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

This entry was posted in New Atheism, Scientism, Steven Pinker and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Steven Pinker’s Subtle Attack on Science

  1. Ratheist says:

    This got cut off

  2. TFBW says:

    The closing words were, “who has a track record of relying on stereotypes, quote-mines, and fear-mongering to understand reality.” It’s a re-post from two years ago.

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