Steven Pinker: “Dear Humanists, Science is Not Your Enemy”

pinker humanities

Human­ists are feel­ing a bit belea­guered these days. And who can blame them? Enroll­ments in human­i­ties cours­es are in steady decline nation­wide, and every­one’s look­ing for a cause. Some blame the decline on the tough econ­o­my and the relent­less­ly voca­tion­al focus of stu­dents. Oth­ers attribute it to the “anti-intel­lec­tu­al moment” in which we’re now liv­ing. Still oth­ers place the blame right in the laps of human­ists who have “lost faith in their own enter­prise.” They’re com­mit­ting their own form of career sui­cide. And then some fault the ever-increas­ing encroach­ment of sci­ence. For nowa­days sci­ence tries to answer all ques­tions, includ­ing what’s good, beau­ti­ful and true.

But if you lis­ten to Steven Pinker, he’ll tell you that sci­ence is not the prob­lem. Ear­li­er today, the emi­nent Har­vard psy­chol­o­gist pub­lished a piece in The New Repub­lic called Sci­ence Is Not Your Ene­my: An impas­sioned plea to neglect­ed nov­el­ists, embat­tled pro­fes­sors, and tenure-less his­to­ri­ans. And he offered these assur­ances:

[Sci­ence does­n’t have] an impe­ri­al­is­tic dri­ve to occu­py the human­i­ties; the promise of sci­ence is to enrich and diver­si­fy the intel­lec­tu­al tools of human­is­tic schol­ar­ship, not to oblit­er­ate them. And it is not the dog­ma that phys­i­cal stuff is the only thing that exists. Sci­en­tists them­selves are immersed in the ethe­re­al medi­um of infor­ma­tion, includ­ing the truths of math­e­mat­ics, the log­ic of their the­o­ries, and the val­ues that guide their enter­prise. In this con­cep­tion, sci­ence is of a piece with phi­los­o­phy, rea­son, and Enlight­en­ment human­ism. It is dis­tin­guished by an explic­it com­mit­ment to two ideals, and it is these that sci­en­tism seeks to export to the rest of intel­lec­tu­al life.

If you’re a human­ist try­ing to fig­ure out whether you can take com­fort in Pinker’s argu­ment, you can read the rest of his piece here.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Can Sci­ence Fic­tion Save the Lib­er­al Arts? (Asks The New Repub­lic)

Ser­i­al Entre­pre­neur Damon Horowitz Says “Quit Your Tech Job and Get a Ph.D. in the Human­i­ties”

Read The Har­vard Clas­sics: A Free DIY Edu­ca­tion in the Lib­er­al Arts

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Comments (3)
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  • John says:

    I don’t know any human­ist who thinks sci­ence is the ene­my. It’s the dumb­ed-down pro­fes­sion­al degrees, name­ly busi­ness and the var­i­ous career prep off­shoots (“leisure stud­ies,” etc.) that are the prob­lem.

    I also don’t know any human­ists or sci­en­tists who don’t roll their eyes at least a lit­tle take when psy­chol­o­gy is called a sci­ence.

  • Anonymous says:


    What spe­cif­ic aspects of psy­chol­o­gy do you (or the sci­en­tists you know) think might com­pro­mise its posi­tion as a sci­ence?

  • jkop says:

    Tra­di­tion­al ene­mies to sci­ence are author­i­ties who rely on peo­ple’s belief in hid­den or con­fes­sion­al truths (e.g. priests, poets, politi­cians). But the sec­u­lar truths of sci­ence tend to offer bet­ter expla­na­tions, and may help to replace bad­ly jus­ti­fied or harm­ful author­i­ties with mer­i­toc­ra­cies. I don’t see what a true human­ist would gain from attempt­ing to deflate or dis­cred­it sci­ence.

    @Anonymous: I’d say one aspect is its unclear ter­mi­nol­o­gy. For exam­ple, the mean­ing of a men­tal state or process may dif­fer from instance to instance. Anoth­er is the dif­fi­cul­ty to mea­sure, com­pare, or quan­ti­fy their man­i­fes­ta­tions.

    @John: Even if they were dumb­ed-down degrees their cred­i­bil­i­ty prob­a­bly depends on ref­er­ences to sci­ence (e.g. busi­ness to sta­tis­tics rather than astrol­o­gy or coin­ci­dence)

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