The Empire of Scientism Strikes Back

by Sean Miller

2 November 2015

Despite what Steven Pinker has claimed in his epic debate with Leon Wieseltier in The New Republic, science is less Theory of Everything and more Harper's "Findings".

In the summer of 2013, Steven Pinker, the chaired Harvard professor of psycholinguistics and bestselling author of popular psychology, engaged in a heated debate in the pages of The New Republic with its literary editor at the time, Leon Wieseltier. The debate took place in three hefty articles, starting with Pinker’s shot across the bow, “Science Is Not Your Enemy”, then Wieseltier’s rebuttal, “Crimes Against Humanities”, and finally, yet inconclusively, a lightning round, “Science vs. the Humanities, Round III”.

In the debate, Pinker plumps for the awesome power of science. He suggests that a “consilience” between science and the humanities just might rehabilitate the humanities, if humanists would stop shooting themselves in the foot. Wieseltier’s exasperated rejoinder boils down to, “go fuck yourself”.

I’m two years late to the party. But I’d like to take advantage of this platform for cultural criticism to weigh in on the debate, one that remains as urgent as ever, and on which Pinker and Wieseltier, however authoritative, by no means have a duopoly.

Rereading the three essays recently, it felt like I was bearing witness to the cinematic clash of two massive stop-motion dinosaurs, a death match between Tyrannosaurus and Allosaurus. Pinker, the Tyrannosaurus, embodies science, the ostensive king of the academic realm, while Wieseltier, the Allosaurus, represents the humanities, which have been relegated to the status of the allo, or beleaguered other. To perhaps stretch the analogy to its breaking point, as a witness on the fringes of the skirmish, I’m the proto-rat, scurrying in the shadows of the giant predators’ talons, keen not to get stomped.

But I’m also biding my time, since—we all know how the story goes—that scraggly mammalian ancestor must surely, if vaguely, intuit that the agonists in this clash are doomed to irrelevance.

Pinker would seem to have had the last laugh. As you may know, The New Republic is a century-old stalwart of the American Fourth Estate, a venerated bastion of rigorous intellectual liberalism. In 2012, Chris Hughes, a co-founder of Facebook and newly minted member of the technocratic elite, bought the magazine. In 2014, he and the magazine’s CEO, Guy Vidra, forced out its editor-in-chief, Franklin Foer, as part of a plan to rebrand the magazine as a “vertically integrated digital-media company”. In solidarity with the ancien régime, Wieseltier threw himself on his own sword. Meanwhile, Pinker continues to prosper in his plum post as Johnstone Family Professor in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University and as a prominent public champion of popular science writ large.

There’s no denying that the men are both impressively erudite. They each unleash a dazzling array of rhetorical moves to smite the arguments of their opponent. But amidst all their eloquent posturing, something is lost. It may, on first impression, seem like a trivial point, but its implications are legion. And it contributes, in no small part, to the unfortunate result that both wind up merely shouting past each other. If they had made this one trivial-seeming adjustment, it would have transformed the entire timbre of the argument.

In short, both writers waffle, rather indiscriminately, between referring to a key term in the debate as either “the sciences” or, much more frequently, “science”. Neither can decide—or hasn’t taken the time to consider—whether this term, obviously crucial to the debate, is a plurality or a unity. Perhaps they don’t see this as a particularly important question. Wieseltier does accuse scientizers of not being “pluralists”. He attacks their “totalizing mentality” which impels them to offer up a ceaseless succession of “scientistic theories of everything”. But Wieseltier misses the mark when he defines “scientism”, quoting an unnamed “British philosopher”, as “the belief that science, especially natural science, is much the most valuable part of human learning”.

A more precise definition of “scientism”, one that cuts to the heart of it as an ideology—yes, we must call it that—is the campaign, by now entirely second-nature, to disguise a multiplicity as a unity. Let’s call it scientism’s original sin. In effect, scientism is the tidying up of a farrago, the wildly disparate activities of scientists in all their colors and stripes, as a monolith, “science”.

Isn’t it odd that we’re all accustomed to referring to the myriad activities of the sciences as a discrete container called “science”? Yet we’d never do the same for the humanities. If some enterprising humanities scholar were to refer to that panoply of disciplines, methods, and perspectives, as, dropping the definite article, “humanity”, she’d be laughed off the lectern. “Science versus the Humanities” sounds epic. Goliath—the good guy here—against a ragtag militia of hapless Davids. In contrast, “Science versus Humanity” rings, at best, dissonantly, and at worst, misleads, in that it confuses the parts for a categorically distinct whole.

Apart from a habit ingrained by dogged repetition, how is it that we’ve come to conceive of—and accept uncritically—the sciences, plural, as singular “science”? I’ll leave it to historians of the sciences to provide meatier accounts of the term’s etymology. In lieu of such an accounting, indulge me, for a moment, in a thought experiment. Imagine that an extraterrestrial has come to Earth to study, incognito, its indigenous forms of life. Let’s call her Qfwfq.

Note, though, that in the scenario our intrepid alien biologist, Qfwfq, only sees, due to the peculiarities of her home planet, phenomena on a cellular scale. That is, her umwelt, or worldview, is at home around ten to 100 micrometers. Her entire understanding of how the universe works, all of her causal explanations, her higher-order abstractions, are wrought through the prism of the cellular scale.

Now imagine Qfwfq in her observation blind, having patiently scrutinized biological activity on our picayune planet for the past, say, four billion years. What she has observed, first and foremost, is the incredibly rich and diverse terrestrial biome, a vast profusion of single-celled organisms, including bacteria, archaea, protozoa, algae, and fungi, as they drift along with the current of organism-cum-habitat evolutionary adaptation.

Qfwfq undoubtedly has also made note of the surge in a particular subset of the biome, an odd meta-phenomenon: arabesque clumps of cells (what we’re in the habit of calling plants and animals) which, in most cases, have organized at higher orders into superorganisms, groups of clumps of cells. For example, she notes what we’d call coral reefs, fields of clover, colonies of ants, packs of wolves and, closer to her own terms, vast supercolonies of an odd symbiosis of eukaryotes and prokaryotes that feature large brains, opposable thumbs, and incessant chattering.

This last superorganism has proven, in the most recent 10,000 planetary revolutions or so, particularly fecund. It’s managed to spread its exoskeleton over large swaths of the planet’s surface and has foisted its influence, however superficially, onto the planet’s biosphere such that it has destabilized the climate. This is proving to be a precarious turn of events for itself and other interdependent colonies of superorganisms.

Pressing for a hypothesis to explain this superorganism’s ascent, Qfwfq homes in on the minute, planet-rotation-to-rotation activities of the supercolony, the activities that may have plausibly precipitated its proliferation over the surface of the planet and, however haltingly, above and beyond it. What Qfwfq observes is that over the course of the past 300 planetary rotations or so, this superorganism’s capacity to manipulate its environment has accelerated tremendously, more rapidly, even, than the explosive growth that began 10,000 rotations ago.

Qfwfq works diligently to isolate behaviors distinct enough such that she can confidently attribute the accelerated supercolony growth to them. What she finds is that the supercolony’s explosive growth seems to be driven by complex interactions among highly entangled cells housed within a shell-encased cavity at the apex of each individual cell colony. However, confoundingly for Qfwfq, this increased chemical and electromagnetic activity is bound up with a great deal of chattering, hustling around, and intermingling that is extrinsic to the cellular activity within the shell cavity.

After prolonged study, Qfwfq is forced to conclude that certain behaviors of the supercolony, not readily isolated from the rest of its activities nor unambiguously reduced to general principles, has precipitated this explosion of impact. Somehow, this superorganism, in its own clumsy way, has managed to increase the efficacy with which it intervenes in the flow of cause and effect.

Qfwfq packs up her hunting blind and returns to her home planet to report her findings. She resolves to share her field notes with her colleagues who specialize in biosemiotics, in the hopes of deciphering some of the chatter that this shell-topped superorganism indulges in with such obvious relish.

Why this exercise in obtuse defamiliarization? Clearly the activities that Qfwfq observes over the past few hundred years on Earth have something to do with those two revolutions we all learn about in high school, the industrial and the scientific. What Qfwfq sees as our “exoskeleton”, we’re more comfortable calling technology. But in spite of all our incessant chattering to characterize the activities that drive scientific and technological progress, we’re no closer today to concisely summing it up than our would-be alien anthropologist.

In his essay, Pinker fares no better than Qfwfq at isolating scientific activities. He lazily refers to the “defining practices of science” as those which include “open debate, peer review, and double-blind methods”. Most attempts by scientizers to define “science” are equally as scattershot. They rattle off buzzwords like falsifiability, verification, replicability, consensus, etc. Certainly, most of these “principles” play some role in scientific activities. We can all nod along with Jerry Coyne, another prominent scientizer, when he defines science as “a method for understanding how the universe (matter, our bodies, the cosmos, and so on) actually works”. But again, Coyne offers precious little justification for the sleight of hand of reducing the plural, methods, to the singular, method. Yes, the sciences aim at explanations for how things work in our world. But that’s a platitude hardly worth stating.

The anecdote that Pinker evokes to begin his essay is telling. He proclaims that the “great thinkers of the Age of Reason and the Enlightenment were scientists”. Pinker is referring to a time when it was still possible for a European man of leisure to know of and contribute to all the branches of what was just coming to be known as “science”.

Pinker here is copping the literary genre of heroic romance. He conjures up a Carlylean apotheosis of Great Men, a veritable pantheon that includes Descartes, Spinoza, Hobbes, Locke, etc. These pioneers of empiricism wrestled with the real “eternal verities” within the twilight glow of their tastefully appointed ateliers. Eschewing the Excalibur of superstition, these Heroes of Science wielded the far sharper rapier of rationality.

As if those dudes were the only ones making important contributions to their societies at the time. As if they constituted some “deep thought” cartel.

At the turn of the 19th century, it may have been plausible to speak of scientific inquiry as a unity. But with the explosion of technological and scientific efficacy that we’ve enjoyed, however ambivalently, over the past couple centuries, what has most characterized the sciences is not unification and cohesion, but hyperspecialization and fragmentation. The Great Men of the Enlightenment, those peripatetic amateur polymaths, have spawned a teeming multitude of scientific disciplines, loosely organized into professional silos.

Take physics, for example. Perusing the categories on offer at, the clearinghouse for academic research in the discipline, it’s readily apparent how fragmented physics has become. The “Condensed Matter” section alone contains the following subsections: “Disordered Systems and Neural Networks; Materials Science; Mesoscale and Nanoscale Physics; Other Condensed Matter; Quantum Gases; Soft Condensed Matter; Statistical Mechanics; Strongly Correlated Electrons; Superconductivity”. Precious few nanoscale physicists, I’ll wager, are trained to adjudicate the truth claims of neural network physicists, let alone those who study lattice gases or string field theories.

Each discipline has its own body of knowledge and methods to master, its own ways of legislating truth claims, its own cults of indoctrination. Certainly, there are methodological overlaps between sub-disciplines, and in some cases, if we characterize methods vaguely enough, across disciplines. Pinker sets great stake in his notion of intelligibility, that “phenomena we experience may be explained by principles that are more general than the phenomena themselves”. Upping the ante, he then asserts that these “principles may in turn be explained by more fundamental principles, and so on”. The implication is that the distilling of general principles from specific phenomena is cumulative, linear, and pure. His vision of a hierarchy of generalization, however, is betrayed by its own sloppy language, by “in turn”, as well as “and so on”. Turns aren’t always linear. Sometimes they double back, crisscross, or zigzag. And his “and so on” disingenuously elides all of the delightful complication that ensues when attempts are made to reduce the disparately specific to the uniformly general.

Wieseltier is right to chastise Pinker when he implies that the sciences have cornered the market on the complementary principles of intelligibility and difficulty. I’d take it a step further. The sciences don’t even have a monopoly on the prioritizing of those two principles.

Pinker rebuffs Wieseltier by denying that scientism “is…  the dogma that physical stuff is the only thing that exists”. He goes on to say that “scientists themselves are immersed in… information”. But, again, all Pinker has done here is kick the can. One abstraction replaces another, as materialism gives way to informationalism. Pinker wants information, like matter before it, to be value-free, to be a transparent medium that speaks for itself. But the effect is swapping one dummy for another, while the ventriloquist, with his hand still up the dummy’s bum, remains the same. Acknowledging the unavoidable imbrication of fact with value goes a long way toward rendering Stephen Jay Gould’s oft-quoted “non-overlapping magisteria” nonsensical. The magisteria very much overlap, just as all information, as neutral as it may seem, always has a context framed by the desires of a real, live person. This isn’t cynical relativism. It’s qualified objectivity.

If, as Wieseltier argues, “the translation of nonscientific discourse into scientific discourse is the central object of scientism”, then a central pillar of the scientistic agenda must be to convert the philosophy of science into a proper science of science. But given the hyperspecialization of scientific activities, and its subsequent fragmentation, in any project to establish a science of science, we’re faced with a quandary. Certainly, specific scientific disciplines are capable of evaluating the veracity of factual claims within their own fields. These disciplines have become formalized, including Pinker’s own native discipline of psycholinguistics.

So how do we go about formalizing a science of science? Ultimately, scientizers like Pinker and Coyne are incapable of defining science with the predictive precision that the various scientific disciplines demand of their own practices. Given the irreconcilability of this disciplinary fragmentation, who then has the authority to speak for science—as a totality? No one. Or perhaps, if we’re being cynical, the highest-paid person in the room. The chaired professors, the Nobel laureates, the editors of prominent international journals.

It’s as if Pinker, playing the role of Leonhard Euler, stands before Wieseltier, cast here as Denis Diderot, not in the Court of Empress Catherine of Russia, but rather, in the court of public opinion, and proclaims, “(a+b^n)/n = x, therefore Science exists!”

Ultimately, “science” is less a Theory of Everything and more Harper’s “Findings”. It’s a hodgepodge, a congeries, a marvelous cacophony. It’s more apt to think of the sciences, then, as less Pangaea, and more Polynesia. There’s no supercontinent of science, but rather, an archipelago of sciences. Each island in the archipelago represents a place of stable footing, where facts have been established by due process. These facts are stable insomuch as they account for the cause and effect that prevail in a system under consideration that is both relatively isolated and simple. But surrounding these islands of factual stability is a sea of complexity. Here there be monsters: entangled systems, systems chock with whizzles and do-dads, systems hard to make intelligible in any lasting way.

Which is not to say that we shouldn’t try to extend our islands of facts or summon new islands up from the sea of complexity. But we should stop pretending that we march around on a flat world, that the ground of “science” is total. And we can start by not calling these practices “science”.

Earlier I asked, what compels the scientizers to obscure a multiplicity with a unity, to alchemically transmute the sciences into “science”? I believe it stems from a deep-seated anxiety about the enduring unintelligibility of the universe. It’s the scary realization that the universe will always remain, to a large extent, a mystery. As our knowledge of the world expands, the islands may grow wider. New islands may crop up. But complexity also expands. Ultimately, the complexity of the universe—or perhaps I should say, multiverses—will always outstrip our capacity to know it, let alone domesticate it.

Allow me the liberty of stealing a bit of Jonathan Swift’s intellectual property to make an immodest proposal. With their compulsive invocation of the term “science”, Pinker and the other scientizers would seem to suffer from a chronic case of strabismus; one eye focuses myopically inward while the other gazes longingly up toward the zenith. I recommend that Pinker conscript one of his graduate assistants at Harvard to help with his condition. The grad student is to carry an inflated pig bladder tethered to a broomstick. Whenever Pinker utters the word “science”, especially while he’s glad-handing university provosts, the assistant is to give him a good, hard whack with the bladder across his noggin.

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