Most People Missed the Point Of Steven Pinker's New Republic Essay


If you pay attention to questions of science in culture, it's likely that you've heard of Steven Pinker. Pinker has been run through the gauntlet for his recent essay in The New Republic in which he attempts to reclaim the word "scientism." Critics from the New York Times to the atheist blogger PZ Myers have torn into him as a result. The debacle highlights the heated debate over the role of quantification in our society.

Meyers is right that the essay demonstrated substantial arrogance; however, the outraged critics have overlooked some of Pinker's more valid points — most notably that he's engaged us all in a much larger dialogue about the direction of the way knowledge is being produced in academia in general.

Scientism has different definitions depending on who is using it, but it's easily become one of the most contentious words in the modern intellectual lexicon. For Daniel Dennet, the word is a pejorative attack on modern scientific theory. It is often used by religious conservatives when religion and science collide. Others, such as Leon Wieseltier, define it as the overreach of science's attempt to quantify everything in society. The emergence of big data, combined with major changes in academic funding, is certainly changing the knowledge produced in this country. 

Blame quantification (the attempt to measure or quantify), as its growing role in the humanities is intimately linked to scientism. Along with consilience (the growing unity of knowledge and the idea that eventually all fields will overlap and find similar answers to big questions), these two factors are dramatically impacting knowledge generation in the 21st century.

Attempts to understand that interaction between the different tool sets and narratives that exist within the humanities and the sciences is increasingly being met with criticism. These criticisms range from skepticism that scientific methods can be applied to the humanities to more blunt claims that science has little or no place in these topics (such as Stephen Jay Goulds' classic non-overlapping magisterium argument on religion and science). Too often these criticisms do not include deeper arguments. The most compelling among them is the possibility that quantification could leave something out.

One such criticism comes from Michael Sandel, who directly attacks the quantification of society through economics as uncaring; especially when one considers the potential for negative externalities (costs such as environmental pollution paid by a third party in an economic agreement). Quantification, if poorly planned (or if the problem it's intended to solve is poorly framed), can lead to models that completely misinterpret a phenomenon. For example, if I decide I want to study a forest, break the forest up into plots, and choose from a random number table which plots I study, I may find myself accidentally studying only a few small isolated portions of the forest leading to an inaccurate larger characterization. 

As quantification increases, it begins to substantially impact everything from policy (any new environmental regulation must be justified via cost-benefit analysis) to how Netflix constructs a new television show. This can lead to potentially positive results. For example, requiring a net economically positive result of cost-benefit analysis for environmental regulations to be passed limits negative economic impacts. Quantification also enables more targeted ads, and therefore increases the likelihood that a relevant ad appears in your Facebook newsfeed.

Quantification, if properly designed, can yield many benefits which is why it's a virtual requirement in scientific fields of study. It enables comparison. In examples where quantification can get one into trouble, the default question should be, "What if I simply designed a better quantification scheme?" If quantification isn’t necessary for some fields, let's prove it. Otherwise, it simply becomes a question of better understanding how to frame attempts to quantify.

As the various fields of knowledge begin to flow into each other, it's inevitable to see an interaction between sciences and the humanities. This is where Pinker makes his most important point, and it's one that has been buried. 

Consilience is most commonly observed in the classic (and annoying) assertion that "Y" is just "applied X" (psychology is just applied biology, biology is just applied chemistry, Brazilian jiu-jitsu is basically just judo, etc). This is what Pinker meant when he used the example of English majors learning computational linguistics. 

A better example of consilience, however, exists in the form of author Sam Harris. Harris holds a doctorate in cognitive neuroscience from UCLA, which he received after completing his undergraduate degree in philosophy at Stanford. His work has primarily concerned decision analysis and questions regarding neuroscience and its larger implications on society. His book The Moral Landscape asserted that one could utilize science to determine the best outcomes for humanity.

One example Harris suggests is tracking what actions or policies effect stress hormones and reward hormones. The initial philosophical problem with this idea is the question of what to value. His critics one has to build the philosophical framework beyond what is already in place for science (science is in and of itself a field of philosophy, which is too often forgotten). They fail, however, to consider that Harris is working off the basic tenets of the purpose of life deduced by evolutionary biology: survivorship and reproduction. Policies that increase the likelihood that people can survive this world and go on to have children if they wish have greater utility.

Work from individuals such as Harris indicates there does appear to be a point of intersection between the humanities and science. The humanities can be informed by science (such as in the case Harris makes for neuroscience and ethics), and science requires some of the tools of the humanities (look no further then the stress placed upon narrowly defining terms to see the impact of philosophy alone). 

Whether or not the space between science and the humanities is an intersection or a boundary needs to be further explored. There is the very real chance that in my attempt to quantify a phenomenon, inaccurate study of that phenomenon can in turn lead to poor framing. This can lead to unexpected impacts, which could be terrible. Still, quantification has managed to do a very good job of accurately predicting how matter in our universe behaves, and if there are gaps or broken points, it's likely we may go further despite them.

As consilience continues, we may one day understand why some fields shouldn’t be quantified. But if we take anything away from Pinker, let's take away the idea that quantification and consilience matter because they impact our world deeply, regardless of who we are or what we study.