Was That Anti-Scientism Article in Nature Just a Fancy Rant or Some Real Breakthrough Stuff?

Theral Timpson

I’m afraid it was a missed opportunity.

Let's applaud the Johns Hopkins science historian, Nathaniel Comfort, for testing out the tires--and carburetor--of his new tenureship and publishing a piece on scientism.  And in one of science’s top journals at that.   Obviously Comfort touched a nerve, generating a wave of reaction on Twitter, including a rebuke from the top celebrity Enlightenment fundamentalist evangelist, Steven Pinker. 

Ah, there’s nothing like blaring down the ole highway of ideas, confident in the engine of one’s years of study on a topic. 

But here, it’s all roar, with no destination.

And it begs the question: Who is the right congregation for this full throttled engine, this mighty rant? Are scientists actually the choir? Judging from all the “likes” Comfort received on Twitter, it appears that a majority of scientists are on board with calling out scientism. And I must ask, just what were they liking? He crafted some elegant lines, but I’m not sure Comfort himself knew what was fueling his roar.

"I want to suggest that many of the worst chapters of this history result from scientism: the ideology that science is the only valid way to understand the world and solve social problems. Where science has often expanded and liberated our sense of self, scientism has constrained it.”

After stating this hypothesis, Comfort goes on to give a kind of history of biology. But he doesn’t bother telling us what is science and what is scientism. Is the reader supposed to do that on her  own? One person tweeted that he first read the article as satire!   No, surely Comfort takes his scientism seriously.

For example, here’s his section on molecular biology and genomics:

"Indeed there was. In the same period, molecular biologists also became enamoured of information metaphors. After the 1953 solution of the DNA double helix, as the problem of the genetic code took shape, molecular biologists found analogies with information, text and communication irresistible, borrowing words such as ‘transcription’, ‘translation’, ‘messengers’, ‘transfers’ and ‘signalling’. The genome ‘spells’ in an ‘alphabet’ of four letters, and is almost invariably discussed as a text, whether it is a book, manual or parts list. Not coincidentally, these fields grew up alongside computer science and the computing industry."

History is fine. But, professor, draw a conclusion from your examples. Certainly as a writer you do not have a problem with metaphor! Is it the type of metaphor the biologist used that is offensive? Should they have used musical metaphors for the genome, for instance? Why should we think that because biologists used metaphors they think science is the only valid way to understand the world?  

Of course, if this is Pinker’s frustration with all historians, he does the field a discredit. (Who knows if Pinker even finished the piece before grabbing his cup of Twitter?)

There are plenty of historical examples of scientism in biology. The great and classic recent example is Theranos. Might I mention Biden’s Cancer Moonshot? Cancer research and better treatments are saving lives. But Joe Biden was promising a cure. Any biologist worth their salt knows we will never cure cancer. We will only treat it as a chronic illness and delay death. There is a popular biotech journalist who raised $150,000 last year to hike Mount Everest “for cancer.” On his website, he wrote, “we’re halfway to a cure, help us get all the way to the top.” Scientism is rampant in Silicon Valley. Perhaps it is headquartered there among the live forever anarchist gotta populate the solar system crowd.   (Go to any big science and technology conference around the world, and you will hear that they want to be like Silicon Valley.)  It emanates at a high frequency out of Harvard and MIT as well.  If the scientists are better at keeping it in check, the techies are not. Worst of all: the tech investor. Scandal after scandal has been precipitated by the attempt to fit biology into a belief to which it just would not conform. Even after the Theranos debacle, tech investor, Vijay Pande still felt the confidence to proclaim “evolution is the ultimate algorithm,” going on to write that all biologists needed to improve drug development was just a bunch of Silicon Valley engineers to the rescue. Here's Pande pandering to scientists and engineers in Scientific American:

"The way things are right now, we design bridges, but we discover drugs. This is not without cost: Billion-dollar bridges, which we have learned how to design through trial and error, practice and well-tried engineering principles, rarely fail—whereas billion-dollar drug failures are routine, not to mention costly. With design, however, we can plan and progress very systematically along a roadmap and make incremental innovations along the way. Borrowing from engineering, here are principles that allow us to overcome the so-called Grove fallacy and harness biology."

The path to living without Alzheimer's is just like the bridge over the Mississippi River or the San Francisco Bay.  It's just up to the systematic designers.  

Talk about a bridge to nowhere. 

Comfort goes on to chronicle the DNA revolution:

"By the end of the century, visionaries had begun to tout the coming of ‘personalized medicine’ based on your genome. No more ‘one size fits all’, went the slogan. Instead, diagnostics and therapy would be tailored to you — that is, to your DNA. After the Human Genome Project, the cost of DNA sequencing nosedived, making ‘getting your genome done’ part of mass culture. . . . Today, tech-forward colleges offer genome profiles to all incoming first-years. Hip companies purport to use your genome to compose personalized wine lists, nutritional supplements, skin cream, smoothies or lip balm. The sequence has become the self. As it says on the DNA testing kit from sequencing company 23andMe, “Welcome to you.”

No more one size fits all is not just a slogan. It is not scientism. It has become a part of people’s practical lives. Nor are the 23andMe tests easy to pigeonhole. Of course we can laugh at the company's marketing tagline. But everyone knows it is just that. I have heard many accounts where people suffered from these tests, and many accounts where people benefited. What about the writer Dani Shapiro who discovered after many years of feeling that the something wrong in her life was the fact that her father was not her biological father? This after one night before Christmas her husband said, hey, let’s get DNA tests for fun.

There’s the story of the young man who thought he had a high predisposition to early onset dementia, only to find out from another testing company that the results from 23andMe were false. He had taken the first results very seriously because one day while walking with his 23 year old sister in the park, she had suddenly dropped dead from a genetic illness. 

Then there’s the recent OpEd in Stat News of a woman who took a 23andMe test for fun and found out she had a dangerous BRCA gene. She says she’s glad she took the test. She got a cancer preventative mastectomy. 

Welcome to you. Welcome to 2019. Welcome to science. I don’t see any scientism, per se, in these three stories. It’s up to Comfort to make the case. 

Along with Comfort's definition, here’s how I would expand the definition of scientism: the belief that science can give us knowledge that it cannot. Let us talk about the issues we have so far been skirting. Science cannot tell us why we are here or what happens after we die. But many are believing in science as though it can. We are looking to it for metaphysical needs. Global warming and salvation from it has become the new Armageddon and Second Coming. Hope for gene editing cures for every kind of disease have  become the new miracles on the shores of Galilee (or splitting of the moon, if you're Muslim). Hope beyond hope. 

We cannot even seem to manage to define health. Does this not underlie our entire political challenge on healthcare?

At the end of the article comes a major non-sequitur.   What Jerry Coyne rightly calls out as Comfort’s wokeness move. 

Comfort writes:

"Most of these Age-of-Reason notions of identity, and the dominant sci-fi scenarios of post-human futures, have been developed by university-educated men who were not disabled, and who hailed from the middle and upper classes of wealthy nations of the global north. Their ideas reflect not only the findings but also the values of those who have for too long commanded the science system: positivist, reductionist and focused on dominating nature. Those who control the means of sequence production get to write the story."

Score. But not a score for logic. Those who control the means of sequence production get to write the story, what?? So Illumina is writing some story somewhere?  And are men more scientistic than women?  Are whites more scientistic than non whites?  I'll be open to the idea, but first present your case.  The four examples I give above include a woman (Theranos) and a non-white (Vijay).  

(Incidentally, I was surprised to see Comfort flinch at being called a postmodernist by Jerry—what appeared to be the worst attack Jerry could level against the article. Why would one mind the company of Kant, Wittgenstein and Karl Popper, who all claimed truth to be a “regulative ideal?”)

If Comfort wants to single out groups, I think we must point out that scientism is mostly rampant among non-religious, liberal urbanites, among university types. I have just spent time in rural Utah, and while the country folk are more religious, it is true, they do not believe so much that science will solve all the world’s problems. Perhaps this is obvious. But we cannot neglect the obvious. The irony, of course, is that the country folk turn and run to the hospital as soon as disaster strikes, talking on their cell phones all the way there.

The piece is ostensibly about how science has changed our concept of identity.    Comfort mentions Copernicus in the beginning, a scientist who greatly affected our notions of our self. The philosopher Bernard Williams argues that physicists have given us our “ultimate” view of the universe. Comfort defines scientism as science being the only “valid” view. Williams is saying the “ultimate” view. Can you argue with Williams?

Have biologists given us ultimate views of our selves?  They certainly shook up Dani Shapiro's view of herself.

I'm not sure I’m happy with this idea though. It leads me into questions of mind. What is the mind?  First, it seems, one must determine if one is a materialist, a monist, believing there is no mind separate from the brain.  Am I going in the right direction? Can we talk about identity without talking about mind? Is not the mind the seat of the self?

Perhaps a little history of mind would help.  We haven't really come that far from Descartes' "cogito ergo sum".  At the bottom of it all, we are thinking beings.  We know we are because we find ourselves thinking.  In the 20th Century, it was the British Philosopher, Gilbert Ryle, who first was determined to kill off the mind with his 1949 book, "Concept of Mind."  Then his protege, Daniel Dennet--still out there chiselling away--kept up his mentor's project in the 70's, along with his functionalist friends, by positing that consciousness (for them, mind was gone by then) is a computer program sitting on the hardware of our brains.  And where is the self in all of this?  It's an illusion, says Dennet.

Due in large part to the influence of the functionalists, most of the technologists I have met in Silicon Valley believe us humans are all biological robots. And that we have no mind, only brains and that consciousness is a computer program. Most of them go blank when you begin talking about the self.   

I believe there is a mind. We talk of the mind all of the time. We talk about a noble mind, a high minded person,  strength of mind, of making up your mind. When we lose our  mind, have we not gone mad?

Comfort rightly points out that molecular biology and the computing industry have grown up together.  In fact, today the biologist, the scientist has really become a technologist.  How did that transformation take place?  And what are the prevailing philosphical views on mind among these technologists?  This is the history I want to read.


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