Scientism in the News

A few interesting articles came down the pike recently that are worth sharing.

First there is Leon Wieseltier’s article in The New Republic “Crimes Against Humanities.” Wieseltier’s article is a response to Steven Pinker’s article “Science is not you Enemy,” which appeared in the same publication in August.  Wieseltier’s argument is not without its own problems (is the opprobrium heaped on post-modernism really necessary here?), but given how well Pinker manages to peddle his books and land invitations from Stephen Colbert, it’s refreshing to see a critical treatment of him in the popular press.

Pinker’s article is worth reading if only because it is so typical of him, at least when he is speaking to a broader audience.  The introduction sounds reasonable enough if one does not consider the intellectual legacy of the Enlightenment thinkers that he invokes.  The argument really starts to fray when Pinker attempts to appropriate the label “scientism.”  He does so through a set of convenient re-definitions and omissions, as when he speaks of skepticism and the peer review process as if they were the exclusive domain of the STEM fields.  Echoing the rather dubious thesis from The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, Pinker also makes an argument here for an ideological status quo:

And contrary to the widespread canard that technology has created a dystopia of deprivation and violence, every global measure of human flourishing is on the rise. The numbers show that after millennia of near-universal poverty, a steadily growing proportion of humanity is surviving the first year of life, going to school, voting in democracies, living in peace, communicating on cell phones, enjoying small luxuries, and surviving to old age. The Green Revolution in agronomy alone saved a billion people from starvation.

Wieseltier’s argument, on the other hand, uses Pinker’s as a jumping-off point for a larger defense of the way humanities – specifically cultural studies, broadly understood – think about the world and broach the matter of whether an argument is “true.”  Wieseltier writes:

In literature and the arts, there are ideas, intellectually respectable ideas, about the world, but they are not demonstrated, they are illustrated. They are not argued, they are imagined; and the imagination has rigors of its own. What the imagination imparts in the way of understanding the world should also be called knowledge. Scientists and scientizers are not the only ones working toward truths and trying to get things right.

One need not look far in intellectual history to find thinkers making claims about science or history that have not been shown to be dated or flat out wrong in an empirical sense.  But whether they are right or wrong in the empirical sense is not always the most interesting question to be asked.  The value of such a text is not in its facticity, but rather in whether or not they make visible something that we might not otherwise recognize.  Freud may be “debunked,” as a graduate student instructor I once had insisted, but that does not mean that there is not a reality beyond what can be measured by instruments that Freud does not help us to understand.

Wieseltier also gets points in my book for his Musil citation.

On a related note, Adam Gopnik published an interesting review in the New Yorker of three books on the current obsession with neuroscience – Pinker’s own field.  To varying degrees and in different ways the books are all skeptical of the assumption that neuroscience can really yield some sort of truth about “human nature” (which, according to The Man Without Qualities, is “as capable of cannibalism as The Critique of Pure Reason“).  The review is worth a look, as it draws out many of the conceptual problems related to the investment in neuroscience as an avenue for accessing some deeper truth about ourselves and our faculties.

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