U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Is Jackson Lears Anti-Scientific or Just a Plain Old Smarty-Pants?

Steven-Pinker-horizontalReaders 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?

8 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Is there a link to Pinker’s essay here? At any rate, here they both are.



    Leaving aside the substance of Pinker’s criticism of critics of scientism, one can criticize him for making egregious errors of historical fact and interpretation. Errors like this one:

    “The great thinkers of the Age of Reason and the Enlightenment were scientists.”

    That is the first sentence of the essay. No serious scholar of the Enlightenment would accept that statement even with serious qualification. If Pinker proposed it to a gathering of such scholars, they would laugh him out of the room. When the piece surfaced last week one of my friends posted it to Facebook. Someone commented that they stopped reading after the first sentence. I noted that categorical dismissal, but being busy with other things at the time but did no more than that. Now that I have had it thrust upon me, as it were, I read the first sentence. And there I stopped. If Pinker is going to open with such a grievous misrepresentation, why on Earth should I trust anything that comes after? If Pinker is going to criticize the humanities, he should at least know what he’s talking about.

    • Pinker’s piece is at least less incoherent than Lears’ laundry list rant, which starts off with Barry Goldwater and careens through Citizens United to eugenics before arriving at the likes of Noam Chomsky at the end of its polemical rainbow.

      All mankind’s sins of recent centuries are assigned to some Other, any Other, who’s not the Nation reader.

    • Agreed the first sentence is very bad. Perhaps a little tricky b.c the lines betw science and non-science were somewhat blurrier then, one might argue. Condorcet wrote about mathematics early in his career, Kant about astronomy early in his. But Rousseau, for ex., was, AFAIK, no kind of scientist and Jefferson, for another ex., was interested in science but I don’t think cd be called a scientist. I’m no expert on the Enlightenment, but to start out a general-audience piece w a sweeping sentence like that is really regrettable.

  2. This is just an odd idea for a Friday night. Aristotle knew nothing of this problem. As is familiar he distinguished practical from theoretical science but included all human knowledge under the rubric of science.
    Perhaps if we revisited Aristotle’s way of looking at science, this problem of scientism would disappear, in a way I haven’t figured out.
    Weber is also relevant as per his discussion of hyperspecialization. Weber would simply recognize different independent realms of knowledge.
    Other than that, even Feynmann in his famous lectures admitted that love, read symbolizing the humanities, had a place of its own in human knowledge, and he was as much a scientist as Pinker.
    I think Feynmann would encourage people to do (and study) what makes them happy and not to care what other people think, including what scientists who were guilty of scientism thought

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