If you follow the same people I do, no doubt you’ve come across the recent debate over Stephen Pinker’s piece in The National Review. The discussions that have followed this article highlight something that I think is relevant to the nature of hackathons I’ve been unveiling in my work.
Scientism itself is a pretty contested word – Pinker chooses to describe it thusly:
“[Scientism is] more of a boo-word than a label for any coherent doctrine. Sometimes it is equated with lunatic positions, such as that “science is all that matters” or that “scientists should be entrusted to solve all problems… Scientists themselves are immersed in the ethereal medium of information, including the truths of mathematics, the logic of their theories, and the values that guide their enterprise. In this conception, science is of a piece with philosophy, reason, and Enlightenment humanism. It is distinguished by an explicit commitment to two ideals, and it is these that scientism seeks to export to the rest of intellectual life…. The second ideal is that the acquisition of knowledge is hard.
I’m not going to debate Stephen Pinker, since I am a lowly masters student not yet in a PhD program, and he is purportedly one of the most influential thinkers on the planet at the moment. Instead, I’ll let others do that for me!
Maverick Philosopher gives us a nice simplification of that awkward definition of “scientism” (along with some fun critiques of their own)
Scientism is the view that all of our intellectual life ought to be governed by two ideals, the ideal that the world is intelligible and the ideal that knowledge-acquisition is difficult.
And Massimo Pigliucci of CUNY points out how this definition is awkward and self-serving (read the rest of his post for how the supposed chasm between STEM and non-STEM is narrower than Pinker pretends it is):
I’m not sure why these are “ideals” rather than, say, working assumptions (the first) and acknowledgement of fact (the second). But this is a red herring, of course. Nobody in his right mind is arguing that the universe isn’t (to a point, no guarantees!) understandable by us, and certainly nobody is accusing scientists of being lazy. So why bring that up to begin with?
So what is the point? What is Pinker trying to say? If you haven’t read the piece, you should. My attempt at summary would go something like this; Empirical science and quantitative, rigorous work are chiefly the greatest contributors to the fulfilment of humanistic values and the betterment of people. Humanities could stand to learn from this work, but such scholars are crippled by their ego and postmodernism (with it’s “defiant obscurantism, dogmatic relativism, and suffocating political correctness”).
I’m sincerely not trying to make a glib mockery of Pinker’s words – this is the tone that I believe he is projecting. It’s also the one that others have picked up on. But more interestingly, two months before Pinker drafted his two theses and pinned them to the door of the academic blogosphere, Peter Augustine Lawler wrote a defense of the humanities which is where I get the first equation to my own work. The New Republic’s literary editor, Leon Wieseltier, had given a speech where he declared the humanities were a “genuine counterculture” that served as a defense to the “instrumental reason” of technologism.
Technologism is the view that the point of the human mind is to manipulate nature—including other people—to maximize our power, security, and enjoyment. Reason is about the how, and not about the why—not about “meaning.” But for the philosophers, reason opens each of us to the truth about all things, including who we are, and there’s a lot we can comprehend that we can’t and would never want to control. Reason, for the philosophers, has a moral dimension—it’s about knowing and doing good, and knowing and avoiding evil.
So Wiesteltier, literary editor at The New Republic, was passionately defending why we need ethicists and people to tease apart questions which are difficult to address from a purely scientific point of view. Then Pinker (guest writer) comes in and writes a scientism manifesto, which basically tries to absorb all those other navel-gazing disciplines. Awkward!
Nowhere, it seems to me, is solutionism in fuller force than at hackathons and app contests. Without contemplating the origins, causes, and effects of the social problems they seek to remedy, these two- or three-day events bring together designers and software developers to “hack” together elegant solutions to complex problems.
So now we have three pieces of the puzzle: Scientism, technologism, and solutionism. That’s enough isms for now. I’ll tie them together more closely in the next blog post.