Over the holidays, David Brooks, the New York Times op-ed columnist, bestowed his Sidney Awards on what he thought were the top magazine essays of the year. And in doing so, he betrayed a profound misunderstanding of scientific inquiry.
He praises a debate in The New Republic in which Leon Wieseltier and Steven Pinker debated "the proper role of science in modern thought." Pinker, Brooks writes, tells us that "despite what some blinkered humanities professors argue, science gives us insight into nearly everything." I doubt that Pinker dismisses all humanities professors as "blinkered," but Brooks seems to think we have to choose between one or the other–science or humanities. We don't.
Further, Brooks writes that Pinker believes "science has given us a different value system" contrasting with the value systems of religions.
Here is what Brooks doesn't understand: Science is not a value system. Science is a way of gaining information in an organized way designed to separate what seems to be true (the world is flat) from what is true. We were not forced to exchange our value systems when we discovered the world was round.
Brooks paraphrases Wieseltier to the effect that a chemical analysis of the pigments in a beautiful painting cannot explain why we find it beautiful. True enough. "The scientists deny the differences between the realms of human existence and simplify reality by imposing their methods even where they can’t apply."
It's unclear who "the scientists" are–all of them?–and what he means by "the realms of human existence" and the misguided effort to "simplify reality." He gives no examples. While a study of the paint won't explain why we find a painting beautiful, a study of our physiology and emotions could. Where is the simplification? Where is the misapplication of scientific methods?
I'm afraid the person guilty of simplifying reality is Brooks, not "the scientists."
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