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Broderick Chow

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Steven Pinker is a jerk

Back in August, when things are generally quiet and academics are trying to extract the last remaining drops of research time from the summer, this little lump of coal was dropped in the collective stocking of the humanities. It’s Steven Pinker’s ‘An impassioned plea to neglected novelists, embattled professors, and tenure-less historians’ (according to The New Republic, which published the piece). At the time, I tweeted: ‘Lots of people are going to fawn over this piece of ideological bollocks… Don’t be fooled: same old crap’, which I will admit is not the most mature response. I was enraged by Pinker’s article, which, if it is a defense of the humanities, might as well be a kind of ‘scientism humanitarian intervention.’ Pinker preaches a colonization of the humanities by science as well as the total destruction of what had gone before.

I wasn’t alone in this opinion. A number of brilliant articles have appeared in its wake, including Steven Poole’s, and, in my opinion, the two stand-outs (from opposite ends of the spectrum): Leon Wieseltier’s long, magisterial philosophical take-down (also in The New Republic) and this utter gem of a piece from the Fuck Theory Tumblr which is so entertaining you should crack open a beer and put on Yeezus before reading.

So I don’t really want to rehearse these arguments again, since they’ve been put so eloquently in the aforementioned pieces. But I do want to add one thing to the debate, and that is to problematise the kind of fawning child-like wonderment at ‘science’ that is creeping into the way we talk about science, especially on social media. Call it ‘hipster scientism.’ Or, perhaps, the Buzzfeed Scientific Method.

What I noticed is that often those people who shared Steven Pinker’s article were often those who share bits from the Facebook or Tumblr account ‘I F*cking Love Science.’ You will have seen these – an image, of an animal or galaxy, with an astonishing ‘fact’ attached. Wow! Nature is great! Otters hold hands when they sleep! Amazing! There is a fungus that takes over the brain of an ant! (Or something like that, I don’t really remember this one). Galaxies! Isn’t everything wondrous!

Well, of course it is. But let’s not fool ourselves that we’re doing science by reading some facts we found on the internet. You don’t love science. You enjoy trivia. 

I’m perhaps being a bit unkind. But I think this distribution of science as trivia through the internet speaks to some larger issues about ‘scientism’ and the humanities – and, as ever, it comes back to that bastard combination of ideology and materialism. Consider how easy it would be to troll the I F*cking Love Science account. Here are two statements. One is scientifically verified and the one is a lie:

a) Lobsters are basically immortal

b) There is a type of hornet that sprays flesh-melting poison

Actually, both were true. I read both of them on the internet. But that’s the thing. If I had made one of them up, I do not actually have the scientific skills to verify whether the statement is true or not. Furthermore, I don’t have the resources to find out that otters hold hands when they sleep. I accept that it is true because someone in a position of authority has told me so. Science is a rational method – a means of procuring and producing knowledge. But the acceptance of scientific fact as fact is a performative speech act, authorized by the position of the person who has uttered the statement. As a linguist, you’d think Pinker would know this.

Not to get too Foucauldian here, but science is both: a) the thing that has bettered humanity more than anything (I LOVE antibiotics and medicine, just saying) and b) an almost totalizing apparatus of power and knowledge that responds to the movements of capital and is downright terrifying at times. It can be both these things. Science is susceptible to instrumentalisation and misuse because naming something as ‘fact’ is always performative in some way. Not everyone has the time to verify something through their own experiment, and that’s ok.

Pinker doesn’t point out that science takes resources and money, is often very costly, and requires enormous amounts of specialist training and knowledge. That’s fine when we are trying to invent treatments for cancer, but far less fine when we (as Pinker seems to advocate) seek to apply it to the humanities. If the humanities are revived through an injection of fresh blood from the sciences, what this means is a total abandonment of the democratic project of the humanities.

As Terry Eagleton points out, literary theory is a democratic project. Prior to the turn to theory in the academy, the understanding of literature was seen as a matter of taste and discretion – only those with a certain cultivated aesthetic sense could participate, which meant, invariably that it was principally the domain of those of a higher socioeconomic class. Theory was meant to liberate literature and make the study of it conceivably open to anyone. While its well rehearsed obscurantism may seem to contradict this project, the fundamental drive of the study of the humanities through theory and philosophy was the opening up of literature (art, theatre, dance, music) to everyone. 

Now consider Pinker’s humanoscientific utopia; here, science is the key to all knowledge, even about something like literature. Here is one of Pinker’s recommendations: ‘Cognitive psychology can provide insight about readers’ ability to reconcile their own consciousness with those of the author and characters.’ Leaving aside the hideous reductiveness of this kind of study, which simply seems to justify all those Amazon reviews that say ‘This book was sooo boring I couldnt relate to any of the characters’ – there is the other problem that the average person simply doesn’t have access to the equipment, labs, resources or specialist knowledge in order to conduct this sort of cognitive psychology test. We simply accept the conclusions of the researchers and move on. And then what does that tell us? That the brain has certain neural pathways that light-up (or whatever) when someone you read about does something that you have experienced in your life? Fine, but that’s not what Infinite Jest or [insert name of book] means. 

What people will** hopefully have access to if we defend things like libraries is access to lots of books. It also takes a commitment to widening participation, and yeah, rarely do people have ready access to 9K in tuition fees, but that’s another story.