What Steven Pinker Should Have Said

On August 6, The New Republic published “Science Is Not Your Enemy: An impassioned plea to neglected novelists, embattled professors, and tenure-less historians,” an essay by Steven Pinker.  It was an attempt to claim the word “scientism” for scientists and by claiming it, take it away from science’s enemies. This is a much-used strategy.  It’s what gays and lesbians did with “queer” and what the Society of Friends did with “Quaker.”

I thought Pinker’s article was pretty aggressive.  It was a name-calling, finger-pointing article. Pinker 5 Note that calling it that doesn’t establish anything at all about whether his accusations were true.  The finger-pointing did produce a lot of responses, though, and the New York Times printed seven of them on August 15. (You can see Pinker pointing one of the fingers here.)

From the seven, I’ve picked these four as the most fun.  None of them responds to what Pinker actually said.  Some talk about a topic they wish Pinker had written on rather than the one he did write on.  Some issue massive rebuttals of positions Pinker did not take.  Many of them have written books on “related topics” and the titles of the books go right below the name and the institutional affiliation.

Mine would look like this.  “Why is Steven Pinker So Scared of Steven Gould?”  Dale E. Hess is Adjunct Emeritus[1] at Portland State University in Portland, Oregon.  He is the author of Steven Pinker and His Critics and a number of films, interviews, VHS tapes and filmstrips on the same subject.  These comments on Pinker, in other words, serve as blurbs for the book.

Pinker 1The first respondent was Karl W. Giberson, a physicist who teaches science and religion at Stonehill College, in Easton, Massachusetts.  Here is his resounding beginning.

We are hard-wired to want creationism to be true. A strong belief in a creation story like that told in the Bible validates the powerful human desire to believe that our lives have meaning and purpose, that what we do matters…

Notice “hard-wired.”  Very scientific.  “Hard-wired to want…”  Not quite as scientific.  “A strong belief (like that told in the Bible) validates our desire.”  Validates?  I could go as far as “illustrates,” but I don’t think our belief actually “validates” anything at all. 

Giberson’s next step is this: “The brouhaha about “biblical creation” is really a proxy war about the reality of meaning in the world.”  Pinker is the war-maker, I’m guessing.  He doesn’t want a war about the creation story (stories) in Genesis, so he is fighting a war, instead, to establish that life doesn’t actually mean anything!  Really?

Actually, Pinker does think that life means something.  He does not believe that its meaning is given to us from “beyond.”  And there is nothing, absolutely nothing, Pinker would like more than a war about “biblical creationism.”

Nevertheless, the problem that shows up clearly in Pinker’s article, according to Giberson, is that he asks “either/or questions” and he should not.  One of the many reasons he should not is that Giberson has written a book.

I laid out just such a “bipartisan” story in my book “Seven Glorious Days,” but the warring camps are just too far apart in this conversation to appreciate any mediation..

Pinker 2My second choice is Kevin Wax, managing editor of The Gospel Project.  The Gospel Project thinks that Pinker went too far.  Of the respondents the Times chose, Wax comes closest to Pinker’s finger-pointing style and is furthest from Pinker’s actual views.  Wax wants to talk about whether people who accept that science is the only path to knowledge really live as if their lives had no meaning or purpose.  They should live that way, Wax thinks, once they have renounced “meaning” as the organizing principle of life, but they don’t.  They live as if their lives mean something.  Furthermore, “science,” is as impressive as religion is in handling data, because science is based on unprovable assumptions and is therefore “based on faith,” just as religion is.  So there.

Pinker didn’t actually raise the question of how scientists are to live, given that they “believe in” meaninglessness.  Wax thinks Pinker should have raised it.  Pinker also believes that scientific assumptions—which must, as Wax says, be taken on faith—are justified by their utility in accounting for data that cannot otherwise be accounted for.  Pinker’s standard is “Trust, but verify.”  Wax thinks that one or the other should be enough.

Wil Gafney is our next respondent.  She is an associate professor of Hebrew and Old Testament at Pinker 3The Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia and she wants to talk about why the creation account(s) given in Genesis should not be taken literally.  Pinker doesn’t actually raise the question of literal readings of the Bible, but you can tell he knows about them and that he is not happy.

Gaffney spends her days teaching students not to fall for literalism.

Literal readings of nonliteral texts can also lead to fraudulent readings, dogmatic tenacity to ahistorical or unscientific claims, and the loss of credibility for those who insist on nonsensical interpretations.

The dangers of literalism is what Gaffney would rather talk about.  Pinker, we would hope, wishes her well, but I am sure he would wonder why her students are reading sacred texts at all.  Pinker’s view sounds more like this and it is a much broader charge than Gaffney is responding to.

Most of the traditional causes of belief—faith, revelation, dogma, authority, charisma, conventional wisdom, the invigorating glow of subjective certainty—are generators of error and should be dismissed as sources of knowledge.

Pinker 4Finally, my favorite respondent.  Salam Al-Marayati is executive director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council.  He has no interest in Pinker at all.  He has a soft spot in his heart for the fundamentalist position on creationism, but he also thinks that the creationists are pansies.  “You think it’s bad when you want to talk about creationism at dinner parties,” he tells them.  “You should try talking about Shariah law.”

Americans should all be able to discuss topics like Shariah and creationism without intimidation and browbeating. Freedom of speech applies to those who want to follow religion as well as those who want to flee religion.

Al-Marayati has found that people don’t know much about Shariah, but they know they hate it.  He seems to believe that if creationists got treated better, there would be a chance that advocates of Shariah  would be treated better.  I’m sure he would appreciate that and I don’t blame him.  Besides, Shariah is what he wants to talk about and Pinker’s pitch on the virtues of “scientism” is of no more interest to him than Shariah is to Pinker.

I titled this post “Responding to Steven Pinker.”   You know now that I consider that a heavily ironic title.  No one did actually respond to Pinker.  Everyone responded to something that Pinker’s article made them think of.  In many cases, it made they think of the jobs they have or the books they have written.

Of course, I have not responded to Steven Pinker’s argument either.  But I might.


[1] That is my actual title since my retirement.  An adjunct professor is like a substitute teachers in an elementary school except that you get the phone call earlier.  “Adjunct Emeritus” means that I am a substitute teacher based on my merit, which you could take either way, really.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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