The New Republic’s Literary Editor Gets Science Wrong

Yesterday I wrote a bit about Steven Pinker’s piece in The New Republic where he defends science from those in the humanities and the academic left. Today there was a video pushback against the article from TNR’s Literary Editor Leon Wieseltier no less. Here’s Wieseltier in his own words:

Ugh, where to begin? First of all, as my friend and astronomer/writer/painter Mike Brotherton points out, the very title of Wieseltier’s piece, No, Science Doesn’t Have All the Answers, demonstrates a lack of understanding of the very subject he criticizes. Science is a process, not a an encyclopedia of answers. By extension, a scientist is not the Shell Answer Man. (1)To be clear.I’m not stating the scientists don’t have any answers. What I am saying is that they don’t have answers “just because.” Instead they gain their knowledge through the process of science.

That may seem nitpicky, but it’s a canard that I’ve heard before and one Wieseltier uses himself, defining “Scientism” as the belief that science has answers to all questions, not just scientific questions. He then goes on to claim this as the reason for the decline in the appreciation of the humanities. He decries that we are becoming a society that looks for wisdom in numbers. In other words, relying on science to reduce everything to the mundane and the non-mysterious.

But aren’t mysteries meant to be solved? For example, when I go out on a clear night and gaze up at the stars, is my knowing that they are really suns hundreds of light years away, shining by thermonuclear fusion in their cores, and are at various stages of their evolution somehow diminish my appreciation of night sky? If anything it enhances it. And knowing that we’re able to actually figure this out only increases my appreciation for the human mind’s ability to comprehend the universe that created it.

In other words, my appreciation of Humanity.

Does Wieseltier and his colleagues actually believe that we would be much better of not knowing this?

I don’t mean to answer Wieseltier’s strawman argument with another strawman, but his video is filled with all kinds of canards which are patently ridiculous. I don’t mean to be harsh, but you’d think that Wieseltier wouldn’t have responded to Pinker by using the very attacks that Pinker so ably nullifies in his piece.

I could go on, but Mike’s post is well worth a read, as is Jerry Coyne’s piece, which takes a charitable, yet critical, view of Wieseltier’s video. I highly recommend checking both of them out.

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1. To be clear.I’m not stating the scientists don’t have any answers. What I am saying is that they don’t have answers “just because.” Instead they gain their knowledge through the process of science.

Science is Not Your Enemy: The Most Impassioned Defense of Science I’ve Ever Read

Cover image from Steven Pinker's article
Cover image from Steven Pinker’s article. Seriously, go read it. Image credit: The New Republic

When I was a wee undergraduate astronomy student, my favorite activity was serving as a Teaching Assistant to the core astronomy lab. For some reason, I enjoy helping others to learn about the universe or something. Anyway, one year the chair of the Honors program at Villanova asked the Astronomy department to create a special class for their Honors students – presumably, the core astronomy course wasn’t challenging enough for their students. We agreed and I was set to TA the lab. We found it to be a rather challenging experience, not because they were testing the limits of our knowledge, but because we were very rapidly testing the limits of the students’ tolerance of ideas outside of their area of study.

One example was a student who was incensed at the idea that we know the age of the universe and that it is expanding. Evidently, this knowledge was in conflict with his understanding of the universe as taught to him by Aristotle, Kant, and others. In other words, he accepted the tenants of philosophy as fact and rejected everything he learned in our class that conflicted with it.

Of course, that’s just one example, but I could certainly give others. And my tales are hardly unique – there has been some pushback from against science from the Humanities for quite some time now, so this is nothing new. In fact, scientists (myself included, in the most generous use of that term) have been long been accused of amoral reductionist thinking that ignores the “magic” of the world. There’s even a term for this view of the world, Scientism (1)As if using science to understand the world were a bad thing.

But today I read piece by Steven Pinker, a professor of psychology at Harvard, that is the best defense of science I’ve ever seen. There are  hundreds of gems to mine from the article, but I’ll whet your appetite with this:

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.

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1. As if using science to understand the world were a bad thing

I Can’t Wait to See Gravity

Bad day at the office
Bad day at the office

Warner Bros. has been teasing Gravity, a space thriller starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney as astronauts aboard the fictional space shuttle Explorer (1)Shuttle Explorer is actually not that fictional; it’s is a full-sized mockup shuttle currently on display at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. Its use in the film is a nice nod to the Shuttle program performing an EVA on what appears to be the Hubble Space Telescope. Things are going fairly nominally, until this happens:

In one continuous take, just about everything that could possibly go wrong during an EVA does so in spectacular, and dare I say it, realistic fashion. Now there’s a few nitpicks I could make, not the least of which is how something like this could happen in the first place, but I’ll reserve judgement until after I’ve seen the film. In the meantime…I can’t wait to see this film! For several reasons.

For one thing, I noticed that there was a substantial lack of sound effects and any whoosh or clanging noises were kept to a minimum. The music fills in the rest to add drama, but I don’t think either of those are necessary when all hell is breaking loose up there. Still, it’s nice to see that director Alfonso Cuarón seems to trust us, the audience, to know that the only sounds you will hear in space are those of the radio and your breath.

I’m also very happy that Cuarón has a female as one of the lead characters, even though he supposedly got some grief from studio types in Hollywood about it. Evidently, Hollywood thinks that SF heroes must be male and girls are only there as eye candy. Don’t agree? Go see Pacific Rim.

It’s astonishing that there even has to be a conversation about the idea of female leads in a space film, even though we’ve had female astronauts who perform real-life EVAs and command space shuttles.

In any event, the film clearly seems aimed at being an otherwise realistic portrayal of a nightmare scenario in space. I’m looking forward to this and may even catch this one in IMAX 3-D if it helps put me out in space with the characters. At least I’ll be able to return to Earth afterward.

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1. Shuttle Explorer is actually not that fictional; it’s is a full-sized mockup shuttle currently on display at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. Its use in the film is a nice nod to the Shuttle program