where in his entire article does Pinker make the slightest effort to actually define the term “science.” Yet given that Pinker is a Gnu activist, it is not surprising that he seems to subscribe to the watered-down view of science. After all, Pinker begins his essay by describing “Descartes, Spinoza, Hobbes, Locke, Hume, Rousseau, Leibniz, Kant, Smith” as scientists. I kid you not:

The great thinkers of the Age of Reason and the Enlightenment were scientists. Not only did many of them contribute to mathematics, physics, and physiology, but all of them were avid theorists in the sciences of human nature. They were cognitive neuroscientists, who tried to explain thought and emotion in terms of physical mechanisms of the nervous system. They were evolutionary psychologists, who speculated on life in a state of nature and on animal instincts that are “infused into our bosoms.” And they were social psychologists, who wrote of the moral sentiments that draw us together, the selfish passions that inflame us, and the foibles of shortsightedness that frustrate our best-laid plans.

These thinkers—Descartes, Spinoza, Hobbes, Locke, Hume, Rousseau, Leibniz, Kant, Smith—are all the more remarkable for having crafted their ideas in the absence of formal theory and empirical data.

Note that he even writes, “These thinkers…are all the more remarkable for having crafted their ideas in the absence of formal theory and empirical data.”

Say what? According to Pinker, these men actually did science “in the absence of formal theory and empirical data?” What’s more , they also did their science without the guiding hand of the experimental approach. Whoa.

So Stephen Pinker is saying that formal theories, empirical data, and the experimental approach are all superfluous to science. He says you can do science without any of them.

It is quite common for advocates of scientism to dumb down science like this. This is because the advocates are advocating something. They have an agenda to sell and want very badly to make it look like their agenda falls under the authoritative and protective umbrella of science. That umbrella is needed to increase sales. But because their advocacy is not itself dependent on the scientific, experimental approach to reality, they need to dumb down the definition of science to the point where someone like David Hume becomes a scientist and experiments are superfluous. That way people like Pinker can sell their ideology while posturing as an Ambassador of Science.

The irony is that while Pinker postures as a Defender of Science, in reality, he is undermining science. By stripping the requirements of having an approach guided by well-designed experiments that generate new data, he turns science into nothing more than materialistic philosophy, as that is precisely what he is selling. Yet when it comes to all the scientific successes that Pinker trumpets in his article, they all owe their success not to some materialistic ideology, but to the experimental approach. If we were to use Pinker’s dumbed-down definition of science consistently across the board, it would not have a glorious track record of success.

After hijacking science to serve his agenda, Pinker makes the sales pitch:

The moral worldview of any scientifically literate person—one who is not blinkered by fundamentalism—requires a radical break from religious conceptions of meaning and value.

Really? Preach on, Steven, preach on:

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.

I see. Because humans belong to a single species of African primate that developed agriculture, government, and writing late in its history, 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, and we live on a planet that revolves around one of a hundred billion stars in our galaxy, therefore God does not exist and therefore Christianity is false? That’s a stupid argument. I easily accept all these scientific findings and have no problem remaining a Christian.

Pinker is wrong. The moral worldview of any scientifically literate person does not require a radical break from religious conceptions of meaning and value. What’s more, I’m not sure Pinker has the authority to preach about what a “scientifically literate person” should believe. After all, we are dealing with someone who wants to dumb-down the definition of science and who has a track record of relying on stereotypes, quote-mines, and fear-mongering to understand reality.

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5 Responses to Sam Harris’s Subtle Attack on Science

  1. agrudzinsky says:

    I’ve noticed a double standard among science activists. They are willing to expand the definition of science to include what they want to be included. And they narrow definition of science to exclude what they want to be excluded. It’s a form of “No True Scottsman” fallacy of which atheists eagerly accuse Christians who claim that those who burned witches were not “true Christians”.

    Harris and Pinker use this sleight of hand to claim that science can solve moral issues. This is very ironic. Because the same people complain about religion over-reaching into science. If we are to be consistent and claim that science and religion are incompatible, then don’t use religion to make scientific statements and don’t use science to make religious statements. Use the right tool for the right job.

    On the other hand, I don’t see why scientific method cannot be used by plumbers and grocery shoppers or even Catholic priests. After all, big bang was discovered by a Catholic priest, George Lemaitre. And I don’t see why scientists cannot have religious beliefs.

  2. TFBW says:

    If we are to be consistent and claim that science and religion are incompatible, then don’t use religion to make scientific statements and don’t use science to make religious statements.

    It’s typical for New Atheists to deny that religion has any sort of authority to speak about any possible statement. It’s the flipside of scientism: if science is the final authority on everything, then everything else is the final authority on nothing.

  3. ChazIng says:

    1. There are no facts in science, just data and interpretation
    2. Laws do not govern, they only describe

  4. TFBW says:

    Are those statements a response to something particular, ChazIng? I’m a little lost as to what point you were making.

  5. ChazIng says:

    They are problems with Pinker’s understanding of science.

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