Back to basics

English: Science icon from Nuvola icon theme f...I originally created this blog to rant about strange beliefs, political douche-baggery and things that are not so vile. And to promote science in the process off course. Off late I seem to have posted more about stuff of little or no consequence

Back to basics then…

It’s disconcerting, no infuriating when people bash science and level all sorts of wild accusations at it whether to protect their own narrow reasoning, or to promote it, or even benefit materially from it. Even more infuriating are people who wax lyrical about faith, and worse still are those who debase science to promote ideological thinking and false beliefs.

Recently Steven Pinker wrote a brilliant article in the New Republic, where he reveals why science is not the enemy. [Science is not the enemy of the Humanities].

To whet your appetite, here are some choice passages:

  • One would think that writers in the humanities would be delighted and energized by the efflorescence of new ideas from the sciences. But one would be wrong. Though everyone endorses science when it can cure disease, monitor the environment, or bash political opponents, the intrusion of science into the territories of the humanities has been deeply resented. Just as reviled is the application of scientific reasoning to religion; many writers without a trace of a belief in God maintain that there is something unseemly about scientists weighing in on the biggest questions. In the major journals of opinion, scientific carpetbaggers are regularly accused of determinism, reductionism, essentialism, positivism, and worst of all, something called “scientism.”

  • Scientism, in this good sense, is not the belief that members of the occupational guild called “science” are particularly wise or noble. On the contrary, the defining practices of science, including open debate, peer review, and double-blind methods, are explicitly designed to circumvent the errors and sins to which scientists, being human, are vulnerable. Scientism does not mean that all current scientific hypotheses are true; most new ones are not, since the cycle of conjecture and refutation is the lifeblood of science. It is not an imperialistic drive to occupy the humanities; the promise of science is to enrich and diversify the intellectual tools of humanistic scholarship, not to obliterate them. And it is not the dogma that physical stuff is the only thing that exists. Scientists themselves are immersed in the ethereal medium of information, including the truths of mathematics, the logic of their theories, and the values that guide their enterprise. In this conception, science is of a piece with philosophy, reason, and Enlightenment humanism. It is distinguished by an explicit commitment to two ideals, and it is these that scientism seeks to export to the rest of intellectual life.

  • The second ideal is that the acquisition of knowledge is hard. The world does not go out of its way to reveal its workings, and even if it did, our minds are prone to illusions, fallacies, and super- stitions. Most of the traditional causes of belief—faith, revelation, dogma, authority, charisma, conventional wisdom, the invigorating glow of subjective certainty—are generators of error and should be dismissed as sources of knowledge. To understand the world, we must cultivate work-arounds for our cognitive limitations, including skepticism, open debate, formal precision, and empirical tests, often requiring feats of ingenuity. Any movement that calls itself “scientific” but fails to nurture opportunities for the falsification of its own beliefs (most obviously when it murders or imprisons the people who disagree with it) is not a scientific movement).

  • 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.

  • Just as common, and as historically illiterate, is the blaming of science for political movements with a pseudoscientific patina, particularly Social Darwinism and eugenics. Social Darwinism was the misnamed laissez-faire philosophy of Herbert Spencer. It was inspired not by Darwin’s theory of natural selection, but by Spencer’s Victorian-era conception of a mysterious natural force for progress, which was best left unimpeded. Today the term is often used to smear any application of evolution to the understanding of human beings. Eugenics was the campaign, popular among leftists and progressives in the early decades of the twentieth century, for the ultimate form of social progress, improving the genetic stock of humanity. Today the term is commonly used to assail behavioral genetics, the study of the genetic contributions to individual differences.

  • And the critics should be careful with the adjectives. If anything is naïve and simplistic, it is the conviction that the legacy silos of academia should be fortified and that we should be forever content with current ways of making sense of the world. Surely our conceptions of politics, culture, and morality have much to learn from our best understanding of the physical universe and of our makeup as a species.

Now please do yourself a massive service and read the article in its entirety at the link provided above.


One thought on “Back to basics

  1. I think Wieseltier’s point is an important one, carp as you will at his quasi-theological language. Scientism is not one of the propositions of science, and cannot be established by scientific evidence. It is a philosophical belief in the place of science in human life and relationships. I deprecate the attempt to raise science to this position within our understanding of ourselves. I do not consider science the enemy, as Pinker thinks those who reject scientism do. The problem is science stepping outside the boundaries of its own competence, by making claims for science’s predominating role in understanding ourselves. I do not think that explaining my emotions by referring to neuro-events actually explains my emotions. Nor are my beliefs adequately explained by giving their neural correlates. Jerry Coyne’s pushing the realisation of the scientistic dream away to “in the end” is an indication of just how ideological a claim scientism really is. For I can now, without demur, accept that my emotions, beliefs and experiences depend on genes, environment and brain, without accepting that environment, brain or genes will ever be able to “explain” those emotions, beliefs or experiences. For this we need the complex apparatus of language, art, literature, music, politics, economics, and complex human relationships. I believe that a serious category error is being committed here, though showing that will have to await another time. Perhaps, “in the end,” that is what we will be able to do. You never know what will happen in that long anticipated, far off event. Let’s wait and see.

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