August 8th, 2013
Steven Pinker has a rich, articulate, and inspiring view of science and “scientism” at the New Republic, in which he implores those in the humanities to welcome scientific thinking and techniques into their fields. He has very strong and specific arguments in support of his position, too. My friend Christian Ready has a warm response to the article and some of the issues he’s had with humanities students and their reaction to science in the past. And the New Republic has a video rejoinder from their literary editor called “Science Doesn’t Have All the Answers” that shows that Pinker and Ready are not making strawman arguments: some old humanities types really don’t understand.
Let me elaborate. In the video, Leon Wieseltier makes his own strawman argument that “scientism” is people believing that science has all the answers. I’ve been accused of scientism myself, and I don’t believe that, and I don’t know anyone who does. It’s bullshit. The title of the piece also displays ignorance: “science” is a process, not a set of answers or even a database of knowledge. It’s a systematic way of developing new, reliable knowledge, that tries to eliminate or at least reduce the bullshit and personal opinion. There’s also the implicit bullshit argument akin to the one that creationists make about evolution: if science doesn’t have all the answers, it can be ignored, and hey, here’s our answers to swallow without scientific inspection over here. Wieseltier has an articulate but rambling lamentation about how everything is not numbers and how reducing things to numbers will destroy our souls. Bullshit again. It’s his opinion based on his own strawman and not on reality. Understanding the quantitative properties of the electromagentic spectrum does not diminish my enjoyment of a sunset, and in fact enhances it. On the scale of Pinker’s article, Wieseltier’s video rates about a milli-Pinker in my book (see, that’s destroying with numbers, Leon!).
I’m in great general agreement with Pinker and highly recommend his article. Science applied to anything it can address only enhances understanding and leads to new questions of interest. Someone saying otherwise has a personal bias against science and isn’t interested in better understanding ourselves or the world we live within. Not really. As for the questions that science doesn’t have the answers to, well, no one else does either, at least not reliable ones that anyone rational should have good reason to believe.
Keep in mind that I’m not just a scientist, but a novelist, a painter, a music-lover, a husband, and a feeling human being. Everyone can be a lover of the humanities and science both, and would be better people if they were in my personal opinion.
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