Readers of TNR were recently treated to a longish essay from renowned psychologist Steven Pinker in which he claims that Jackson Lears (among others in the “humanities”) is a “zealous prosecutor” of “scientism.” Since many of us are familiar with Lears’s work on late 19th century America, I suppose it would not come as a surprise that he might register a skeptical comment or two regarding the promise of science to deliver moral truth. But, wow!, does Pinker do a hatchet job on the general approach historians–especially intellectual historians–bring to their critiques of movements with aspirations to change life as we know it. Pinker’s general claim is that “the intrusion of science into the territories of the humanities has been deeply resented.” I will put the term “humanities” in quotes when I refer to Pinker’s use of it because he never identifies the boundaries or disciplines or key figures that made him write this piece. He lists a few journals, mentions a few anecdotes, and refers to two people by name (Lears representing the “left”), but the general drift of the piece seems to be a plea not for respecting science but for recognizing the following in the most positive way possible: that “the worldview that guides the moral and spiritual values of an educated person today is the worldview given to us by science.”
Fair enough, I will give credit to science for such a (ill-defined) worldview just as long as all that is wrong with that worldview is not consigned to religion and the humanities and all that is right is credited to science. But of course, that is what Lears attempted to do in the piece that Pinker jumped on. In Pinker’s TNR essay, he pulls out the following quote from Lears:
Positivist assumptions provided the epistemological foundations for Social Darwinism and pop-evolutionary notions of progress, as well as for scientific racism and imperialism. These tendencies coalesced in eugenics, the doctrine that human well-being could be improved and eventually perfected through the selective breeding of the “fit” and the sterilization or elimination of the “unfit.”
Every schoolkid knows about what happened next: the catastrophic twentieth century. Two world wars, the systematic slaughter of innocents on an unprecedented scale, the proliferation of unimaginably destructive weapons, brushfire wars on the periphery of empire—all these events involved, in various degrees, the application of scientific research to advanced technology.
Pinker counters: “The mindset of science, cannot be blamed for genocide and war and does not threaten the moral and spiritual health of our nation. It is, rather, indispensable in all areas of human concern, including politics, the arts, and the search for meaning, purpose, and morality.” And of course, as Pinker implies, always for the good! How so, according to Pinker the “defining principles of science, including open debate, peer review, and double-blind methods, are explicitly designed to circumvent the errors and sins to which scientists, being human, are vulnerable.” The problem with this comment reflects to core problem with Pinker’s over arching argument–we are indeed human, and all the methodology we can must will not eliminate the “sins” that will befall us.
More simply, Pinker was too selective in his use of Lears. The passages that follow what Pinker quoted in his essay are the most important part of Lears’s argument and, more generally, for most historians:
All [these events] showed that science could not be elevated above the agendas of the nation-state: the best scientists were as corruptible by money, power or ideology as anyone else, and their research could as easily be bent toward mass murder as toward the progress of humankind. Science was not merely science. The crowning irony was that eugenics, far from “perfecting the race,” as some American progressives had hoped early in the twentieth century, was used by the Nazis to eliminate those they deemed undesirable. Eugenics had become another tool in the hands of unrestrained state power. As Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer argued near the end of World War II in Dialectic of Enlightenment, the rise of scientific racism betrayed the demonic undercurrents of the positivist faith in progress. Zygmunt Bauman refined the argument forty-two years later inModernity and the Holocaust: the detached positivist worldview could be pressed into the service of mass extermination. The dream of reason bred real monsters.
I would hope that Pinker would not read Lears’s elucidation as merely casting aspersions on the entire enterprise of science, but rather noting that human faults cannot be eliminated by the hopeful power of the scientific method. Who, then, is the zealot?