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For Pinker's Insufferable Scientism, a Satisfying Triple Smackdown

Steven Pinker's essay in the New Republic, seeking to appropriate the word "scientism" as designating a good thing, wins the prize for the most off-putting, condescending title of the year: "Science Is Not Your Enemy: An Impassioned Plea to Neglected Novelists, Embattled Professors, and Tenure-Less Historians." Weirdly, it almost seems calculated to alienate the people he's ostensibly trying to win over.

Of course I know that writers in journals generally don't title their own articles. Customarily that's done by the editor. Which makes me wonder -- eminent New Republic literary editor Leon Wieseltier contributed a filmed interview striking back at the article that appeared in his own magazine: "No, Science Doesn't Have All the Answers." There must be some interesting backstory there to which, unfortunately, I'm not privy.

Pinker's article also stands out for soliciting very satisfying rebukes from two writers who wouldn't normally find a lot of common ground between themselves: our own Wesley Smith, writing at National Review Online, and...PZ Myers, on the publication of whose new book -- The Happy Atheist, out tomorrow -- I realize we've forgotten to wish him mazal tov.

With gusto and profanity, Myers defends the independent value of the humanities and castigates the na�ve view that science can satisfy all our needs and longings ("Repudiating scientism, rather than surrendering to it"). Wesley zeroes in on the total inability of science to establish moral values -- including Pinker's precious humanism -- that don't quickly collapse into utilitarianism and thence into anti-humanism:

[T]he so-called humanism of the Pinkers, Richard Dawkins, and the Peter Singers of the world tend decidedly toward utilitarianism, which in turn, leads to anti-humanism because it established moral value based on capacities, not on equal value for all humanity. Add in Singer's animals deserve "equal consideration" utilitarianism, and you have a prescription for the instrumental use of living human beings.


Based on science, what is wrong with slavery? It's just the powerful prevailing over and forcing their way on the less powerful -- a common feature of the natural world.

Moreover -- and ironically -- the ending of slavery and the defeat of authoritarian fascism was in defense of the Judeo/Christian moral philosophy embodied in the "all men are created equal" credo of the Declaration of Independence.

In fact the eugenics embraced by the totalitarian fascists that we defeated in the first half of the last century claimed a scientific basis based, in part, on a malign application of Darwinian principles as a justification for their abhorrent practices and acts. In fact, I think one could safely conclude that the ideology of these evil movements was steeped in scientism.

Pinker's scientism is more Judeo/Christian in outlook -- albeit dropping the theism and castigating the philosophical source. But historically, Judeo/Christianity's embrace of the intrinsic dignity of all people was fundamental in creating the "de facto morality" of Western Civilization. That wasn't the only contributor, to be sure. But it is an essential ingredient. All the scientism in the world can't change that.

"Of course, science isn't the enemy. Nobody said it is," concludes Wesley, who's really been on a roll lately. "In fact the title gets perilously close to 'the anti-science canard.'" On that, see this.

A colleague of ours, meanwhile, offers the briefest and most direct reply to Pinker, referring to the novelists, professors, historians to whom Pinker addresses his essay: "He thinks these eminences have attacked scientism because they resent it. Actually, they've attacked it because it's so stupid."