For a few minutes, I thought I would write a lengthy analysis of Steven Pinker’s recent Twitter rant in which the Harvard psychologist and popular writer alleges that historians of science are biased against science and are actively working to destroy science’s claim to objectivity by forcing people to read about the history of science rather than its conclusions.
Pinker’s tweet created a storm of controversy, with his defenders, like the editor of Quillette, going so far as to claim that historians as a group are biased and refuse to use “objective” data, insisting instead on telling “stories” that are, of course, full of opinions. Pinker’s opponents made better points, notably one I read that asked why exactly these people are afraid of the history of science. The answer, they argued, is that they don’t want to grapple with the fact that the history of science if intimately tied to the history of culture, and that “objective” scientific “truths” like scientific racism and eugenics jostled against chemistry and physics, giving the lie to the idea that a liberal and tolerant world order was ushered in through science in the 1780s and only got better from there.
The whole argument angered me a bit because I am in the process of finishing up work on my Mound Builder book, which, at its heart, is a history of the early years of American archaeology. I guess that makes me a de facto historian of science, and, yes, I historicized the subject by placing the developments into the context of the religious, political, and, yes, racist culture of the 1800s. I don’t much like the idea that Pinker thinks that my book is an effort to deny science “claim to objectivity and realism,” but, I guess, at one level it is. The “science” of the 1800s was wrong. Its practitioners thought it was objective, but it was racist. That’s not an opinion, however. The scientists of the time proudly announced that they were racists. Even the good guys who had the right idea weren’t 100% correct. Cyrus Thomas, who busted the Mound Builder myth in 1894 and is a scientific hero for doing so, actually thought the mounds were mostly the work of ancestral Cherokees. That isn’t right. Exposing the fact that early iterations of scientific ideas were wrong is not an attack on the scientific method but an important corrective in understanding that theories are established gradually, through testing and refinement, moving from initial ideas to more refined ones. Each new version became a little more accurate until, today, we are presumably quite close to the truth.
Of course, Pinker probably doesn’t think of archaeology as a real science.
Anyway, I need to finish indexing the book today. Mine is probably going to be one of the only books on American mounds to feature phrenology, Nazis, UFOs, penis worship, and Nephilim in the index.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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