Steven Pinker's article on "Scientism"

Discussion in 'Game Design' started by keithburgun, Aug 13, 2013.

  1. keithburgun

    keithburgun Administrator, Lead Designer Staff Member

    Today I saw Ian Bogost and a few of his friends on Twitter complaining about this Steven Pinker article. None of them explained why, but when I read the title of the article I was able to quickly make a guess, which, after reading the article, turned out to be correct.

    The article is called "Science is Not The Enemy", and it's about how people in the humanities tend to be extremely skeptical of science.

    This is something I've been complaining about for a long time, so it was great for me to see someone like Pinker come out and talk about it. FTA:

    The humanities have yet to recover from the disaster of postmodernism, with its defiant obscurantism, dogmatic relativism, and suffocating political correctness. And they have failed to define a progressive agenda. Several university presidents and provosts have lamented to me that when a scientist comes into their office, it’s to announce some exciting new research opportunity and demand the resources to pursue it. When a humanities scholar drops by, it’s to plead for respect for the way things have always been done. [bold text em-bold-ified by me]​

    YES! I am so glad that I'm not crazy, or at least, if I am, that other people are having the same hallucinations, especially someone like Pinker who couldn't be from a more different background than myself. I feel like he MUST know the same game designers I know and he must be talking about them, but then, I know he doesn't, and it's just a much larger problem.

    I would go farther and say that not only are the things he says true, but I would add that there's a culture of romanticizing not-knowing.

    There is absolutely no shame whatsoever in not knowing something. If you don't know something, then the answer is to be humble, and simply admit that you don't know it.

    But while there's no shame in not knowing something, there's also no pride in not knowing something. I recently heard a podcast with a game designer who I personally like a lot, and who I won't name because of that reason, and he was saying something along the following lines:

    "So, all of the greatest games sort of get discovered, like people have no idea what it is they're making, and then after they're done, they kind of figure out what's cool about it much later on, like nobody goes into it knowing what they're doing, and that's magical and wonderful!"

    No, it's not magical and wonderful that you don't know what you're doing. I mean it's not shameful either - again, it's OK to not know - but it's also not anything to be proud of. Yet there's this romance, and what sucks is, I think it holds us back. As someone who is trying hard to push things forward, probably few people rub up against this more than me, but I'm wondering if other people have noticed this too.

    EDIT: One friend of mine who is also "anti" this article linked me to this article as a good representation of their gripes. Haven't read it yet.
  2. EnDevero

    EnDevero Well-Known Member

    That article your friend linked beautifully illustrates what's wrong with what Pinker is saying in his. You should definitely give it a read.
  3. keithburgun

    keithburgun Administrator, Lead Designer Staff Member

    I read it, and I still don't understand. It looks like:

    "Yeah, scientism works, until you make a science claim that I DON'T AGREE WITH!!!" That seems to be his whole point, is that he doesn't agree with some specifics. The argument seems to be "We shouldn't use science in the humanities, because what if someone says something and it's wrong?!?!"

    Like they're going on about Sam Harris and how he has positions they don't agree with. So? Peer review it then, that's science.

    Maybe the author confused "the scientific process" with "some claims that were the result of someone doing science"?

    Endevero, could you sum up what you think the NYT guy's argument is? Or better yet, why you think Pinker's claim(s) are wrong.
  4. EnDevero

    EnDevero Well-Known Member

    After fully reading through Pinker's article, it's really not all that objectionable and I don't quite understand why the backlash is so harsh. My issues are more with the idea that science has all of the answers, but that doesn't really seem to be what Pinker is arguing. It seems like he's just saying that the humanities need to be more receptive towards science, and that's alright. The humanities should totally be using science, it's an incredibly useful tool (hell, that's an understatement). So I agree with the main idea of the article after all.

    I still agree with that NYT article though. Pinker makes a dumb claim, and while he's at it he shows why it's so easy to dismiss people who fall into this "scientism" camp (never actually heard that phrase until now). My issue isn't with science, but with the many people that give science a bad name. Specifically, the dumb claim Pinker makes is:

    "And in combination with a few unexceptionable convictions— that all of us value our own welfare and that we are social beings who impinge on each other and can negotiate codes of conduct—the scientific facts militate toward a defensible morality, namely adhering to principles that maximize the flourishing of humans and other sentient beings. This humanism, which is inextricable from a scientific understanding of the world, is becoming the de facto morality of modern democracies, international organizations, and liberalizing religions, and its unfulfilled promises define the moral imperatives we face today."​
    A lot of people arguing on the side of Pinker say things like this. They give science way too much credit. Science explains the workings of the world, but it definitely doesn't assign purpose or meaning, at least not at this point. The scientific process has in no way led us to believe that we should "maximize the flourishing of humans and other sentient beings". Science doesn't give two shits whether beings survive or not, unfortunately. I'm just disappointed that many of the defenders of science use such romantic lies. Science doesn't lead to humanism. Science doesn't actually seem to directly support any ideology other than maybe nihilism.​
    Other than that though, yeah, I don't get what's wrong with Pinker's article. He's not asking for science to replace the humanities or anything, so I don't see what the big deal is.​
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  5. evizaer

    evizaer Well-Known Member

    Or perhaps it's because trusting someone is a way to signal status. For instance, I trust person X and you respect me, so you trust person X to reap the rewards of association between you, me, and person X.

    I agree that we do romanticize not-knowing--the concept of "magic" is so pervasive and I think it's attributable to this reason. Wonder and the unknown are darkly appealing. Knowing that it's a guy behind a curtain with a funky mirror is not.

    You got it. It's hard to know when you know something, though--that's a real challenge. You can have all the logic in the world behind you, but still be missing that a premise is somewhat off, or that logic itself is not reflected in reality because your abstractions are off.

    I think it's amazing that people can do really complex and difficult things intuitively and do them really well. There's certainly a lot of value in just having someone around who can intuitively do great things. There's a lot more lasting value in systematizing the great stuff so it can be reproduced by others, though. I think that's where the really hard, but really rewarding work is.
  6. keithburgun

    keithburgun Administrator, Lead Designer Staff Member

    I mean, maybe you think that that specific claim is wrong, but that really has nothing to do with the argument. Also, it should be noted that many smart people do not think that that claim is wrong, so like, even if you say it's wrong, probably it's best to not call it "dumb". I personally probably think it's true. I generally agree with guys like Sam Harris etc on the topic of morality as a science.


    That's not the claim. The claim is that morality is a science, and that we have been discovering better and better moral truths over time, basically by using the scientific method. Anyway again, this isn't what the thread is about, perhaps we can make another thread on morality.

    Well, it's appealing in a different way. Plenty of scientists, probably most notably Carl Sagan, have pointed out the great romance of knowing. Richard Dawkins' book, The Magic of Reality also does a good job of this.
  7. Dasick

    Dasick Well-Known Member

    I think the big issue people have with 'scientism' is that sciences are just tools, but people are saying that they provide values and agendas as well. Uhh, no they don't. Sure, sciences provide understanding and answers about the world around us, that's their point, but the reason why someone seeks understanding and answers varies. Moral truths for example, depend heavily on one's values - how much one values this or that aspect of the human life, and what kind of life are we talking about. The later is entirely in the realm of philosophy. The really stupid thing about the whole modern science-humanities is the schizophrenic idea that somehow the two are separate, self-contained entities.
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  8. Zirk

    Zirk Member

    It would be a pretty mediocre article even if I weren't already predisposed to disliking Mr. Pinker. He regularly and repeatedly makes rhetorical shifts between science itself and scientific positivism and progressivism, conflating them with each other when it suits his purposes but shifting them apart when it doesn't. He conflates criticism of individual fields of science, or perhaps even of an individual scientist, with criticism of the idea of science. He glibly connects 19th century philosophers' discoveries with science as though their methodologies were meaningfully comparable. He decries the idea that students be exposed to the idea that not all venues in science might not be fruitful. This is the face of pop science writing: a slick, glossy jaunt through some new ideas, constant redirection to new flashy conceits, the suggestion that superficial connections between unrelated things are totally profound, and the promise that, by golly, someday for sure we'll be able to prove *claim of questionable falsifiability.*

    The whole thing comes across as a sort of tribal cheerleading for Team Science, and I find that distasteful. The whole argument is set up in such a way that he's playing his team up against the Other Team, and he's more than willing to indiscriminately heap piles of sins upon his critics while bolstering any of the ancillary domains of his own chosen field as being as sound and definite as physics or epidemiology. And he does this all while claiming that this somehow precludes the belief in a dialectic! All in all, I don't really like the fact that he's redefining the term scientism to conflate both scientists and scientismists, turning the word "science" away from profession of people who dedicate their careers to the pursuit of scientific knowledge through dedicated experimentation and analysis and towards a Tumblr-ready science fan club whose members happen to share some normative social value. It feels like science patriotism. And as someone who took a shitload of physics courses in college and who definitely belongs more in the pro-science camp than the pro-anything else camp (I'm not a scientist; that path worked out for my brother but not for me), this feels patronizing.

    And what's with that "The definitional vacuum allows me to replicate gay activists’ flaunting of 'queer' and appropriate the pejorative for a position I am prepared to defend" line. It seems unproductive to have to come up with a new definition of scientism that doesn't actually capture the objections I see people bringing when they use that word, especially if you're comparing a widespread hateful anti-gay slur with an evolutionary biologist having an article written about him by The Nation. And seriously, "flaunting?" Why not just go ahead and say that they like to prance around with the word?

    EDIT: Sam Harris is a scoundrel, a detestable moralist, and a dubious scientist.

    There is absolutely an enormous anti-intellectual movement that values certain forms of irrationality and it should be opposed. That's easy for me to do, though, at least on an intellectual basis. This essay is painful because it hits so close to home.
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  9. keithburgun

    keithburgun Administrator, Lead Designer Staff Member

    Ok, so everyone hates Steven Pinker and the things he says, but none of those things are the actual point of this article. In fact, the point of his article is correct, even if he did a bad job of explaining it. Is that a good summary of everyone's feelings?
  10. EnDevero

    EnDevero Well-Known Member

    That's pretty much my view, yes. Humanities and Sciences need to work together and coexist happily. Pinker's method of arguing this just left a bad taste in my mouth is all.
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  11. Zirk

    Zirk Member

    I have no particular objections to the central thesis that research in scientific fields could be used to better the humanities. I like that idea, actually. To tie this back into game design I think that, for instance, learning how to make better block-pushing games could lead to better art-games that happen to involve block pushing. I think that all sorts of models and work on, say, worker allocation games could lead to better "base models" of worker allocation games.
  12. keithburgun

    keithburgun Administrator, Lead Designer Staff Member

    Yeah I mean, the reason his article resonated strongly with me is that this is kind of my entire raison d'être. It was largely the point of my book and will be a huge point in my talk at the PRACTICE game design conference, where much weasel-wording and existential nonsense will most certainly go down.
  13. keithburgun

    keithburgun Administrator, Lead Designer Staff Member

    Revisiting this old topic from over a year ago...

    I hate the term "scientism". Super happy that spell check is putting red wiggly lines under it. The term reminds me of all the people who don't have a belief in any gods yet refuse to use the term "atheist" to refer to themselves because they "don't want to seem closed minded" or some such crap. Or the people who call themselves "spiritual", without making any specific supernatural claims.

    Basically, a bunch of people who live in a modern secular science-based world are afraid that science is going to suck the mystery/romance out of life, or something, and so they make up a bunch of bullshit, such as scientism. Let's paint people's trust in science as some kind of RELIGION!

    Here's the thing - sure - you can't rely on science for "everything", in the word everything's most literal sense. So like as you said, you can't use science to prove something super esoteric like "establishing that the scientific method is effective", maybe.

    But who cares? Essentially 100% of the things that we would actually want science to be able to determine for us, it can - at least in theory, if not in practice - determine for us.

    And the thing is, everyone knows that.
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  14. Zirk

    Zirk Member

    I'm a materialist who doesn't believe in any supernatural forces and I still think that scientism is a useful term. There are people who misapply scientific theories, people who give credence to superficial explanations that appear scientific and therefore correct, people who misapply the scientific method, and perhaps worst of all, those who don't even bother with the scientific method and leave their theories untested. These are the people who, when you confront them over their misunderstanding or misapplication, reply by saying Excuse me, but maybe you've heard of these things called dinosaurs and airplanes. Then they compare themselves to Galileo.

    The problem isn't that the universe isn't understandable through a sort of logical formalism -- I believe that it is, although I certainly can't know this, though I'll admit that the last 100 years have made this view less likely than the 100 years before that one did. The problem is that any given constructed formalism isn't automatically valid by virtue of seeming scientific. That's where the word scientism is useful.
  15. vivafringe

    vivafringe Well-Known Member Staff Member

    Zirk, would you support calling the misapplication of empirical methods "empiricism?"

    Would you support calling overzealous fanaticism about gender equality "feminism?"

    I think you're wrong to use the term. Should I call you a follower of "scientismism?"
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  16. Zirk

    Zirk Member

    I wouldn't call the misapplication of empirical methods "empiricism" because it is not consistent with any definition of "empiricism" that I'm familiar with.

    I wouldn't call overzealous fanaticism about gender equality "feminism" because the only people who use that as the definition of feminism are attempting to discredit feminist movements, which have multiple, well-understood and well-explored definitions of what "feminism" is.

    In the case of "scientism," the word in my experience is used primarily to refer to pseudoscientific posturing, the complaints as likely to come from a legitimate place ("this is a misapplication") as an illegitimate one ("science is the devil"). I've never encountered anyone prior to Pinker who used the term (heh) positively.
  17. keithburgun

    keithburgun Administrator, Lead Designer Staff Member

    These aren't "scientisim-ists", they're just people who are stupid and jerks. Mis-using science is bad. Being cocky is also bad. I think we have words already to refer to these things.

    Like, to demonstrate my point more - can you show me a person who is exhibiting scientism who is NOT mis-using science?
  18. vivafringe

    vivafringe Well-Known Member Staff Member

    "Scientist" *is* a well defined word, even if "scientism" isn't. And using the word "scientism" in a derogatory sense is going to do tons and tons of damage to the scientific movement as a whole, in the same way that using "feminism" in a derogatory sense did huge damage to the feminist movement as a whole. Much larger damage, I might add, than overzealous feminists ever did.

    Words aren't arbitrary labels that you can slap on concepts any way you want. Using "scientism" to mean "bad at science" is dangerous because people are going to hear the word and infer "science is bad." Just say "misusing the scientific method" if that's what you mean; it's really not clear by just saying "scientism" by itself.
    Last edited: Jul 7, 2014
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  19. Lemon

    Lemon Well-Known Member

    That just is not true. Feminism has been damaging its own reputation for decades now. Examples:

    Feminism has a long history of lobbying for gender discriminatory policies, such as VAWA, affirmative action in schools and colleges, female centred healthcare reforms, women in business programs, and biased child custody laws.

    They also openly and vehemently attack mens rights organisations as misogynistic - even when they just advocate for equality in education, sentencing, domestic violence support (eg. See the justice for men and boys political party manifesto).

    Prominent feminists often go on record saying things like 'it is important to restrict the term rape to instances where male victims were penetrated by offenders. It is inappropriate to consider as a rape victim a man who engages in unwanted sexual intercourse with a woman' (Mary Koss, when consulting for the CDC on rape reporting).

    Consider also the recent 'Don't be that guy' campaign that implies that men are naturally prone to being rapists, or the everyday sexism project where they make all sorts of outlandish claims about how men are responsible for their pet peeves (seriously have you read any of it?)

    They also often knowingly spread false statistics to serve their agenda eg. That 1 in 6 women will be raped or that domestic violence is a women's issue even though the majority of DA victims are male (as is true with all other forms of violence).

    There are plenty of legitimate criticisms of feminism. The misconception that feminism is the only ideology that can possibly support gender equality and that all alternatives are misogynistic is why feminist groups get away with such sexist policies.

    OT: people using the word in a derogatory sense is not the cause of their poor reputation, it's a symptom.
    Last edited: Jul 7, 2014
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  20. Erenan

    Erenan Well-Known Member

    I am totally interested in being clear with my words, and I didn't know that you guys felt this way about the word "scientism." I'll try not to use it again.

    This might be a bit off topic, but here goes: I think this is a little shortsighted, Keith. I am technically a (qualified) weak stance atheist because I hold no strong assertive beliefs about the existence of any deity. However, I usually prefer not to use the word "atheist" not because I don't want to seem closed minded but because it's such an overloaded word that nearly unavoidably sends certain messages. If I'm talking to a professor of philosophy or religion or something, I'll be perfectly happy to say "weak stance atheist" because I know that they'll know exactly what I mean. But if I'm talking to a basketball coach at a Christian high school, I will not say that I'm an atheist because by doing that I would likely be communicating something to them that I don't mean. They will probably presume that what I mean is that God doesn't exist and that I think I know that with 100% certainty. But I don't believe God doesn't exist, and in fact, if I was forced to guess I would guess that there is some sort of deity. Yet I'm technically an atheist.

    Here's a similar example: If I use the word "scientism" in the context of certain communities, people might get the idea that I'm some kind of anti-science right-wing religious nutjob, so it's in my interest not to use the word.
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