Steven Pinker has written a long essay in The New Republic embracing scientism. That's really too bad, because this way Pinker joins a disturbingly long list of scientists (and a few philosophers) who confuse a defense of good science with a knee-jerk reaction against sound criticism of science. [For a good, if partial, response to Pinker from the Left look here; for a far less convincing one, from the Right, look here.]
Pinker begins awfully, waxing poetic about how the Great Thinkers of the Enlightenment were all scientists, and in particular, cognitive neuroscientists, evolutionary psychologists (!!), and social psychologists. Such thinkers include Descartes, Spinoza, Hobbes, Locke, Hume, Rousseau, Leibniz, Kant, and Smith. All, obviously, philosophers. Yeah, I get it, it was a rhetorical opening gamble. But it is precisely the sort of rhetoric that justly pisses off people in the humanities, so why start an essay that way which ostensibly attempts to reconcile the so-called two cultures?
It immediately gets worse, with Pinker patronizingly fantasizing about going back in time to help out those brilliant minds with a bit of modern scientific knowledge, to see how they would react. Didn't anyone tell him that that would be a flagrant violation of the temporal equivalent of the Prime Directive? Kidding aside, Pinker muses that scholars in the humanities should be delighted at the advances of the sciences and what they can tell them about their own field. Instead, these ungrateful bastards keep whining about something called "scientism." Cue the predictable "scientism is an arbitrary label thrown at things one doesn't like" complaint and you don't need to bother reading the rest of the essay.
So, once again, let's revisit the issue of scientism, this time using a different take, which I hope will help us make some progress. I have begun to think of scientism as in a sense the opposite extreme of pseudoscience: while pseudoscientific notions arise from science badly done (or non-science masquerading as science), scientism is about science overreaching (or science trying to expand into non scientific domains).
Interestingly, the word pseudoscience can also be used to deflect genuine criticism: oh, you are just throwing pseudoscience at me in order to dismiss what I do without argument, says the ufologist (or astrologist, or homeopath, or...). And of course it is perfectly true that both scientism and pseudoscience can indeed be used inappropriately, just like the term science itself can and has been invoked to prop up all sorts of bad doctrines (scientific psychoanalysis, scientific Marxism, phrenology, eugenics, and so forth).
So the problem isn't with the fact that some people misuse a given term, the problem is whether that term actually refers to something worth talking about. Science surely does; and so does pseudoscience. Things are no different for scientism, but we need to talk about concrete examples rather than conceptual generics.
Unfortunately, Pinker's essay is remarkably short on specifics. It reads like one long whining session against the injustices perpetrated on science by unknown and unnamed postmodernists (the favored bugaboo of defenders of scientism) and religious fundamentalists. Indeed, there are only two specific examples throughout the piece of what Pinker thinks are unfair attacks on science: one by historian Jackson Lears, the other by Leon Kass, former G.W. Bush bioethics advisor.
Kass' piece is indeed a religiously (mis-)informed ramble about the evil of materialism (quite a rich accusation, coming from a political party that has made the pursuit of material goods for their self-selected elite a national platform), so Pinker is right in dismissing it. But Lears' target are the writings of Sam Harris, a textbook example of the excesses of scientism if there is any to be found out there! And therein lies the problem: just as in the case of pseudoscience, the devil, so to speak, is in the details. Generic cries of "scientism!" or "pseudoscience!" won't stick, nor should they. But generic dismissals of criticisms of either pseudoscience or scientism shouldn't either. It's just not that simple.
Pinker claims that science couldn't possibly indulge in the excesses that its critics level at it because, you know, the whole process employs a series of safeguards, including open debate, peer review, and double blind experiments. Yes, and when the system works, it works really well. But Pinker seems to ignore much research in the history and sociology of science that shows that sometimes that system goes wrong, occasionally worrisomely wrong (e.g., a lot of medical research on drugs is seriously flawed, particularly - but not only - when the funding for it comes from the pharmaceutical industry). Not to mention that he entirely misses the point of the most frequent cases of scientism: they are not to be found in the technical scientific literature, but rather in popular science writings, when scientists (or people who claim to be interpreting science on behalf of the public) make claims that are simply disproportionate to the evidence (as in many recent instances of neurobabbling).
Science, says Pinker, is committed to two ideals: that the universe is intelligible, and that acquisition of knowledge is hard. Well, I'm not sure why these are "ideals" rather than, say, working assumptions (the first) and acknowledgement of fact (the second). But this is a red herring, of course. Nobody in his right mind is arguing that the universe isn't (to a point, no guarantees!) understandable by us, and certainly nobody is accusing scientists of being lazy. So why bring that up to begin with?
Pinker then moves to another predictable - and, again, largely irrelevant - point: science is under attack by fundamentalist religion, it needs to be defended! Indeed, and many in the humanities (particularly in philosophy) have lent a hand to that defense over the past several years (e.g., in debates about creationism and intelligent design). But bashing once again Stephen Jay Gould's (in)famous idea of two separate magisteria for science and religion, he commits the very same mistake that Gould made: (rational) morality isn't the province of religion, it is a branch of philosophy, and it is philosophers such as myself that have taken to task the scientistic excesses of Harris, Shermer, and co. See? Once again things are more complicated: I am a staunch ally of Pinker when it comes to defending science from religion, but that doesn't mean I cannot raise the issue of scientism when my allies themselves say silly or unsubstantiated things.
Pinker, again predictably, and largely off the topic, goes on to claim that science has contributed enormously to the welfare of humanity, which of course nobody is denying. He also conveniently dismisses or minimizes the problems that science and technology have brought to us: it's ok for science to take credit for vaccines (as it should), but not ok for critics to point out nasty stuff like atomic bombs and biological warfare. See, those aren't really the results of "science," but of bad politicians misusing science. This is such a naive understanding of human power relations, not to mention of the complex social role of science, that it is downright laughable. I keep wondering why serious thinkers like Pinker cannot simply admit science's blunders, graciously acknowledge the criticisms, and genuinely try to forge a better way forward. One would almost suspect that these people are feeling guilty of something.
Moreover, for some reason the accomplishments of science need to be highlighted while at the same time those not attributable to science go acknowledged only parenthetically: "If one were to list the proudest accomplishments of our species (setting aside the removal of obstacles we set in our own path, such as the abolition of slavery and the defeat of fascism), many would be gifts bestowed by science." Yes, let's not count little things like the abolition of slavery and the defeat of fascism, or perhaps the general improvement in human rights, women rights, gay rights, general education, access to health care (as distinct from the science-based quality of that care), and countless other improvements the human race has managed to make without science. Again, this isn't an attack on science, it's simply a matter of pointing out that science has done great goods as well as the more than an occasional evil, and moreover, that much has been accomplished without a lot of help from science. Nuance, people, nuance.
One more example of the oddly slanted view that Pinker presents: "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." Well, yes, so is the temperature of the planet, just to mention one example, which may very well put a rather abrupt and unpleasant end to that satisfying rise in human flourishing. And climate change is the result of technology, unless you are a denier of the obvious. (Nuance, people, nuance...)
More: "A demonization campaign anachronistically impugns science for crimes that are as old as civilization, including racism, slavery, conquest and genocide." True, science per se is certainly not to blame for those human moral failings. But (some) scientists have actively contributed to the design and production of technological instruments that have made possible the raising of those crimes to never before seen levels. No blame at all? Not even a little tiny bit?
Pinker then goes on to a surreal analysis of the problems faced by the humanities on college campuses these days: downsizing of programs and faculty. Oh sure, he acknowledges that a number of factors is at play, beginning with widespread anti-intellectualism in our culture and continuing with the commercialization of universities. But, really, the damage is also humanists' own fault. You see, the humanities have not yet recovered from the self-inflicted wound of postmodernism, and their insistence in rejecting science is just downright suicidal. I am no defender of postmodernism, as my readers will hopefully well know, but some postmodernists (Foucault, for instance, and before him the pre-postmodernist Feyerabend) have raised serious questions about the social role of science, the unchecked power of scientific institutions, and so forth. Whenever such critiques degenerate into a wholesale rejection of science, the critics themselves need to be called out. But it is foolish to throw out the bathwater without checking whether there is a baby still inside the bathtub (to use one of Pinker's own metaphors).
"Several university presidents and provosts have lamented to me that when a scientist comes into their office, it's to announce some exciting research opportunity and demand the resources to pursue it. When a humanities scholar drops by it's to plead for respect for the way things have always been done."
Seriously? I am a Department Chair, and regularly talk to Deans, Provosts and Presidents. And I have been on both sides of the divide, beginning my career as a scientist and continuing it as a philosopher. And I say, bullshit. To begin with, administrators don't get excited at the prospect of new scientific discoveries. They get excited at the prospect of the millions of dollars that new research grants will bring into the coffers of the university (see Pinker's own comment above about the deplorable commercialization of universities). Second, I certainly don't go to administrators to plead for respect and tradition. I go to point out that universities are supposed to create the next generation of citizens, voters, and critical thinkers, not just cheap and flexible labor for big corporations. I go to remind them that the humanities are crucial for the understanding of vital social debates about the nature of our democratic system, the rights of various groups of people, the concept and implementation of justice, and so forth. And I also go to remind them that philosophy students consistently score higher than pretty much anyone else on a number of tests that are used as gateways for graduate school, medical school, business school, and law school. So there.
Pinker wraps things up by highlighting some areas where the sciences and the humanities should collaborate, rather than fight. Again, some of these are good suggestions, and if scholars in the humanities reject them then they are science-phobic to their own detriment. Other of the suggestions, frankly, leave me quite cold, and again bring to mind the scientistic attitude of wanting to get science's nose sniffing everywhere, regardless of the utility of doing so.
Yes, quantitative methods can (and should) be used by historians, though this will always likely be complementary to, rather than substitutive of, classical historical methods. And yes, the fruitful collaboration between philosophers of mind and cognitive scientists is a shining example of how to bridge the divide between the two cultures. But no, quantitative analyses of Jane Austin novels interpreted in evolutionary psychological key are frankly ridiculous (I've seen it done), and while clearly the study of the physiology of visual or auditory perception are fascinating fields in their own right, they are far less useful to my enjoyment of a Picasso or a Beethoven sonata than knowledge of the history of art or of music.
Pinker really wasted a good chance here. He has the intellectual stature and public visibility to nudge the debate forward in a positive direction. Instead of embracing scientism as a positive label, he should have acknowledged that some criticism of science is well founded and sorely needed. Instead of telling us again platitudes about the benefits of science (while ignoring its darker side) and chastising the humanities for not embracing it whole heartedly, he could have presented a nuanced examination of where science really is useful to the humanities and where the latter are useful to the sciences - not to mention those several areas where the two can safely ignore each other in pursuit of different goals. Oh well, next time, perhaps.
Massimo, you wrote: "I go to point out that universities are supposed to create the next generation of citizens, voters, and critical thinkers, not just cheap and flexible labor for big corporations."ReplyDelete
This is the same administrators who "don't get excited at the prospect of new scientific discoveries. They get excited at the prospect of the millions of dollars that new research grants will bring into the coffers of the university"?
Excellent. And I might add balanced. As I read Pinker's article I too came away with a sense of the overall tone of being whiny (crocodile tears) as well as disingenuous. All of this raises the question of his motivation in writing the piece in the first place. It is also rather annoying given his opening paragraphs that he not once mentioned C.P. Snow who in 1959 first popularized the discourse on the "two cultures."ReplyDelete
I'm not sure I understand your point about philosophy students scoring higher on tests (presumably the GRE, LSAT, etc.): are you implying that philosophy education is what equips these students to score so highly?ReplyDelete
A large portion of such differences might be due to selection effects, rather than philosophy undergraduate education actually improving these students' scores. In other words, perhaps smart people become philosophers, rather than philosophy making people smart. That being said, if philosophy education is drawing off highly intelligent students and motivating the bulk of them to pursue largely esoteric research of little value, than it seems to me to be doing more harm than good.
While I'm not at all in the "all philosophy is crap" Krauss camp (I am, after all, a philosophy student) nor do I wax mystical over how science is conducted in practice (the idealizations taught in grade school about this clean, efficient method simply aren't reflected in any experiences I've had of being involved with research), works like "Every Thing Must Go" provide a compelling case for rejecting large portions of contemporary debates in metaphysics as worthless nonsense; similar accounts can plausibly be extended to ethics and epistemology, as in, in the latter case, Michael Bishop's "The Pathologies of Standard Analytic Epistemology".
Much contemporary philosophy does seem to be me to be crippled by its refusal to engage in relevant scientific work; one need not fully sign on to a eliminativist project like that of the Churchland's or insist that science will "cannibalize" branches of philosophy to mount viable criticisms that philosophy as it is currently being practiced is, by and large, worse off for its failure to take science more seriously.
Thanks for this good analysis. Too bad that Pinker has decided to embrace scientism as a positive label, when in fact it's science as the arbiter of factual claims that needs defending against its non-empirical rivals. As you point out, the charge of scientism - the overreach and misapplication of scientific claims and methods - sometimes has legitimate bite, ala Harris in The Moral Landscape. Why embrace that? Another misguided champion of scientism (instead of what should be non-reductive naturalism) is Alex "Mad Dog" Rosenberg in his book The Atheist's Guide to Reality.ReplyDelete
Along the same lines, Michael Shermer writes that "Scientism is a scientific worldview that encompasses natural explanations for all phenomena, eschews supernatural and paranormal speculations, and embraces empiricism and reason as the twin pillars of a philosophy of life appropriate for an Age of Science." But of course the worldview best certified by science is naturalism. The term scientism should be reserved to refer to what it's always designated: as you put it, "science overreaching... trying to expand into non scientific domains."
There is something really silly about the framing that these debates tend towards, however. It is as if we were cheering for our favourite abstract concepts in a beauty contest in Platonic heaven.
"Smallpox eradicated!" (Science +1000)
"Healthcare access given to all!" (Philosophy +500 Science +100)
"Nuclear bombs!" (Science -700)
"Animal welfare!" (Philosophy +600)
"Postmodernism!" (Philosophy -100 Science +100)
I think it's gibberish to talk about science or philosophy having some sort of built-in moral valence that is independent of the uses people put them to.
Perhaps science seems to have some surprising morality-inducing content because for much of human history, ignorance of basic scientific facts was a primary cause of moral evil. You don't burn witches if you don't think there are any.
But as knowledge of the world advances, the opportunities to do a lot of good simply by learning a new scientific fact will start to get rarer and rarer (though doubtless there are still many in 2013), and the remaining sources of our strife will be caused less and less by ignorance, and more and more by bad incentives or simple conflicts of interests.
And in this situation science looks a lot less like an Emancipator By Its Very Nature (per Whig history), and more like a Great Big Power Multiplier for whoever happens to put it to use most effectively.
So in summary, science tends to decrease the amount of evil in the world that is caused by ignorance. But science will also tend to magnify the amount of evil in the world that is caused by power conflicts.
Anyway I guess I have wandered some distance off topic, thanks for a good piece and for letting me think aloud.
Wait, I forgot that Plato said that ignorance is the root and stem of ALL evil. Everything's okay after all! Hooray science!Delete
I will admit that these comments are preliminary, but something jumps out at me immediately. What do you mean by scientism?ReplyDelete
It very much seems to me, as a person more closely aligned with Harris and Pinker than your own view, that, this essay talks right past me. If we'll word it this way, I don't think the two camps here (yours and theirs) are not using the word in the same way.
To make a guess at your inferred meaning, I suspect you're taking it to mean the belief that science cannot overreach and the belief that science can do no wrong. But, despite the way you characterize Pinker's essay, and to use a phrase you repeatedly apply, that's a position that no one in their right mind espouses. If my guess is correct, then, perhaps the definition of "scientism" isn't the one under dispute but rather the definition of "science" itself.
When I agree with Pinker that "science" cannot be blamed for the atomic bombs that fell in Japan, I'm thinking of science as a set of methods and the resulting body of knowledge. If I give credit to "science" for finding vaccines, I give the same sort of credit to it for understanding atomic energy. Isn't understanding things the goal of science?
Regarding overreach, complexity. I've never read more into Harris's TML, for instance, than "science can inform moral values." I get the subtitle reads a little more aggressive, but on Charity, I don't assume a claim of totality in his tone.
Fine piece, but as of yet, I'm unconvinced. Thank you, though.
>If I give credit to "science" for finding vaccines, I give the same sort of credit to it for understanding atomic energy. Isn't understanding things the goal of science?Delete
Science is not the kind of entity that can take credit or blame for anything whatsoever. The correct analysis is that science gave some people the power to find vaccines and other people the power to easily blow up cities.
I was going to make that point as well, but there are limits to how long a comment can be on Blogger, and I didn't want to go on and on. I sacrificed clarity on almost every paragraph for brevity.Delete
Here's a very short summary of the main reasons I think "scientism" is mostly a canard:Delete
It seems reasonable that access to more information on any given topic provides the opportunity to make better choices regarding that topic. The issue of slavery, for instance, may have been able to have been settled far earlier if genetic advances had been made in the 16th century instead of the 19th. Maybe a larger quantity of accurate information can somehow be construed to lead to worse decision making, but I think that would require some demonstration, even if the magnitude of consequences of bad (and good) decisions are larger with more powerful information.
Second: complexity. The matters where scientism gets its most vociferous critiques are complex matters, like moral values. See my appeal to more information, though. That issues are profoundly complex doesn't imply that science can't touch them or shed considerable light upon them, allowing us to make better decisions regarding those issues. We certainly wouldn't want to go Anthony Flew, here, and decide on the wrong side of an issue of complexity. Admittedly, the point about history is fair, but I know of no one serious that pretends to believe that we can do science *in place of* the historical methods.
The best defense of philosophy that I've read is Dan Dennett's remark in Intuition Pumps that philosophy clarifies the questions that need to be asked when we don't yet know what the right questions are. I feel it is also good for context-making, which we seem to need as well. Good for philosophy, then, and good for us for keeping it up. Much of the rest of this crying out about "scientism" feels rather like one of the most popular words in the essay above: whining.
>Second: complexity. The matters where scientism gets its most vociferous critiques are complex matters, like moral values. See my appeal to more information, though.Delete
Moral value is not merely complex; if so you would be correct that it is within the purview of science. Moral value is undetermined by empirical facts, period.
Trivial example: "Should I break a promise if the consequences of breaking it are good for everybody?" What additional facts could possibly help me decide this question?
Two things: First, it's very annoying that you pick one sentence of mine to nitpick and act as though it makes your case, particularly when I've already indicated a premium on brevity. Suggests you have little substance.Delete
Second, you can't be serious. What you're admitting by this claim about morals is that morals cannot be saliently grounded, and then you use a corner case to try to prove it. It's almost banal.
Personally, though I'm not a strict consequentialist, many times the consequences of our decisions on real-world matters of importance give us some bedrock upon which to place our moral values. That morals can be merely ideas, or more accurately sociocultural norms (a la Jonathan Haidt), has nothing to do with the fact that there could be (indeed, are) bedrock moral values in terms of, at the least, avoiding unnecessary suffering of sentient beings. That there are complex interactions of trade-off involved in many moral questions does not change this and reveals more clearly the point I made that you seem to have missed.
Also, I see I didn't answer your question, so I will. Please note that this is an answer that presumes more technique and technology than we currently have, but as an engineer, surely that won't bother you because of likely eventually.Delete
A very deep understanding of the psychosocial impact of promise-breaking would inform us if we found ourselves in such a corner case. Clearly, the point of the matter is that you have to choose between two "bad" things, but if we understand *how bad* each of those things are on some yet-to-be-devised, but in-principle-devisable salient metric, the decision becomes very easy. The moral thing to do becomes immediately clear.
For your corner case to hold, then, you have to be presuming that it is literally impossible to ever come up with a sufficiently accurate picture of our psychosocial condition to be able to make salient bets (not even clear and perfect understanding) about questions like the one you raised--ignoring that it is actually a pretty damned easy one since you went for impossible hyperbole with "good for everybody," which actually, to be technical about it, includes you.
James, apologies if you feel I took your sentence out of context. However in your most recent comment you seem to me to be still a bit overoptimistic about the potential of tech to resolve these questions.Delete
I actually intended the "impossible hyperbole" you mentioned - I do mean better for *everybody*. An example might be a promise to a dying relative to expose secrets they're ashamed of, even though that exposure would help no one (least of all a dead person) and embarrass many including yourself.
Even in that extreme a case, it is not obvious to me that any facts about our psychosocial condition pin down whether breaking that promise is the right thing to do. How bad is a broken promise in relation to some quantity of psychological suffering? They do not look like they even belong on the same scale.
I'm going to shorten what you're saying. Since straw comes easy in these situations, indicate how I'm wrong, if I am:Delete
I don't know what facts could exist to help this, therefore such facts do not exist. Thus, morals are based on something other than assessments of inferences about facts.
It sounds like the God of the gaps line because it is.
I do agree, I'm more optimistic about the ability of science to inform us on hard questions than you seem to be.
>I don't know what facts could exist to help this, therefore such facts do not exist. Thus, morals are based on something other than assessments of inferences about facts.Delete
Only a bit too strongly worded. If you change "help" to "settle", then I agree with this characterization. Empirical facts may be relevant - even extremely relevant - but they will never pin down one action as morally correct or wrong without several other non-empirical background assumptions (some trivial, some very non-trivial).
A lot of the time you can't really sweep these assumptions under the rug; they quickly come up in very practical ethical issues. For example the question of whether it's good to bring somebody with low quality of life into existence immediately needs to be dealt with in order to get answers in the ethics of farming animals & genetic screening of embryos for disease.
James A. Lindsay said: "The issue of slavery ... may have been able to have been settled far earlier if genetic advances had been made in the 16th century instead of the 19th"Delete
So...by this reasoning, slavery is justified if there are genetic differences between races of humans? I don't think that's correct. Slavery is morally wrong no matter what we learn from genetics.
Lets do a little balance sheet so that we can get an appreciation of the role of science in society. Science has of course hugely increased our understanding of the world and this has translated into a flood of goods that have made our life more comfortable.ReplyDelete
Science has multiplied human output and this is a good thing. More goods and food are available. Health care has greatly improved, increasing longevity. We have more time for leisure and recreation.
So far, so good. And yet huge numbers of people starve, die in wars and die of disease. Huge numbers of people are subject to oppression and injustice. The problem is of course social. Science has nothing to contribute to the social problems of organisation, motivation, governance, justice, empathy and morality. And yet these are precisely the most pressing problems we face.
Let's look at some of the signal improvements which were not the result of science:
(1) slavery was eradicated. This was the worst evil in the history of mankind.
(2) democracy was introduced ending thousands of years of cruel tyranny.
(3) the rule of law was introduced, preventing systematic injustice and restraining tyranny.
(4) the incidence of wars was decreased. Wars have, with slavery, constituted the worst blights on mankind.
(5) ethical and empathetic behaviour has increased.
These five things owe nothing to science and yet they are the most important improvements we have experienced.
Yes, science has contributed greatly but changes in our social behaviour have contributed far more. The most pressing problems that remain to be solved are social in nature and science can contribute very little to this.
So I propose that those who adhere to scientism should be labelled scientologists (lower case s). They show the same dogmatic belief in a machine.
Finally we need to consider why scientism is such a bad thing. It is amoral, it is consequentialist, it has no concept of ethics. Its values are infiltrating our society. So drone attacks, spying on everyone and extra-judicial killings become possible. Sam Harris has proclaimed that people may be killed for their beliefs. Dawkins has proclaimed that infanticide can be justifiable.
The highest achievements of our society are ethical and aesthetic. Science contributed little if anything to this. Science has of course contributed greatly in other ways(obviously), but let us put it into perspective and stop the worship of science.
"The highest achievements of our society are ethical and aesthetic. Science contributed little if anything to this."Delete
Zach Beauchamp makes a good case that science has in fact contributed to moral progress by challenging false views about things such as consciousness and personhood, so, as he puts it "facts can favor particular moral theories":
"Our moral view about the moral status of animals is critically tied to what we know scientifically about animals. In the 17th century, Descartes posited that animals were “automatons,” responding to inputs and outputs in the roughly the same way that computers do today without feeling or consciousness. Such creatures, obviously, didn’t deserve any rights or moral protections. Subsequent research on animal biology and psychology has blown Descartes’ picture to bits — a conference of leading scientists declared that the evidence that animals were conscious beings was “unequivocal.” If animals feel pain and consciously experience the world, then a central historical premise of the moral case against animal rights falls apart. The results of diligent scientific research really does “militate,” to use Pinker’s word, in favor of a moral system that grants stronger protections to animals.
"The animal rights case illustrates the proper way to think about the role of science in political morality. The use of moral arguments to defend certain political arrangements depends crucially on empirical premises — the moral justification for sexist gender roles, for instance, depended heavily on theories about women being hyper-emotional and irrational. Scientific research can challenge that sort of false assumption or even resolve reasonable empirical disagreements, clarifying what is and isn’t true about the world so we can proceed to have a more targeted moral argument about politics.
"Sometimes, those scientific results ineluctably point towards a particular moral conclusion: if it’s true that climate change will kill hundreds of millions of people in the medium term, then pretty much everyone with a working moral core should be inclined towards doing something about it. That can also be true at the level of more abstract moral principles, as the gender example illustrates — dissipating myths about female frailty helped advance the case for moral equality of persons in general by debunking the idea that some people as a class were 'naturally suited' to certain social roles. You can believe that facts can favor particular moral theories without engaging in 'scientism.'"
>(2) democracy was introduced ending thousands of years of cruel tyranny.Delete
Aristosophy's take on this. In all seriousness, representative democracy may be a half-decent conflict-resolution mechanism relative to its alternatives, but "thousands of years of cruel tyranny"?! "Ending"?!
>It is amoral, it is consequentialist, it has no concept of ethics. Its values are infiltrating our society.
Are you aware that consequentialism is one of the three largest schools of ethical thought? And that many of the liberal reformers to whom many of your above changes are at least in part due, were consequentialists? (John Stuary Mill, Henry Sidgwick, Jeremy Bentham...)
This is not to say that it is above criticism, but "no concept of ethics" is a mighty silly thing to say of consequentialists.
>Yes, science has contributed greatly but changes in our social behaviour have contributed far more. The most pressing problems that remain to be solved are social in nature and science can contribute very little to this.Delete
Science has not contributed anything to social behavior? Really? I agree with Dr. Pigliucci's analysis here in that there are obvious places where science is over extended, with morality being on of them but that doesn't mean science doesn't have other roles to play. In my case, as a psychologists, I would have to strongly disagree and say that we have made great strides in improving behavior across multiple domains in society. It's not perfect by any means and doesn't extend to areas of value but science is a very powerful tool when it comes to empirically testing different social interventions and bringing about change.
I'm in large agreement here with Dr. Pigliucci here but I remember a few years back when I was entering graduate school I ended up having bad reactions to people who would label the whole field of psychology as scientism or parts of it without any actual arguments or evidence. This to me has been a large reason why we see scientists and graduate students now a days being ignorant of epistemological boundaries because they are having to defend their fields from being labeled scientism. Off course, for some this will be true but we can't just give that label without evidence. As Dr. Pigliucci said, nuance!
representative democracy is rather more than half-decent. Given that it is the only workable system we have developed, I stand by my words. And yes, it was instrumental in ending tyranny. And yes, we have had thousands of years of tyranny. I grant that it is far from perfect but still far preferable to what it replaced. In any case you are ignoring the central thrust of my argument to pick on a detail. Science does a perfectly good job in its domain but there are large and very important domains where science is inapplicable. Representative democracy is a particularly important example.
I am perfectly aware of what consequentialism is. I also believe that outside the realms of philosophers it becomes license to bend the rules to suit your desired outcomes. Every student cheating on his test paper is employing a form of consequentialism.
In today's society it has become the default 'ethical' system for the simple reason it is so easy, undemanding and flexible according to one's desires and context. While philosophically it is one of the three major ethical systems your average person in the street knows nothing about that. They are motivated by the simple idea of doing whatever they can get away with. This is their consequentialism and in this sense does not deserve to be called an ethical system.
Once again, you are ignoring the central thrust of what I am trying to say, that is scientism contributes nothing to an ethical society, Sam Harris notwithstanding.
>In any case you are ignoring the central thrust of my argument to pick on a detail. Science does a perfectly good job in its domain but there are large and very important domains where science is inapplicable.Delete
I more or less agree with the central thrust of your argument, but I don't think it's misplaced to note that some of your supporting examples don't really work.
>This is their consequentialism and in this sense does not deserve to be called an ethical system.
It probably also does not deserve to be called consequentialism. Especially since the moral rationalization you allude to draws just as heavily from our deontological instincts ("I have earned my right to these course credits!").
>the moral rationalization you allude to<
I instead see the rationale as follow: 'the best outcome for my flourishing is to get these course credits by any means necessary and there are no other significant adverse consequences'. So we have consequentialism of the crude and simple form in everyday use.
There is indeed a deontological aspect. The lawgiver (the university) has a law that forbids cheating. But deontology depends on respect for the lawgiver. This respect is in turn a virtue. And we all know that virtue ethics is almost unknown today outside Aristotle, Massimo and the Catholic Church :)
Before you rebuke me, I have overstated my case for effect.
It seems that the "postmodernist" is assailed from several sides: by scientismists (like Pinker), intelligent designists (like the people at the Discovery Institute), and the Christian Right.ReplyDelete
It's good that Pinker wants to promote a progressive political agenda. But how did science inform him that this is the correct approach? I don't think he has an answer to that question.
I think the idea is that factual misconceptions about women, gays etc. are the main obstacles in the way of equal treatment, so when those misconceptions are exposed as false, equality follows as a matter of course. Not very convincing, I agree.Delete
Philip, good point but then Pinker is a scientologist. His values are informed by a machine.Delete
I don't think anyone supposes that once misconceptions are exposed as false then "equality follows as a matter of course." But being corrected on matters of fact makes it that much more difficult to make regressive moral claims (e.g., the denial of universal human rights) since you have to find other justifications. And when science displaces faith-based and other non-empirical views of reality, justifications based on those views are no longer available either. It's no coincidence that scientists tend toward progressivism.Delete
>Pinker is a scientologist<
Why ask me? I didn't write that!
hee hee... I'm trying out a new term for people who believe in scientism, scientologist seems peculiarly apt considering the bone deep belief in a machine that characterises both schools of belief.
Hope you don't mind my re-writing of your pseudonym. I've come to the conclusion you are actually quite an agreeable person, your name notwithstanding.
Well, may be ID creationists say that they don't like postmodernism, but in practice they have used the same arguments that postmodernists use to promote their view(by saying that both ID and evolution are a religion, in the same fashion as Feyerabend has argued against the scientific method saying that it is not so different from faith)Delete
Peter DO Smith decided to rename scientismists as "scientologists" in another comment above, because... something something dogmatic machine.
"An individual who subscribes to scientism is referred to as a scientismist. ref:"Delete
I prefer scientologist, it is more euphonious and has a certain ring of truth. Scientismist is a clumsy term.
I hereby let it be known[town crier tootles his trumpet] that when I say 'scientologist' I mean the faithful followers of scientism and when I say 'Scientologist' I mean the faithful followers of one L Ron Hubbard. Notice my use of the word 'faith' on both occasions.
Any confusion that may result is intentional.
>Why ask me? I didn't write that!<
Sorry, I know you didn't. Got your names mixed up as my head asplode.
>Hope you don't mind my re-writing of your pseudonym.<
You can call me what you like, just don't call me too early in the morning!
Thanks for the kind words. I chose the pseudonym because I believe that disagreement is a good and valuable thing and feel disagreeable should not be a synonym for unpleasant.
A Better ExplicationReplyDelete
A Road Less TraveledReplyDelete
Science came to a split in the road some years ago, and came to the conclusion to go the other way. They had been traveling down the pathway of absolute since Newton pointed science the right Way, the absolute Way, synonymous with the true Way (philosophy), with the Oneness of the Universe Way (humanities), and the clarity of Justice Way she so blindly lacks today. Had we continued down that road, the path of absolute, the immeasurable divisions between us and our disciplines would have resolved and been reunited by One absolute just truth. Science was so close and then it went the other way. God didn't play dice until we turned and went down the probable way.
Today science finds itself on the road of uncertainty, probability at best; but it has the company of all the rest. Religion with its faiths and beliefs, still searching for proof. Philosophy for thousands of years, still searching for truth. The humanities questioning what is moral, what is right, and justice as already said, stumbling in the grayness on the same road as the others.
The road of uncertainty will take us only to further uncertainty, to greater divisions, greater inequity and injustice, more questions, and even more doubt.
Is it to late to turn back to where the road split one might ask, back to the road of absolute? I did and its made All the the unity or Oneness of me. Truth Professor is on the the other road, the road we left behind. If I may suggest: Go back to the split in the road, and take the road less traveled, you'll find the single simple solution there that connects us All.
Great piece - I was considering challenging Pinker's essay with a short quote from Shakespeare, e.g., Jaques soliloquy in As You Like It, which says more about the human condition that neuroscience can. Another issue is that scientists are incredibly uncritical, something highlighted by the difficulty in science to actually get it to self-right. it does this only on occasion and under incredible pressure. This stems, I think, from a lack of exposure to philosophy, logic, critical thinking, literary criticism etc.ReplyDelete
>Jaques soliloquy in As You Like It, which says more about the human condition that neuroscience can...Delete
Frankly, I think that soliloquy is poor stuff - just one cliche after another. ;)
But seriously, just to press you a little: WHAT does it say about the human condition? It's a nice pithy description of human life at various ages, okay. Aesthetically, it's gold. It didn't surprise me with any new insights, though.
Whereas, to take one example, the phenomenon of "confabulation" in split-brain patients, in which one half of the brain invents reasons out of whole cloth for what the other half is doing, is very interesting and suggestive, and not really hinted at in the works of Shakespeare (to my admittedly limited knowledge).
Let us be careful to make true statements rather than merely cheering for science vs humanities based on our own interests & inclinations.
Ian, you apparently have not read "A Midsummer Night's Dream". ;)Delete
The wisest aunt, telling the saddest tale,
Sometime for three-foot stool mistaketh me;
Then slip I from her bum, down topples she,
And 'tailor' cries, and falls into a cough;
And then the whole quire hold their hips and loff. (2.1.51)
you seem to have misunderstood Ferniglab's essential contention. You go for the detail and miss the main thrust. That quote is emblematic of a broader statement, that the record of our culture tells us more about our mind than does the work of neuroscience. You, yourself acknowledged its aesthetic content and that is partly why we celebrate Shakespeare. That aesthetic content is a vital part of our human condition. What has neuroscience got to say about that?
Nope, I think Ferniglab has got it right, though I think he expressed it clumsily.
>...the record of our culture tells us more about our mind than does the work of neuroscience...Delete
That is sort of true. Certainly if you stack up all the insights into the human mind in the broader culture against those won by neuroscience (and psychology - don't forget poor old psychology!), the broader culture wins.
But if you're looking for the NEXT new insight into how the mind works, look to the sciences. Introspection can only go so far, and in 6,000 odd years of recorded history it's probably gotten almost as far as it can go.
>That aesthetic content is a vital part of our human condition. What has neuroscience got to say about that?
I'm not really sure. What does it have to say about that? Are you sure the answer is "nothing"? What specific questions do you have about aesthetics that neuroscience is powerless to answer?
Hey, there's big corporate bucks behind "neurobabbling" http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/08/11/bursting-the-neuro-utopian-bubble/ReplyDelete
> This is the same administrators who "don't get excited at the prospect of new scientific discoveries. They get excited at the prospect of the millions of dollars that new research grants will bring into the coffers of the university"? <
Yup. You may have noticed that my list includes practical things aimed at getting their attention despite their general deafness, like the very high scores of Philosophy Majors for pretty much any admission test to graduate or advanced school.
> are you implying that philosophy education is what equips these students to score so highly? <
As you well know, correlation is not causation, so no, I’m not implying that at all. But it seems likely that philosophical training at the least augments those capacities, even if there is a selection effect. If not, you may as well suggest that education in general has no value other than bringing out selection effects.
> That being said, if philosophy education is drawing off highly intelligent students and motivating the bulk of them to pursue largely esoteric research of little value, than it seems to me to be doing more harm than good. <
It isn’t. Few philosophy majors go on to become professional philosophers. The majority go into law, business, etc.
> works like "Every Thing Must Go" provide a compelling case for rejecting large portions of contemporary debates in metaphysics as worthless nonsense <
Sorry to hear that, I suggest you didn’t pay enough attention to what Ladyman and Ross were saying. Especially considering that they take fundamental physics very seriously. (At any rate, what does that have to do with the topic of this post?)
> Much contemporary philosophy does seem to be me to be crippled by its refusal to engage in relevant scientific work <
You must not be reading much contemporary philosophy.
> Michael Shermer writes that "Scientism is a scientific worldview that encompasses natural explanations for all phenomena, eschews supernatural and paranormal speculations, and embraces empiricism and reason as the twin pillars of a philosophy of life appropriate for an Age of Science." But of course the worldview best certified by science is naturalism. <
> as knowledge of the world advances, the opportunities to do a lot of good simply by learning a new scientific fact will start to get rarer and rarer <
Yup. Worse: the opportunities to do great evil through technology will keep increasing.
here is why I think Wilson got it terribly wrong, and his vision is neither unified nor noble:
> What do you mean by scientism? <
I defined it right at the beginning.
> If my guess is correct, then, perhaps the definition of "scientism" isn't the one under dispute but rather the definition of "science" itself. <
The two are certainly related.
> When I agree with Pinker that "science" cannot be blamed for the atomic bombs that fell in Japan, I'm thinking of science as a set of methods and the resulting body of knowledge. <
Very convenient. And who, pray, invented and built atomic bombs?
> I've never read more into Harris's TML, for instance, than "science can inform moral values." <
Then you have not read Harris carefully.
> The best defense of philosophy that I've read is Dan Dennett's remark in Intuition Pumps that philosophy clarifies the questions that need to be asked when we don't yet know what the right questions are. <
Dennett is far too conservative about the role of philosophy. Perhaps that applies to philosophy of mind (his specialty) and to part of philosophy of science. But it would be like saying that the role of science is only to tell us how to build stuff.
> complexity. The matters where scientism gets its most vociferous critiques are complex matters, like moral values. <
It’s got little to do with complexity, it has to do with the irrelevance of scientific methods to many issues of ethics. Because the latter are about values, not facts.
> The issue of slavery, for instance, may have been able to have been settled far earlier if genetic advances had been made in the 16th century instead of the 19th. <
The issue of slavery has not been settled. Several countries in the world still practice it.
Thank you, Massimo, I will read it.Delete
> It’s got little to do with complexity, it has to do with the irrelevance of scientific methods to many issues of ethics. Because the latter are about values, not facts.Delete
Do you imagine that values are based upon something fundamentally different than our best inferences about the facts and best guesses about the consequences of applying them? If so, what?
These critiques of scientism would be so much more useful if they explicitly stated the similarities and differences in methodologies of science, history, philosophy, literary/art studies, theology, etc. The worse ones are those that try to carve out a place for religion - which Massimo doesn't do - but certainly others have (e.g. the National Academy of Sciences). From their "Science, Evolution, and Creationism" publication, they say things like, "Science is not the only way of knowing and understanding." and "Science and religion are based on different aspects of the human experience." Although they explain how science "knows" and "understands," they never do so for religion/theology. They hardly even mention other fields.ReplyDelete
A nice table comparing fields - anyone?
Excellent critique, I had been bothered by Pinker's piece earlier this morning when I read it at breakfast.ReplyDelete
I think one of the reasons that people keep penning these defenses of scientism is that there are almost two species of accusations of scientism. There are reactionary, scientifically ill-informed philosophers ranting against "scientism," by which they basically mean any form of naturalism (I'm thinking of, say, Thomas Nagel or Raymond Tallis). But there are also those who, as you point out, make valuable and legitimate critiques of science whilst also being knowledgeable about it and sensitive to nuances (I'm thinking, say, Philip Kitcher).
Scientists and some naturalist philosophers like Ladyman and Ross or Dennett are rightly frustrated by the former, but in an effort to exorcise that sort of influence run it together with the critiques of people like Kitcher and end up looking silly.
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Pinker and you are perfect foils for me. Sometimes I agree with him, sometimes I disagree with you. This one is a no-brainer - you win. I must say that after reading Pinker's piece, it seemed reasonable to me, especially the humanities' wound from post-modernism. Dennett tweeted he wanted to read a decent reply, so I felt good about myself that he agreed with me (joke. However, I believe you've written a very good rebuttal here. One more aside, the Zack Beauchamp response was not good. It's hard to criticize the suggestion for humanities and science to work together when your entire piece consists in merging political science with philosophy.ReplyDelete
My substantive point is this: Is it possible to be a public intellectual anymore? The old sense of the term is certainly gone, but can it even work at all today? Reason: The key to a public intellectual - as opposed to a subject matter expert - is that they can write about broad subjects and sound smart while doing it. Back in the day, a PI could write an essay in Time and everyone with a mouthpiece would nod their heads and say that's good. The masses would then be convinced (and feel smart for reading it).
Now, an essay goes online and there are rebuttals, some even cogent, within a week. If we limited our term PI to someone whose arguments get broad agreement from smart, well-informed people, then it's over. Isn't' it?
Massimo, thank you for pointing me in the direction of your essay in Aeon. It is a much better piece on many levels than Pinker's, which I suspect was as much dictated by his apparent need for attention as it was to heal any rift. I think your essay is persuasive, I am comfortable with your arguments and conclusions. In particular, this sentence of yours speaks loudly to me: "Perhaps some of the disciplinary boundaries that have evolved over the centuries reflect our epistemic limitations." Just as a point of clarification, though perhaps none is needed, my link to the review of Wilson's book was to draw a comparison with Pinker's article, not to today's blog.ReplyDelete
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Agree with all of your points, but you missed the biggest irony of all: the fact that Pinker himself is journalist, not a scientist, despite his desperately wanting us to think otherwise. One exchange sums it up far better than I can:
2. Pinker's response: http://stevenpinker.com/files/comments_on_taleb_by_s_pinker.pdf
3. Taleb replies: http://fooledbyrandomness.com/pinker
Journalism dressed up with (bunk) statistics to look like science is not science. Science is rigorous; pinker-style statistic are dangerous (imagine if we constructed public policy around the "scientific" finding that the risks from war and violence have and can be expected to decline in the future??).
Epistemic arrogance carries far greater costs than ignorance. While Pinker and the other Atheist evangelicals wish us to focus on the problems of the latter, real scientists are focused on the problems caused by the former.
Really enjoy the blog/podcast, and looking forward to you guys starting up again.
I agree with what you say, Massimo, and with a lot that Pinker says. Most of what you called Pinker out on wasn't incompatible with your response (ambiguity isn't a point in Pinker's favor). I really don't like how people conflate the progress of science done well and the social effects of the scientists as people on the institutions. Maybe I am ignorant of the proper jargon here, but it seems that there should be a distinction. I also think that it's important to point out that Pinker is probably saying that science is an incredibly powerful tool. I think rather than being inconsistent in his treatment of vaccines and atomic weaponry, he was making the point that science itself is ethically neutral, but that there's no reason that it has to have a dark side. I could be wrong about what he's saying in this piece, but I've heard him voice that opinion before. I must admit that I also disagree about the global warming example. It comes from outdated technology, and technology has already advanced to the point that we could deal with that specific problem. It seems to me that perhaps it is a continuing problem because people are resistant to immediate, slight hardships and to CONTINUED technological advance. If your point is purely that if we'd never developed technology to release greenhouse gasses we'd not be confronted with as serious a problem, it's well taken. I don't know, I guess my point is that I think Pinker chose his words poorly, not necessarily his position.ReplyDelete
> And of course it is perfectly true that both scientism and pseudoscience can indeed be used inappropriately, just like the term science itself can <
Let's test this.
Is parapsychology a science? What about memetics?
"And climate change is the result of technology, unless you are a denier of the obvious. (Nuance, people, nuance)"ReplyDelete
This statement has at least two problems: the use of the word 'denier' and the claim that the change in climate being referred to is obviously due to technology. 'Denier' dismisses the possibility that one is ignorant of the evidence or is simply unconvinced. And it is certainly not obvious, at least to non-scientists including myself.
Science, as a community, has failed to convince the general population of big, sweeping theories like climate change and evolution. I'm sure the entire secular community is convinced this is due, mostly or entirely, to religion. With respect to climate change, I place the blame entirely on science. For starters, scientism seems to be taking hold with science popularizers, you know the names. On top of that, those same scientists then suggest that religion is bad and there is no God which then makes it appear that science is aimed at destroying God. Science does an awful job at p.r. How about the arguments for climate change? I'd bet my wife and kid that 90%+ people have no idea what the arguments for human caused climate change even are! And most people are not going to simply trust scientists when such a trust entails major economic and lifestyle changes.
I don't know any climate science popularizers who are major advocates of scientism. Most of the big names in that regard seem to either be biologists, physicists, or people in the brain and cognitive sciences. Climate change denial -yes, I'm calling it that- seems to be almost entirely a combination of motivated cognition (possibly because of those potential lifestyle changes), scientific illiteracy, propaganda, and scope insensitivity .Delete
I also don't know if the accusation that "science," as if it were some monolithic entity, thinks religion is uniformly bad. I will not deny that there are many prominent scientists that think this, such as Richard Dawkins. But on the other had, the vast majority of prominent scientists are silent about the religion issue (their own personal beliefs aside), or outright take pains to delimit what exactly the consequences of scientific discoveries are and are not for religion, emphasizing the compatibility of scientific discoveries with many (though by no means all) forms of religious belief. Even a cursory glance at, say, the National Academy of Science's or the National Center for Science Education's literature on creationism (for example) will make this clear.
Climate change denialism is a symptom of a much broader problem in society, that of counterknowledge. Damian Thompson has written an excellent book with the title 'Counterknowledge' and he makes the point that there is a growing tendency to reject the conclusions of science and reason. He gives many other examples such as pseudo-history.
Why should this be so? That would be the subject of a fascinating debate. My opinions. It is in part a reaction to and rejection of scientism. It is in part a reaction to what a friend said, 'contempt is the nectar of academia'. Science increasingly displays contempt of the ordinary person. It is in part the consequence of the decline of religion. It is in part a consequence of the powerful priming of the fantasy industry (Hollywood). Related to this, it is in part a consequence of the fact that our minds were conditioned by tens of thousands of years to understand things through the medium of narratives and not explanations. It is in part a consequence of the fact that many people have a strong need to fashion their identity by attaching themselves to a novel idea.
I am sure there are many other explanations.
Religion is the most important thing to many people. Science popularizers (not climate science in particular) like dawkins, hawking, neil de grasse tyson, susskind, coyne, myers, moran, etc. give the impression that scientists are, among other things, nasty, bigoted, self righteous, liberal, anti-god, egotists. Now, of course, certain groups of people are hell bent on defaming science. But attempting to restore confidence in science by attacking the religious propagandists is a losing strategy because it only reinforces the aforementioned negative perceptions of scientists. Without a more effective remedy to the p.r. problems, scientific consensus will carry little weight with the average joe. So given all this, it would be wrong to expect people to rely solely on expert opinion.Delete
Now it seems Massimo (see his reply to me below) thinks people should just trust the experts. Well if an expert tells me to floss my teeth, fine, that makes sense. When an expert tells me I need heart surgery, he needs to tell me why and it better make sense to me! People will not embrace climate change and all the disruptions that are entailed with expert opinion as the only evidence. Climate change cannot be obvious to a person that has never been made aware of the arguments for the proposition. Spread the word. And if the arguments are too abstruse, reframe them.
Where's David Pinsof? He seems to have scooted away. Damn it, he had the best relies, no contest.ReplyDelete
He also conveniently dismisses or minimizes the problems that science and technology have brought to us: it's ok for science to take credit for vaccines (as it should), but not ok for critics to point out nasty stuff like atomic bombs and biological warfare. See, those aren't really the results of "science," but of bad politicians misusing science. This is such a naive understanding of human power relations, not to mention of the complex social role of science, that it is downright laughable. I keep wondering why serious thinkers like Pinker cannot simply admit science's blunders, graciously acknowledge the criticisms, and genuinely try to forge a better way forward. One would almost suspect that these people are feeling guilty of something.ReplyDelete
I really don't see how you can make this argument, especially given your own definition of science.
Science really is a tool to generate knowledge, the people who use the tool, and the collection of knowledge generated by it so far. Being able to generate knowledge and having it are clearly something to count as a positive regardless of whether the knowledge is then used to good or evil ends.
After all, we could easily imagine a world in which scientists have discovered how to build a nuclear bomb but nobody would think of ever using one. Clearly in this case having obtained the knowledge is something to be proud of and using it is nonetheless something to be horrified by. Even more interestingly, we could easily imagine a world in which scientists have discovered how to vaccinate but nobody is acting on that information. Again the scientists are to be applauded for unlocking this knowledge but it is neither their fault if it isn't used nor is it their personal achievement if the government allocates a couple of million dollars to start using it. They have only supplied information, society as a whole has, through its hopefully elected representatives, made the decision to do good (or not).
How would you expect the individual scientist to deal with the reality of "human power relations"? Simply forget and bury something they have discovered, as if it would not be discovered by somebody else ten years later?
Science as a method and store of knowledge is just a tool so it does not have any fault either way; you don't blame an axe for what is being done with it either. And the only "blunders" that science in the sense of the scientific community can actually be blamed for is getting things wrong. As sad as it is, what use is being made of the things it got right is always our communal decision.
>How would you expect the individual scientist to deal with the reality of "human power relations"?Delete
I don't think it's completely insane to consider a conspiracy of silence. Szilard managed to convince Fermi not to publish the correct neutron cross-section for graphite.
Obviously there are huge problems getting this to scale, not to mention with incentives etc., but if we're talking in principle about whether it might be a good idea to restrict access to certain scientific knowledge, then I think one could make a pretty good case.
The question of blame is immaterial. Suppose that the next discovery in physics allows an earth-destroying superweapon to be created from household materials. Even if I grant you that science is "blameless" in this, we're still all going to die. The universe doesn't care whose fault it is.
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>I don't think it's completely insane to consider a conspiracy of silence. Szilard managed to convince Fermi not to publish the correct neutron cross-section for graphite.<
No, but it is extremely unlikely. The moment we start to go in this direction we open the doors to censorship, even if only of the informal kind, and this will be accompanied by a host of unintended consequences. Who decides what should get published and why? Can you imagine how much score settling there might be as we suppress the politically incorrect or the inconvenient contenders? For example, will theist scientists suddenly lose their voice because atheist dominated committees hate them?
The problem is simple enough - science is unleashing powers that society is unprepared to use wisely.
We cannot block the release of knowledge, whatever people may wish and dare not try because it will unleash more demons in our midst.
Therefore, as the only option left, science has a duty to more fully engage with the rest of society, helping them to decide on the wise use of knowledge. The climate science debate is already an example of this and we should see it as a training ground for further important engagement.
This engagement of science with the society needs to proceed on a broad front and to engage more partners. For example, instead of attacking philosophers and religion they need to enlist them as partners. After all, trained ethicists are needed to guide the process and religion has deep roots in the community. Another important partner is the schooling system. It is here we have the best chance of developing ethical thought, critical thinking and a sense of responsibility to society and the planet. Another partner of course is the media. We need a strategy to overcome their natural sensationalist tendencies while enlisting them as willing partners.
You may reply that something of this is going on already and I concede that. But I maintain it is far too little, too sporadic and too disorganized. More importantly, science is seen by many as being a tool to bash religious belief(Dawkins, et al). This may be emotionally satisfying but is a terrible strategic mistake. It alienates large segments of the population, driving them towards counterknowledge. It alienates organized religion who otherwise would be naturally inclined to speak up for the ethical use of new knowledge. Much of the remaining population are irritated by the unseemly, critical arrogance of so many scientists.
Science has to take much more seriously its duty to guide society in the use of new knowledge.
>Science has to take much more seriously its duty to guide society in the use of new knowledge.Delete
I agree in principle; the trouble is that all of the guidance in the world doesn't get you out of Prisoner's Dilemma situations such as that experienced by scientifically advanced nations during WW2 with respect to the atom bomb. Einstein & Szilard were not warmongers & probably didn't want the USA to have nukes, ceteris paribus, but they felt that the potential for Germany to develop them changed the equation.
Currently one of the main obstacles in the way of a terrorist-made Plutonium bomb is technical know-how - most of the materials are fairly obtainable. If somebody released plans for such a bomb, I would not be too impressed by their also releasing "guidance" on its ethical use, no matter how good or how thorough.
Also note that DNA synthesis machines are becoming more and more available, and the genomes of diseases such as Smallpox and Spanish Flu are in the public domain. (Source: Nick Bostrom's highly recommended paper on information hazards.) I don't think there's a finite amount of ethical guidance from scientists that can mitigate that risk!
>The moment we start to go in this direction we open the doors to censorship, even if only of the informal kind, and this will be accompanied by a host of unintended consequences.
I agree, it's a terrible idea for most of the reasons you state. The only thing worse is the other obvious alternative.
>If somebody released plans for such a bomb, I would not be too impressed by their also releasing "guidance" on its ethical use, no matter how good or how thorough.<
I think that is a narrow reading of what I am trying to say. In any case we must work on the assumption that this knowledge will some day leak out, which seems to be inevitable. The current terrorist threat will never be solved by Obama's whack-a-mole strategy with drones because it never addresses the causes. Instead it exacerbates the causes. A more ethically inclined society will be more ready to look for underlying causes, it will be more inclined to see the problem from their point of view and so search for realistic solutions. A more ethically inclined society will understand their legitimate grievances. A more ethically inclined society will be more ready to reach out to and embrace other societies as friends and partners. A more ethically inclined society will work for the rule of law between nations and not the rule of war, as the US does now.
A more ethically inclined society will reduce inequality and increase opportunity, reducing the incentive to use technology to compensate for lack of power.
In short, we need a more ethically inclined society. That is not achieved by attacking religion, which is one of the main sources of moral priming in society. But this is what many prominent voices in science are trying to do. What other sources of moral priming are there in society today? Much of today's media supplies a very powerful form of reverse moral priming. Is it any wonder that guns are so attractive in the US and your country is so quick to resort to war or, for that matter, it is so ready to spy on a massive scale on its own citizens?
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>A more ethically inclined society will be more ready to look for underlying causes, it will be more inclined to see the problem from their point of view and so search for realistic solutions...Delete
You're mostly pushing at an open door with me here; a more ethically inclined society would be great. I'll refrain from quibbling with your specific proposals.
The bottom line for me is that even in the most ethically inclined society imaginable, there is guaranteed to be a finite number of nutcases who want to kill lots of people for some ill-conceived reason, or for no reason at all. You cannot reach ALL of these people without Going Full Orwell in one way or another.
And if scientific knowledge with dangerous applications is freely available, it's only a matter of time before some nutter applies it very skillfully indeed.
We could just accept this as the cost of a net-positive policy of open access to knowledge. A nuke detonation or two per century might actually be a cost worth paying for this open access.
But what happens when somebody figures out how to make a black hole? Or the optimal pathogen? Or blow up the sun?
Argument against consilience:ReplyDelete
The sciences and the humanities are two (or multiple) codesbases, each with perhaps different coding languages. Separate to a large degree in their development and purposes, but overlap in their interactions.
> Do you imagine that values are based upon something fundamentally different than our best inferences about the facts and best guesses about the consequences of applying them? If so, what? <
I’ve written extensively about morality and its differences from ethics. Feel free to peruse the site accordingly.
good question about public intellectualism:
> Now, an essay goes online and there are rebuttals, some even cogent, within a week. If we limited our term PI to someone whose arguments get broad agreement from smart, well-informed people, then it's over. Isn't' it? <
No, I don’t think it is. Indeed, the game’s gotten better. Pinker does, I think, qualify as a public intellectual, in the sense of being an academically trained broad thinker who wants to engage the public on the big questions. The fact that others can write and publish thoughtful responses within hours should be considered an advancement and expansion of public intellectualism, not an end to it.
> I think rather than being inconsistent in his treatment of vaccines and atomic weaponry, he was making the point that science itself is ethically neutral, but that there's no reason that it has to have a dark side. <
Yes, I’m sure he thinks that. But that’s a rather naive take on science as a social human activity. Perhaps science aims at the ideal of moral neutrality, but it’s record is anything but. Nor should we expect things to be otherwise. Which means that scientists can take credit for their accomplishments, but ought to take the blame for the blunders that they made possible.
> I must admit that I also disagree about the global warming example. It comes from outdated technology, and technology has already advanced to the point that we could deal with that specific problem. <
Even if you are right (and I think you’re being optimistic here), my point stands: science is to (partially) blame for the original problem, even if we’ll need (more, better) science to solve it.
> Is parapsychology a science? What about memetics? <
Nope and borderline, respectively.
That's absolutely fair, then. I really wonder how many of these disagreements are simply misunderstandings due to the inconsistent use of terms. If that's the case, I think the ownness is on the scientists to learn to use them properly.Delete
> the use of the word 'denier' and the claim that the change in climate being referred to is obviously due to technology. <
At this point, given the evidence, I think both are correct.
> 'Denier' dismisses the possibility that one is ignorant of the evidence or is simply unconvinced. <
If one is unconvinced despite the evidence, then one is a denier. If without evidence, then one is ignorant, which isn’t much better.
> With respect to climate change, I place the blame entirely on science. <
I blame anti-government libertarianism and religious fundamentalism.
> those same scientists then suggest that religion is bad and there is no God which then makes it appear that science is aimed at destroying God <
Didn’t realize Dawkins had written about climate change...
> I'd bet my wife and kid that 90%+ people have no idea what the arguments for human caused climate change even are! <
And they probably have no idea of how to clean their teeth. That’s why they go to the dentist. It’s a question of trust and expertise, as you point out.
this is obviously a complex discussion, but I never understood this sort of statement:
> Being able to generate knowledge and having it are clearly something to count as a positive regardless of whether the knowledge is then used to good or evil ends. <
It reflects, I’m sorry to say, a surprisingly naive view of social and power relations. There is no such thing as neutral knowledge, as was recognized as early as Bacon. Which means that scientists do have a moral responsibility for their discoveries, including what to do research on and how to communicate it to the public.
> we could easily imagine a world in which scientists have discovered how to build a nuclear bomb but nobody would think of ever using one <
Or a world in which scientists decide not to build it at all...
> How would you expect the individual scientist to deal with the reality of "human power relations"? <
The same way we all do: having a conversation among themselves and with other interested parties, a conversation that ought to begin with the acknowledgement that they have ethical responsibilities and can’t hide behind a “I’m morally neutral agent” defense. As you know, by the way, there are national and worldwide scientific organizations that do this, establishing guidelines for ethical research in a variety of fields.
> you don't blame an axe for what is being done with it either. <
Boy, does that sound a lot like the American mantra of “guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” And the comparison ain’t flattering at all.
The humanities major who becomes a romance novelist will write a steamy novel based on the career of Governor Eliot Spitzer and sell a million copies. The psychology major who enters family practice will often encounter situations where career men in their midlife with menopausal wives often look outside their marriage for sexual fulfillment and youthful excitement.ReplyDelete
Political historians will celebrate Lincoln as the great emancipator and fulfiller of the goals of the great abolitionist movement. Economic historians will mark the American Civil War as the turning point of America's conversion from an agricultural economy to an industrial economy which rendered legal slavery in every modern 19th century civilization unnecessary. In today's modern world more teenage girls are enslaved in the sexual slave trade than the people enslaved in the 19th Century American South. On Friday the premiere of the Steve Jobs movie celebrates a great technological visionary who's company profitted from low wage Asian labor etc.
I think Pinker might be on to something here..The march of technology and science has little to do with the Humanities being behind the curve anymore than pouring water into the glass makes it half empty.
Maybe I am naive, but I have never understood in what sense "water consists of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom" or "this is what we are currently doing to the climate" are non-neutral knowledge (maybe even patriarchal or imperialist knowledge?). There is knowledge over here, and there is the decision of what we make of it over there.
It is easy to point an accusing finger at scientists for coming up with a way of killing people but in reality only those things get implemented that society as a whole tolerates. You will notice, for example, that Japan managed to get rid of guns a couple centuries ago when they did not like what it did to warfare and social structure.
("They", of course, always and everywhere primarily being the ruling classes, but they would not be ruling much longer if the peasantry were to get seriously miffed, even under feudalism. The point is that we all share this responsibility, not only the inventors, and singling them out is particularly silly because they are not even the rulers and somebody else would have made the same invention anyway, only later.)
> Boy, does that sound a lot like the American mantra of “guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” And the comparison ain’t flattering at all.
Well, at the core this sentence is correct (with the caveat that it would be much harder for the latter to kill if they did not have former).
But don't get me wrong, I like my countries with very few guns, and the analogy is actually supporting my case: The problem is *not* that somebody invented the gun, the problem is that the laws are such that every wacko who wants to have one can buy it easily. That is about 0.000001% (tops) the responsibility of some long dead inventor and 99.999999% that of the American electorate.
>Maybe I am naive, but I have never understood in what sense "water consists of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom" or "this is what we are currently doing to the climate" are non-neutral knowledge (maybe even patriarchal or imperialist knowledge?). There is knowledge over here, and there is the decision of what we make of it over there.Delete
Non-neutrality is not a characteristic of the knowledge; it's a characteristic of the action of making that knowledge known. That action has some expected utility, and if it's negative (or carries some probability of a very negative outcome), there is an ethical question about whether to shut up about it, or perhaps take further steps (such as silencing others).
Yes, there is a game-theoretic problem here with respect to "will other people publish anyway". This is not an easy problem to deal with. But it is also not a license to ignore the expected consequences of one's invention, any more than "If I don't steal it, somebody else will" would excuse stealing.
Sorry but this analogy is even less helpful than the one with the guns. If I have an opportunity to steal something and don't steal it, there is every reason to assume that the problem is solved because most people are honest and/or don't want to get into trouble. If the item is lying around very invitingly, I could point that out to the owner and the problem is now very clearly solved.Delete
In the case of knowledge, somebody else will discover it full stop. There is simply no way around it unless you think that all discoveries are made by one-in-a-millennium geniuses, which is quite clearly not an accurate description of research. It is simply not the case that everything will be stolen anyway, but it is the case that another scientist in China or Germany is about as clever as a scientist in the USA who decides not to pursue a given avenue of research.
The best one could do is decide whether to make it open (so that everybody has it) or to patent it (so that nobody can use it for some time), but if the scientist in question is working for a company or agency that takes this decision out of their hands then the naivité is on the side of the person who thinks that the scientist must always be expected to do the right thing (i.e. do something that will get them fired and lose their family's livelihood).
>In the case of knowledge, somebody else will discover it full stop.Delete
This is plausible. So let me construct a little argument.
(a) If a piece of scientific knowledge can be discovered, it will.
(b) Some pieces of scientific knowledge are dangerous, to the extent that they represent extinction risks for humanity.
(c) By (a) these dangerous pieces of knowledge will certainly be discovered.
(d) After they are discovered, somebody will probably apply them.
(e) The human species will probably go extinct or suffer catastrophic setbacks because of scientific knowledge.
This is a straightforward empirical prediction. I think in order to challenge it, you have to either say that there is very little dangerous knowledge (but I can think of a few EXTANT examples), or that it probably won't be applied (which seems wildly optimistic about human sanity), or that none of it is as dangerous as one might think (but is there any reason to expect the laws of nature to be exactly safe enough not to kill the biosphere of Terra?).
I write all this because if discoveries are as inevitable as you think, and some are probably extinction-level deadly, then this makes a prima facie case for Stopping All Science.
(b) and (d) both appear to be weak links here. Inventing flint stone axes is an extinction risk if we are willing to use them to bash each others heads in until only one of us is left. So while your argumentation is technically correct, it is trivial.Delete
The point is that it does not morally matter whether we know how to do harm but whether we actually do harm. Indeed one can easily imagine cases where knowing how harm can be done is necessary to minimize it. (Only once you know that you can poison horses with Colchicum autumnale you will think of checking whether the fodder contains any.)
I agree with many of your criticisms of Pinker on particular points, but when I went to read Pinker's actual article, his "scientism" struck me as very mild. His core claim, it seems to me, is just that "scientific" methods (whatever he takes those to be) have the potential to *supplement* (though not replace) the humanities in various respects. His main target of attack seems to be people who think that the sciences are somehow *antagonistic* to the humanities, or rather, that the humanities are somehow hermetically sealed off from the sciences. He's not denying that popular science writers (and scientists themselves) sometimes overblow the findings of, say, neuroscience. Nor does he seem to deny room for distinctively philosophical reasoning (he says, for example, that scientific findings don't dictate our values).ReplyDelete
Yes, it's disappointing that he chose to engage such an unsophisticated opponent, but there *are* such people out there (in the academy and popular media), so it's not totally unreasonable to address them. I suspect that, if he were to engage with someone like you, there would actually be a lot of agreement about the relationship between philosophy and science.
Having said all that, I think the biggest problems with Pinker's piece have to do with the other issues you pointed out, such as his comments about the social impact of science, and the purpose of the academy (which seems to be all about producing "exciting research"). It's too bad that he confusingly conflates all these issues in one piece.
P.S: I've been reading your blog for a few months now, and while I often find a lot to disagree with, I really appreciate that you engage with your readers in the comments. Thanks.
> Nope and borderline, respectively. <
Do you think it is possible that Steven Pinker has been infected with the "scientism" meme? And that he might be spreading this pernicious virus to other people in the skeptical community?
> I think Pinker might be on to something here..The march of technology and science has little to do with the Humanities being behind the curve anymore than pouring water into the glass makes it half empty. <
That seems quite a non sequitur to me. The very concept of the humanities being "behind the curve" compared to science is a fallacy. It assumes that there is a single metric measuring the advancement, or worth, of science, arts, philosophy, sociology and so forth. What on earth would make anyone think that?
> There is knowledge over here, and there is the decision of what we make of it over there. <
And I think that's a false dichotomy, because knowledge is always pursued with aims, has implications, and takes up resources. All decisions that have moral valence. Of course there are plenty of specific pieces of empirical knowledge - such as water's chemical formula is H2O - that don't have the sort of implications we are talking about here. But notice that that wasn't the sort of example Pinker had in mind: he invoked vaccines and the like; the counter to that are nuclear and biological weapons, not the molecular structure of water.
> It is easy to point an accusing finger at scientists for coming up with a way of killing people but in reality only those things get implemented that society as a whole tolerates <
I'm sorry, can you point me to where I wrote that I think scientists are the only morally responsible agents here?
> [on guns and killing people] Well, at the core this sentence is correct <
Yes, but only in a very narrow sense, a sense that misses the point of the broader discussion on the moral responsibilities of gun manufacturers and owners.
> His core claim, it seems to me, is just that "scientific" methods (whatever he takes those to be) have the potential to *supplement* (though not replace) the humanities in various respects <
If that were the case, and if I were Pinker, I wouldn't have started out by invoking Sam Harris has an example of misguided accusations of scientism.
> His main target of attack seems to be people who think that the sciences are somehow *antagonistic* to the humanities <
Maybe, but if so he was suspiciously lacking in details. Who, exactly, are these people? And what, precisely, are they saying?
And you appreciation of the blog is much appreciated.
> Do you think it is possible that Steven Pinker has been infected with the "scientism" meme <
Well, since I don't believe in memes, I guess my answer would have to be no...
> Well, since I don't believe in memes, I guess my answer would have to be no... <
Why do you think sales and marketing directors at Fortune 500 and Global 1000 companies are investing major capital in "viral marketing" strategies? Do you think it is possible that they might have been infected with the "meme" meme?
> Yes, but only in a very narrow sense, a sense that misses the point of the broader discussion on the moral responsibilities of gun manufacturers and owners.Delete
Agreed, but I note that even you did not add the term "inventor" to the list of people whose moral responsibility is relevant at this moment.
That the owners are responsible for what they do with the guns is part of what I tried to say, but that much is also very clear. On the other hand, I find it harder to assign a lot of blame to the manufacturers or sellers. Given the free market and the permission to sell guns, they are forced to manufacture and sell as many as possible. If they did not, they would be failing at the job they are being paid for and they would be replaced with others more willing to do it, and if not their companies would go bust and be replaced with others more willing to do it.
Again, this is a perfect example of where the buck really stops. There are precisely two actors to be blamed: whoever decreed that we should leave important decisions to the blind forces of the glorious free market and whoever wrote the gun laws. Which is generally only one actor: the sovereign, in a democracy meaning the electorate, meaning all of us together.
The same applies to everything science comes up with, be it GMOs, new chemicals, gene testing, information technologies, you name it. Many of them can be used for very different things, and it is incumbent on us to outlaw abuses instead of telling a scientist they should not have invented, for example, a medically useful gene test because it is now abused by insurance companies.
"That seems quite a non sequitur to me. The very concept of the humanities being "behind the curve" compared to science is a fallacy. It assumes that there is a single metric measuring the advancement, or worth, of science, arts, philosophy, sociology and so forth. What on earth would make anyone think that?"ReplyDelete
I see your point but I think the biggest metric in my original post was the mass market of humanity which drives science, technology and industrialization. Although you think Pinker took the "rheotorical gamble" I think he was being overly gracious. Yes; I agree with Pinker and think "Descartes, Spinoza, Hobbes, Locke, Hume, Rousseau, Leibniz, Kant, and Smith" were more than just "humanity thinkers" of their day who also thought they were technical thinkers because they owned iPhones and iPads; but rather they WERE good technical scientific thinkers as well. If you think being a modern computer programmer is challenging, try being Beethoven who wrote symphonies.
"But it is precisely the sort of rhetoric that justly pisses off people in the humanities"...well so be it because the GREAT philosophers, composers, poets and authors of past centuries WERE the modern thinkers of their day. Even the church in all of its wealth was no scandal since the church was the advancer of education, wealth and modern civilization. Cathederals were the most modern and advanced structures in the skyline.
Nobody disagrees on criticism about the drawbacks of science but please explain to me why the humanities get a free ride?
>If you think being a modern computer programmer is challenging, try being Beethoven who wrote symphonies.<
Is that a valid comparison? And so what? All good work tests the boundaries of our capabilities, in whatever field.
>Nobody disagrees on criticism about the drawbacks of science but please explain to me why the humanities get a free ride?<
The post is about scientism, or the extension of science to inappropriate domains. So its intent is not to discuss shortcomings in humanities. That does not mean the humanities get a free ride, only that they are not the subject of discussion.
Peter, Thank you for the reply. I smell a strawman here, is there really a scientism?Delete
If the humanities are not the subject of discussion, why does Pinker's mention of the philosophers supposedly "piss off" members of the humanities according to Massimo?
I think Pinker's point was the philosophers were modern men of their day who embraced science and would likely embrace today's science as well.
>I think Pinker's point was the philosophers were modern men of their day who embraced science and would likely embrace today's science as well.<
Of course, who would not? And so what? The great majority of informed people in the developed world embrace science. Embracing science is not the point. The appearance of the scientific method in the late 1500s was a radical change in outlook. Society needed time to absorb such changes, unsurprisingly. Some accepted the changes earlier than others, possessing no doubt, a keener insight. I must admit though that there is a today a disturbing trend towards what Damian Thompson calls 'counterknowledge', which involves not just science but other domains of knowledge. There are complex reasons for this but that is another debate.
The point rather is that the huge success of science has seduced some into thinking that it can solve problems outside its domain. There are boundaries to empirical science, delimiting its reach. Other forms of enquiry take over in such areas. If you don't think scientism exists then you very likely believe that science embraces all domains and then you are in fact a 'scientismist', or as I prefer to call it, a scientologist(lower case s).
I'd just like to link here to Scott Alexander's essay I Myself Am A Scientismist. (Scott is a LessWrong regular and a member of their social circles. He's a medical doctor, aspiring to become a psychiatrist, with a keen appreciation of what science has done for medicine in the past century.)ReplyDelete
It strikes me that Pinker's essay is also a way to suggest that those who attack his favored fields of evolutionary psych, behavioral genetics, etc., are simply anti-science, while much of the criticism against these fields is that they make it too easy to publish bad science. He says that science can be used to explain anything, but that science (as in, our current knowledge of science) does not understand or explain everything equally well.
The term "scientism" seems to be associated for some reason with groups who are creationist or otherwise anti-science. Maybe we need a better word to describe those who jump on the bandwagon whenever they hear any scientific finding about society or about human values or behavior, but without thinking critically about the cultural contexts that shape scientific inquiry. Culture-deniers? Episteme-deniers? Science superfans?
Pinker would hate all this critical thinking about these topics, of course; it sounds too postmodern.
I agree with Massimo that Pinker's essay is very flawed. It underplays the dangers of new technologies, and some of the suggestions for treating literary topics etc. scientifically are (as Massimo suggests) rather stupid.ReplyDelete
There is altogether too much rhetoric and the essay is a conceptual muddle.
Which is a great pity as some of Pinker's points are good and important. One such point is that the scientific mindset – or view of the world – is not just the preserve of scientists. And I think that it does lead to a rejection of traditional religious doctrines and to certain liberal and progressive (though not necessarily leftist) ideas.
Also I have a lot of sympathy with Pinker's view that intellectual and political fashions (and passions and political correctness) within the humanities have precipitated their decline.
I was a bit surprised that Massimo mentioned Michel Foucault in a positive way. Foucault did have a few interesting things to say, but the overall thrust of his work was somewhat problematic and his influence was, arguably, pernicious in some respects.
But I realize there are deep political questions at issue here...
Mark, I think you hit the mark with your first three sentences and might add that aside from and perhaps contributing to the "conceptual muddle" is the quality of the writing itself.Delete
I don't see any reason to think "that intellectual and political fashions . . .within the humanities have precipitated their decline." What decline? What reason do we have to think they are more strongly correlated to those in than humanities? Nor do I think that the "scientific mindset" necessarily leads all scientists "to a rejection of traditional religious doctrines," which I think you'll agree is too general a statement to be really meaningful. Many of my friends who've go on to scientific pursuits have no problems dealing with any cognitive dissonance caused by their scientific inquiries and their faith based religious beliefs. I, on the other hand, have a great deal of difficulty in dealing with this despite my background in the humanities. Go figure.
I don't think Massimo necessarily agrees with Foucault, but may simply recognize that some of the issues he raises are worthy of consideration. But Massimo can tell you how he feels about Foucault, and I'm sure it's much more nuanced that a blanket positive or negative position.
Thomas, I think it is generally accepted that there has been a decline in the humanities in universities over recent decades – in terms of funding and in terms of status. Perhaps I shouldn't have claimed that certain intellectual fashions have been a major cause of that decline, but I do think they have given ammunition to critics.Delete
On the issue of religious belief, I was not talking about scientists specifically but about a scientific view of the world which anybody – scientist or nonscientist – can have. Many traditional religious doctrines are, in my view, clearly incompatible with such a view. Though, as you suggest, not all.
I don't disagree with "decline . . . in terms of funding," but perhaps there are good reasons for funding a scientific study before a humanistic study. That's perhaps is to be expected. Over time, these matters are to some extent self-correcting. But "status" is another matter if only because the humanities present a number of avenues, not available to the more intellectually rigorous nature of the sciences, by which they can be approached by the general public.Delete
It seems interesting to me that a lot of defense against scientism uses phrases like "beyond science," or "outside the bounds of science." I think that these phrases are technically correct often in their application, but carry a certain insinuation that makes scientists, science enthusiasts, and myself uncomfortable. Why not say "below science"? I'm not saying that the humanities are less important that science, but if scientists said that they were below science, I think those in the humanities wouldn't be happy with it, and the scientists might feel the same way now. I also disagree with Massimo if he's saying that science didn't contribute to the abolition of slavery or other advances in human rights. Major contributing factors to the arguments were facts pointed out by those in favor of the rights. Sure there were scientists and doctors who supported slavery or keeping women from voting, but saying that it was science's fault seems to me like saying that an alchemist who got something wrong was science's fault. Maybe I'm way off with this idea, but since there were Roman philosophers who supported slavery and such, is it possible that once science gets the facts straight, those in the humanities then proceed to fight for the rights? Maybe science is like the initiator, or something. That's just an afterthought.ReplyDelete
>I also disagree with Massimo if he's saying that science didn't contribute to the abolition of slavery or other advances in human rights.<
I am sure they contributed but the contributions were in the trivial sense that communication systems helped make democracy more effective. Technology multiplied human output, making slavery less necessary.
But those were not the reasons that democracy took hold or slavery was abolished. The reasons were the acceptance of moral insights that slavery and tyranny were profoundly unjust.
Science did nothing to create these moral insights, the very idea is absurd.
Similarly the rule of law has over time taken hold in our societies. Forensic science has contributed much but it was never a cause. The rule of law is the result of moral insights and science did not create those moral insights, however much it may help in the administration of justice.
Although I am not a US citizen the one thing I greatly admire about the US is its contribution to charitable work, in particular its tradition of volunteerism. Once again, this is evidence of moral decisions that science did not create.
Naturally science assisted by creating a surplus that could be distributed to the needy and it contributed to the distribution of the surplus. But it never created these moral decisions. So arguing that science contributed, as you do, is only true in a trivial sense.
>It seems interesting to me that a lot of defense against scientism uses phrases like "beyond science," or "outside the bounds of science." I think that these phrases are technically correct often in their application, but carry a certain insinuation that makes scientists, science enthusiasts, and myself uncomfortable.Delete
I believe the connotatively neutral term would be "orthogonal to science".
I see you deleted your embarrassing comment. Good. Perhaps you'll also have the decency to apologize for your intemperance, particularly because it's not the first time.
As explained time and again, I have a life. Which explains why sometimes comments are not posted immediately. Tonight, for instance, while you were fantasizing about being unfairly banned from the blog, I was actually enjoying a nice performance of "I forgive you, Ronald Reagan" on Broadway, followed by a nice dinner out with my companion. I really didn't want to check my email during those three hours. I hope you'll understand.
If I'm not mistaken, you erased one of my comments along with Morgan's. So if that wasn't a ban, I'm banning myself.Delete
That should suit you better than any apology.
No, you are mistaken, and are simply unable to acknowledge your paranoia. If you want to ban yourself (whatever that means), it's your choice. But don't blame imaginary censorship on my part.Delete
On the positive side, after seeing comments on the same piece elsewhere, the comments here do tend to be more thoughtful and constructive.Delete
(a dialog humbly inspired in recent M. M.'s harsh style)
I don't really like that bureaucratic way of contemplating the human world, simply because it doesn't work: some are scientists, some philosophers, some artists, some technicians and the rest, perhaps just laborers. Other than minute differences, we are all laborers, or even scientists, who knows if just artists or still philosophers. In fact we are all knowing entities. Can someone point me out any form of life that is free from knowing no matter what and in its specific knowing way?
You may say: are you telling me that an amoeba knows?
Yes, I am, and indeed it does, perhaps, luckily, not in the way you do; it knows, for instance, that your guts are a nice place to live and strives to stay there until expelled or you die. It's luck is most certainly not need a brain as big as yours to simply know what is necessary to live as much as it can, for, anyway, nothing is truly eternal. Then we must know, no matter how, no matter what (even that we are mere pawns doing hard to make someone else's wealth). So, isn't it simpler to say, yes I study the subjects of physics, or of metaphysics, or of sociology, or music etc?
No, this is not an accurate way to state things: we have sciences and not-sciences, because not-sciences, for instance, don't experiment.
Don't experiment what? What do you think I'm doing here, among you guys, if not experimenting all the time? Is there any way of living without experimenting?
You're mixing things, lad, for one thing is experimenting and the other experiencing.
Well, you say that there is experiencing, e.g. life, without experimenting? If so, you must be that one people call God if in life you always hit in the first attempt; I, myself, often try hard before rarely hitting. That nomenclature, in short, doesn't seem to explain much and in addition is source of lots of disagreements. Maybe the only thing that could differentiate us is the rigor, as in daily life you don't often need to be as rigorous as you need in dealing with a nuclear reactor, but even this distinction fails when we find a great deal of careless imprecisions in the works of several so called scientists, as in the cited case of the pharmaceutical industries financing fakes - and not just there.
Finally, I'd say, yes, science - or, if you, guys, prefer, knowledge - is, has ever been and forever will be the only hope, as well as, if meanly done, the sole disgrace. This looks obvious. The rest is just about titling, a means of calling overall attention over us in a social milieu that is unable to find a way out of its own foolishness.
The fact is: a bit humorous - the more I could :( - carefully emulating MM's Mr. Hyde's behavior, but I truly am sure of what I wrote yesterday. How can one dispute on what kind of knowledge is more important than another if all do good? Just a badly used knowledge deserves being avoided and not necessarily because it is bad knowledge, but because it's being meanly applied.Delete
to be cont.
Bill Raybar wrote yesterday too: "Religion is the most important thing to many people." Yes, it is, and what about thousands of years frightening people, humiliating, killing them? How can humankind endure so long such a row of sufferings and keep believing religion is something good? I risk an answer to this last question: because being aware of their unavoidable death, human beings, as a last resource, try to secure a good place in the afterlife. However not everything that has being done by religion is indeed evil, we all know, especially this good afterlife grant that helps who is unable to see things from another perspective. As a way to organize knowledge, religion seems to behave like what I above said about knowledge: well applied, good, badly, bad.
In some sense, although apparently crazy, the religious systems also have served another thing very important: they prevented their believers from going mad with the perspective of death, they taught them to accept what is inevitable. And from our modern side, the science's one, what do we have? Challenge to death, in spite of people continue to die. Yes, longevity, several diseases defeated, a number of physical comforts never experienced before, yes, all this and much more came with science - I'd prefer to say, with knowledge. Yes, because the human rights, as an example, used by Massimo, is a feat of knowledge - of a kind of science, if you prefer -, as well as democracy and the loathing for slavery. And I am not as sure as some people about whether all those feats, I mean, all conquests of knowledge would be done by just one science without the help of the others. I make myself clear: it's possible that longevity statistically increased by means of sanitation, better medicine etc, but it's likely that these features had a hand (and what a hand!) from the fall or the taming of monarchies since the late XVIII century, from the abhorrence of slavery etc, in short, from the possibility of exercising the own self in ways always fancied by and never allowed to us humans. I have no doubt that happiness is still the only elixir of long life ever.
And so science is nowadays promising not just longevity, not just comfort and unending fun (not necessarily a happy 'fun'): it is promising eternity, immortality, not the soul's, like religion, but the body's. So, the dialogue starts again by you saying: but this is not science which promises immortality; at least it is not good science (as we can't sanely say, for instance, that Dr. Singularity isn't a scientist - and from my side I'm not sure that Google would risk to have a bad scientist in its ranks). All the same, those new promises made by knowledge, if indeed bad, are what matters to a lot of people and, what is worse, they can't be altogether denied, disproved - because they play with scientific possibilities.Delete
Didn't you guys notice some similarities? Some astounding ones? At a side, Christians, the supposedly true ones, claiming that some at the other side are apostates, other just theologians, as opposed, for instance, to pastors or whatever, although all of them are supposed to be at the same side. I believe that university was created as an idea to put together all forms of knowledge, to encourage their cooperation, but with time it comes to just emulate the rush for papacy or for any other stupidity that answers by the name of 'form of power'.
And, my God, we're in a blog page, we're supposed to rehearse something different from the professors' lounge in a college. But no, we keep playing the same game of establishing feuds whose ingress must be authorized by a thorough protocol. Why not, for instance, help the literature theorist become the psychologist he intends to be in his analyses? Do you really believe that in the universe things are different because they are set apart? Well, if so, I'm sure someone will teach me how this works. A point a have for granted: no way to do whatever without a hand from that old lady we call philosophy: in fact we all philosophize, perhaps not like Socrates or Quine, not ever with the best results, but we all do a kind of philosophy whenever we just decide to step forward. What kind of philosophy leads people to think knowledge is fractured to the point of making one of its pieces incommunicable to whom investigates another? I don't know, although the evidence of its inconsistency may be this page itself, in which a scholar tries to harvest all he can from its commentators.
A justified criticism of a distorted plead on Pinker's part. (Were his editors responsible for the bad subtitle of his essay?)ReplyDelete
I sure hope so.Delete
> I see your point but I think the biggest metric in my original post was the mass market of humanity which drives science, technology and industrialization <
I’m not sure how that’s a metric, unless you are suggesting to quantify progress or utility as a popularity context. Then I suggest that reality tv shows are far more important to humanity than science...
> the GREAT philosophers, composers, poets and authors of past centuries WERE the modern thinkers of their day <
I don’t think anyone is disputing that. But Pinker appropriates those thinkers to science, which is obviously anachronistic, and it’s bound to piss people in the humanities off. Not what you want to do, if the goal of your essay is to build bridges.
> Nobody disagrees on criticism about the drawbacks of science but please explain to me why the humanities get a free ride? <
They don’t. Not in my book, at least.
> Why do you think sales and marketing directors at Fortune 500 and Global 1000 companies are investing major capital in "viral marketing" strategies? Do you think it is possible that they might have been infected with the "meme" meme? <
No, because there are no such things as memes. Which doesn’t mean (metaphorically) “viral” publicity campaigns don’t work.
> but I note that even you did not add the term "inventor" to the list of people whose moral responsibility is relevant at this moment. <
I’m sorry if I gave you the impression that I think there are people who are exempt from moral responsibility. There aren’t, though that responsibility is of course proportional to their power and the possible consequences of their actions. But I thought we were talking about science in particular.
> On the other hand, I find it harder to assign a lot of blame to the manufacturers or sellers <
As you know, we drastically disagree on that one.
> Given the free market and the permission to sell guns, they are forced to manufacture and sell as many as possible. <
Ah yes, the free market excuse. The very same one that brought near global financial collapse a few years ago. Please, let’s not go any further in that direction, shall we?
> Which is generally only one actor: the sovereign, in a democracy meaning the electorate, meaning all of us together <
Sorry, but while this is true, your analysis is a bit too simplistic. As I said above, moral responsibility is not equally spread out across the population.
Let me ask you: why is it so difficult for so many scientists to acknowledge that there is something problematic in their discipline, that it isn’t just a pure quest for knowledge? That would put science on par with any other human endeavor. Is that such a bad thing?
> No, because there are no such things as memes. Which doesn’t mean (metaphorically) “viral” publicity campaigns don’t work. <
But that is essentially what I am asking you: Why do you think "viral marketing" works?
Viral marketing is based on memetics.
"The emergence of "viral marketing," as an approach to sales, has been tied to the popularization of the notion that ideas spread like viruses. The field that developed around this notion, MEMETICS, peaked in popularity in the 1990s. As this then began to influence marketing gurus, it took on a life of its own in that new context" (source: Wikipedia: Viral marketing")
> Why not say "below science"? <
I think that spatial metaphor is just as mistaken as talk of “beyond science.” It still traps us into thinking that there is a linear arrangement of fields, where science is either ahead or behind something else. It isn’t. Biology and, say, literature, are largely incommensurable fields. Yes, some cross-talk may be useful, but by and large they are concerned with different issues and deploy different techniques. Can’t we just all get along?
> I also disagree with Massimo if he's saying that science didn't contribute to the abolition of slavery or other advances in human rights. Major contributing factors to the arguments were facts pointed out by those in favor of the rights. <
I don’t have a strong opinion on that specific point, though I’d like to see some evidence for the role of science. Don’t forget that throughout the early part of the scientific revolution, and until well into the 20th century, science was used to justify racism. And it still is today, in certain quarters.
> but saying that it was science's fault seems to me like saying that an alchemist who got something wrong was science's fault. <
See above. Also, it may not have been “science’s fault,” but my contention was rather that a lot of social progress during human history didn’t come from science. Science had little to do with it (as opposed, of course, to technological progress).
> since there were Roman philosophers who supported slavery and such, is it possible that once science gets the facts straight, those in the humanities then proceed to fight for the rights? <
Not that simple, and no, I don’t see any evidence that scientific discoveries let to wider appreciation of human rights.
> I don't think Massimo necessarily agrees with Foucault, but may simply recognize that some of the issues he raises are worthy of consideration. <
Correct. I just think that Foucault’s work on the social and institutional history of insanity is a good counter example to the science-centric view. It is good social criticism, even if done in a style that I have a hard time relating to. And no, this doesn’t mean that I generally endorse Foucault (and much less continental philosophy more broadly).
>I think that spatial metaphor is just as mistaken as talk of “beyond science.”<Delete
That's actually exactly the point that I was making. I know that for pragmatic reasons, the humanities and sciences need different departments in different places, but it seems that the general acquisition of knowledge should be our goal, and that though it is important to acknowledge the demarcations that exist, their importance should be minimized.
>I don’t have a strong opinion on that specific point, though I’d like to see some evidence for the role of science.<
I will admit that I've not employed some method of statistical investigation, but examples like Thomas Fuller are perfect ones in which abolitionists pointed to a case that demonstrated clearly that blacks at least weren't all inherently inferior to whites.
Maybe I'm fundamentally failing to grasp something here, but it really seems to me that if the scientists who supported inequality at the time were correct in their claims, they'd have been much more successful. Despite my best efforts, I guess I just can't stop thinking "Those 'scientists' who made those claims were simply not using science-by definition!" Your claim all along is that science institutions are susceptible to the very same sociological shortcomings that the rest of human activities are, I just am resistant (perhaps mistakenly) to that being called science.
Remember, too, that Foucault was not a relativist. He was concerned with the "science of man" (psychology, pedagogy, economics, law) because of what he called their "low epistemological profile." They are intimately involved with structures of social domination while not having either the rigour of mathematics or the empirical support of the physical sciences. He also called himself a "fortunate postitivst" somewhat jokingly -- suggesting that careful consideration of the materials supported some conclusions and not others. Some social scientists of an activist bent criticize F. for relying on persuasion by presenting shocking scenarios or images (the execution of Damiens, Velasquez's Las Meninas) instead of argument, attempting an apophatic presentation of a concept instead of reasoning out his conclusions. But no blase relativist of the Rorty kind for Foucault.Delete
Sean Carroll weighs in: Let’s Stop Using the Word “Scientism”ReplyDelete
(I did not like his blanket swipe at US senators. It feeds into "they are all the same" know-nothing Republican meme. There are some who are good w.r.t. science, like Franken and Whitehouse.)
Labels are seldom exactly defined. Labels usually convey a host of meanings depending on the user and the context. None of that is new and most of us are pretty adept at discerning the intended meaning.ReplyDelete
But labels are useful which is why they are used all the time. Carroll is as quick to use labels as anyone else until the label sticks on him.
He is just as quick to use strawman arguments as other polemicists (science is not your enemy, I ask you!)
> I know that for pragmatic reasons, the humanities and sciences need different departments in different places, but it seems that the general acquisition of knowledge should be our goal, and that though it is important to acknowledge the demarcations that exist, their importance should be minimized. <
Well, actually, I was going in exactly the opposite direction: "knowledge," to me, is a highly heterogeneous category, which is why we need distinctions rather than a big mush. For instance, mathematical and logical knowledge is independent of empirical evidence, and therefore of science (yes, of course there are mathematical applications in science, but that's not what I mean). Similarly, philosophical reasoning, or art criticism, yield "knowledge" in a very different way from that of, say, astronomical observations or biological experiments.
> examples like Thomas Fuller are perfect ones in which abolitionists pointed to a case that demonstrated clearly that blacks at least weren't all inherently inferior to whites. <
Even granting that, which I have no problem doing since I'm not claiming that science has never helped advance society, it certainly isn't the whole story. And that whole story simply cannot be written without the contribution of the humanities, especially literature and philosophy.
> I guess I just can't stop thinking "Those 'scientists' who made those claims were simply not using science-by definition! <
But that's a True Scotsman kind of argument. At the tie it surely was considered good science, and it had massive social consequences. Hence the need for someone to watch the Watchmen...
> But that is essentially what I am asking you: Why do you think "viral marketing" works? Viral marketing is based on memetics. <
No, it isn't. Despite the Wiki quote, marketing in general, and viral marketing in particular, are the product of standard trial and error in the marketing industry. The meme stuff is simple after the fact window dressing, and calling these things "viral" is simply an analogy, they are not really viruses, obviously.
>Well, actually, I was going in exactly the opposite direction<Delete
I was simply agreeing that we should all get along, the rest of the statement was my own opinion. However, what I said wasn't actually incompatible with what you did.
>that whole story simply cannot be written without the contribution of the humanities, especially literature and philosophy.<
I never denied that. I was trying to illustrate how it takes both to accomplish the progress, at least in some circumstances. I don't think you ever necessarily denied that, I was just pointing it out.
>But that's a True Scotsman kind of argument.<
Only insofar as it smacks of one. It certainly isn't the fallacy, however. I included in the statement that something was the case by definition, whereas someone committing the fallacy would simply include their premise in their argument (I understand it as a subset of circular reasoning). A good analogy is Julia Galef's (I think you two may be acquainted, just perhaps!) straw-Vulcan talk, where Spock wasn't actually being reasonable by definition. Similarly, the scientists of the age simply found facts to confirm what they already thought, like alchemists, but eventually got it right. I think you are correct that there needs to be a Watcher for the Watchers (though, who watches the Watchers of the Watchers?), but I think it's unfair to say that the 'science' of the time had massive social consequences. I highly doubt that that was what made people think it was okay to enslave their fellow humans, and though practicing caused some (or even a lot of) confirmation bias, it opened the investigative doors, it seems to me. I could just be historically ignorant. I'm honestly just trying to discover the correct path for when I'm done with high school.
I do try and follow Masimo's teachings and be less dismissive about the humanities. But there are times my patients run thin.ReplyDelete
Can I least have permission to be dismissive of literary critics who think they are social-psychologists?
> No, it isn't. Despite the Wiki quote, marketing in general, and viral marketing in particular, are the product of standard trial and error in the marketing industry. The meme stuff is simple after the fact window dressing, and calling these things "viral" is simply an analogy, they are not really viruses, obviously. <
And a computer virus is not literally a biological virus. But a computer virus shares some striking similarities with a biological virus that the term "virus" is applicable when referring to one.
By the same token, viral marketing shares some striking similarities with computer viruses and biological viruses that the metaphor "viral" is appropriate to used in referring to this sales strategy.
"Viral marketing, viral advertising, or marketing buzz are buzzwords referring to marketing techniques that use pre-existing social networking services and other technologies to produce increases in brand awareness or to achieve other marketing objectives (such as product sales) through self-replicating viral processes, ANALOGOUS to the spread of viruses or computer viruses (cf. Internet memes and memetics)."
(source: Wikipedia: Viral marketing)
A demarcation oddity: Suppose someone called themself a 'computer scientist'. (They work in a computer science department and publish in computer science journals.) They work with elements of mathematical logic and their field of study is programming language theory ("a branch of computer science that deals with the design, implementation, analysis, characterization, and classification of programming languages and their individual features). They may make new programming languages and test them on a computer (designed by computer engineers). The only science that touches their work is mainly in the physics that went into the silicon technology of the computer they are using. So, they would have to say "I'm a computer scientist, but I'm not a scientist!"ReplyDelete
The problem with 'scientism' per se is that it is autistic: it treats everything in the world as a statement whose truth value is to be determined. It is completely blind to context: for human beings, context is everything.ReplyDelete
Even those products of science -- medicine, technology, etc -- that have had tremendous positive impact on the quality of human life, are only important precisely for that selfsame impact.
The quest for the 'truth' -- whatever 'truth' may mean -- is simply a preference, or in technical terms, a fetish. I would give much higher pride of place to the quest to end suffering, or to the search for pleasure.
> I’m sorry if I gave you the impression that I think there are people who are exempt from moral responsibility. There aren’t, though that responsibility is of course proportional to their power and the possible consequences of their actions. But I thought we were talking about science in particular.ReplyDelete
That is an interesting way of putting it. Do you think that scientists wield such great power in contemporary society? Consequences of somebody's actions, good, but who is really responsible for something bad, whose actions are relevant for the consequences happening: the one who shows a way of doing it or the one who actually does it?
> Let me ask you: why is it so difficult for so many scientists to acknowledge that there is something problematic in their discipline, that it isn’t just a pure quest for knowledge? That would put science on par with any other human endeavor. Is that such a bad thing?
I consider myself to the one who wants to put science on par with other human endeavors. We have to ask: (1) What is the purpose of this tool / method / institution? (2) Does it fulfill that purpose?
The purpose of a toolmaker is to make useful tools. If they are tasked to make a tool for chopping wood, and they come up with a sturdy axe, we congratulate them for what they did. If then somebody goes and uses the axe to kill another human, do we blame the toolmaker? Do we say that toolmaking "has a dark side to it"? Do we say that "there is something problematic in the discipline of toolmaking"? Do we say that he should have anticipated that the axe could be used as a weapon and given us a wet noodle instead when we asked for a tool that could chop wood? "Yes, old chap, next time be a morally responsible craftsman and give us a wet noodle, and we will totes not throw it back into your face and buy an axe from the other shop across the road while your children starve, I swear."
The same for science. There is no intellectual inconsistency in congratulating science for fulfilling its one and only function - generating knowledge - while acknowledging that there are good and bad things that we can do with that knowledge. It is simply not the function of science, nor the job of scientists, to make the decision how the knowledge is used, or whether the public should obtain it. Indeed that would truly be science overreaching, a scientism worthy of the name. Not that it would work, of course, because as mentioned before, there would always be a competing scientist who do pursue what another has walked away from.
So why is it considered appropriate to rubbish science with reference to its supposed "dark side" or "having brought us the gas chambers" but not to rubbish the bottle making industry for "having brought us the Molotov cocktail"? In any case except science, this reasoning would immediately be recognized as asinine.
And yes, the free market - but not so much an excuse of the individual's behavior, more an indictment of the unfettered free market. I am puzzled by your reaction. You make it sound as if you expect that one can deliberately build a system that strongly incentivizes short-sighted, selfish, even illegal behavior, and then, after it all goes pear-shaped, point a finger at those who acted on those incentives and say, "if only all of you without exception had been good little moral philosophers and utterly unselfish, no financial crisis would have happened, therefore it is your personal fault and not at all that of the people who decided to built those incentives into the system".ReplyDelete
Of course people who do bad and stupid things should be held responsible (that would *be* the better rules that are needed). But one has to be careful about using them as a convenient target of anger while leaving the system unchanged that makes the arrival of the next crop of bad and stupid actors unavoidable. The real fault is ultimately with those who wrote the rules. And in a democracy, as painful as that realization is, that is all of us, not only some shadowy evil men in suits.
> And a computer virus is not literally a biological virus. But a computer virus shares some striking similarities with a biological virus that the term "virus" is applicable when referring to one. <
Correct. Unlike memes, as I explained before on this blog.
> I think it's unfair to say that the 'science' of the time had massive social consequences <
Well, that depends on what one means by “massive.” The consequences of racism are often difficult to quantify, particularly because they are obviously the result of many causes. But those of eugenics in the US are a bit easier: tens of thousands of people forcefully castrated based on the best scientific consensus of the time. I call that pretty massive.
But we are pretty much in agreement on much else you say.
> Do you think that scientists wield such great power in contemporary society? <
Absolutely. You can measure that power in terms of social prestige, on monetarily, as in the billions we spend every year on scientific research.
> the one who shows a way of doing it or the one who actually does it? <
Both? And I don’t think it is that straightforward — as you seem to imply — that the latter’s responsibility is much greater than the former. After all, without the former the latter couldn’t act at all.
> If they are tasked to make a tool for chopping wood, and they come up with a sturdy axe, we congratulate them for what they did. <
You seriously think this is a good analogy with atomic and biological weapons?
> It is simply not the function of science, nor the job of scientists, to make the decision how the knowledge is used, or whether the public should obtain it. <
How convenient. And how widely understood to be wrong, at least since Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
> Not that it would work, of course, because as mentioned before, there would always be a competing scientist who do pursue what another has walked away from. <
See Ian’s comment about the analogy of “well, I better steal myself, or someone else will.”
> why is it considered appropriate to rubbish science with reference to its supposed "dark side" or "having brought us the gas chambers" but not to rubbish the bottle making industry for "having brought us the Molotov cocktail"? <
Again, really bad analogy. Bottles are not designed as weapons, atomic and biological *weapons* are. Eugenics and racist biology were other interesting cases of clear moral responsibility on the part of scientists.
> one has to be careful about using them as a convenient target of anger while leaving the system unchanged that makes the arrival of the next crop of bad and stupid actors unavoidable. <
Oh, I completely agree. And yet somehow we derive very different conclusions from that premise...
> it seems Massimo (see his reply to me below) thinks people should just trust the experts. Well if an expert tells me to floss my teeth, fine, that makes sense. When an expert tells me I need heart surgery, he needs to tell me why and it better make sense to me! <
Actually, I’d say the other way around. You may or may not floss your teeth, relatively little hangs in the balance. But if a brain surgeon says it’s time to operate, your *only* sensible recourse is to ask for a second opinion — from another brain surgeon, i.e. from another expert.
I completely forgot about the U.S. eugenics. That's a fair point, and I will concede it.Delete
> Correct. Unlike memes, as I explained before on this blog. <
And memes are like genes in the sense that they both share the evolutionary attributes of a replicator. That is, they are heritable, variable (or changeable), and selectable.
We seem to have very different perceptions of what power is. We also spend billions on the national militaries. Does that mean that a soldier has a lot of power over, either over society or over what they can decide to do professionally?ReplyDelete
I see that we are rapidly flitting between examples and analogies now. First, the vast majority of scientific insights are like the bottles or axes: you can do this or that with them. Think chemistry ultimately used for gas chambers or gene tests ultimately used to deny insurance coverage.
Second, yes, weapons are only for killing. Still here we have to take the logic of competition into account (and thanks, but stealing is not a good analogy, see above): nations war with each other, and you do not very long have reason to be proud of your moral fibre as demonstrated by keeping the discovery of gunpowder a secret when the enemy that could have been repelled with its help has just slaughtered (or worse) your entire family and torched your village.
Consider under what circumstances scientists decided to develop the nuclear bomb, for starters. It looks less important with the benefit of hindsight because Germany was bound to lose anyway, but honestly, when apparently faced with the decision to blow up Berlin or condemn the entire planet to rule under a genocidal white supremacist dictatorship, what do you pick? In the long run, the first option comes with a considerably lower body count.
Finally, eugenics etc are the only areas that I grant, but not because people jumped on it to justify discriminatory laws but because this was scientists getting the science wrong, which is what matters when judging science. If they had been better scientists, there would have been no racist biology. But even if large differences in intelligence between sexes or races could be demonstrated, would you vote to suppress that inconvenient knowledge or would you say, with me, so what, we are all still humans and deserve the same rights?
And already I stepped into the trap, unfortunately. What I should have said is that science is not about building weapons, just as bottle making is not about building Molotov cocktails. Science is about producing knowledge, and it should be judged by whether it is good at doing that. The analogy holds.ReplyDelete
> And memes are like genes in the sense that they both share the evolutionary attributes of a replicator. That is, they are heritable, variable (or changeable), and selectable. <
Except that memes, unlike genes, don’t exist.
> We seem to have very different perceptions of what power is. We also spend billions on the national militaries. Does that mean that a soldier has a lot of power over, either over society or over what they can decide to do professionally? <
No, but the military as an institution does. And are you really comparing the quasi-mindless and subject to strict hierarchical control operations of a soldier to the highly intellectually sophisticated and independent ones of a scientist?
> the vast majority of scientific insights are like the bottles or axes <
Yes, but this isn’t a numbers game. My criticism is about that part of science that *doesn’t* follow in that category. Which, by the way, is larger than you think, once you start including all the money that flows to scientific research from the Department of Defense, for instance.
> weapons are only for killing. Still here we have to take the logic of competition into account <
That’s a very long and complex issue, perhaps best left for another post. The fact remains, moral responsibility is part of the equation.
> eugenics etc are the only areas that I grant, but not because people jumped on it to justify discriminatory laws but because this was scientists getting the science wrong <
I often hear this defense of the eugenics debacle, and don’t buy it. I don’t think it was a question of getting the science wrong: if trait X is partially inherited and you want to decrease its frequency in the population, then selecting against is what you want to do. It’s the whole idea of treating human beings as cattle that is repugnant.
> Science is about producing knowledge, and it should be judged by whether it is good at doing that. The analogy holds. <
I don’t think so, because knowledge is not morally neutral — again, as Bacon famously realized four hundred years ago.
I’m afraid this will be my last comment on this thread, the Islamophobia post is out...
> Except that memes, unlike genes, don’t exist. <
This is tantamount to saying that "words don't exist." Of course, we know that words really do exist by virtue of the fact that we are able to verbally communicate with each other. And by the way, "words" qualify as memes. They're heritable, variable, and selectable.
As far as more traditional social scientist (whatever that means) I will comment for now only on memes and to point out that social science already has a concept that is, for all real purposes, basically the same as memes. Those are social constructs. Other than Dawkins' analogy to genes and his comment on their virus like quality (which are fairly trivial once properly considered), I see little difference between the two especially when you consider how wide both terms can and have been used and appropriated for.ReplyDelete
Except of course that memeticists have tried the much more difficult task of trying to explain their constructions using psychological mechanisms. Or at least, so goes the theory. As far as their success goes... well, over some things it is best kept silent.
Anyway, these arguments do have a strange postmodernist - nay, poststructuralist bent to them. Infamously there was nothing outside of the text, similarly, is there anything outside of the meme?
Pascal Boyer has also criticised meme theory for describing the transmission of ideas based on the qualities of the meme itself, rather than the interaction of the meme and the mind. Such interaction is far more complicated than simple reproduction. He positis distinct mental modules that are differentially activated by a concept, with the meme being reworked and repurposed for that mind's interaction with others. The "virulence" of a creed or dogma is not really analogous to a virus' capacity to infect a body. A concept must stand out enough to get a mind's focus, and those ideas which are minimally counterintuitive but do not violate to extensively a mind's familar presuppositions are more likely to be retained, as experiments have demonstrated. A concept, unlike a meme, can be thought of as an "app" for making inferences. A concept is not just a static representation that is stored, reproduced, and transmitted. The meme cannot do all of the work.Delete
"I’m not sure how that’s a metric, unless you are suggesting to quantify progress or utility as a popularity context. Then I suggest that reality tv shows are far more important to humanity than science..."ReplyDelete
Interesting points. The history of the performing arts were not art for art's sake but were a re-creation of reality when there was no recorded entertainment media to convey message to the masses. Likewise with no cinema or surround sound theatres for experience, the cathederal and stage were the modern edifices which provided human experience. Seriously
"America's Funniest Home Videos" and "Caught on Camera" don't replace Macbeth but the cable journalists are the modern performers if you've watched Aaron Sorkin's "Newsroom" on HBO. Lead character anchorman Will McEvoy sits there and
experiences the insane behind the scenes experiences of the newsroom staff
as well as the insanity of his own life but when the camera is on he has to perform sane calm and collected as he delivers the news and interviews guests. Yes Massimo, "Reality TV" cable journalism full of live HDTV images and talking commentators has become the new performing arts of performance in the live matrix and once in a while ordinary citizens get to select their new mate or find out they've been secretly working with their big boss for several days.
Does science have a place investigating the religious mind? Well if you believe the cathederal was not just a monument to God but a re-creation of the human mind and the human person, then science has a place delving deeper into our human nature, our human minds, our human psychology... in search of something cosmic or divine. The humanities and religion were always modern inventions of their day and the problem is keeping them modern today.
What is it like to be Kant?ReplyDelete
Friends, Scientists, rational thinkers, lend me your ears;
I come to bury Philosophy, not to praise it.
The evil that sciences do lives after them;
The good is oft interred with their bones;
So let it be with Philosophy. The noble Pinker
Hath told you Philosophy was ambitious:
If it were so, it was a grievous fault;
And grievously hath Pinker answer'd it.
Here, under leave of Pinker and the rest, —
For Pinker is an honorable man;
So are they all, all honorable men, —
Come I to speak at Philosophy's funeral.
It was my friend, thought-provoking and entertaining to me:
But Pinker says it was ambitious;
And Pinker is an honorable man.
I agree there are pitfalls to scientism but to set it as the antithesis of humanities is fallacious. Humanities also has huge problems with dogmatic adherence to orthodoxy and over-reach through reductionist thinking.ReplyDelete
Fantastic article! I myself am so tired of scientistic aspie's pretending they know anything about history, philosophy, or the like. They're good at what they do, and terrible at everything outside of that.ReplyDelete
Dear Dr. Pigliucci,ReplyDelete
I translated a couple of selected paragraphs in this article into my native language, Korean, to provide a counterpart opinion against Pinker's and posted it in my blog (http://floweredbrain.wordpress.com: The direct link to the post is http://goo.gl/7drVSY).
Although I nailed down a link directing to this page that the excerpted translation was originally come from, I was still wondering if such excerpted translations violate copyright. The foremost purpose of running this translation blog is for my own learning, however, now I'm starting to have a few readers and guessing this blog could work like a personal media. So, I'm hoping to make things clear to prevent any bad situations related to copyright issue in the future.
Here I would like to ask your permission on translating some parts of your article formally; however, if it is not allowed by your policy, I would switch that post into private status immediately. Please let me know about this issue -- I'll look forward to your reply.
the policy for reprinting material from RS is explained on the upper right side of the site, under the Creative Commons license agreement. Cheers!
I appreciate that!