Episode 8

Published on:

10th Dec 2021

What is science? with Professor Steven Pinker - The Shape of Dialogue # 8

In July 2021, seven University of Auckland professors published a letter to the editor in the New Zealand Listener, titled In Defence of Science.

The professors' were responding to a Government education report (see link below), recommending parity for Mātauranga Māori in the secondary school curriculum, and in particular, in the science classroom.

The report states:

”Our goal is to ensure parity for mātauranga Māori with the other bodies of knowledge credentialed by NCEA (particularly Western/Pākehā epistemologies)."

The report also states:

"Philosophy and History of Science is a unique strand in Pūtaiao [Māori word for Science], with no equivalent in the New Zealand Curriculum. It promotes discussion and analysis of the ways in which science has been used to support the dominance of Eurocentric views (among which, its use as a rationale for colonisation of Māori and the suppression of Māori knowledge); and the notion that science is a Western European invention and itself evidence of European dominance over Māori and other indigenous peoples. Pūtaiao allows opportunities to incorporate Māori perspectives and knowledge about the natural world into the classroom. In this regard, it decentres Western epistemologies and methodologies."

The professors' letter arose from their concern for "the disturbing misunderstandings of science emerging at all levels of education and in science funding", which they state is encourages a mistrust of science. Their concern is in the context of the decline in maths and science achievements in New Zealand schools, particularly by Māori and Pacific Island students.

Their letter stated that:

"Indigenous knowledge is critical for the preservation and perpetuation of culture and local practices, and plays key roles in management and policy. However, in the discovery of empirical, universal truths, it falls far short of what we can define as science itself. To accept it as the equivalent of science is to patronise and fail indigenous populations; better to ensure that everyone participates in the world's scientific enterprises. Indigenous knowledge may indeed help advance scientific knowledge in some ways, but it is not science".

The reaction to the "In Defence of Science" by the University of Auckland, the Royal Society of New Zealand Te Apārangi, the Tertiary Education Union, and the New Zealand Association of Scientists was not positive and can be viewed in the following articles…

NZ Herald - Scientists rubbish Auckland University professors' letter claiming Māori knowledge is not science


RNZ - University academics' claim mātauranga Māori 'not science' sparks controversy


Research Professional News - Public letter from academics sparks Māori science row


An open letter in response to the professors' letter by professors Hendy and Wiles, "An open response to In defence of science" was co-signed by 2000 people.


Sadly, professor Corballis is no longer with us. He was diagnosed with lymphoma in October. The same month the Royal Society announced a breach of conduct inquisition into professor Corballis and two of his co-authors, professors Nola and Cooper, all fellows of the august institution. The Society launched the inquisition having publicly criticised the professors for their letter. Furthermore, the Society initially included two inquisition panellists who had previously signed the Hendy/Wiles open letter against the professors, and all five complainants who sparked the inquisition were anonymous. The Royal Society's stated role is to "advance and promote research and scholarly activity, the pursuit of knowledge". However, the Society seems blind to their lack of impartiality and due process and to the irony of prosecuting some of New Zealand's most preeminent scholars for academic expression well within the limits of their professional, legal and ethical obligations. The inquisition is still pending. However, only professors Nola and Cooper are now being investigated. Professor Corballis can no longer clear his name from the inquisition's claims. For professors Nola and Cooper, it seems that the inquisition may well be the punishment itself.


The Government education report


“In Defence of Science” letter to the editor

“More In Defence of Science” - supplementary notes to the letter to the editor

Briefing document - professors Corballis, Nola and Cooper and the Royal Society of New Zealand.

The Shape of Dialogue Steven Pinker podcast “What is science?” transcription.


Steven Pinker



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The Shape of Dialogue Steven Pinker podcast "What is science?" transcription.

The Introduction

Welcome to the Shape of Dialogue. Today I'm joined by a very special guest, Professor Steven Pinker. Steven is the Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology at Harvard University. Steven is a cognitive psychologist, psycholinguist, science author and public intellectual. He researches visual cognition and developmental linguistics and is an advocate of evolutionary psychology and the computational theory of mind. He has also taught at Stanford University and MIT.

Steven is an elected member of the National Academy of Sciences, a two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist, a Humanist of the Year, a recipient of nine honorary doctorates, and has been named in Foreign Policy magazine's "World's Top 100 Public Intellectuals", Time magazine's "100 Most Influential People in the World Today" and Prospect Magazine's top 10 "World Thinkers". He writes frequently for the New York Times, the Guardian, The Atlantic and Time magazine.

Steven has won awards from the American Psychological Association, the National Academy of Sciences, the Royal Institution, the Cognitive Neuroscience Society, and the American Humanist Association. He has served on the editorial boards of a variety of journals, and on the advisory boards of several institutions. Also, he was the chair of the Usage Panel of the American Heritage Dictionary.

Steven has authored eight books. The Language Instinct, How the Mind Works, Words and Rules, The Blank Slate, The Stuff of Thought, The Sense of Style, The Better Angels of Our Nature, Enlightenment Now, and his latest volume, Rationality.

l University in Canada in the:

For more detailed context, please see the show notes outlining the events leading to this discussion.

And now I give you Steven Pinker.

The interview

Goldwater: Welcome to the Shape of Dialogue, Steven. Thank you so much for joining me on the podcast today.

Pinker: Thanks for having me.

Goldwater: To start, can you please tell us how you know Professor Michael Corballis and talk about his scientific work and what type of person he was?

allis at McGill University in:

Goldwater: So you obviously rate him very highly as a scientist?

Pinker: I do. I can't avoid throwing in one more anecdote since we are speaking to a New Zealand audience is that another one of his students, a decade later, an undergraduate, then went on to study and research in Boston and I married her. So my second wife was also a student of Mike Corballis's and he told her to look me up when she got to Boston. So I owe late Professor Corballis a lot.

Goldwater: So he's a matchmaker and a scientist.

Pinker: The answer is he is a major scientist, not only in the study, including the experimental study of the distinction of handedness of a chirality or right and left versions, profound issue and in spatial cognition. But also, he wrote on human evolution in a series of witty and deep books on how language evolved. He speculated and revived the hypothesis that sign languages were an intermediate stage and characteristically titled the book with a witticism, Hand to Mouth. He also was an expert on what makes people right-handed or left-handed, a separate question from how we distinguish right and left-handed versions of shapes in the world.

Goldwater: Well, I met him twice, and it's quite bizarre, I only met him online twice, and it is amazing how much loss I feel even after having met him twice. It's very sad that he is past.

Pinker: A man of tremendous charm and wit and urbanity and elegance, really an admirable human being.

Goldwater: Yip, a great guy. Now let's rip into the heart of what this podcast is all about, which is what is science. Can you answer that question?

Pinker: Science is the attempt to explain the world and to verify if your explanations are true or not.

Goldwater: And how does it differ from other ways of explaining the world?

Pinker: It comes from the same impulse. Psychologists often say we are all intuitive scientists, that babies are intuitive scientists. We seek hidden causes and forces to explain the phantasmagoria of experience. What differentiates formal science is that it just goes much deeper and goes much farther to verifying whether its explanations are correct or not. So it's not a different enterprise from what we might call folk science or intuitive science, but it just carries it many orders of magnitude farther.

Goldwater: Yeah, I think what I'm talking about is the distinction between science and, let's take an opposite example, religion, and how science differs from those ways of knowing.

Pinker: Well, some of what we call religion is obsolete science; that is, it does have explanations for natural phenomenons such as the origin of the planets and of the solar system and of the cosmos. It's just that we now know them to be incorrect science, bad science. Forgivable if it was done thousands of years ago before there were instruments or mathematical tools, it was the best they could do. Less forgivable if people take them literarily today.

Goldwater: Right. You are almost saying it's part of the same spectrum of the inclination of the human to find out about the world.

Pinker: Yes, probably the major difference is that the concerted attempt to verify the veracity of the explanations, to consider every explanation to be tentative and subject to potential falsification is what differentiates what we continue to call religion from science, they did try to explain natural phenomena, whether it's Zeus hurling thunderbolts or God creating the heavens and the earth. But in religion, they're often protected from falsification, but as where in science, as soon as something is proposed, it is a target for falsification.

Goldwater: Right, so everything is up for question, no matter who says it.

Pinker: When science is done right, who says it is irrelevant. Where an idea comes from is irrelevant. There is no such thing as Western Science, just like there is no such thing as the Western multiplication table. That's a wisecrack that I stole from Anton Chekhov, by the way.

Goldwater: So you're saying that Science is not Western. Where did it come from?

Pinker: All over, it's eclectic. Anyone can play. Your ideas are welcome but subject to empirical testability, just like everyone else is. The idea that Science is Western as both historically inaccurate since so much was Arabic and Chinese and Indian. But also, so many ideas coming out of the West were so flawedly anti-scientific, the idea that equates science with the West gives the West far too much credit.

Goldwater: Right, one of my questions lower down, I'll do it now though…. Is it science if you say you're doing science, but subsequently, it turns out that it's not science? For example, eugenics, Ptolemaic astronomy and alchemy.

Pinker: Well, eugenics was not science because it was a political programme. It wasn't an attempt to understand the world, it was a policy, so it wasn't a theory. Ptolemaic astronomy and cosmology is probably called an incorrect scientific theory, but it did have a number of the hallmarks of science. It was an attempt to understand the world. There is no sharp dividing line between science and non-science, especially when it comes to hypotheses that happen to be mistaken but may have been offered in the right spirit of scientific explanation and testability but just had the bad luck of being wrong.

Goldwater: Yeah. I think alchemy is really interesting because it was completely wrong but didn't it lead to the introduction of chemistry?

Pinker: Yeah. Alchemy was a combination of a technological goal to turn base metals into gold and a theory of chemistry, of what we today would call chemistry that is the composition of material substances.

Goldwater: Yeah. So in a sense, it's a process from going from wrong to right.

Pinker: Yeah, and we never know when we have gotten there.

Goldwater: Yeah. I always say you have to be wrong before you're right, generally.

Pinker: Yeah, and you never know when that is. You have more confidence that you are more right than you used to be, but indeed it is a process, that's right.

Goldwater: So you can actually die thinking you're right, but it actually turns out that you're wrong.

Pinker: It happens a lot, yes!

Goldwater: How I think of science is, it's a set of protocols and methodologies to determine fact from fiction?

Pinker: Yeah, I would go beyond that because it's not just facts. It's not just a long list of facts, but it's really an attempt for explanation. I think that is crucial. That is, you don't just recite what you see, that you search for deeper mechanisms and principles underneath the surface variety of experience.

Goldwater: But I can explain the world and just be making it up. You can explain the world from a scientific perspective. Now I would say you'd be right, and I'd be wrong.

Pinker: Well, yes the um…..

Goldwater: So it's more than just explanation.

Pinker: No no, explanation is an ingredient, but I would say the two explanations that are deeper than just surface appearance and the programme of determining whether those explanations are true or false.

Goldwater: Next question… Is science a dynamic system practised by mere mortals, with their own idiosyncrasies who have limited intellects, resources and time and does it reduce the influence of such human limitations?

Pinker: That's your characterisation of science?

Goldwater: No no, well, I suppose it is. It's a process, again going back to the term protocols, that limits our foibles.

Pinker: Yes, absolutely.

Goldwater: Limits our limitations.

Pinker: Absolutely.

Goldwater: Yeah.

Pinker: There is a reasonably famous saying by Richard Feynman, "the first imperative in science is not to fall yourself because you are the easiest to fool". A lot of what we call the scientific method is just workarounds for a number of our cognitive biases. That is, we have a lot of explanations that we feel intuitively, but that's no guarantee that they are right. And what the so-called scientific method is, and is probably no such thing as the scientific method, but it's just whatever it takes to make our beliefs as true as possible, pushing back against all our intuitions that lead us into mistaken beliefs.

Goldwater: How much of science is, in fact, pseudoscience? Bit of a dumb question, but an interesting question.

Pinker: I don't want to fall back on by definition none, but how much of what people call science as pseudoscience. Yeah, I don't know how to answer that question. One wants to be charitable towards the enterprise of science and not say just because you're wrong, you're practising pseudoscience because most of our ideas are probably going to be wrong in one way or another, and that doesn't make it pseudoscience. Probably the distinction would be is there kind of an honest attempt to establish the veracity of your opinions. Are you using the totality of knowledge and seeking more in order to test your ideas? That's probably the biggest thing that distinguishes science from pseudoscience. It can't just be whether you're right or wrong because scientists are often wrong, and a lot of the things that we call right today, no doubt, will be proven to be wrong in the future.

Goldwater: Yeah, another thing I say is (tell me what you think of this) is science a process of getting most things wrong and some things right.

Pinker: Well, yes, that is probably true. I have a quotation in Rationality, apropos replication crisis….

Goldwater: Sorry, can you just explain the replication crisis to the audience.

Pinker: That refers to the fact that a number of highly publicised scientific claims, particularly in epidemiology, and public health, and social psychology, in human genetics, turns out if other people try to do the same experiment, they don't get the result. The finding like if you stand like Wonderwoman with your legs apart, your fist clenched, you'll have more confidence and higher testosterone levels. It happened once, other people tried to get it to happen, and they didn't. Or you read a bunch of words pertaining to old age, and you walk more slowly out of the lab. Some of the findings that were too good to be true were too good to be true.

Goldwater: I remember seeing that woman give that to talk about standing in a powerful pose and thinking, well, it's a TED talk, it must be true.

Pinker: To be fair to her, it runs deeper than most scientists anticipated for reasons that Mike Corballis taught me 47 years ago. But apropos that, a physicist said that "80% of what's in physics journals is false, 80% of what's in physics textbooks is true". Textbooks are what filter out the findings that do survive the test of time. And that's physics! Everyone knows that social psychology is a squishy science. It's not a science. But he was saying about physics! So in the rough-and-tumble, the debates, the controversies, the replication failures, knowledge does really accumulate. We really did have enough know-how to develop vaccines against COVID in less than a year and to invent smartphones and take pictures of of our planet from the neighbourhood of Saturn.

Goldwater: One pixel big!

Pinker: Right!

Goldwater: I was going to ask you something else that's just gone from my mind, but anyway, let's move on. What is knowledge?

Pinker: Well, the standard definition in philosophy is justified true belief. There is a lot of debate. Philosophers are very good at trying to find exotic exceptions. Here's something that is true and believed, but it's not justified, we call it knowledge, it's justified and believed but not true, but it's not a bad definition.

gh the list, back in the day,:

Pinker: Oh yes. As a practising scientist, it's terrifying! When I started, there were two journals in my field. Now there is probably a dozen.

Goldwater: Yeah. It's a bit like being a doctor. How do you keep up? Are there different types of knowledge?

Pinker: Yeah, surely. History and science, social science, philosophy, would all qualify as forms of knowledge, but they are different, although I would say they have to be mutually compatible. I endorse the ideal, sometimes called consilience, the unity of knowledge. Namely that history is the record of human activity, human activity is made possible by human brains, the human brain is made possible by human genes which were selected over the course of evolution, which is a physical, chemical process. There are different levels of analysis which make different kinds of knowledge appear qualitatively different, but they are all connected.

Goldwater: They're all knowledge in the sense that they tell us something about the world. And going back to your term "justified belief", but in a sense, they are different categories of knowledge.

Pinker: Ahh yeah. Many philosophy seminars could be devoted to question like, is there such a thing as moral knowledge, is there such a thing as artistic knowledge. I won't replicate those discussions right now.

Goldwater: Is knowledge proprietary or open source?

Pinker: When it comes to science, it really ought to be open source. It's considered one of the founding ideals of science that knowledge is communal. That's not true for trade secrets or manufacturing patterns and so on, but when it comes to science, there often are some intense pushback when certain branches of science attempt to make things proprietary, such as patenting a gene. There are fierce debates; that's just not something that you should be able to do.

Goldwater: So you are saying that science is an open-source protocol?

Pinker: It had better be, yeah.

Goldwater: And just touching on that, things like trade secrets, technology patents, that's really just limited in time, by, I can't remember what the period of time is, so 25 years or 50 years, it's open-source.

Pinker: Yes, 17 in the United States, yeah.

Goldwater: Exactly. Is knowledge delineated by ethnicity and cultural background? Can different cultures and ethnicities lay claim to proprietary knowledge about the world? For example, only a prescribed subset of humanity are privy to a particular type of knowledge?

Pinker: I would say, not inherently and not if knowledge is used in a strict sense in that it is differentiated from belief. That is, if knowledge is justified true belief, then anyone can have it. Sometimes knowledge is used for belief held with high confidence, belief held on faith. In that case it can be proprietary, but it would not be knowledge in the technical sense of justified true belief.

ousand [correction, should be:

Pinker: No, I have not.

Goldwater: These are quotes from the "Open Response" to the professors' letter". So here we go. And I'll just get you to respond to them and tell me your thoughts. "Do indigenous ways of knowing, including Mātauranga (which is traditional Māori knowledge), include methodologies that overlap with 'Western' understandings of the scientific method?"

Pinker: I don't know enough about that particular belief system to answer definitively. It might, but it doesn't by definition, but it could.

Goldwater: "Mātauranga is far more than just equivalent to or equal to 'Western' Science. It offers ways of viewing the world that are unique and complementary to other knowledge systems."

Pinker: They might be complementary in the sense that artistic works may be complementary to scientific understanding, for say appreciating the vastness of time or the diversity of life. They're complementary in that sense, but they are very different. They are not a variety of science or at least they aren't by definition. It is eminently possible that traditional belief systems come across or discover statements about reality that turn out to be correct, that turn out to be truthful. Of course, we do know that science has validated many traditional medicinal remedies. Species delineation often, taxonomies of species among a people turn out to correspond to the Linnaean taxonomy. So they can, but it is ultimately the best science that tells us whether they are or not. Again, it's a mistake to call it "Western" Science. If it's branded as "Western" then it's not science because the science can come from anywhere, it has no nationality, it has no religion, it is just our best way of knowing.

Goldwater: There is no such thing as "Western" Science in fact.

Pinker: No. Some of the ideas came from the West, and some came from the East. It's practised most energetically in the West. A lot of it happened to be developed in the West, often in defiance of beliefs that were widely held in the West, continue to be. Everything has to be somewhere. So a lot of science happens to take place in the West. The West can afford it. A lot of science is expensive, but a lot that happens in the West is not scientific, and a lot of science did not come from the West.

Goldwater: "The Professors claim that "science itself does not colonise", ignoring the fact that colonisation, racism, misogyny, and eugenics have each been championed by scientists wielding a self-declared monopoly on universal knowledge."

Pinker: In fact, the biggest proponents of eugenics were not scientists but were often literary intellectuals like George Bernard Shaw or political editorialists like Sydney and Beatrice Webb or feminist activists like Margaret Sanger. So I think that statement is historically false. Eugenics was also not a scientific theory. It was a political programme. It was highly popular in the Left, in the Leftist intellectuals in the first decades of the 20th century. Colonisation was certainly not done by the scientific establishment, although many scientists were obviously complicit with some of the wrongs of colonialism, as people of that era were complicit in every profession, including science. But it wasn't as if the colonisation was spearheaded as a scientific endeavour. It was an attempt to get resources and territory and enslave people. Scientists certainly did take part, as did everyone in that era.

Goldwater: A question I have at the bottom of my page is…Was science the principal philosophical underpinning of colonisation? So, essentially you are saying no.

Pinker: No, and of course, imperial expansion is as old as civilisation. Every ancient civilisation conquered territory otherwise, we probably wouldn't call it civilisation. It's an anachronistic attribution.

Goldwater: "Science has long excluded indigenous peoples from participation, preferring them as subjects for study and exploitation. Diminishing the role of indigenous knowledge systems is simply another tool for exclusion and exploitation."

Pinker: That seems to be a very aggressive and antagonistic way of putting a number of facts that are indisputable. There was exploitation of indigenous peoples by every Western institution. It was deplorable. We ought to recognise it for what it is. I don't think science played any outsize role compared to every other institution in the societies that did engage in imperialism, which is pretty much all major societies. Whether indigenous people were excluded or whether indigenous people just never had the opportunity, were never properly given the opportunity is a question for historians to examine. To the extent that there was exclusion, that is a deplorable practise that ought to be condemned and stopped. There is every reason to believe that it's an ideal that everyone should participate in science and that people should be given the education that allows them to participate, people from all cultures. That is inherent to the practice of science, that it's not rooted in a particular class or ethnicity or language. It's open to everyone. If in the past it wasn't, that was because of historical circumstances that led indigenous people to be excluded from most prestigious walks of life in major societies. Not just Western by the way. It's not as if Chinese, Indian and African empires were particularly welcoming of minority ethnic groups either. Or of the people they conquered, who were numerous, if you just look at a map of ancient empires, they were huge and they didn't start out huge.

Goldwater: Yeah. The powers in power tend to be hegemonic, don't they? They tend to exclude historically. "The Professors present a series of global crises that we must "battle" with science, again failing to acknowledge the ways in which science has contributed to the creation of these challenges. Putting science on a pedestal gets us no further in the solution of these crises."

Pinker: That's obviously nonsense. It's only science that's going to allow us to deal with climate change. It's science that allowed us to discover climate change, the fact of it and its science and technology that are going to allow us to maintain all of the benefits of industrialisation, such as a lifespan that was more than doubled, such as massive declines in famine, in child mortality, the opening of opportunities to women, the luxury of having children in school instead of in the fields. All of these are gifts of industrialisation fuelled by scientific knowledge. And it's going to be science that allows us to continue these enormous benefits to human well-being without the terrible costs to the environment, which science is now identifying for us. If science is just the attempt to understand the world with explanations that are factually correct, then the alternative, namely, not understanding how the world works or basing your understanding on ideas that are incorrect, certainly aren't going to get us out of these problems.

Goldwater: Well, I think that's a beautiful place to end it. I would love to go on for hours, but I think you're a busy man, so we won't. I just want to say thank you so much. It's been an amazing honour to speak to you in person. It does feel very strange, it feels like I'm talking to a TV set because I have watched thousands of hours of interviews and lectures and all sorts of things. So it's great. Ok, thank you very much, Steven.

Pinker: Pleasure to speak with you.

Goldwater: Thank you.

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The Shape of Dialogue
For the inquisitive mind
The Shape of Dialogue podcast focuses on the foundational principles that make societies function at their best. It initially started with an investigation into free speech, it continues to discuss relevant and interesting topics about our world and how best to navigate through it.
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