Science Majors Must Study Philosophy Or Be Doomed To Say Stupid Shit

Steven Pinker is a brilliant scientist. Officially, his field is psychology, but his book The Better Angels Of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined marshals information from many fields to do what science does best: replace lazy theorizing with empirical facts and a coherent narrative that represents our very best estimate of the truth.

He is also a professor at Harvard, which may explain the unfamiliarity with the cornerstone of undergraduate education--the liberal arts--and, especially, the humanities, that led to this bit of crap: Science Is Not The Enemy of the Humanities.

The world of Academic Philosophers is filled with experts on science. Meanwhile, scientists produce arguments that would get you laughed out of Intro to Logic. Here's one example from the NYT: Dogs Are People, Too.

Why are they people? Well, Emory University scientist Gregory Burns actually never makes the case. Instead, he describes his research (most of his time studying dogs is spent training them to be still in an MRI machine) which shows that parts of a dog's brain light up in response to positive stimulus. Which part? The caudate nucleus. 

That's it. That's the sum total of the science. Why is he writing in the New York Times? Surprise, surprise, he's plugging his book, titled: How Dogs Love Us: A Neuroscientist and His Adopted Dog Decode the Canine Brain.  

As we've seen before, the title of the book being advertised can give important clues as to why New York Times advertorials like this one take the shape they do. In this case, notice that he is giving his dog credit for "decoding the canine brain." His subtitle literally claims that his dog has a theoretical ("decode" takes abstraction) understanding of his own brain. 

Can dogs decode things? Sure. Can they decode brains? Of course they can't; THEY ARE DOGS. Who can? Well, (we hope) that someday, people might be able to decode the brain. So now we know why this stupid editorial is called Dogs Are People, Too, his book is premised on the idea that dogs can do people things.

Still, what's the argument for personhood? Well it turns out that humans also have a caudate nucleus, and it also lights up in the presence of pleasant stimuli. The missing piece is some sort of reason why this is the key to our humanity. Without any such claim this is the argument: 

  1. People have a caudate that lights up in the presence of positive stimuli.
  2. Dogs have a caudate that lights up in the presence of positive stimuli.
  3. Therefore, dogs are people.

But this asshole doesn't stop there. As part of this, he claims that the dogs in his experiments sign off on an informed consent form! Seriously? Well, not a normal form, one "which was modeled after a child’s consent form". Oh, yeah, because the dog would be confused by the adult form!

In a final stroke, our humanities challenged scientist uses the caudate "discovery" to justify the claim that we should not violate the dog's "basic human right to self-determination." 

Good grief, Snoopy!