Nathaniel Comfort, author of the risible Nature essay at hand (click on screenshot below), is a professor in the history of medicine at Johns Hopkins University. We’ve met him three times before on this site; he seems to be a postmodernist who dislikes genes, New Atheism, and Richard Dawkins. Now he’s written about. . . . well, it’s hard to discern. If you read the essay (and I both pity you if you do and challenge you to see its point), you’ll see it’s laced with criticisms of Enlightenment values, white males, scientism, and the oppression of the disabled. Oh, and it lauds postmodernism, especially its “other ways of knowing”.
One of Comfort’s main points, at least as I discern it, is that science has somehow deeply changed how humanity has perceived itself. Not so much in the Darwinian way, in which we now see ourselves as part of the branching bush of life, but because of discoveries like our microbiome (seriously, do I think of myself as “Jerry Coyne + bacteria”?), the “blueprint” model of DNA, horizontal gene transfer, epigenetics, CRISPR technology, and so on. This, of course, is not new: many people have flaunted these buzzwords before and claimed they affected our sense of self, even though our sense of self seems to be pretty much what it was half a century ago.
Comfort’s real point, though, appears to be doing down science, or what he misdefines as scientism:
Huxley’s sunny view — of infinite human progress and triumph, brought about by the inexorable march of science — epitomizes a problem with so-called Enlightenment values. The precept that society should be based on reason, facts and universal truths has been a guiding theme of modern times. Which in many ways is a splendid thing (lately I’ve seen enough governance without facts for one lifetime). Yet Occam’s razor is double edged. Enlightenment values have accommodated screechingly discordant beliefs, such as that all men are created equal, that aristocrats should be decapitated and that people can be traded as chattel.
I want to suggest that many of the worst chapters of this history result from scientism: the ideology that science is the only valid way to understand the world and solve social problems. Where science has often expanded and liberated our sense of self, scientism has constrained it.
I am not sure that this definition of “scientism” matches that of other people; usually the definition is of “science extending its ambit beyond what it should be”. In that latter sense, I’d see “scientism” as the misuse of science to push ideological issues, like saying “science tells us that we should sterilize Italians and Jews”, or “science tells us that races are inherently unequal”. And, indeed, science has been misused in such ways, though these misuses have severely diminished over time and, in the end, it’s not science itself that’s responsible for these attitudes, but bigots and other bad people latching onto science. Still, what’s the point of running through this list once again?
Further, just because people holding Enlightenment beliefs can also hold un-Enlightenment beliefs, like killing aristocrats and having slaves, does not constitute an indictment of the Enlightenment beliefs as commonly understood and adumbrated by Pinker in Enlightenment Now—the tripartite values of reason, science, and humanism. These values do not call for the killing of aristocrats or the enslavement of others.
And Comfort gives no examples of how “scientism”, even as he construes it, has constrained our sense of self. He seems to give one example at the end of his piece (see below), but it’s unconvincing. In fact, one can make a good argument that the solving of social problems is in many cases a deeply empirical issue. Perhaps your ideas don’t come out of science per se, but from your own values and ethics. But then confecting solutions often requires empirical data. One example of the former is the idea that all people should be equal under the law, regardless of race, sex, or gender. But how do you fix things? Those decisions, like using busing or affirmative action or even demonstrating that unequal representation results from discrimination rather than unequal preferences, are empirical matters: does intervention X facilitate solution Y? That, I’d say, is “science construed broadly.”
Even immunology and information theory come in for a hit, since they somehow facilitate the discrimination between “self and nonself”, or make people seem like machines, in a socially inimical way. Look at the postmodernism on show here:
Across the arc of the past 150 years, we can see both science and scientism shaping human identity in many ways. Developmental psychology zeroed in on the intellect, leading to the transformation of IQ (intelligence quotient) from an educational tool into a weapon of social control. Immunology redefined the ‘self’ in terms of ‘non-self’. Information theory provided fresh metaphors that recast identity as residing in a text or a wiring diagram. More recently, cell and molecular studies have relaxed the borders of the self. Reproductive technology, genetic engineering and synthetic biology have made human nature more malleable, epigenetics and microbiology complicate notions of individuality and autonomy, and biotechnology and information technology suggest a world where the self is distributed, dispersed, atomized.
Yes, and so what? Where’s the scientism here? Certainly IQ was once used to keep foreigners out of the US and even sterilize women, but we don’t do that any more. As for the other stuff he mentions, that’s not scientism but science. The last sentence about the “atomized” self is pure nonsense.
And then Comfort calls on postmodernists (who aren’t of course scientists) to demonstrate the “deep entanglement of science and society”:
The immunological Plato was the Australian immunologist Frank MacFarlane Burnet. Burnet’s fashioning of immunology as the science of the self was a direct response to his reading of the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead. Tit for tat, social theorists from Jacques Derrida to Bruno Latour and Donna Haraway have leaned on immunological imagery and concepts in theorizing the self in society. The point is that scientific and social thought are deeply entangled, resonant, co-constructed. You can’t fully understand one without the other.
The last bit isn’t really true. Yes, some scientific problems arise in a social milieu, which is trivial, but the truth or falsity of scientific findings themselves is absolutely independent of society. And, as reader Vampyricon noted when calling this article to my attention, “Comfort also leans on the postmodernist myth of science as being focused on dominating nature, a claim that reminds one of Luce Irigaray’s claim that Newton’s Principia is a rape manual.”
At the end, Comfort disses rationality again, because, after all, those who promulgated Enlightenment values were “university-educated men who were not disabled”, and, as Vampyricon noted, wanted to “dominate nature.” Here Comfort mixes postmodernism with wokeness. If any two things are deeply entangled, it’s not science and society, but wokeness and postmodernism, both afflicted with the idea that truths are not empirical and determined by consensus, but personal and validated by feelings:
Yet there is a fruit fly in the ointment. Most of these Age-of-Reason notions of identity, and the dominant sci-fi scenarios of post-human futures, have been developed by university-educated men who were not disabled, and who hailed from the middle and upper classes of wealthy nations of the global north. Their ideas reflect not only the findings but also the values of those who have for too long commanded the science system: positivist, reductionist and focused on dominating nature. Those who control the means of sequence production get to write the story.
That has begun to change. Although there is far to go, greater attention to equity, inclusion and diversity has already profoundly shaped thinking about disease, health and what it means to be human. . .
So, if scientism is bad for society, and the lucubrations of able-bodied white men who went to college are determining our future, what can we do? What is Comfort’s alternative? He offers none. All he does is give us an example of how artistic “liberation” from science leads to some kind of enlightenment for disabled people:
DNA-based conceptions of ethnicity are far from unproblematic. But the impulse to make the technologies of the self more accessible, more democratic — more about self-determination and less about social control — is, at its basis, liberatory.
Nowhere is this clearer than for people living with disabilities and using assistive technologies. They might gain or regain modes of perception, might be able to communicate and express themselves in new ways, and gain new relationships to the universe of things.
The artist Lisa Park plays with these ideas. She uses biofeedback and sensor technologies derived from neuroscience to create what she calls audiovisual representations of the self. A tree of light blooms and dazzles as viewers hold hands; pools of water resonate harmonically in response to Park’s electroencephalogram waves; an ‘orchestra’ of cyborg musicians wearing heart and brain sensors make eerily beautiful music by reacting and interacting in different ways as Park, the conductor, instructs them to remove blindfolds, gaze at one another, wink, laugh, touch or kiss. Yet even this artistic, subjective and interactive sense of self is tied to an identity bounded by biology.
What is the sweating journalist trying to say here, here in the pages of one of the world’s premier scientific journals? Is this kind of art better for disabled people than the many scientists and technologists working on curing disabilities or making it easier for disabled people? (And yes, many of these benefactors are white men who went to college.) Note that the above is Comfort’s peroration, and it’s almost nuts. Not just nuts, but poorly written and loaded to the gunwales with postmodern jargon.
In his last paragraph, Comfort—surprise?—plumps for “other ways of knowing”:
Since the Enlightenment, we have tended to define human identity and worth in terms of the values of science itself, as if it alone could tell us who we are. That is an odd and blinkered notion. In the face of colonialism, slavery, opioid epidemics, environmental degradation and climate change, the idea that Western science and technology are the only reliable sources of self-knowledge is no longer tenable. This isn’t to lay all human misery at science’s feet — far from it. The problem is scientism. Defining the self only in biological terms tends to obscure other forms of identity, such as one’s labour or social role. Maybe the answer to Huxley’s ‘question of questions’ isn’t a number, after all.
Umm. . . Western science and technology—if you construe empirical observation, affirmation, and testing as “science”—are the only reliable sources of public knowledge. “Self-knowledge” is emotion and feeling, but becomes scientific if you want to demonstrate to others stuff like “I am a caring person who helps others.”
But none of this has anything to do with “defining the self only in biological terms.” Such a definition is Comfort’s conceit, and one of the hard-to-discern themes of his piece. But his conceit is misguided and wrong. Even biologists don’t think of their “self” in purely biological terms.
What is also wrong is that the scientific journal Nature published this tripe. What were they thinking?