Pinker rips Harvard on the balance between science and religion

Via Charles and the WNMTC* list comes this forthright piece by Steven Pinker on the subject of Harvard’s Report of the Committee on General Education. First, he objects to the way in which the Science and Technology Requirement is justified:

The report goes on to emphasize the relevance of science to current concerns like global warming and stem-cell research. It even mandates that courses which fulfill the Science and Technology requirement “frame this material in the context of social issues” (a stipulation that is absent from other requirements). But surely there is more to being knowledgeable in science than being able to follow the news. And surely our general science courses should aim to be more than semester-long versions of “An Inconvenient Truth.”

Pinker argues that the importance of science is intrinsic, in language that expresses more eloquently the position that I expressed in my last blog piece (my emphasis):

Also, the picture of humanity’s place in nature that has emerged from scientific inquiry has profound consequences for people’s understanding of the human condition. The discoveries of science have cascading effects, many unforeseeable, on how we view ourselves and the world in which we live: for example, that our planet is an undistinguished speck in an inconceivably vast cosmos; that all the hope and ingenuity in the world can’t create energy or use it without loss; that our species has existed for a tiny fraction of the history of the earth; that humans are primates; that the mind is the activity of an organ that runs by physiological processes; that there are methods for ascertaining the truth that can force us to conclusions which violate common sense, sometimes radically so at scales very large and very small; that precious and widely held beliefs, when subjected to empirical tests, are often cruelly falsified.
I believe that a person for whom this understanding is not second-nature cannot be said to be educated. And I think that some acknowledgment of the intrinsic value of scientific knowledge should be a goal of the general education requirement and a stated value of a university.

Pinker then rips into the Reason and Faith Requirement:

First, the word “faith” in this and many other contexts, is a euphemism for “religion”…. A university should not try to hide what it is studying in warm-and-fuzzy code words.
Second, the juxtaposition of the two words makes it sound like “faith” and “reason” are parallel and equivalent ways of knowing[…]. But universities are about reason, pure and simple. Faith—believing something without good reasons to do so—has no place in anything but a religious institution, and our society has no shortage of these. Imagine if we had a requirement for “Astronomy and Astrology”… [I]t may be true that astrology deserves study as a significant historical and sociological phenomenon. But it would be a terrible mistake to juxtapose it with astronomy, if only for the false appearance of symmetry….
Third, if this is meant to educate students about the role of religion in history and current affairs, why isn’t it just a part of the “U.S. and the World” requirement? Religion is an important force, to be sure, but so are nationalism, ethnicity, socialism, markets, nepotism, class, and globalization. Why single religion out among all the major forces in history?

He concludes:

For us to magnify the significance of religion as a topic equivalent in scope to all of science, all of culture, or all of world history and current affairs, is to give it far too much prominence. It is an American anachronism, I think, in an era in which the rest of the West is moving beyond it.


* Whining-no-make-that-commentary.