02 December 2011

Pinker on what science is all about

I’m making my way through Michael Shermer’s The Believing Brain at the moment, so Steven Pinker’s latest book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, is still languishing on my ‘to read’ list. I’m aware that it’s a BIG book, but Jerry Coyne has started reading it and his thoughts on its, uh, bigness is actually scaring me a little. It’s most likely going to take me a good part of early 2012 to finish it. But Pinker is a splendid writer with a knack for spinning a good (and in this case, often grisly) yarn out of all the reams of data and graphs his books typically contain.

Coyne selects the following paragraph from Better Angels as a standout for the way it articulates Pinker’s views on science, which concur with Coyne’s.

(p. 181) Though we cannot logically prove anything about the physical world, we are entitled to have confidence in certain beliefs about it. The application of reason and observation to discover tentative generalizations about the world is what we call science. The progress of science with its dazzling success at explaining and manipulating the world, shows that knowledge of the universe is possible, albeit always probabilistic and subject to revision. Science is thus a paradigm for how we ought to gain knowledge—not the particular methods or institutions of science but its value system, namely to seek to explain the world, to evaluate candidate explanations objectively, and to be cognizant of the tentativeness and uncertainty of our understanding at any time.

After reading that, how can any reasonable person still think that scientists are arrogant, cocksure know-it-alls? The scientific enterprise is arguably the most humbling experience one could have. Scientists get it wrong many, many times before they find the correct answers. And they’re constantly going over each other’s work with a magnifying glass, just hoping to find errors or unsubstantiated claims to gleefully point out. I’m no scientist, but I imagine that having one’s research subjected to such intense scrutiny by so many experts leaves little opportunity for inflated egos.

Notice that Pinker makes a value judgment when he writes that science is “a paradigm for how we ought to gain knowledge”, and that it’s not just the “particular methods or institutions of science but its value system” that give it its unique powers of discovery and illumination. Science is a moral undertaking. When people dedicate themselves to science, they are also declaring their commitment to moral values like honesty, humility and integrity. When they abandon any of these values, they cease doing science.


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