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The Reduction of Science

August 9, 2013 Leave a comment

Steven Pinker has a new piece in the New Republic defending the encroachment of scientific reasoning into subjects that have been traditionally partitioned from it such as art, morality, and the humanities.

Scientism, in this good sense, is not the belief that members of the occupational guild called “science” are particularly wise or noble. On the contrary, the defining practices of science, including open debate, peer review, and double-blind methods, are explicitly designed to circumvent the errors and sins to which scientists, being human, are vulnerable. Scientism does not mean that all current scientific hypotheses are true; most new ones are not, since the cycle of conjecture and refutation is the lifeblood of science. It is not an imperialistic drive to occupy the humanities; the promise of science is to enrich and diversify the intellectual tools of humanistic scholarship, not to obliterate them. And it is not the dogma that physical stuff is the only thing that exists. 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.

Leon Wieseltier, the literary editor of that magazine, views that intervention as a “spectacular philosophical mistake.”

We are becoming a massified, datafied, quantified society, who looks for wisdom in numbers… which looks for wisdom in numbers. And thinks that numbers can provide certainties of certain kinds. And owing to the explosion of so-called “big data” there has developed this excessive confidence in the ability of the quantifying disciplines to explain human life. So economists are now regarded on authorities on happiness. Happiness is not an economic subject.

Unsurprisingly, Wieseltier relies heavily on confusion and authority to attack science.  Instead of exhibiting undue certainty, science is the language of doubt and caveat. “Big Data” poster boy, Nate Silver, who dealt with statistical luddites at the Times, wrote a whole book on the problem with overconfidence: The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail – But Some Don’t. After all, it’s not traditional moralists, novelists, or theologians explicitly announcing their “margins of error.”

If you’re going to attack the utility of science, I suppose it’s at least consistent to ignore its lessons when constructing an argument against it. Why is happiness not a subject amenable to econometric analysis? Wieseltier declares so by fiat. No reasons necessary apparently.

Contrary to Wieseltier, economists provide important insights into happiness. Instead of relying on conjecture or conventional wisdom scientists can provide evidence-based judgements on ways to organize society that are consistent with more happiness and well-being. Does the data demonstrate that average happiness is unconnected to economic growth across societies as Richard Easterlin argued? Or does newer research by Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers “establish a clear positive link between average levels of subjective well-being and GDP per capita across countries?” This vital question has an answer. Rationality demands we don’t decide who is right by who argued it first or by who we intuit is correct. Whichever theory offers the more reliable data, the better scientific controls, and the more robust explanation points us to our provisional truth. If we’re not getting any happier striving for an ever increasing GDP we should hop off the hamster wheel and explore alternatives.  But if increasing our incomes does improve our satisfaction we should enact policies to help us accomplish that and continue to explore alternatives.

Another economist, Daniel Kahneman, has spent his career studying happiness and used the observations of neuroscience and the tools economics to vanish illusory forms of happiness and show how specific goals can affect an individual’s future contentment. Learning whether people tend to be happier if they spend their money on a fancier wardrobe or on taking a vacation can help provide useful knowledge when making our own decisions. Aggregating the experiences of others allows us to avoid common biases and mistakes – it allows us to boost the modest trajectory of limited experience. Is a bigger house worth the tradeoff of a worse commute? Economics supplies the means to evaluate these and other tradeoffs.

Wieseltier and other critics such as Ross Douthat want to constrain science’s influence on their own pet passions, the humanities and religion respectively. But by cordoning off scientific methodology and diminishing science to a file of facts and a tweaker of technology critics commit the same mistake they accuse of scientism – a crass reductionism.

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