The Line Separating Scientific Empiricism from the Pursuit of the Irrational Is Not So Clear as Steven Pinker Would Like It to Be

Feb. 28 2018

In his recent book Enlightenment Now!, the linguist and cognitive scientist Steven Pinker defends the Age of Reason’s legacy against its detractors past and present. Ross Douthat, drawing on his own childhood experience, questions “the bright line that Pinker draws between the empirical spirit of science and the unreasoning obscurantism he suggests otherwise prevails.”

When I was a child I lived in several worlds. First was the world that I understood to be the normal one: a world where people had professional degrees and followed their doctor’s instructions strictly and carefully; a world ruled by a solid-seeming secular and liberal consensus about what was scientific, what was certain, what was true. Then there were the other, stranger worlds—which we explored for reasons of chronic illness, religious interest, and some of the roving curiosity that defined my parents’ generation at its best.

First was the world of charismatic religion, where people sought healing and spoke in tongues and prophesied, experiencing the divine as palpably as people in the secular world experienced, say, the pronouncements of the New York Times. Second was the world of alternative medicine and what was then still described, disparagingly, as “health food.” . . .

I’m reasonably confident that both of the stranger worlds of my childhood, the prayer services and macrobiotic-diet camps, fit [Pinker’s] definition of the anti-empirical dark. And therein lies the oddity: if you actually experienced these worlds, and contrasted them with the normal world of high-minded liberal secularism, it was the charismatic-religious and “health food” regions where people were the most personally empirical, least inclined to submit meekly to authority, and most determined to reason independently and to keep trying things until they worked. . . .

Which is why, if Pinker and others are genuinely worried about a waning appreciation of the inquiring scientific spirit, they should consider the possibility that some of their own smug secular certainties might be part of the problem—that they might, indeed, be stifling the more comprehensive kind of curiosity upon which the scientific enterprise ultimately depends.

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More about: Enlightenment, History & Ideas, New Age, Science and Religion, Secularism

Zionists Can, and Do, Criticize Israel. Are Anti-Zionists Capable of Criticizing Anti-Semitism?

Dec. 12 2018

Last week, the New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg defended the newly elected anti-Israel congresswomen Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar, ostensibly arguing that anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism aren’t identical. Abe Greenwald comments:

Tlaib . . . has tweeted and retweeted her enthusiasm for terrorists such as Rasmea Odeh, who murdered two American students in a Jerusalem supermarket in 1969. If Tlaib’s anti-Zionism is of the Jew-loving kind, she has a funny way of showing it.

Ilhan Omar, for her part, once tweeted, “Israel has hypnotized the world, may Allah awaken the people and help them see the evil doings of Israel.” And wouldn’t you know it, just because she believes that Zionist hypnotists have cast global spells masking Israeli evil, some people think she’s anti-Semitic! Go figure! . . .

Goldberg spends the bulk of her column trying very hard to uncouple American Jewishness from Israel. To do that, she enumerates Israel’s sins, as she sees them. . . . [But] her basic premise is at odds with reality. Zionists aren’t afraid of finding fault with Israel and don’t need to embrace anti-Zionism in order to [do so]. A poll conducted in October by the Jewish Electorate Institute found that a majority of Americans Jews have no problem both supporting Israel and criticizing it. And unlike Goldberg, they have no problem criticizing anti-Semitism, either.

Goldberg gives the game away entirely when she discusses the discomfort that liberal American Jews have felt in “defending multi-ethnic pluralism here, where they’re in the minority, while treating it as unspeakable in Israel, where Jews are the majority.” She adds: “American white nationalists, some of whom liken their project to Zionism, love to poke at this contradiction.” Read that again. She thinks the white nationalists have a point. Because, really, what anti-Semite doesn’t?

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More about: Anti-Semitism, Israel & Zionism, New York Times