Credit: sfupamr/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Looking for gemstones in the gutter

Just the other day, I’d mentioned to a friend that Steven Pinker was one of those rare people whose ideas couldn’t be appreciated by proxy, such as through the opinions of other authority figures, but had to be processed individually. This is because Pinker has found as much support as he has detraction – from Jerry Coyne’s Why Evolution is True on the one hand to P.Z. Myers’s Pharyngula on the other. As an aspiring rationalist, it’s hard for me to place Pinker on the genius-lunatic circle because it’s hard to see how his own ideas are self-consistent, or how all of his ideas sit on a common plane of reason.

2013 article Pinker wrote in The New Republic only added to this dilemma. The article argued that science was not an enemy of the humanities, with Pinker trying to denounce whatever he thought others thought “scientism” stood for. He argued that ‘scientism’ was not the idea that “everything is about science”, rather a commitment to two ideals: intelligibility and that “the acquisition of knowledge is hard”. This is a reasonable elucidation necessary to redefine the role and place of science in today’s jingoistic societies.

However, Pinker manages to mangle the rest of the article with what I hope (but can’t really believe to be) was pure carelessness – even though this is also difficult to believe because we all seem to have this fixation at the back of our minds that Pinker is a smart man. He manages to define everything he thinks is in this world worth defining from the POV of natural science alone. Consider these lines:

Though the scientific facts do not by themselves dictate values, they certainly hem in the possibilities. By stripping ecclesiastical authority of its credibility on factual matters, they cast doubt on its claims to certitude in matters of morality. The scientific refutation of the theory of vengeful gods and occult forces undermines practices such as human sacrifice, witch hunts, faith healing, trial by ordeal, and the persecution of heretics.

Pinker has completely left out subjects like sociology and anthropology in his definition of the world and the values its people harbour. Though he acknowledges that “scientific facts don’t by themselves dictate values”, he’s also pompous enough to claim scientific reasoning alone has undermined human sacrifice, witch hunts, etc. Then why is it that senior ISRO officials, who are well-educated rocket scientists, offer rocket models at temples before upcoming launches? Why is it that IT employees who migrate from Chennai and Bangalore to California still believe that the caste system is an idea worth respecting?

He continues:

The facts of science, by exposing the absence of purpose in the laws governing the universe, force us to take responsibility for the welfare of ourselves, our species, and our planet.

This seems to make logical sense… until you pause and wonder if that’s how people actually think. Did we decide to take control of our own welfare because “the laws governing the universe lack purpose”? Of course not. I’m actually tempted to argue that the laws governing the universe have been stripped of the ability to govern anthropic matters because we decided to take control of our welfare.

In fact, Pinker imputes the humanities and social sciences with intentions most institutions that study them likely don’t have. He also appropriates the ideas of pre-18th-century thinkers into the fold of science when it would’ve been wrong to do so: Hume, Leibniz and Kant (to pick only those philosophers whose work I’m familiar with) were not scientists. In fact, somehow, the one person who would’ve been useful to appropriate for the purposes of Pinker’s argument was left out: Roger Bacon. Then, deeper into the piece, there’s this:

The humanities have yet to recover from the disaster of postmodernism, with its defiant obscurantism, dogmatic relativism, and suffocating political correctness. And they have failed to define a progressive agenda. Several university presidents and provosts have lamented to me that when a scientist comes into their office, it’s to announce some exciting new research opportunity and demand the resources to pursue it. When a humanities scholar drops by, it’s to plead for respect for the way things have always been done.

With sweeping statements like these, Pinker leaves his head vulnerable to being bitten off (like here). At the same time, his conception of “scientism” burns bright like a gemstone lying in the gutter. Why can’t you be more clear cut like the gem, Pinker, and make it easier for all of us to get the hang of you? Can I trust in your definition of ‘scientism’ or should I wonder how you came upon it given the other silly things you believe? (Consider this: “The definitional vacuum [of what ‘scientism’ means] allows me to replicate gay activists’ flaunting of ‘queer’ and appropriate the pejorative for a position I am prepared to defend.” When was ‘queer’ ever a pejorative among gender/sexuality rights activists?) Oh, why are you making me think!

As I languished in the midst of this quandary and contemplated doing some actual work to get to the bottom of the Pinker puzzle, I came upon a review of his book Enlightenment Now (2018) authored by George Monbiot, whom I’ve always wholeheartedly agreed with. Here we go, I thought, and I wasn’t disappointed: Monbiot takes a clear position. In a bristling piece for The Guardian, Monbiot accuses Pinker of cherry-picking data and, in a few instances, misrepresenting facts to reach conclusions more favourable to his worldview, as a result coming off as an inadvertent apologist for capitalism. Excerpt:

Pinker suggests that the environmental impact of nations follows the same trajectory, claiming that the “environmental Kuznets Curve” shows they become cleaner as they get richer. To support this point, he compares Nordic countries with Afghanistan and Bangladesh. It is true that they do better on indicators such as air and water quality, as long as you disregard their impacts overseas. But when you look at the whole picture, including carbon emissions, you discover the opposite. The ecological footprints of Afghanistan and Bangladesh (namely the area required to provide the resources they use) are, respectively, 0.9 and 0.7 hectares per person. Norway’s is 5.8, Sweden’s is 6.5 and Finland, that paragon of environmental virtue, comes in at 6.7.

Pinker seems unaware of the controversies surrounding the Kuznets Curve, and the large body of data that appears to undermine it. The same applies to the other grand claims with which he sweeps through this subject. He relies on highly tendentious interlocutors to interpret this alien field for him. If you are going to use people like US ecomodernist Stewart Brand and the former head of Northern Rock Matt Ridley as your sources, you need to double-check their assertions. Pinker insults the Enlightenment principles he claims to defend.

To make sure I wasn’t making a mistake, I went through all of Coyne’s posts written in support of Pinker. It would seem that while there’s much to admire in his words, especially those concerning his area of expertise – psycholinguistics – Pinker either falls short when articulating his worldview or, more likely, the moment he steps out of his comfort zone and begins addressing the humanities, goes cuckoo. Coyne repeatedly asserts that Pinker is a classic progressive liberal who’s constantly misunderstood because he refuses to gloss over matters of political correctness that the authoritarian left doesn’t want you to discuss. But it’s really hard to stand by him when – like Monbiot says about Enlightenment Now – he’s accused of misrepresenting rape statistics in The Better Angels of Our Nature (2011).

Anyway, the Princeton historian David Bell also joined in with a scathing review for The Nation, where he called Enlightenment Now a 20-hour TED talk pushing history as having been “just so” instead of acknowledging the many people’s movements and struggles that deliberately made it so.

Pinker’s problems with history are compounded even further as he tries to defend the Enlightenment against the many scholarly critics who have pointed, over the centuries, to some of its possible baleful consequences. Did Enlightenment forms of reasoning and scientific inquiry lie behind modern biological racism and eugenics? Behind the insistence that women do not have the mental capacity for full citizenship? Not at all, Pinker assures us. That was just a matter of bad science.

Indeed, it was. But Pinker largely fails to deal with the inconvenient fact that, at the time, it was not so obviously bad science. The defenders of these repellent theories, used to justify manifold forms of oppression, were published in scientific journals and appealed to the same standards of reason and utility upheld by Pinker. “Science” did not by itself inevitably beget these theories, but it did provide a new language and new forms of reasoning to justify inequality and oppression and new ways of thinking about and categorizing natural phenomena that suggested to many an immutable hierarchy of human races, the sexes, and the able and disabled. The later disproving of these theories did not just come about because better science prevailed over worse science. It came about as well because of the moral and political activism that forced scientists to question data and conclusions they had largely taken for granted.

It seems Pinker may not be playing as fast and loose with facts, philosophy and the future as sci-fi writers like Yuval Noah Harari (whose Homo Deus is the reason I’ve not read historical surveys since; I recommend John Sexton’s takedown) have, but he’s probably just as bad for riding a cult of personality that has brought, and continues to bring, him an audience that will listen to him even though he’s a psycholinguist monologuing about Enlightenment philosophy. And what’s more, all the reviews I can find of Enlightenment Now have different versions of the same complaints Monbiot and Bell have made.

So I’m going to wilfully succumb to two of the cognitive biases Pinker says blinkers our worldview and makes things seem more hopeless than they are – availability and negativity – and kick Enlightenment Now off my todo list.

In sum: what keeps Pinker au courant is his optimism. If only it weren’t so misinformed in its fundamentals…

Hat-tip to Omair Ahmad for flagging the New Republic article. Featured image: Steven Pinker. Credit: sfupamr/Flickr, CC BY 2.0.

Even something will come of nothing

The Hindu
June 3, 2014

“In the 3,000 years since the philosophers of ancient Greece first contemplated the mystery of creation, the emergence of something from nothing, the scientific method has revealed truths that they could not have imagined.” Thus writes the British physicist Frank Close in an introductory book on the idea of nothingness he wrote in 2009. It is the ontology of these truths that the book Nothing: From Absolute Zero to Cosmic Oblivion – Amazing Insights Into Nothingness explores so succinctly, drawing upon the communication skills of many of the renowned writers with NewScientist.

While at first glance the book may appear to be an anthology with no other connection between its various pieces than the narration of what lies at today’s cutting edge of scientific research, there grows a deeper sense of homogeneity toward the end as you, the reader, realize what you’ve read are stories of what drives people: a compulsion toward the known, away from the unknown, in various forms. Because we are a species hardwired to recognize nature in terms of a cause-effect chain, it can be intuited that somewhere between nothing and something lies our origin. And by extrapolating between the two, the pieces’ authors explore how humankind’s curiosity is inseparable from its existence.

So, as is customary when thinking about such things, the book begins and ends with pieces on cosmology. This is a vantage point that presents sufficient opportunity to think about both the physical and the metaphysical of nothingness, and the pieces by Marcus Chown and Stephen Battersby shows that that’s true. Both writers present the intricate circumstances of our conception and ultimate demise in language that is never intimidating, although it could easily have been, and with appreciable lucidity.

However, the best part of the book is that it dispels the notion that profound unknowns are limited to cosmology. Pieces on the placebo effect (Michael Brooks), vestigial organs (Laura Spinney) and anesthetics (Linda Geddes) reveal how scientists confront these mysteries when treating with the human body, the diminishing space for its organs, its elusive mind and the switch that throws the bulb ‘on’ inside it. What makes sick peoples’ malfunctioning bodies heal with nothing? What is the brain doing when people are ‘put under’? We’ve known about these effects since the 19th century. To this day, we’re having trouble getting a logical grip on them. Yet, in the past, today and henceforth, we will take what rough ideas of them pass for knowledge for granted.

There are other examples, too. Physicist Per Eklund writes a wonderful piece on how long it took for the world’s enterprising to defy Aristotle and discover vacuum because its existence is so far removed from ours. Jonathan Knight shows how animals that sit around and do nothing all day could actually die of starvation if they did anything more. Richard Webb awakens us to the staggering fact that modern electronics is based on the movement of holes, or locations in atoms where electrons are absent. And then, Nigel Henbest’s unraveling of the discourteous blankness of outer space leaves you feeling alone and… perhaps scared.

But relax. Matters are not so dire if only because nothingness is unique and rare, and insured against by the presence of something. At the same time, it isn’t extinct either even if places for it to exist on Earth are limited to laboratories and opinions, and even if it, unlike anything else, can be conjured out of thin air. A case in point is the titillating Casimir effect. In 1948, the Dutch physicist Hendrik Casimir predicted a “new” force that could act between two metallic plates parallel to each other in a vacuum such that the distance between them was only some tens of nanometers. Pointless thought it seems, Casimir was actually working on a tip-off from Niels Bohr, and his calculations showed something.

He’d found that the plates would move closer, in an effect that has come to be named for him. What could have moved them? They would practically have been surrounded by nothingness. However, as Sherlock Holmes might have induced, Casimir thought the answer lay with the nothingness itself. He explained that the vacuum of space didn’t imply an absolute nothingness but a volume that still contained some energy, called zero-point energy, continuously experiencing fluctuations. In this arena, bring two plates close enough and at some point, the strength of fluctuations between the plates is going to be outweighed by the strength of fluctuations on the outside, pushing the plates together.

Although it wasn’t until 1958 that an experiment to test the Casimir effect was performed, and until 1996 that the attractive force was measured to within 15 per cent of the value predicted by theory, the prediction salvaged the vacuum of space from abject impotency and made it febrile. As counter-intuitive as this seems, such is what quantum mechanics makes possible, in the process setting up a curious but hopefully fruitful stage upon which, in the same vein as Paul Davies writes in the piece The Day Time Began, science and theology can meet and sort out their differences.

Because, if anything, Nothing from the writers at NewScientist is as much a spiritual exploration as it is a physical one. Each of the pieces has at its center a human who is lost, confused, looking for answers, but doesn’t yet know the questions, a situation we’re becoming increasingly familiar with as we move on from the “How” of things to the “Why”. Even if we’re not in a position to understand what exactly happened before the big bang, the promise of causality that has accompanied everything after says that the answers lie between the nothingness of then and the somethingness of now. And the more somethings we find, the more Nothing will help us understand it.

Buy the book.