Scientism and Skepticism: A Reply to Steven Pinker


Sebastian Normandin responds to Steven Pinker's New Republic article in Berfrois ( Illustration by Frank R. Paul. Via):

[W]hat Pinker is advocating is not even just scientism, it is actually a kind of ossified rationalism that sees an underlying unity in all scientific inquiry where in fact none exists. And this rationalism isn’t even the same as reason itself. Rationalism is to reason as scientism is to science. And both are a kind of fetishistic phenomena – an idealization akin to superstition:

In contrast to reason, a defining characteristic of superstition is the stubborn insistence that something – a fetish, an amulet, a pack of Tarot cards – has powers which no evidence supports. From this perspective, scientism appears to have as much in common with superstition as it does with properly conducted scientific research. Scientism claims that science has already resolved questions that are inherently beyond its ability to answer.[8]

This emerges as a kind of ideology, one that most historians and philosophers of science would find naïve and even troubling. It is, after all, difficult to say that there is any all- encompassing method or mode of inquiry in any field, the sciences included. Karl Popper, a fairly conservative philosopher of science (e.g. not a practitioner of the “disaster of postmodernism, with its defiant obscurantism, dogmatic relativism, and suffocating political correctness” Pinker rails against[9]), argued that the only thing that unified scientific ideas was that they were contingent and could be disproved (i.e. falsifiability).[10]

In discussing the “practices of science,” Pinker points out that they include “open debate, peer review, and double-blind methods”. Excepting double-blind methodology, which is primarily used in medicine, and specifically psychology and clinical trials, the other two practices are not even exclusive to science – they are in fact hallmarks of scholarly inquiry more generally. This further highlights the idea that while espousing the virtues of scientific methodology, it is hard for Pinker to pinpoint exactly what that methodology is. This is because there is no such thing as a universal, monolithic “scientific methodology”; this in spite of the continued folk homage paid to the idea of the “scientific method.”

More here.