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Pinker Embraces Scientism

August 19, 2013 in Economics

By Peter G. Klein

Further to my previous post on scientism: Steven Pinker has entered the fray, with a full-throated defense of the “scientific method,” to be applied anywhere and everywhere. Skirting decades worth of thorny controversies about the philosophy, history, and sociology of science (going back at least to Hayek in the 1940s), he simply asserts that scientific practice — defined as “open debate, peer review, and double-blind methods” — is the gold standard for knowledge acquisition. As Massimo Pigliucci writes, Pinker “joins a disturbingly long list of scientists (and a few philosophers) who confuse a defense of good science with a knee-jerk reaction against sound criticism of science.” See also a thoughtful piece from Jalees Rehman on the impact of scientism on stem-cell research. As Rehman notes:

Increasing numbers of scientists are recognizing that current approaches to interpreting and publishing scientific data are severely flawed. Exaggerated confidence in the validity of scientific findings is frequently misplaced and claims that scientific results represent objective truths need to be re-evaluated particularly when a high percentage of experimental results cannot be replicated by fellow scientists. In this particular context, the views of scientists who are trying to learn lessons from the failures of the scientific peer review process are not so different from those of “scientism” critics.

Pinker’s position seems to me to confuse — if you’ll forgive the statistics jargon — point estimates and standard errors. In other words, scientists today assert that X is probably true, and that therefore people should act as if X is true. They confuse skepticism about acting on X as a confident belief in Y, while actually people are just unsure about X. I made this point in a post on climate science. The “best available scientific evidence” may suggest this or that, but it hardly follows that people should base their decisions on that evidence (or that it should guide government policy). Next week’s scientific consensus may be entirely different.

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