Argument by Fashion

There is a review of Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate in the current American Scientist. It raises some reasonable objections to Pinker’s book, including a contradiction I have wondered about too: on the one hand Pinker rejects the “naturalistic fallacy” (also known as the fact-value distinction, or confusing “is” with “ought”), and on the other hand the whole book is an argument that a proper understanding of human nature undermines ideas about social engineering and utopian dreams. Fair enough. But then there comes a very odd paragraph.

At this point in the book I was increasingly struck by resonances with the intellectual conservatism of science warriors such as Paul Gross and Norman Levitt. Pinker’s standard lists of blank-slaters (exponents of social constructionism, science studies, cultural studies, poststructuralism and the like) are eerily reminiscent of the singling out of enemies of science by Gross and Levitt and others. It would be a task beyond the present review to explore the connections, but the appeal to right-of-center middlebrow scientism is certainly similar and surely suggestive of a broader cultural tendency.

The intellectual conservatism? Right-of-center? Middlebrow? What is this, a fashion show? A game of Who is Hippest? Is epistemology identical with politics? Is intellectual conservatism even a meaningful concept? Is defending the role of evidence and logic in science and other forms of inquiry “middlebrow”? It may be conservative, in the sense that that is how science has been done for centuries, but does it follow that, oh dear, that’s getting a bit stale and tiresome and vieux jeu now and we really ought to do it the opposite way, via hunches or the I Ching or political preference? Surely not.


There is an article here from our sister publication The Philosophers’ Magazine about a debate between John Dupré, who wrote the review in question, and Dylan Evans, author of Introducing Evolutionary Psychology, chaired by the novelist Ian McEwan.

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