Nathaniel Comfort gets all angry about a tweet from Steve Pinker

October 12, 2019 • 10:30 am

Two days ago I wrote a critique of a curiously disjointed and poorly written article by science historian Nathaniel Comfort: a critique of science and “scientism” published in Nature. It was a garbled mixture of postmodern and woke sentiments, making a bogus claim that discoveries like the microbiome and epigenetics have radically altered our “sense of self”, with an ancillary claim that “other ways of knowing” can help us define “the self”.  Here’s Comfort’s garbled last paragraph:

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.

I won’t repeat my criticisms of Comfort’s piece; plenty of readers also found it bizarre. I’ll say only that nobody, including we biologists, defines the self only in biological terms, but in fact the use of biology to help us understand the notion of self is both uncontroversial and a non-problem.  Steve Pinker kindly emitted two tweets criticizing Comfort’s piece and calling attention to my critique. To wit:

Now, on his website Gentopia, whose motto is, oddly, “here lies truth” (Comfort is not a scientist but a historian of science), Comfort answers not me, but Pinker’s tweets, or, rather the second tweet. Click on the screenshot to read another rant. And note that he misspells Pinker’s first name—twice. In the title, too! But Pinker’s name is spelled correctly in his tweets, the ones Comfort attacks.

Apparently I am too small a fish to merit a response from Comfort, which is fine. I’ve never pretended to be as smart or influential as “Stephen”. Rather, Comfort is eager to go after Pinker’s second tweet, and can’t resist a few ad hominems, showing what a nasty piece of work Comfort is (neither Steve nor I addressed Comfort’s appearance, which of course is irrelevant). I’ll give just a few of Comfort’s responses:

I’m now used to the ritual of Jerry Coyne (@whyevolutionistrue) attempting a takedown of my stuff. To my perverse delight, though, the Harvard psychologist and hair model Stephen Pinker took a poke at me. Couldn’t resist that. What follows is the tweet stream I sent out in response, clarifying some points in the article and differentiating further between science and scientism.

Hair model? Seriously, dude, your animus is showing!

Anyway, you can look at Comfort’s “tweetstream” yourself (he goes by the name of Pomo Shaman!), none of which dispels the notion that he’s pushing a postmodernist critique of science, indicting the field because it’s been misused by people to do bad stuff (like the humanities, architecture, and nuclear physics). But the end of his piece shows both his anger and his “novel” claim that science has been misused, which of course is not novel at all, and certainly not worth a diatribe in Nature. (Or was his disatribe about how new discoveries have altered our sense of self?). I’ve bolded the telling parts, but Comfort’s anger peeks through in the interstices:

The question isn’t *whether* science and society interact, it’s *how.* We can have disagreements on the how—I show you my evidence, you show me yours, we hash it out—but not the whether.
I’m not arguing with a flat-Earther.

Historians don’t “hate realism,” for chrissakes. We’re more realistic than scientists like Pinker who live in an ideal world of pure reason, failing to acknowledge the messiness of the real world. [JAC: LOL!]

Thinking you have uniquely privileged access to reality is scientism, not science. It is to live in a sterile, blinkered world, populated only by the stately march of the anointed intellects toward the one & only Truth. That’s like the worst kind of superstitious evangelism.

It’s also chauvinistic, narrow, parochial, and bullying. It’s tyrannical, ham-handed, intolerant of dissent. How unscientific! And if Pinker knew his history, he’d know how science can be—has been—marshaled in the name of tyrannies large and small, across continents, down the centuries.

Umm. . . Pinker does know his history, and has made the point about science’s misuse several times in his writings. Comfort goes on:

Science can be great! It makes many, many positive contributions to knowledge & to society. It need not be put in the service of oppression, nor is it always. But it’s indisputable that it has been, many times. You can start with Karl Brandt and work your way down.

The thesis of my @nature piece, then, once again, is that insidious applications of science are due not to the science itself, but to the ideology that sometimes accompanies it: Scientism. Capeesh?

He also says this:

Yes, I am anti-scientism.
Scientism = science + hubris.
Scientism = science + arrogance.
Scientism = science + vanity.
Scientism = science + cruelty.
Scientism = science + ignorance.
Scientism, in other words, is science plus something shitty.

If that was your point, Dr. Comfort, why didn’t you make it explicit? What you said is this:

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.

That’s not saying that ideology coupled to science can do bad stuff; it’s saying that the ideology that “science is the only valid way to understand the world and social problems” is what’s problematic.  In fact, one can make a case that if you mean “a general understanding of reality that is agreed on by all rational people”, science (construed broadly) is the only way to understand the world. The values that we bring to diagnosing the world’s ills don’t come from science, but, as I said in my critique, implementing those values to effect a desired solution is also an empirical problem. Capeesh?

Comfort emits a final dose of bile, not omitting his woke and postmodernist equation of Pinker’s views with the “male gaze.”

One last thing: @sapinker’s arrogant and bullying scientism is both a symptom and a cause of the WEIRD male gaze that’s dominated science for centuries is Exhibit A in the case for why we need more diversity in science. Hence the last point in my essay.

Male scientists who aren’t arrogant, scientistic pricks (and I know many): There’s no need to say, “Not all scientists.” If this doesn’t describe you, it’s not about you, and I doff my hat to you, sir.

In fact, Pinker’s tweet is not anything close to a demonstration of why we need more diversity in science. I’ll show it again:

Does “Stephen” Pinker’s claim here come from racism, the privilege of old white males, or sexism? I can’t imagine how. It is an empirical claim that has nothing to do with gender or ethnicity. Comfort’s use of the postmodern “male gaze”, his call for diversity, and his implication that Pinker is an arrogant scientistic prick (seriously, dude, look at that last word!), is a form of virtue-flaunting.

After reading this, I now think that Comfort is not only a muddled, woke postmodernist, but also a nasty one. Hair model, indeed!

h/t: Michael


104 thoughts on “Nathaniel Comfort gets all angry about a tweet from Steve Pinker

  1. The hair model comment is so odd, and so telling. Is he trying to suggest that having ‘good’ hair is a bad thing? A sign of weakness? A sign of frivolity? He is just one appearance-hating, judgmental comment away from calling you a ‘shoe model’, PCC(E)!

        1. I don’t know that song, but if you can hum it, I can try to keep time with this hammer and body panel from the scrap yard (Einerstürtzende reference).

  2. 1.

    When Comfort writes

    “Thinking you have uniquely privileged access to reality is scientism, not science. It is to live in a sterile, blinkered world, populated only by the stately march of the anointed intellects toward the one & only Truth. […]”

    how does he explain his own message “here lies truth”?

    2. this bit :

    Yes, I am anti-scientism.
    Scientism = science + hubris.
    Scientism = science + arrogance.
    Scientism = science + vanity.
    Scientism = science + cruelty.
    Scientism = science + ignorance.
    Scientism, in other words, is science plus something shitty

    all those extra bits – hubris, arrogance, vanity, cruelty, ignorance, up to including shitty, and more, is simply attributes of human beings. So we could add other things, like, say, love, perseverance, creativity, athletic ability…

    so yes, science + human beings = science plus something shitty – us. people have to eat, and therefore have to poop. it isn’t scientism – it is life with ideas.

    1. Good job of parsing. You could also replace scientism with religion and science with faith in each of those formulas.

  3. Male scientists who aren’t arrogant, scientistic pricks (and I know many): There’s no need to say, “Not all scientists.” If this doesn’t describe you, it’s not about you, and I doff my hat to you, sir.

    Postmodern wokism. “POMOWO”

  4. In the face of colonialism, slavery, opioid epidemics, environmental degradation and climate change. . .

    Uh, didn’t slavery precede the scientific revolution and wasn’t it those damn British Imperialists in the 19th Century with their evil Enlightenment Values that stopped international slavery? Besides which, if you go to the parts of the world where slavery is still de facto practiced, you will note an conspicuous absence of “Enlightenment Values”.

    Colonialism? Ever notice what happened historically when Civilization A has a massive technological and military advantage over Civilization B BEFORE Western science and the Enlightenment ruined everything. It generally dovetails with the history of slavery pretty nicely. [It’s almost like the Melian Dialogue of Thucydides accurately described geopolitical reality, rather than merely being a tool of evil white men to hurt nice people.]

    Opioid epidemics? Did the trade in opium and opium addiction start after Western science and Enlightenment Values? Does Iran have such a bad opioid problem because it has too much Western science and Enlightenment Values?

    Environmental degradation and climate change? Anyone care to guess which country produces more CO2 than the USA and EU combined?

    Comfort is the sort of person cheering to go back to cholera epidemics and small pox. Gotta wonder if he’s an anti-vaxxer too.

    1. Uh, didn’t slavery precede the scientific revolution

      By around four millennia, if not considerably more. The Sumerians, Assyrians et al were far from averse to taking large numbers of captives in the process of conquering an area – which strongly suggests suggests elements we’d recognise as slavery (along with hostage-taking and other elements of statecraft).
      I’m trying to work out if “slavery” could be a thing before the Neolithic agricultural Revolution.

      1. Probably not, since there was no organized labor, and it would be hard to keep slaves in a nomadic society. Instead they likely just killed members of other tribes.

        1. Wives were often acquired by raiding other tribes. Anthropologist Marvin Harris proposed that warfare was a population control measure-not through killing, though it. Did cull the old and weak-but by putting a premium on male births. This in turn would encourage raids for mates in a kind of feedback loop.

  5. … the idea that Western science and technology are the only reliable sources of self-knowledge is no longer tenable.

    I don’t think many claim that Western science is the only reliable source of “self-knowledge.” Self-knowledge of a sort can be gained through the experience of altered states of consciousness, such as those induced by meditation or the ingestion of psychotropic substances.

    But Western science, broadly defined, is the only reliable source of knowledge about the external universe.

    1. From my very limited interest in “alternative ways of knowing”, do any of them pay more than lip service to the existence of an external universe? The purpose of science is to find out what the external universe is and how it works, explicitly trying to exclude the “internal universe” from obscuring that research.
      Do any of the “alternative ways of knowing” focus on the external universe and try to exclude influences from the “internal universe”?

      1. “Do any of the ‘alternative ways of knowing’ focus on the external universe and try to exclude influences from the ‘internal universe’?”

        No, but this is largely because science may be the only enterprise in which thinking of the universe as external is at all fruitful.

        Separating the internal universe and its “influences” from the external universe serves as a method, and an indispensable one, for doing science. But it remains a method—i.e., a mental distinction—and does not at all serve as a description of reality. Subjective and objective do not exist separately in the real world, as if we were “in here” and the rest of nature “out there.”

        To paraphrase a famous Tweet, “There is no internal universe or external universe, just the universe.” (Caveat: adopting this motto is not likely to get you elected president.)

        1. I think that’s probably correct. Scientific thinking is based on philosophical realism which holds that the external world is real. This seems like a severely restrictive perspective until you realize that idealism pretty much implies solipsism, which is a position with not many moves left to it.

          1. For the record, Rick (is that your first name?), I wasn’t touting idealism at the expense of realism but only suggesting that “internal” and “external” are mental distinctions that serve an important purpose in doing science but bear no relation to how the universe really is. As in the old SNL “It’s a floor polish AND a desert topping” skit, I’m an idealist AND a realist. 😊

          2. When two polar opposite ideas manage to hang around as long as idealism and realism have (think Plato and Aristotle for starters), it’s usually a good bet that both are true. 😊

    2. There’s no such thing as “Western science”. It’s just the scientific method, and it’s done by “westerners” and “non-westerners” alike, if they have the knowledge and funds to do it.

      Japanese or Nigerian or Ethiopian or Brazilian or Iranian or Indian or Chinese (to cite just a few “non-western” nationalities) scientists aren’t “lesser” scientist or applying “different ways of knowing” just by being “non-western”.

      One can discuss how funds and well-established academic systems tend to privilege research done in developed countries, but to say that the scientific method itself is “western” is deeply wrong.

      We don’t call paper money “Chinese money”, even though it was invented in China. We don’t call accounting practices like double-entry bookkeeping “Egyptian bookkeping” just because it was invented in Egypt.

      Indeed this is closely related to the core flaw of the post-structuralist criticism of science: it indirectly assumes a “western-centric” view of science, to then criticize science for being “western-centric” and so irredeemably flawed.

      1. While the Nobel Prizes ARE to a degree biased by the real-life constraints on where the research is done, and who does it, plus of course due to historic and cultural reasons (especially so in the past, but still even today) they DO show that “non-western” CAN and DO excel at the highest levels of scientific research.

        To call science “western science” is to say that people like Ahmed Zewail, the father of femtochemistry, or Abdus Salam, one of the three people who contributed to the electroweak unification theory, or Aziz Sancar, who studied DNA repair, or the many Japanese, Chinese, Taiwanese, Indian Nobel laureates in scientific fields, either don’t matter or are simply “token” scientists in a “western” field.

        I find it quite offensive that people like Nathaniel Comfort heavily imply that “non-western” scientists didn’t succeed by applying a common method, but by adopting a “WEIRD male view”.

        1. I understood and support arguments that science is too constrained by economics, which often don’t allow brilliant minds from poor or developing countries to have the same amount of expensive equipment, or expensive subscripitions to scientific journals, or expensive educational structures, as people in rich, developed countries.

          If people like Comfort simply pointed out that different incentives, economic perspectives, and societal constraints create a field where people from, say, Nigeria or Afganistan find it much harder to do research than people from the United States or Germany, I’d encourage their articles to come out and be read wildly, and highlight how copyright laws and predatory journals, or lack of funding, or educational issues, exclude some people, and how many obstracles can be removed to get more people from “non-western” countries into scientific research, which is a noble goal.

          I’d say the same of articles geared towards getting more women in science.

          It’s the assumption that the scientific method itself, and its assumption of objectivity, is inherently poisoned by “WEIRD male” views, which is irritating and actually pretty sexist and racist.

          It tells us that people like Marie Curie or Abdus Salam weren’t researchers who appplied their minds to a common scientific method overcoming societal, cultural, and economic barriers to entry to science, but simply “token” sprinkles of “diversity” which nevertheless adopted the “white male” perspective to thrive, and that what we need is not remove those barriers to entry, but overhaul the scientific method itself in order to be “diverse”.

        1. Don’t worry, I understood that. 😉

          My beef is with Comfort’s idea that science is poisoned by “WEIRD male” views.

  6. That blog post he wrote is beyond the pale jerk-levelness. When I read the first article, I thought perhaps he was a head-in-the-clouds type who had difficulty getting his thoughts on paper in a coherent way, so I read it charitably, assuming maybe I was missing some of his points due to lack of background in the article. I actually didn’t think he could possibly be saying what it sounded like he was saying, so I assumed that I misunderstood – but he confirmed that he is indeed Alice In Wonderland level postmodern with this paragraph in that blog post:

    The social construction of science is as solid as biological evolution. It’s an utter commonplace. Most scientists I know understand this. To be a prof at @Harvard of all places and not know this shows a struthian (Mencken; look it up) ignorance that is, well, embarrassing.

    So he really is saying science is a social construct. Wow. And ‘defending’ his points not by giving any kind of evidence for this claim, but by behaving in the worst kind of Dude Bro fashion and spitting out bombastic ad hominem ‘arguments’ left and right, including making up fake statements of victimhood (“Pinker probably thinks we hate America, amiright! Let’s pause to guffaw at this ridiculous thing that I assume he thinks that he never actually said he thinks!” Socially constructed reality indeed.)

    If Comfort wants to convey a point other than that he acts like a frat boy jerk, he needs to calm down, stop with the ridiculous personal attacks, and organize his arguments in a coherent way. Perhaps he has a point worth listening to in there somewhere – it’s hard to tell, because he never actually makes it or even attempts to make, he’s too busy flying off the handle.

    1. Motte and Bailey as usual.

      Science is an artifact of human culture, ergo science is socially constructed. That is the motte. Undeniably true.

      Of course, that doesn’t mean science isn’t true (not mistaken), reliable, repeatable, and sound, and that other human artifacts aren’t false, unreliable, unrepeatable and unsound. That is the bailey, that just because something is a human artifact that all human artifacts are equal in epistemological validity.

      The decline in cholera deaths is an objective result of science and improvement in hygiene practices. Hygiene practices in previous times were objectively inferior, even though both were “socially constructed”.

      1. It’s an interesting semantic point, but as you say, not a particularly salient one unless one means something (i.e., is making a specific proposition) by it. What is the point of saying “Everything is technically ‘subjective’ because we could all be living in the matrix!” or “Everything humans do is by definition a ‘human construction’!” unless one means something specific by it? It’s a fun game of mismatching what we typically mean by ‘subjective’ or ‘social construct’, but beyond the initial “isn’t that a cool idea!” factor, one needs to point out what the practical consequences of such a stance are. The practical consequences of ‘we may be brains in vats’ are, so far as we know, almost nonexistent. Perhaps there are practical consequences to the idea that scientific methodology was invented by humans, but they aren’t immediately apparent to me and I don’t think Comfort really gives examples of the alleged consequences he frequently alludes to. If he has examples, I’d actually be curious to hear them.

        1. The idea was, at least in the beginning, that social constructs have power in the real world. Ideologies – via those who hold them – harm real people. Thus, we need to deconstruct harmful ideologies, especially when they dress up as common sense or “the truth” – or as science (what I would call pseudoscience).

          I guess we can all agree on that. But some take this line of thought further. Unfortunately, deconstructing everything takes away the very reason why deconstruction is relevant in the first place: to help shape a more objective way of thinking.

          I once wrote about the way a well known U.S. geographer of his day, Isaiah Bowman, deconstructed German geopolitics as the pseudoscience it was. He did it very well. But unfortunately, he was not as aware of the ideological biases of his own description of the world (he was a racist and antisemite, among other things). He saw himself as “the real scientist” concerning geopolitics (and social geography as a kind of natural science).

          My point is: Looking at the history and sociology of science (including social sciences) can be a good way to raise awareness of our own biases. And it is an integral part of understanding many of the political ideologies of at least the past 200 years: they all saw themselves as scientific in some way. But doing this only makes sense when we all agree that KD is right: some social constructs are epistomologically more valid than others.

          Comforts point, as far as I can see, is that those who think their point of view as a scientist offers them a privileged access to reality – those guilty of scientism as he defined it – are most likely to cause harm.

          I would argue that it is not seeing the scientific method as uniquely helpful to understand the world that is the problem. Rather, the problem is a lack of critical self-reflection, often combined with the naturalistic fallacy and the view that the conclusions we draw from our interpretations of scientific facts (especially concerning social problems) are themselves scientifically grounded.

          1. If ‘scientism’ is more or less defined as ‘when science tries to tell us about values, not facts’, then I agree that is problematic. The impression that I am getting, as I am becoming a bit more familiar with the discussions around this topic, however, is that there is a frequent bait and switch when proposing ‘scientism’. First there is a sweeping statement such as “Science is just a social construct!”, and then when you ask specifically what is meant by that, it’s something along the lines of “Some scientists were terrible misogynists” or some such thing. I don’t think anyone with any common sense supposes that being a scientist turns one into a sort of holy man or woman immune to the usual human vices and foibles. That said, science is not a social invention in the sense that misogynistic ideas such as the ‘wandering womb’ actually existed when proposed in male dominated fields, and empirically ceased to exist later when more women worked in those same fields. The facts in that case remained the same and it was through scientific inquiry that the correct facts were eventually revealed.

            To my mind there are some realities that genuinely are largely socially agreed upon constructs. Money is a classic example. Language, in part, is another (we are likely hardwired for parts of language but things like specific labels are agreed upon – the name Nutella is a label made up by a manufacturer that we all agree to use, not a fact about the universe.) I am actually interested in the proposed argument that this could apply to science as well – it would make for a fascinating philosophical topic if someone could come up with a real example where this were the case. When pressed, however, what people really seem to mean by this is that “Sometimes individual scientists are jerks” or “Sometimes scientists get things wrong.” That could be said about literally any group of humans in any endeavor anywhere, so I don’t think it justifies bringing in a specialized argument about social constructs and constructed reality and so on. It would be much more straightforward to say “Scientists are infallible and sometimes make errors.”

            (An aside – I think if there is a case to be made for scientific truths that are genuinely intersubjective in nature, it is probably in psychology and perhaps other soft sciences that aren’t coming to mind at the moment. My guess is that even in those areas, however, what you find are a finite number of competing paradigms that can be usefully applied, not an infinite ‘anything you want to make up goes’ kind of situation.)

          2. Frankly, most of the harm in world stems from leaders, not scientists. Sure, leaders with good scientists and engineers can do more harm than leaders without scientists, but if you look at all the horrific events of the 20th Century, there was always someone at the top giving the orders.

            This is not to say that scientists don’t have a fair share of influence on the political system, or that they can’t be responsible for pernicious outcomes. You don’t have to look much farther than the Epstein blow back to see this principle in action.

            But the biggest problem from my perspective is how to raise people to be not just good leaders, but virtuous leaders, and how to make sure that these people end up in charge. And I think that has been the hardest problem since the beginning of the world, and I’m not sure that at least the hard sciences have much to contribute to the solution. (And I’m not sure if the philosophers have helped or hurt in this regard.)

    2. “To be a prof at @Harvard of all places and not know this shows a struthian (Mencken; look it up) ignorance that is, well, embarrassing.”

      What’s embarrassing is Comfort’s chelonian retreat into his shell of post-modernism. 🙂

      1. Yes, the more I learn about it the more post modernism seems strangely magical and egocentric. There is no reality other than my reality type thinking.

  7. Can I ask how you would define “human identity” other than biologically? Isn’t being “human” belonging to the set of H. Sapiens?

    As far human “worth”, not sure how biology or science plays into that, except that humans have had great biological worth for cockroaches, rodents, hookworms, tapeworms and roundworms.

  8. Good analysis. Comfort’s piece meanders but blames science for scientism. He comes across as someone trying to make an earth-shattering point about science and its relationship with culture but comes up empty. His word salad Nature article was the result.

    1. I think that is the core of the problem Comfort faces: Why is the history and sociology of science relevant? Or, more to the point: In what way is it relevant for those who practice science today? To make them more self-critical and aware of their own biases we would hardly need an entire academic discipline. Some well-researched examples would do.

      Do not get me wrong, I am very interested in the history of ideas and for me all kinds of history have their won intrinsic value, apart from the lessons they supposedly teach us. But I think that Clive Barnett, a human geographer, was right when he asked whether the history of geography (and I think we can generalize this) amounts to more than “disintering the rotting corpses of old ideas in order to bury them even deeper” (quotation from memory).

      1. I agree. I think we can imagine scientists who suffer from scientism but don’t know any personally and can’t see it has been a big problem historically. Use of science in war is not a good example of scientism because, as far as I know, scientists have never pushed a scientific argument for war. They certainly have helped war efforts with their science but the reasons for the war lay elsewhere.

  9. In my comment to the original post of Pinker’s tweet, I wrote that in my many decades of studying history, I have never come across the term “historicize.” Several people responded with some definitions of the term. However, I am not all sure what Pinker means by it, since he doesn’t provide his definition. I am confident that I am far from alone in my confusion. Thus, it seems to me that the tweet reflects a degree of intellectual arrogance in that Pinker assumed people know what the term means or doesn’t care if they don’t know. I may very well share Pinker’s characterization of Comfort, but this tweet does nothing to convince me since I may not be smart enough to know what he is talking about. It seems to me that public intellectuals should make sure that the public can understand the points they are trying to make. There should not be a need to research the meaning of fairly obscure terms.

    1. I took Pinker to be putting Comfort in a category of writers who attempt to connect science to culture by dragging out every historical bad act in which science was involved. It’s a cheap trick used to throw dirt on science. And, as Pinker also notes, the motivation seems to be some sort of envy of science’s importance in the modern world.

      1. You may very well be correct in thinking what idea Pinker was trying to convey. But, there should be no need for the public to guess, particularly since a term like “historicize” could mean almost anything. Remember, Pinker has made his fame and fortune by writing and speaking to the general public, not a small cadre of cloistered academics.

        1. ‘…since a term like “historicize” could mean almost anything.’

          Given the context in which it was used, I think he is talking (in a derogatory way) about the erroneous conclusions that people make, from their studies about the history of science, about the nature of scientific knowledge.

          If you abstract the word from the context, then yes, its meaning is unclear.

          1. Yes, it is clear that Pinker is using the term “historicize” in a derogatory way, but beyond that I don’t think the general public could to any degree of precision define what it means, particularly those confronting it for the first time.

        2. Since Pinker is an expert on word endings, he probably just assumed the reader would use the default meaning of the “-icize” ending: application of its root (“history”) to a subject (science in this case).

    2. Taken literally, I think it just means to give something (a field of study like biology) a historical context. However, I think Pinker means it in a slightly derogatory way. He is objecting to conclusions about the nature of scientific knowledge that some people draw from studying the history of scientific development. Scientists may have been variously motivated, but the nature of the knowledge obtained tends towards precision and objectivity.

    3. The term is listed in common dictionaries and means to “treat or represent as historical” and I also don’t find the term unusual enough to diagnose that “degree of intellectual arrogance” you found.

      The tweet was this:

      Unlike past anti-scientism rants in lit/cult/pol mags, this is in Nature. Why? Sci eds often outsource commentary on sci & soc to the clique of historians of sci, who historicize everything & hate sci’s claim to objectivity & realism. [link to Jerry’s article]

      In reply to Jerry Coyne’s piece, Pinker floats an explanation why Nature of all places was publishing this “anti-scientism” piece, for they outsource commentary to a clique of historians of science who see truth in relativistic-historical terms.

      I don’t know, but it’s plausible. It’s at least a tendency that writing on the scientific enterprise is often infused by the “strong programme”. I take Pinker’s “historicize” as a reference to Bloor’s first (of four) points:

      “1 It would be causal: that is, concerned with the conditions [cultural, social, psychological] which bring about belief or states of knowledge” Bloor, 1976

    4. Historian, you only think that because you have been brainwashed by a ruthless system of capitalist exploitation that has implanted false consciousness in you, and your comments only reflect the defensiveness of the outdated bourgeois paradigm that you cling to even as the Revolution advances and your tiny world dissolves.

      [Hegel, source of historicism, viewed various paradigms as reflecting a particular historical consciousness, and viewed history in a progressive fashion, so diagnosis of “old thought” meant that your views were invalid per the latest dispensation of the world spirit. Marx flipped it with dialectical materialism–material relations determined consciousness, but retained the same style of bad faith argument, and from there it seeped into high-functioning pomos capable of producing arguments in contrast to just spewing anti-logocentric obscurantist jargon.]

    5. historicize -> historicism.

      I prsume there is an allusion to scientism (and of course since History is a science you would expect historicism to be a special case of scientism).

  10. … his website Gentopia, whose motto is, oddly, “here lies truth” …

    A cosmic coincidence that it sounds like a tombstone epitaph? 🙂

  11. Human endeavors that have been engines for great societal change include science, religion, politics, war, and commerce. I may have left something out. ALL can be argued as having been used to commit evil, although the miss-use of science is
    fairly rare by comparison to the others. It should be noted that science is by far the most ‘revisable’ of these. There was a time where eugenics was in full practice, for example. But we know much better now.

    1. I still don’t quite understand the problem with eugenics itself. The only reason we object to it is because eugenicists caused plenty of suffering, no?


  12. Pinker was typically astute in his guess as to how the Comfort word salad got published in Nature. He ascribed it to the likely presence of members of the sci-ed species in Nature’s editorial office.

    Some academic departments have been colonized by sci-ed subdivisions, e.g. Math Ed. These are School-of-Ed colonies that attach themselves to their host departments like bedbugs, and absorb a few words (like “microbiome”) on top of their basic pomo vocabulary. Graduates of these mock sci-ed programs are, I would guess, beginning to glom onto desks in editorial, administration, and grant agency offices.

    The next stage in this process might be a new academic ectoparasite: sci-ed-ed, or the academic subject of teaching about teaching about a scientific subject. And after that, we will get sci-ed-ed-ed.

  13. There are “other ways of knowing” insofar as you want to know something else from how the world works.

    If you want to know how the world works there is only the scientific method.
    But if you want to know how abstract mathematical objects work then there is the method of proof in axioms systems, which has little to do with the empirical method of the natural sciences.
    Instead, if you want to know how we should behave, if you want to have “moral knowledge”… well here we just don’t have a method.

    There are “other ways of knowing” insofar there are other kinds of knowledge different from the knowledge about “how the world works”… mathematical knowledge, moral knowledge and so on which are not about how the world works.

  14. I went and read it on his site.

    So, here’s my response from there:

    Pinker writes, “Sci eds often outsource commentary on sci & soc to the clique of historians of sci”. Science editors don’t “outsource” commentary, on science & society or anything else. I think you know that. They *commission* articles on various topics from experts in a given field.

    To commission something and to outsource it – are the same thing. Either way you’re hiring an outside party to do something for you.

    Historians don’t “hate realism,” for chrissakes. We’re more realistic than scientists like Pinker who live in an ideal world of pure reason, failing to acknowledge the messiness of the real world.

    No you aren’t. You are specialised within your specific field, people within other fields are specialised within theirs, you may get a pretty decent view of one aspect of reality and they may get a pretty decent view of another. By claiming to be more realistic you’ve ended up copping to Pinker’s accusation.

    Thinking you have uniquely privileged access to reality is scientism, not science.

    Where does Pinker claim this? Part of the argument for “scientism” (which is generally defined as the view that science is our best and most reliable of knowing objective facts about reality) is the universality of science, that someone who adopts the scientific method (Really several methods) can reproduce the same results as someone of a fundamentally different cultural and social background.

    This is part of why the replication crisis is such a big concern, but that is another issue.

    You can argue that this claim of objectivity has its own dangers such as blinding people to their own confirmation biases, but you cannot argue that “scientism” is in some way claiming an exclusive or privileged view of the world.

    Your argument on the other hand presupposes ways to knowledge that are in fact exclusive and privileged, otherwise this line doesn’t make sense:

    One last thing: @sapinker’s arrogant and bullying scientism is both a symptom and a cause of the WEIRD male gaze that’s dominated science for centuries. His tweet is Exhibit A in the case for why we need more diversity in science.

    If diversity is required to get at certain facts, that means those facts are only available to exclusive groups, which could be termed “privileged” for their access to this ability even if the circumstances of acquiring said “privilege” were entirely horrible.

    The position of someone who holds to a scientistic viewpoint though is that such exclusive knowledge is in fact at least suspect compared to knowledge which can be ascertained scientifically, and thus verified irrespective of identity.

    And note this isn’t an argument against diversity, we cannot know that people of different cultural and social backgrounds reach the same conclusions using the scientific method unless we test that proposition, but rather to say your argument is at the very least, confused.

  15. Maybe he does not like hubris, arrogance, vanity, cruelty, and ignorance.

    I don’t like Footballism:

    Footballism = football + hubris.
    Footballism = football + vanity.
    Footballism = football + cruelty.
    Footballism = football + ignorance.

    1. I also don’t like Quantumelectrodynamicism:

      Quantumelectrodynamicism = Quantum electrodynamics + hubris.

      Quantumelectrodynamicism = Quantum electrodynamics + vanity.

      Quantumelectrodynamicism = Quantum electrodynamics + cruelty.

      Quantumelectrodynamicism = Quantum electrodynamics + ignorance.

  16. These folks think that since science is a human, social, cultural and historical product… it’s just the artificial construction of some members of Homo Sapiens (probably dead white males), with no grip on reality.

  17. “And if Pinker knew his history, he’d know how science can be—has been—marshaled in the name of tyrannies large and small, across continents, down the centuries.”

    I’m actually struggling to think of examples of where science — meaning, actual science — has been “marshaled in the name of tyrannies”. Anyone?

    Of course it’s easy to think of examples where those tyrannies *claimed* that their policies were “science”, but that’s not the same thing.

    1. Certainly technology has been “marshaled in the name of tyrannies”.

      Which would make gunpowder a form a scientism in Comfort’s terminology.

      My favorite scientism: Viking long boats!

  18. Comfort: “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.”

    Interesting to know that Comfort is confident that environment degradation and climate change are among the matters where there are other [better] ways of knowing than science. I’m sure he’ll find agreement with the boys from Exxon-Mobil!

  19. “The thesis of my @nature piece, then, once again, is that insidious applications of science are due not to the science itself, but to the ideology that sometimes accompanies it: Scientism. Capeesh?”

    This is so embarrassingly banal a statement. Why would nature publish something like this? Just how pressured must they be?

  20. I scan the cesspool of comments in Pinker’s Twitter feed; this orgy of losers who think they are validating themselves somehow, like a battery running a motor turning a generator, charging the battery. Their apparent blindness to the glaring hypocrisy that *they* are the people who want to ban speech that hurts peoples feelings!. It’s so depressing (not using that word in a figurative sense), I want to crawl into a hole and disappear. I don’t know how you guys keep up the fight. I can only hope that there is a silent majority of sane people out there.

  21. The bolded section can be boiled down to the “You’re all so closed minded” phrase beloved of peddlers of quack medicine, and other forms of pseudoscience.

  22. If there is a “scientism”, there must be other “isms”


    … have I got that right?

    1. Mathematicism is a school of thought 🙂 It is the idea that everything can be ultimately described mathematically.

      Now, I don’t know why anyone would want to just believe that. There is no reason to posit such an absolutist position to do science — especially because what we mean by math is may not have a rigorous definition.

      We can keep working away at trying to explain things without taking rigid philosophical positions.

      However, my point is that such a school of thought exists. Tim Maudlin’s Wiki page associates him with this school of thought.

      1. That’s interesting – I did not know that.


        I wrote “mathematicianism” because it is “scientism” and not “sciencism”. Not that I understand why, but there’s a “t”, so it seems it should mean a person, not a field.

        But I am pedantic.

    2. I offer some more:

      Philosophism (this one isn’t clear)

      … this is pretty fun, but I think there’s got to be a reason scientism is really the only “-tism”? Because science is so damn good it’s ruining it for everyone else?

      There’s a bunch of comic out there – “SCIENCE – ruining everything since 1543” – it’s funny, it shows a NO symbol (circle with a line through it at an angle) on things like wizards, gods, UFO’s.

      It’s also the title of a book by Zach Weinersmith “Science: Ruining Everything Since 1543”

      I’m not sure about the 1543 – maybe Descartes?… [ goes to look ]

        1. I think it is Copernicus dethroning religious geocentrism.

          Philosophism seems eminently clear to me. Philosophers instituted the arrogant “philosophy of science” long before science started to study its own processes empirically (science of science, or metascience as it has become known as). And they are reluctant to abandon their institution, making it an implicit, mistaken claim to “alternative ways of knowing”.

  23. Yuck. Comfort sounds like a slimy PZ Myers clone.

    Where are all these anti-science dimwits and horrible individuals springing up from.

  24. “Karl Brandt”.

    Besides that you can’t do much with incoherent, inconsiderate (misspelling names, for starters) rant, you don’t need to do anything after the ranter has committed intellectual discussion killing by adhering to Godwin’s law.

  25. By the way, I’m a bit happy sad about the deterioration of Nathaniel Comfort [ ].

    Comfort started out his tenure in NASA/Library of Congress Chair in Astrobiology with leading one or two level headed, enthusiastic seminar in astrobiology, where he covered the field without the usual bias towards US brand of biochemistry take on early evolution. (Evolution is, after all, a biological process.) But IIRC he showed his pomo stance soon after that, and I stopped watching the Library series.

    And now I feel gratified in my decision. What an intellectual disaster! Luckily, I don’t find all historians being straight out “biblical” or “pomo” but more careful with their sources and claims.

  26. This post and comments are very similar to something I attempted to address in a post entitled “Why are God and Religion so different? An answer for Atheist and others”. I’d like to know how far off the mark I was. Feedback would be greatly appreciated. If you’re interested you may find the post at REDACTED.

    1. The Roolz of this site are that if you want someone to read something you’ve written at your own website, your real name has to be connected with it. Because you don’t seem to have given your real name, and your site is anonymous, I’ve redacted the name of your site. If you give your real name you can try again.

      1. Your reply is a perfect example of the problem I’m addressing, so it’s confirmation that I have made some progress! Thank You! If you’re interested the problem is:”using the source to justify or reject evidence so a truth can be accepted without further investigation” Your rejection proves one of the methods used by
        lazy people who don’t want to verify truth for themselves because it’s too much work! Well Done! Thank you!

        1. You didn’t get to post a link and you call that rejecting evidence.

          Who do you think you’re fooling?

          1. That’s perfect! Thank you! “using a false source as a method to provide additional evidence to verify the original assertion as true to create an “established belief” which then means a even lower evidential requirement!” What’s next? I’m guessing Additional Evidence to confirm your “established belief” which means it’ll be the only evidence necessary to verify your new truth. Again lowering your evidential requirement for truth! Then again, you could provide me with additional evidence that confirms the truth of my original assertion by not responding all. Then I wouldn’t have to waste my time by supplying evidence that you’re to ignore. Either way, thanks for playing.

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