Steven Pinker to “neglected novelists, embattled professors, and tenure-less historians,” in The New Republic:
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. Though everyone endorses science when it can cure disease, monitor the environment, or bash political opponents, the intrusion of science into the territories of the humanities has been deeply resented. Just as reviled is the application of scientific reasoning to religion; many writers without a trace of a belief in God maintain that there is something unseemly about scientists weighing in on the biggest questions. In the major journals of opinion, scientific carpetbaggers are regularly accused of determinism, reductionism, essentialism, positivism, and worst of all, something called “scientism.” The past couple years have seen four denunciations of scientism in this magazine alone, together with attacks in Bookforum, The Claremont Review of Books, The Huffington Post, The Nation, National Review Online, The New Atlantis, The New York Times, and Standpoint.
The eclectic politics of these publications reflects the bipartisan nature of the resentment. This passage, from a 2011 review in The Nation of three books by Sam Harris by the historian Jackson Lears, makes the standard case for the prosecution by the left:
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 unimaginable destructive weapons, brushfire wars on the periphery of empire—all these events involved, in various degrees, the application of sceintific research to advanced technology.
The case from the right, captured in this 2007 speech from Leon Kass, George W. Bush’s bioethics adviser, is just as measured:
Scientific ideas and discoveries about living nature and man, perfectly welcome and harmless in themselves, are being enlisted to do battle against our traditional religious and moral teachings, and even our self-understanding as creatures with freedom and dignity. A quasi-religious faith has sprung up among us—let me call it “soul-less scientism”—which believes that our new biology, eliminating all mystery, can give a complete account of human life, giving purely scientific explanations of human thought, love, creativity, moral judgment, and even why we believe in God. … Make no mistake. The stakes in this contest are high: at issue are the moral and spiritual health of our nation, the continued vitality of science, and our own self-understanding as human beings and as children of the West.
These are zealous prosecutors indeed. But their cases are weak.