Pinker on Scientism

In “Science Is Not Your Enemy“, Steven Pinker characterises scientism as more of a boo-word than a label for any coherent doctrine. He wants to rehabilitate scientism as a good thing, standing for a commitment to telling us that science is of a piece with philosophy, reason, and Enlightenment humanism. Certainly, many of our present-day notions of science as an institution can trace their origins to back to the Age of Enlightenment. The Royal Society of London (“for Improving Natural Knowledge”) famously adopted nullius in verba as its motto. This was supposed to express the determination of Fellows to withstand the domination of authority and to verify all statements by an appeal to facts determined by experiment[*].

The principle of taking nobody’s word for it might have seemed perfectly good in the age of the gentleman scientist, but today’s scientists definitely do take each other’s word for it. Most modern scientists survive by becoming specialists in the production of knowledge while cultivating eclecticism in their consumption of knowledge. They take research reports (“papers”) as read, having no time to check their veracity for themselves. Science today depends on networks of trust that allow scientists (and by implication anyone else) to feel they can trust research reports from people they don’t know personally without having to go verifying everything for themselves. Far from nullius in verba, modern science’s motto might better be periti in speramus.

Trust can be abused, of course, and Pinker is quick to assure us that his redefinition of scientism does not seek to imply that professionalised scientists are particularly wise or noble and lists open debate, peer review, and double-blind methods as “defining practices” of science “explicitly designed to circumvent the errors and sins to which scientists, being human, are vulnerable”. I think he’s chosen his “defining” practises rather too hastily. Neither open debate nor peer review are exclusive to science while expressly double-blind methods only really apply to studies of human beings. Of course, you might say that inanimate objects of study (as in chemistry or physics or astronomy or palaeontology, say) are inherently ‘blind’ to the study method, but in such studies, it is hardly universal to find case that investigators are carefully kept “blind” to the conditions under which they are making each observation.

Now, Pinker need not be ashamed that his “defining practises” actually fail to define science, for no-one else has really defined it satisfactorily either. What he should be concerned about, however, is that in his haste to assure us (rightly or wrongly) that the institutional practices of professionalised science can be relied upon to protect us from the charlatans that lurk there, he has overlooked the possibility that those practices might themselves conspire to undermine the efforts of honest men and women.

Based on consideration of the statistical standards currently prevailing in the biomedical research literature, epidemiologist John Ioannidis has argued that most claimed research findings are false[*]. The combination of statistical factors conspiring to make the research literature harbour a high proportion of incorrect findings may simply be a consequence of the culture that has evolved in professionalised science. Pushing experimental techniques to their limits results in study designs of low statistical power, a desire to be seen as ground-breaking or innovative drives the choice of bold (and therefore improbable) hypotheses to test, and a desire to have readily publishable ‘positive’ results drives the choice of low-stringency levels of statistical significance. Attempts to reproduce ‘key’ findings in the biomedical research literature, which have found that shockingly few of them are readily reproducible [Begley & Ellis], [Prinz et al.], would appear to provide empirical verification of Ioanniddis’ claims (note how this work came from industrial scientists, not academics).

No-one intended this, any more than anyone intended that burning fossil fuels on a large scale would destabilise the earth’s climate. But any atrophy in the scientific literature will be avoided only by scientists giving consideration to the actual processes of science – developing a “science of science”. Telling us that science is of a piece with philosophy, reason, and Enlightenment humanism simply doesn’t cut it. Belief that peer review protects us from mistaken or poorly-done science is itself quite probably mistaken. I’d suggest that, contrary to Pinker’s redefinition, we should think of scientism as a persistent belief that the trustworthiness of institutionalised science is a matter of fact rather than something that needs to be subject to continuous empirical re-evaluation.

In the end, our belief in science is a matter of investment. How much should we spend on it? The answer to that question depends on what we expect to get back. Unfortunately, past performance is no guarantee of future success. The past successes of science are no guarantee that doing ever more of it will produce ever more success. Avoiding scientism means recognising that and choosing more pragmatic and more sceptical strategies for investing in science.

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