Monday, August 12, 2013


Steven Pinker, a linguistics professor at Harvard and prolific author, has a provocative article at The New Republic web site, Science Is Not Your Enemy An impassioned plea to neglected novelists, embattled professors, and tenure-less historians (August 2013). Pinker says that science is now encroaching on matters traditionally in the realm of the humanities, for example human emotion and human values, and that has generated a backlash in various quarters: the humanities, religion and public policy. Scientism is a term - new to me - used by critics who believe that science is often misapplied when it address some of the traditional concerns of the humanities, religion and public policy. I have found many other things Pinker has written very interesting, especially when they are focused on his specialty, linguistics. However, this article seems to me yet another example of someone who knows a lot of science and feels like their scientific knowledge supports some of their other values and opinions, but their attempt to make their case unfortunately comes off very weak. I suspect that Pinker's article will often have the exact opposite effect of what he says he intends. Instead of reassuring people who think science overreaches, it will just seem like yet another attempt that misuses science to support someone's personal opinions. See The Scientism of Steven Pinker by Ross Douthat in the New York Times, for someone who didn't find Pinker at all convincing.
Faulty 'scientific' results have, of course, repeatedly been used to support personal biases, The Mismeasure of Man, by Steven Jay Gould is a collection of interesting historical examples. In some cases the errors and misinterpretations were really rather subtle, but invariably the errors somehow ended up supporting the preconceived notions of the investigators.