Pinker pushback II: Ross Douthat accuses Steve of scientism

It is with a weary heart that I must report yet another benighted article by the columnist we all love to hate, Ross Douthat of the New York Times. His blog piece is called “The scientism of Steve Pinker,” and basically ignores everything that Steve argued in his New Republic piece save one thing: the source of human morality. In fact, Douthat seems to agree with everything Steve says about scientism, but still manages to find Pinker himself guilty of scientism for one reason: Pinker’s supposed ability to derive human morality from science. In the following bits from the column, Douthat’s quotes from Pinker (and my own quotes of SP) are in italics:

Indeed, [Pinker] helpfully supplies a perfect example of [sic; the missing word is either “it” or “scientism”] in his own essay, in his discussion of what modern science has allegedly meant for our understanding of personal and political morality:

“… the findings of science entail that the belief systems of all the world’s traditional religions and cultures—their theories of the origins of life, humans, and societies—are factually mistaken. We know, but our ancestors did not, that humans belong to a single species of African primate that developed agriculture, government, and writing late in its history. We know that our species is a tiny twig of a genealogical tree … We know that we live on a planet that revolves around one of a hundred billion stars in our galaxy, which is one of a hundred billion galaxies in a 13.8-billion-year-old universe, possibly one of a vast number of universes. We know that our intuitions about space, time, matter, and causation are incommensurable with the nature of reality on scales that are very large and very small. We know that the laws governing the physical world (including accidents, disease, and other misfortunes) have no goals that pertain to human well-being. There is no such thing as fate, providence, karma, spells, curses, augury, divine retribution, or answered prayers—though the discrepancy between the laws of probability and the workings of cognition may explain why people believe there are. And we know that we did not always know these things, that the beloved convictions of every time and culture may be decisively falsified, doubtless including some we hold today.”

Now I’m not sure what this says about morality, except that it didn’t come from God—and that’s probably what rankles Douthat, an observant Catholic. Indeed, in Pinker’s piece he explictly denies that one can derive morality from science, but adds, correctly, that science can inform morality. If, for example, you subscribe to a kind of consequentialism, which I presume Steve does, then you can observe the consequences of certain interventions. Doubthat quotes this comment of Pinker’s—

In other words, the worldview that guides the moral and spiritual values of an educated person today is the worldview given to us by science. Though the scientific facts do not by themselves dictate values, they certainly hem in the possibilities. By stripping ecclesiastical authority of its credibility on factual matters, they cast doubt on its claims to certitude in matters of morality. The scientific refutation of the theory of vengeful gods and occult forces undermines practices such as human sacrifice, witch hunts, faith healing, trial by ordeal, and the persecution of heretics. The facts of science, by exposing the absence of purpose in the laws governing the universe, force us to take responsibility for the welfare of ourselves, our species, and our planet.

—but then takes it to mean that science dictates a morality that just happens to coincide with “Steven Pinker’s very own moral worldview!” (He doesn’t seem to notice Pinker’s claim that science doesn’t dictate values.) But the claim that Pinker is being tendentious is hogwash: the morality of the Enlightenment, which after all is changing and becoming better, as Pinker asserts in The Better Angels of Our Nature, belongs to many people, not just Steve, and he didn’t originate it.

I’m sure Douthat resents that quote, which, though arguing that morals can’t come completely from science, also affirms that they absolutely can’t come from religion, since religion is a crock. Douthat must hatehat.  He then proceeds to argue that dismissing a divine origin of morals, and accepting a materialistic worldview, makes determining moral values much harder:

Now an innocent reader might assume that the crack-up of these world pictures, with their tight link between cosmic design and human purposes, might make moral consensus more difficult to realistically achieve. After all, if our universe’s testable laws and empirical realities have no experimentally-verifiable connection to human ends and values, then one would expect rival ideas of the good to have difficulty engaging with one another fruitfully, escaping from the pull of relativism or nihilism, and/or grounding their appeals in anything stronger than aesthetic preference.

It’s demeaning to secular morality to reduce it to the notion of “aesthetic preference.” Morality may ultimately rest on subjective preference, but it’s not “aesthetic.” Aesthetics is about beauty, not behavior. And yes, it’s harder to derive a real, workable morality from reason, observation and intuition than from simply following what you can pick—or cherry-pick—from scripture, but who can deny that secular morality is superior to that of, say, the Catholic Church? For that “aesthetic preference” has given secularists a morality far superior to that of Catholicism.  It is the Catholics, not the atheists, who see it as moral to subjugate women, terrorize children, demonize gays, and micromanage people’s marriages and sex lives.

Finally, Douthat takes Pinker to task for the “Whiggish interpretation of history” shown in Better Angels:

Since Pinker’s last book was an extended rehabilitation of the Whig interpretation of history, it’s not surprising to see him make this kind of case. But it’s intellectually parochial and logically slipshod, and it’s also depends on a kind of present-ist chauvinism: His argument seems vaguely plausible only if you regard the paradigmatic shaped-by-science era as the post-Cold War Pax Americana rather than, say, the chaos of 1914-45, when instead of a humanist consensus the scientifically-advanced West featured radically-incommensurate moral worldviews basically settling their differences by force of arms.

. . . Pinker seems to have trouble imagining any reasoning person disagreeing about either the moral necessity of “maximizing human flourishing” or the content of what “flourishing” actually means — even though recent history furnishes plenty of examples and a decent imagination can furnish many more. Like his whiggish antecedents, he mistakes a real-but-complicated historical relationship between science and humanism for a necessary intellectual line in which the latter vindicates the former, or at least militates strongly in its favor. And his invocation of “the scientific facts” to justify what is, at bottom, a philosophical preference for Mill over Nietzsche is the pretty much the essence of what critics mean by scientism: Empirically overconfident, intellectually unsubtle, and deeply incurious about the ways in which human beings can rationally disagree.

Were I Pinker, who put in years of statistical analysis to show that the world was actually getting better in many measurable ways, I’d be offended at the accusation of “whiggishness.” The purpose of Steve’s book was to show that the moral arc of history was, as Martin Luther King proclaimed, bending towards justice, and then to analyze why, also using reason and data. This is not simply a reinterpretation, but a rational and scientific analysis of history. Apparently Douthat prefers an endless and futile incense-scented argument based on superstition over real empirical analysis.

One can argue whether it’s better to be a consequentialist or a deontologist, but it’s not permissible to pin the two world wars on science, or to argue that the world is just as bad now as it was five centuries ago. Pinker certainly did not overstep the boundaries of science in his documentation of that moral arc; and as for its reasons, well, they don’t have much to do with the “morality” of faith. That’s really what burns Douthat’s onions.


  1. NewEnglandBob
    Posted August 8, 2013 at 12:56 pm | Permalink

    I turned 180 degrees on my opinion of violence trends after reading “Better Angels” from Pinkers vast amount of evidence. I doubt that Douchbag (sp) even read most of that book.

    • Natashe Whay
      Posted August 8, 2013 at 5:53 pm | Permalink

      Ross Douthat = Dros shat out

      And that’s being nice.

      • Jemima
        Posted February 21, 2014 at 5:52 am | Permalink

        Pinker’s next book, I believe, is on civility and politeness in public discourse. I think your comments above may help bend the 21st century datapoint on the curve downward …

  2. gbjames
    Posted August 8, 2013 at 1:03 pm | Permalink

    Douthat has never, to my knowledge, had anything insightful to offer in his column. But I could be wrong since I no longer bother to read him. This response to Pinker, however, suggests that I have it right.

    • George
      Posted August 8, 2013 at 3:51 pm | Permalink

      How could Douthat ever have something insightful to say – the only source for his views is his adherence to conservative roman catholicism.

      • Gary W
        Posted August 8, 2013 at 9:58 pm | Permalink

        I don’t think there’s such a thing as non-conservative Roman Catholicism. “Liberal” Catholics simply disregard the teachings they don’t like.

  3. Posted August 8, 2013 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

    Ross wouldn’t get much sleep without a copy of Chesterton’s “Orthodoxy” stashed safely under his pillow…

  4. Posted August 8, 2013 at 1:24 pm | Permalink

    D writes: “After all, if our universe’s testable laws and empirical realities have no experimentally-verifiable connection to human ends and values, then one would expect rival ideas of the good to have difficulty engaging with one another fruitfully…”

    This is true – no ought from is. But does D really imagine that claims to derive morality from supernatural authorities can make, or did make, such engagement easier?

    • Posted August 8, 2013 at 2:15 pm | Permalink

      Rosenberg argues that all moral values derive from the same evolved “nice nihilism” but differ only in matters of fact; e.g., the (counterfactual) notion of a “soul” informs religious views against abortion and euthanasia. So, quite a bit that “our universe’s testable laws and empirical realities” can do there.


      • NewEnglandBob
        Posted August 8, 2013 at 2:19 pm | Permalink

        Can you translate that? I have no clue what that says.

        • Posted August 9, 2013 at 12:26 pm | Permalink

          I can try! But it takes Rosenberg many pages of The Atheist’s Guide to Reality to elaborate…

          As simply as I can, there is no objective morality, no moral core that is right, correct, true. That is nihilism. However, the moral core that we doe have is one that arose through our evolution as social primates, a morality that is essentially “nice” (in line with game theoretic analyses, desirism, what have you). (Of course, like all organisms, there is a variation across populations, so we have saints and sociopaths at the extremes. and there are cheats, robbing banks and what have you.)

          Thus, nice nihilism.

          So, given that we all share this nice nihilism, the differences we have in moral values can’t be due to differences in core morality. Rosenberg reasons, then, that the differences in moral values arise from matters of fact. For example, additional to that above, the “fact” of who is fully human, because of race, say, underlies different moral attitudes towards, say, slavery.



      • Posted August 8, 2013 at 2:46 pm | Permalink

        I don’t know who Rosenberg is. Of course disagreements about facts can lead to disagreements about what is moral. If you think that giving people food stamps makes them lazy, you might think it morally better to let them starve.

        But why should possession of a soul, independent of any mental activity, give a ball of cells the right to life anyway? (Or am I merely showing that the idea of such a soul is incoherent?)

        • Posted August 9, 2013 at 12:30 pm | Permalink

          Alex, philosopher and author of the book cited above.

          For the difference (the notion of) a soul makes, see some of Eric MacDonalds essays on his primary topic at Choice In Dying.


  5. Posted August 8, 2013 at 1:29 pm | Permalink

    “Apparently Douthat prefers an endless, incense-scented argument with no data over real empirical analysis.”

    Oh, that’s precious.

  6. David Lloyd
    Posted August 8, 2013 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

    “Douthat must hatehat.”

    You made some compelling and insightful points, and yet this is probably what I’m going to remember 🙂 Damn my fool brain…

    • MikeN
      Posted August 8, 2013 at 9:51 pm | Permalink

      Shouldn’t it read “Douthat must hatethat” ?

  7. Gary W
    Posted August 8, 2013 at 1:50 pm | Permalink

    Douthat seems to think he’s caught Pinker in a contradiction, because Pinker first says that science doesn’t dictate values but later says that science “militates” towards utilitarian moral principles. But Pinker clearly says that those principles arise from a combination of facts values. He doesn’t claim the values are dictated by the facts. I expect Pinker would also agree that there is plenty of room for disagreement over what “flourishing of humans and other sentient beings” means with respect to politics, law and social relations.

  8. notsont
    Posted August 8, 2013 at 2:24 pm | Permalink

    In the real world we either kill or outlaw anyone who truly gets their morality from the bible, oh we let most people pretend they get their morality from their bible, but it just is not so. If you pick and choose which rules in your book you are going to follow then the act of choosing is applying a different morality on the book.

  9. Posted August 8, 2013 at 2:30 pm | Permalink


  10. Posted August 8, 2013 at 3:19 pm | Permalink

    It seems to me that we are witnessing the evolution and slow death by degrees of religion in North America. There seem to be so many bright people who have ‘religious brains’, but just cannot stomach the endless biblical bullshit. By ‘religious brains’ I mean that they have all the embedded assumptions which form an individual religious consciousness, in place, – but may well have lost their belief in the gods. They are ‘atheists-buts…’ They remain in terrible limbo between leaving behind their goddidits, and embracing the seemingly implausible and quite limited sweep of science.
    The ‘religious brain’ is very familiar to me; I write about it all the time. It is based upon the assumption that they may best thrive beyond adolescence by recognising an authority-structure (real or imaginary) wherein to find a place. To have a religious brain is to withdraw from reality. It means no individual thought or action beyond that which is approved by the authority. It means simply not trusting experiential information, unless it happens to coincide with the authority. And it means that they trust that their authority-structures (their gods) are exhaustive, perfect, infallible and endlessly knowledgeable. And that is what they expect to find when they leave religion behind for some other way of addressing the external realities. They expect exhaustive explanations for everything. But science cannot, and has no intention of supplying the answers to everything.
    So, why do they have such a problem with science? It is because they have a religious brain. The first and primary assumption of a religious brain is that we live in an intentional universe. If everything is intentional, then everything should have easily accessible answers. Yes, even questions of morality. That’s the assumption that hovers about them, guiding and chiding them like a ghost upon the elbow. And so they assume that any other belief-system such as science must also instantly provide all the answers as their gods once did. They call it ‘scientism’. But it is they, not we, who believe that science tries and will explain everything.
    It seems so very odd to we scientists who also direct major theatre, publish novels and poems and paint pictures, that they, the ‘atheists-buts’ keep telling us about scientism; – their false belief that scientists try to use science to answer all questions of aesthetics, morality, romance, cat personalities, the stubbornness of Canadians, the sentimentality of the Americans, and the recalcitrance of we French. But to scientists all those things are a mystery. Science may be able to produce theories that throw a little light upon it all, but those theories will evolve and be modified endlessly for centuries.
    Wake me up in a century or two and tell me that science has an answer as to why I love a spread of ripe fromage epoisse affiné avec chablis on a sliver of fresh baguette, with a glass of claret, and I will answer, ‘Nah. You haven’t!’

    • Marella
      Posted August 8, 2013 at 4:26 pm | Permalink

      Good explanation of religious minds, just a couple of quibbles though.

      “And it means that they trust that their authority-structures (their gods) are exhaustive, perfect, infallible and endlessly knowledgeable.”

      Their authority structures are in fact priests and religious scholars, not gods. And science can already tell you why you like cheese and bread with wine. Cheese is full of fat, bread is full of carbs and wine is full of alcohol, no mystery there. No doubt you have been brought up on all these flavours as well: this is also known to increase liking.

      • Posted August 8, 2013 at 9:28 pm | Permalink


      • Sastra
        Posted August 9, 2013 at 7:59 am | Permalink

        I’d argue that the ultimate authority-structures of the religious mindset is neither the gods nor the priests — but the individual’s idealization of both. The entire cosmos is being explained as a sort of morality play. The theme of this play is the guiding ‘authority.’

      • Posted August 9, 2013 at 10:27 am | Permalink

        I’m afraid my last paragraph above was a mouse-trap baited with cheese. It goes like this. Epoisse affiné (from Burgundy) is not just cheese. It is an aroma, and a ritual evoking conviviality, culture and the French worship of soft cheeses. It is sometimes eaten complete with maggots in summer, and always with the hidden risk of sudden and violent sickness with campylobacter or listeria. If you eat too much you lose the taste for it, and so you pace your life around your greed and its availability. It engenders thoughts of mortality and peak experiences. Thoughts of epoisse affiné are like tentacles that reach deep into culture and identity. Contemplating Epoisse brings one to many stable states of realisation, from which new thought may arise. To say that it is a cheese is like calling Beethoven’s Opus 111, ‘a noise’. That is why it will always remain aloof from scientific enquiry.

        • gbjames
          Posted August 9, 2013 at 10:33 am | Permalink

          Well, you like this (not just) cheese a lot. Very delicious, I’m sure. But that doesn’t make it “aloof from scientific enquiry”. It just means you like it a lot.

  11. irritable
    Posted August 8, 2013 at 3:54 pm | Permalink

    “Scientism” sounds so much more academic, intellectual and rigorous than “factism”.
    But it’s an undefined perjorative used to suggest that fact-finders are, somehow, adherents to an academic theory.

    These turf wars about knowledge seem to be occurring because improved methods of obtaining reliable information – not only in the sciences but also in fields like history and the law which deal with human behaviour and thought – are beginning to marginalize priests, theologians and some academics in the humanities.

    • Marella
      Posted August 8, 2013 at 4:28 pm | Permalink

      Yes, or “realityism”. Science merely the study of reality. Wherever possible the word “science” should be replaced with “reality”, and it’s very often possible.

  12. MNb
    Posted August 8, 2013 at 3:57 pm | Permalink

    “micromanage people’s marriages and sex lives.”
    This reminds me of something my grandfather, a hard boiled Dutch social democrat, used to tell about the village where he lived. A year after the birth of the latest the local Father used to visit the families of his parish to inform why the next one lasted so long.

  13. MNb
    Posted August 8, 2013 at 4:18 pm | Permalink

    “the scientifically-advanced West featured radically-incommensurate moral worldviews basically settling their differences by force of arms”
    Oooooohhhh I like this one. Just check the religions of the European leaders in 1914: Czar Nicolas, Emperor Wilhelm, Emperor Franz-Josef, Prime Minister Asquith and President Poincare. Of course in 1939 there was the christian Hitler.

    “it’s not permissible to pin the two world wars on science”
    Oh, it is. Science enabled it. The point is rather that too many political readers who had to deal with this new science didn’t have a scientific mindset at all. That includes the non-religious Benito Mussolini.

  14. Gary W
    Posted August 8, 2013 at 4:52 pm | Permalink

    I see that Pinker’s article has provoked yet another angry, dismissive post from P.Z. Myers.

    • NewEnglandBob
      Posted August 8, 2013 at 5:03 pm | Permalink

      Yeah, P.Z. Myers has become a grumpy old curmudgeon.

      • Posted August 8, 2013 at 6:04 pm | Permalink

        Yeah, it’s weird. I used to enjoy reading Pharyngula and found I generally agreed with PZ, but at some point I found it getting less enjoyable and that more often than not, I disagreed. And the commenters don’t help. Since Weiseltier and Douthat got their own posts here, how about one dedicated to PZ’s analysis? I’d love to read it. Although a couple of commenters over there did a pretty good job of tearing it down.

      • Bruce S. Springsteen
        Posted August 8, 2013 at 7:58 pm | Permalink

        Actually, he’s morphed into the Walter Winchell of the secular blogosphere.

        • Posted August 9, 2013 at 11:36 am | Permalink

          Oh, wow. You’re right. I hadn’t even seen the follow up post after the Pinker post. Craziness.

    • bricewgilbert
      Posted August 8, 2013 at 8:20 pm | Permalink

      Dismissive of his statements about the humanities and pre-science thinkers.

  15. Myron
    Posted August 8, 2013 at 5:15 pm | Permalink

    “Indeed, in Pinker’s piece he explictly denies that one can derive morality from science, but adds, correctly, that science can inform morality.” – J. Coyne

    Yes, indeed! Why? Here’s an answer by Richard Hare, one of the greatest moral philosophers of the 20th century:

    “Any moral problem one cares to take is bound to be divisible into the following elements. There are first of all questions of fact. To take the example I have just been discussing: the question, whether the psychologists are right who say that it is possible to identify genetic elements in the causes of crime, is a question of fact, which can be investigated empirically. In most practical moral problems it will be found that the huge majority of the questions which have to be settled before we can solve them are factual ones. This has tempted some philosophers to think that the only questions that have to be answered before we can solve them are of this sort—that once all the facts are known, no further problem will remain: the answer to the moral question will be obvious. This is, however, not so, as we shall see in due course. But certainly the factual questions are the ones that cause 99 per cent of the trouble. We can see this if we study any two people arguing about a moral question. We shall nearly always find them disputing each other’s facts. To revert for a moment to the problem of the draftee who has to decide whether to go into the army: most of his problem is to find out what is actually happening in, for example, Vietnam, and what the actual consequences of various courses of action, whether on his or his governments part, are likely in fact to be.
    Nevertheless, it is fairly obvious that one might find out all the facts that anybody wanted to adduce, and still be in doubt what one ought to do. We can see this more clearly if we suppose that there are two draftees and they are arguing with one another about the question. It is obvious that they could agree, for example, that if they went into the armed forces and obeyed their orders, they would find themselves killing a lot of civilians in the course of attacks on military objectives. One of them might think it morally indefensible to kill civilians in the course of fighting (especially if the civilians had nothing to do with the fighting, but were innocent bystanders). The other might think that this, although in itself an evil, had to be done if necessary in order to secure some greater good. One can agree about a fact, but disagree about its bearing on a moral issue.”

    (Hare, R. M. Sorting Out Ethics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997. pp. 35-6)

    “[T]he factual questions are the ones that cause 99 per cent of the trouble.” – That’s the point, and that’s where scientific information becomes crucially relevant!

    • Sastra
      Posted August 9, 2013 at 8:06 am | Permalink

      I like the general point on factual disagreements fueling many or even most moral arguments, but think the 99% is way too high. There are also value vs. value arguments.

      Of course, significance of both parties in a dispute agreeing on the facts increases if one were to include “knowing the future consequences” into the shared information. That’s one reason religion is so dangerous when it comes to ethical reasoning. The faithful not only have their own special facts — they also have their own special outcomes they need to take into consideration.

  16. Myron
    Posted August 8, 2013 at 5:22 pm | Permalink

    Here’s another quotation that hits the nail on the head:

    “No account of scientific facts about the world can by themselves determine what we should do. Some philosophers and scientists have tried to deduce ultimate ethical precepts from the conclusions of evolutionary biology. Thus, it may be pointed out that evolution is tending in the direction from A to B, and it is then suggested that this proves that we should act in certain ways, perhaps by the application of eugenics, so as to help the transition from A to B. The conclusion does not follow. If a man dislikes the prospect of B he may decide to act in such a way as to oppose the transition from A to B. What ethical precepts we recommend depends in the last analysis on what we want. Scientific facts alone cannot give us a precept.
    This is not to say that scientific facts are not of the greatest importance for ethics. It is simply that scientific facts do not by themselves determine any ethical system. The fact that some event X causes an event Y can be of great importance, but this importance is a secondary one. If we want Y and discover that X causes Y, then we will want X. If, on the other hand, we want not to have Y, then we will want not to have X.

    I have said that no moral rules can be deduced purely from scientific considerations. Science may be able to tell us what means conduce to what ends, but it cannot tell us what ends to pursue. Nevertheless, the scientific temper can be psychologically conducive to an ethics of generalised benevolence. The scientist tries to find laws of nature which apply anywhere and anywhen, and he will therefore be attracted by a moral outlook which places the interests of all men, whatever their caste or creed, on an equality. He will even be attracted, beyond a merely humanistic ethics, to consider the interests of other species of animal, in so far as these seem capable of happiness or unhappiness, and, if it ever in the future of space technology came to the point where it was of practical importance, he might consider the interests of intelligent extra-terrestrial beings to be as important as his own. There is another reason why scientific thought is psychologically conducive to a widening of ethical interest. A scientist has to attend seriously to the arguments of another scientist, no matter what may be that other scientist’s nationality, race, or social position. He must therefore at least respect the other as a source of arguments, and this is psychologically conducive to respecting him as a person in the full sense, and hence to considering his interests equally with one’s own.”

    (Smart, J. J. C. Philosophy and Scientific Realism. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1963. pp. 154-5)

    • Larry Gay
      Posted August 9, 2013 at 4:26 am | Permalink

      Thank you Myron. I am one of those people who wonders what good is there in philosophy. And then I read such a clear analysis and realize there is indeed good in philosophy, if only to bring such cool logic to bear on a difficult problem.

    • derekw
      Posted August 9, 2013 at 11:30 am | Permalink

      “The scientist tries to find laws of nature which apply anywhere and anywhen, and he will therefore be attracted by a moral outlook which places the interests of all men, whatever their caste or creed, on an equality.”
      So what about guys like Josef Mengele? “Thus, it may be pointed out that evolution is tending in the direction from A to B, and it is then suggested that this proves that we should act in certain ways, perhaps by the application of eugenics, so as to help the transition from A to B. The conclusion does not follow. If a man dislikes the prospect of B he may decide to act in such a way as to oppose the transition from A to B. What ethical precepts we recommend depends in the last analysis on what we want.” Whose to say Mengele’s precepts were ‘wrong?’

  17. Diana MacPherson
    Posted August 8, 2013 at 5:58 pm | Permalink

    In addition to this whole “whiggish” bit, Douthat really let’s loose with: “it’s intellectually parochial and logically slipshod, and it’s also depends on a kind of present-ist chauvinism….”


    Did he even bother to read Steven Pinker’s book? The one where he actually takes the time to support and illustrate and his points with graphs then to explain the statistics behind the graphs? This is what really sets Steven Pinker’s book a part from others and as an added bonus to absorbing the bigger themes of the book, I even picked up some statistics tips that I hope to use. To describe Pinker’s book as “intellectually parochial and logically slipshod” with really no evidence what-so-ever, well that’s just intellectually parochial and logically slipshod.

    Douthat wants to take a swipe at Steven Pinker in the hopes of stealing some of Pinker’s intellectual mojo – like the guys that always try to fight professional boxers because if they’ll take him down, they’d be famous and if they don’t they’ll at least get noticed.

    I’m surprised Douthat didn’t say Pinker had bad hair too because he’d have no evidence of that either and we’d easily be able to prove his claims were false. We all know Steven Pinker has the best hair.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted August 8, 2013 at 5:59 pm | Permalink

      Forgive my horrible grammar and syntax errors. I was giddy at making a remark about Steven Pinker’s hair. It’s the “whig” in “whiggish” that must’ve got me going.

  18. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted August 8, 2013 at 6:10 pm | Permalink

    Although Douthat is Catholic I suspect that when he says morality would be reduced to “aesthetic” criterion without supernatural sanctions he is taking his cue form Kierkegaard (Lutheran) who distinguished three approaches to life, the aesthetic, the moral, and religious (each of which goes beyond the first).

  19. Leigh Jackson
    Posted August 9, 2013 at 12:50 am | Permalink

    I’m afraid the word “Pangloss” comes to mind pace Pinker and Harris on science and morals.

    Even if, and it’s still a mighty big “if”, as far as I am concerned, notwithstanding Pinker’s stats, the arc of history is presently upwards in respect of human violence, so what? The universe cares not one jot for the shape of that curve. Has human nature changed?

    When circumstances change human behaviour changes, but always in accordance with human nature. Nietzsche overcooked his mad prophet role, but he has to be tangled with, not ignored.

    The future of humanity over the next few hundred years is by no means assured because we have science. We also have our all too human nature. Good and evil entwined.

    • Rob T.
      Posted August 9, 2013 at 8:00 am | Permalink


      “Now I’m not sure what this says about morality, except that it didn’t come from God—and that’s probably what rankles Douthat, an observant Catholic.”

      It’s good to see pure ad hominems such as the above. It offers evidence–and don’t all the brilliant advocates of Scientism just love evidence?–at how threatening the author finds the opposition both to Pinker and to the world-view represented in his essay.

      • Rob T.
        Posted August 9, 2013 at 8:02 am | Permalink

        Apologies for misplacing my comment on ad hominem. I meant for it to come at the end of the thread. Leigh Jackson’s observations are among the few intelligent ones in this thread.

    • Sastra
      Posted August 9, 2013 at 8:15 am | Permalink

      I think you misunderstand both Pinker and Harris if you think they believe that it is basically inevitable that things are just going to get better and better for us. Their arguments are cautionary because they don’t believe in either a Progressive Force behind history nor an evolving human nature. It is all contingent on confounding factors.

      The future of humanity over the next few hundred years is by no means assured because we have science.

      Either one of them would endorse this statement heartily. Are you sure they’re not on your side?

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted August 9, 2013 at 2:06 pm | Permalink

      Yes, human nature changes, and much more rapidly as the population has grown. See paleonthologist John Hawks and his (and others) research on selective sweeps.

      Our tool sets and our environment has also changed continuously.

      All these factors makes it interesting to see what results people like Pinker gets, when they don’t dogmatically assume “no change” but gather observations on eventual changes.

  20. Dominic
    Posted August 9, 2013 at 1:39 am | Permalink

    Nothing wrong with Scientism!

  21. Rob T.
    Posted August 9, 2013 at 7:52 am | Permalink

    “and basically ignores everything that Steve argued ”

    No, he basically attacks Pinker’s faulty premises, especially Pinker’s ridiculous assertion that Scientism has no real content or definition. From there, Pinker’s house of cards tumbles from its undermined foundations. No need to demolish his “argument” floor by floor.

    • Sastra
      Posted August 9, 2013 at 8:21 am | Permalink

      But since there really are many conflicting definitions of “scientism” out there, then it looks like at least one of Pinker’s premises stands pretty firm.

      What is the “real content or definition” of “spirituality?” If someone were to endorse one version and attack another, could anyone really argue that their whole argument fails because they got the definition wrong?

      I have been accused of ‘scientism’ for arguing against the validity of reiki.

      • Posted August 9, 2013 at 8:37 am | Permalink

        “Scientism is the application of the ideals and methods of science to something I’m really into that I fear will undermine what I think I know about it and upset me.”


    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted August 9, 2013 at 2:09 pm | Permalink

      Self-referencing comment, a ” house of cards tumbles from its undermined foundations” because it forgets to offer “real content or definition”.

  22. frank43
    Posted August 9, 2013 at 8:57 am | Permalink

    Poor Steven. Savaged by a sheep.

  23. Al_de_Baran
    Posted August 9, 2013 at 1:35 pm | Permalink

    Again, the definitions of the word “scientism” are not nearly so varied and vague as Pinker and his amen corner assert. There’s also no need to go Googling all over that Tower of Babel known as the Web to find definitions. For instance, here’s a very good definition of the term quite close to home. It comes from no less than the Oxford English Dictionary:



    [f. scient- (see scientist) + -ism.]

    2. A term applied (freq. in a derogatory manner) to a belief in the omnipotence of scientific knowledge and techniques; also to the view that the methods of study appropriate to physical science can replace those used in other fields such as philosophy and, esp., human behaviour and the social sciences.

    Pinker has some tough competition if he is angling to replace this definition with his own Pollyanna-ish whitewash.

    What’s more, the term “scientism” has at least a ninety-year history. The following examples of past usage offer a pretty clear, and pretty uniform, sense of what the term means. Ignore them at the peril of losing all credibility.

       1921 G. B. Shaw Back to Methuselah p. lxxviii, The iconography and hagiology of Scientism are as copious as they are mostly squalid.    1937 J. Laver French Painting in Nineteenth Cent. i. 73 It really appeared to many educated people that at last all the secrets of the universe would be discovered and all the problems of human life solved. This superstition‥we may call ‘Scientism’.    1938 G. Reavey tr. Berdyaev’s Solitude & Society i. 12 Science has not only progressively reduced the competence of philosophy, but it has also attempted to suppress it altogether and to replace it by its own claim to universality. This process is generally known as ‘scientism’.    1942 F. A. von Hayek in Economica IX. 269 We shall wherever we are concerned, not with the general spirit of disinterested inquiry but with that slavish imitation of the method and language of science, speak of ‘scientism’ or the ‘scientistic’ prejudice.    1953 A. H. Hobbs Social Problems & Scientism ii. 17 Scientism, as a belief that science can furnish answers to all human problems, makes science a substitute for philosophy, religion, manners, and morals.‥ It is a pattern of beliefs‥a creed that shapes thinking and affects behavior.    1956 E. H. Hutten Lang. Mod. Physics vi. 273 This belief in the omnipotence of science is‥making a mockery of science: for this scientism represents the same, superstitious, attitude which, in previous times, ascribed such power to a supernatural agency.    1957 W. H. Whyte Organization Man iii. 23 Scientism,‥the promise that with the same techniques that have worked in the physical sciences we can eventually create an exact science of man.    1969 Encounter Jan. 23/2 There is an aberration of science‥which has come to be known as ‘scientism’.‥ It stands for the belief that science knows or will soon know all the answers.    1972 K. R. Popper Objective Knowl. iv. 185 The term ‘scientism’ meant originally ‘the slavish imitation of the method and language of (natural) science’, especially by social scientists.    Ibid. 186 But I would go even further and accuse at least some professional historians of ‘scientism’.    1977 A. Sheridan tr. J. Lacan’s Écrits iii. 76 The early development of psychoanalysis‥expresses‥nothing less than the re-creation of human meaning in an arid period of scientism.    1980 Times Lit. Suppl. 26 Sept. 1072/2 Naturalism, in David Thomas’s usage, is equivalent to what many know as scientism: the doctrine that there is no reason to think that the study of human agents, and the study of the social systems to which human agents give rise, cannot be pursued according to a methodology drawn from natural science.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted August 9, 2013 at 2:22 pm | Permalink

      I don’t think criticism of the unfounded accusation of “scientism” has an “amen corner”. Where is your statistics? As a counter-example, I started out with criticizing Pinker’s piece where I found errors (see the WEIT thread), while I assume “amen” means 100 % acceptance.

      We do need to ” go Googling all over that Tower of Babel known as the Web to find definitions”, because we are looking at actual use. And that was what Pinker did:

      “In the major journals of opinion, scientific carpetbaggers are regularly accused of determinism, reductionism, essentialism, positivism, and worst of all, something called “scientism.” …

      The term “scientism” is anything but clear, more of a boo-word than a label for any coherent doctrine. Sometimes it is equated with lunatic positions, such as that “science is all that matters” or that “scientists should be entrusted to solve all problems.” Sometimes it is clarified with adjectives like “simplistic,” “naïve,” and “vulgar.” The definitional vacuum allows me to replicate gay activists’ flaunting of “queer” and appropriate the pejorative for a position I am prepared to defend.”

      The web offers ~ 600 000 uses of “scientism” alone. In response you offer a few anecdotal usages, but as we all know the plural of anecdote isn’t “statistics”. Yes, it can be wholly ignored without any risk of losing credibility.

      Offering anecdote on the other hand _is_ risky for one’s credibility. Especially, I would dare say, on a science blog. =D

      • Greg Ransom
        Posted August 11, 2013 at 12:05 am | Permalink

        ‘Scientism’ has a well established technical meaning in the literature of the philosophy of science — established by Hayek and Popper in a series of very famous and very influential papers and books.

        Hayek and Popper use the word ‘scientist’ to name the practice of attempting to impose a *false* picture of science upon phenomena — and Hayek and Popper site as examples the attempt to force a very crude inductive or positivist picture of ‘science’ upon phenomena, citing Neurath and Carnap as exemplars. Hayek talks about how this false picture of science has taken simple 2 variable functional math relations and the crude philosophy of associationist as the model of all scientific explanation — when the examples of Darwinian biology and other essentially complex science demonstrate the falsity and pathology of this picture.

        ‘Scientism’ reveals itself in such things as behaviorism and Neurath’s economics.

    • Posted August 10, 2013 at 10:04 pm | Permalink

      You put together a list of instances in which the word “scientism” was used. Great. We all know people use it, and they probably have a meaning in mind that differs from the one Pinker offers. He acknowledges as much.

      I dont really care about his attempt to redefine it. The issue, to my mind, would be “are the accusations of scientism (in your sense) justified?” I think the definition we actually have to worry about is the definition of “science”. It doesn’t matter what field you work in, if you are somehow trying, to the best of your ability, to make sure that your observations and conclusions conform to reality, you’re doing science. Science doesn’t only happen when a man with crazy hair dons a labcoat.

      Science can of course be applied to the arts and humanities. And, no, it won’t be the only kind of work that needs to be done in those fields, but people like Pinker and Harris aren’t claiming that it is. So the accusations are not justified. They are strawmen.

      And, P.S., when folks like John Haught throw the term scientism around, they are not doing so with some deeply-considered intent for the term. They simply mean “you think your scientific findings refute my bald religious assertions…well…nuh-uh…scientism!”

      Which is manifestly ridiculous.

  24. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted August 9, 2013 at 2:00 pm | Permalink

    It is hard to avoid being unfair as neither Wieseltier and Douhat seems to have read Pinker’s article (W) or book (D). Granted, I haven’t read the book either yet, I go after the impression given by the post.

7 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. […] in New Republic. Here is Jerry Coyne’s take on it, and he has also responded here and here to two criticisms of Pinker. The article is very interesting and I am in complete agreement with […]

  2. […] -Jerry Coyne responds to Douthat. […]

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