Peter Rabins: Douthat, Pinker and "Scientism"

“[Steven] Pinker has failed to recognize the limits of empirical scientific reasoning, just as those who rely predominantly on ecclesiastic or empathic reasoning mistakenly reject scientific results because they do not fit with their values.”—Peter Rabins

The Why of Things, by Peter Rabins

This week our featured book is The Why of Things: Causality in Science, Medicine, and Life, by Peter Rabins. Today, we are featuring the fourth article in a series of six by Peter Rabins.

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In the August 7, 2013 New York Times, conservative columnist Ross Douthat responded to Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker’s recent article urging advocates to embrace the label of “scientism” rather than perceive it as a dismissive taunt. Pinker’s argument was that the methods of science now provide the kinds of data which can inform rational policy recommendations on many topics. The term scientism describes this approach to public policy. Douthat’s rejoinder was that Pinker, and others who make similar claims such as Richard Dawkins, are inappropriately applying the findings of scientific studies to moral, ethical, and policy debates. Douthat’s claim is that these advocates of scientism are misattributing to well-designed scientific studies the status of a “proof” of the values that their (liberal) opinions reflect.

I admire Pinker’s contributions in books such as The Language Instinct, Blank Slate, and Fallen Angels. In each he pulls together a wide range of studies to bolster his views on important topics ranging from the innate basis of language, the genesis of human personality and behavior, and the changing prevalence of violence over the centuries. These are important, “big” questions. The breadth of Pinker’s data sources and his use of counterfactuals to identify counter arguments that confirm or refute alternative explanations are impressive.

I also agree with Douthat, though, that Pinker tends to misattribute, to the studies he cites, causal inferences that do not follow from the science. In my recent book The Why of Things, I identify three logics of causal reasoning, empirical (which relies primarily on methods that would be considered scientific), empathic (which relies on the narrative methods of the historian), and ecclesiastic (which derives from the methods of religion and ethics).

Pinker cites empirically based data from (often) well-designed studies, but he applies narrative logic (linking ideas in a comprehensive, coherent fashion) when he applies them to ethical questions. His claim that this is scientism is incorrect, in my opinion. Scientism can be used to address controversial questions, for example whether global warming is occurring and how much of it is attributable to human activity, but not to questions or moral right and wrong. Starting with one’s beliefs and using them to examine moral or ethical questions is more accurately an application of ecclesiastic logic, and I believe Pinker is making an error in not recognizing this. Scientism has its place but it can be misused, as can all methods and logics.

Each of these Logics has its strengths and limitations. The empathic, narrative approach relies on rhetorical methods of convincing that include comprehensiveness (whether coverage is broad) and coherence (whether the reader can be convinced of the linkages between the ideas), while empirical logic relies on replication, refutation by constructing a study whose results could disprove the claimed linkage, and convergence of multiple pieces of data. Where Pinker goes wrong, I believe, is in drawing conclusions from the science that rely on empathic, narrative methods but claiming they are scientific. In Fallen Angels, for example, he cites (convincingly, in my mind) data supporting the conclusion that violence has declined in the past 500 years. He then links this in a causal fashion to the rise of public education over this same period of time. While I would like to believe this, and while he does offer some supporting data to bolster the claim, there are so many other changes that have occurred over this time period that the acceptance of his hypothesis relies on empathic not empirical logic. Jumping from such correlational findings to claiming that the conclusions must be true because they are scientific is fatally flawed. I may be convinced by his logic, but the reasoning is the same as I have used to derive my political and ethical beliefs; these rely on empathic and ecclesiastic logic, not science. Using the empirical methods of science to bolster a claim may be appropriate, but claiming that alternatives are wrong because they are unscientific is labeling of the worst kind. Pinker has failed to recognize the limits of empirical scientific reasoning, just as those who rely predominantly on ecclesiastic or empathic reasoning mistakenly reject scientific results because they do not fit with their values.

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