“Scientism” and Ways Forward

I’ve been meaning to write a little something on Steven Pinker’s recent controversial comments about science and the humanities, because they raise some interesting issues about intellectual politics and methodology.

The Argument Itself

Pinker, a psychologist at Harvard, wound up a number of people with an essay in The New Statesman, called ‘Science is not the Enemy of the Humanities: An Impassioned Plea to Neglected Novelists, Embattled Professors, and Tenure-less Historians‘. Basically, Pinker argued that scholars in the Humanities could really do with engaging with the sciences, rather like many great Enlightenment thinkers. He states:

This is an extraordinary time for the understanding of the human condition. Intellectual problems from antiquity are being illuminated by insights from the sciences of mind, brain, genes, and evolution. Powerful tools have been developed to explore them, from genetically engineered neurons that can be controlled with pinpoints of light to the mining of “big data” as a means of understanding how ideas propagate. One would think that writers in the humanities would be delighted and energized by the efflorescence of new ideas from the sciences. But one would be wrong.

What follows becomes a little murky. He argues in favour of defining ‘scientism’ by two features:

(1) A commitment to making things ‘intelligible’. One would not explain the causes of World War I in terms of biology, he states, but one could ask what kind of cognitive factors make people predisposed to act in certain ways. Immediately there is an awkwardness here because Pinker is simultaneously legitimising old-fashioned historical analysis (‘no sane thinker’ would do otherwise) while appealing for people to spend more time working on non-historical subjects (‘a curious person can legitimately ask…’). Can we not do both? Of course.

(2) Knowledge acquisition is ‘hard’. Underlying causes, like biological/ psychological predispositions, do not announce themselves as readily as other kinds of causes. So better to hunt for these than other kinds of knowledge.

Pinker continued by outlining ‘how science illuminates human affairs’. Alas, as Ross Douthat pointed out in the New York Times a few days later, the defence quickly boiled down to an argument about how science had happily disenchanted the world. The polemical side of Pinker’s argument was as much about vindicating his particular moral philosophy as it was about methodology. I’m not going to get involved in that. Instead, let’s turn to think about what Pinker is asking the Humanities to do.

Violence

Here, helpfully, we have the example of Pinker’s recent book, The Better Angels of our Nature (US subtitle: ‘Why Violence has Declined’, UK subtitle: ‘A History of Violence and Humanity’. Bless cultural difference). The argument put forward was that violence in society has declined over the past 600 years or so, thanks to post-religious rationalism and the growth of the state, contrary to what those woolly liberals/ Marxists would have you believe. (Obvious implications here for the stateless Merovingians but that’s for another time). To support his case he used ‘big data’ to show that you were statistically less likely to die in a state-based society than a tribal one. There were graphs and numbers to underscore the point. The book ended with some evidence from psychology about predispositions towards violence and peace-making.

Now, it is clear that one of the things which motivated Pinker’s plea in The New Statesman was that many people just weren’t convinced by his argument and in particular by his methodology. I first came across this when reading a rather tetchy exchange between Pinker and Benjamin Ziemann in Reviews in History last year. Ziemann’s review made two key points: Pinker’s work lacks methodological rigour and the bit about psychology doesn’t seem to add anything. Let’s spell that out a little:

(1) It is not clear in many cases that Pinker’s evidence is robust enough to warrant the big conclusions and certainly the graphs. In part this is a big history/ small history issue. In dealing with a big sweep of history, Pinker does not exactly get into and behind the sources. One early moment in the book which made me smile was his (possibly deliberately flippant) argument that knights were not lovely and civilised – a case made solely in reference to how often violent acts are mentioned in Lancelot. Well, you know, he’s right: knights were pretty violent. But I don’t think a case has been won there. I have sat through some tediously violent Hollywood epics in the last 12 months which are far worse than Lancelot so, by extension of the argument’s principles, we are in more trouble than Pinker’s optimistic view of modern society suggests. Flippancy aside: historians do not find Pinker’s work rigorous, because it does not meet the standards we expect with regards to source criticism, arguments supported by evidence and so on.

(2) It was also not clear to Ziemann what the psychology chapters actually added. He admitted he didn’t really know much about the psychology, but he felt that once you had various predispositions towards peace or violence, their actual manifestations as acts of peace or violence were cultural facts explained by culture and historical processes, not psychology. To borrow (badly) a line from my girlfriend: it seems pretty certain that people are predisposed to acts of vengeance in certain cases, but we only understand them once we have compared how the same trigger plays out across time and space, i.e. in history. Pinker feels – indeed states in the New Statesman piece – that people in the Humanities are afraid of science because they feel it is ‘reductive’ to look for the hard evidence below the historical level. In fact, many historians this would cover are just not convinced that the science adds so much that it must become the new focus of research.

Pinker’s grumpy response to these accusations boiled down to this statement:

Ziemann reveals his core conviction when he invokes the hoary Durkheimian dogma that there are pristine ‘social facts’ in which the ‘psychological motivations of the people involved often disappear or become largely irrelevant’. This excuse for academic insularity, never convincing in the first place, is becoming increasingly archaic in an era in which scholars are integrating knowledge at multiple levels of analysis. Historians would be ill-advised to cling to it.

Now, there’s a BIG problem here. As a defence, it seems to be encouraging Ziemann to abandon his academic standards and rigour to ‘get with the program’. Yet surely historians should be encouraged to take all that is rigorous and successful about their discipline(s) with them. Many historians are very good at excellent historical analysis. Pinker has to do better than call them old-fashioned to win them over.

There is a second important issue: it is actually Pinker’s methodology rather than appealing to science per se that is the problem. Certainly early medievalists quite like science, especially those engaged with archaeology and environment studies. Let’s just pick out three examples:

Michael McCormick (also Harvard) has done some interesting work integrating observations from science. In a famous article in Speculum in 2007 – with Paul Dutton and Paul Mayewski – he looked at evidence for historical climate change to show how volcanoes might have affected the atmosphere c. 750-c.900. The article integrated science with sensible analysis of annals. The ice core data used was incomplete and there might have been factors other than volcanoes involved, but still: science plus good history. Now, this is very much about using the right tools for the right job. His last book, published four years later, was an excellent edition of a ninth-century text surveying the Holy Land with commentary drawing on extensive knowledge of Eastern and Western history. No science cart was put before the horse.

Or look at Nick Everett (Toronto) who has taken time to learn pharmacology so that he can analyse medieval medicine better. Dedication. But also it highlights the difficulty of specialisation – most historians don’t have time to retrain to understand sciences as well. This is not necessarily a problem if you can bring together teams of people.

And speaking of teams: look at Jo Story (Leicester) and her project The Impact of Diasporas on the Making of Britain: Evidence, Memories, Inventions – it has all sorts of things going on, with Jon Wetton looking at DNA evidence for migration events while Morn Capper analyses material culture and identity, fresh from helping look after the Staffordshire Hoard. And they know they must tread carefully because they do not want to end up with unfortunate situations like this: here and here.

So: many people in the Humanities are not afraid of science or scientism – they are actively looking into it. But at the same time they are doing so in a way which privileges intellectual rigour over fashion or a belief that only science will tell us the truth. Do not mistake opposition to Pinker with opposition to good, innovative and forward-looking scholarship.

A Final Point

The thing I found most disheartening about Pinker’s piece in the New Statesman was this:

Several university presidents and provosts have lamented to me that when a scientist comes into their office, it’s to announce some exciting new research opportunity and demand the resources to pursue it. When a humanities scholar drops by, it’s to plead for respect for the way things have always been done.

I can imagine that this might sometimes be the case. But if this is what is happening then the solution for the Humanities is not simply to embrace science. (It can also do that, by the way). It is to stand tall and to make the case for the importance of the great discoveries that have been made and the exciting ways forward that they are pursuing. There have been many articles recently about the importance of the Humanities. Strong and clear communication must be part of the defence.

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