It is only by bruiting ideas and seeing which ones withstand attempts to refute them that we acquire knowledge.I am all in favor of free speech and the scientific method, but what is he talking about here?
Once this realization sank in during the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment, the traditional understanding of the world was upended. Everyone knows that the discovery that the Earth revolves around the sun rather than vice-versa had to overcome fierce resistance from ecclesiastical authority. But the Copernican revolution was just the first event in a cataclysm that would make our current understanding of the world unrecognizable to our ancestors. Everything we know about the world — the age of our civilization, species, planet, and universe; the stuff we’re made of; the laws that govern matter and energy; the workings of the body and brain — came as insults to the sacred dogma of the day. We now know that the beloved convictions of every time and culture may be decisively falsified, doubtless including some we hold today.
No, almost everything we know about the world was fairly rapidly accepted without much controversy. His first example is the "age of our civilization". By this, I assume he means recorded history that goes back to ancient Babylonians and Egyptians. Was there ever some significant controversy about that age?
The age of the Earth was of some controversy in the late XIX century, as different reasonable methods led to different conclusions. But as soon as the radioactive decay evidence became available, everyone was convinced of that.
How did the laws that govern matter and energy insult to the sacred dogma of the day? The laws of Newton and Maxwell did not insult anything, as far as I know.
I guess it could be said that Darwinian evolution insulted some sacred dogmas, but I am not sure Pinker is using that example. Darwin had no trouble publishing his books and papers, and in achieving high status in the scientific community.
Pinker seems to be influenced by Karl Popper's falsification theory, by Marxist idealization of revolutions, and by paradigm shift theory, where the Copernican revolution is by far the best example of a paradigm shift. But what "everyone knows" is not really true. The book by Copernicus was published with an official imprimatur of the Catholic Church. Later the Church said that nine sentences should be corrected.
Relativity teaches that motion is relative, and that it is valid to say that the Earth revolves around the Sun or that the Sun revolves around the Earth. Neither can be proved wrong. Paradigm shifters like Pinker like this example because it supposedly shows that scientific views are just opinions that will be overthrown when the dominant intellectuals lose power.
Some ancient Greeks figured out that the Sun was much bigger than the Earth, and so it made more sense to say that the Earth went around the Sun. Evidence was eventually found for Coriolis forces, showing that the Earth was not an inertial frame. Discovery of parallax showed that the Earth was moving relative to stars that are a few light-years away. But none of this is what the paradigm shifters focus on. They are preoccupied with reasoning that was available to Copernicus in 1543, which means simply deciding that one solar system model is true and another is false, for reasons other than physical or quantitative evidence.
This Popper/paradigm/Pinker view of science is insidious, as it portrays scientific truth as just opinion that happens to be fashionable. He acts as if he is defending science but he is really not, because he is denying that they discover lasting truths about the world.
A couple of commenters said to ignore modern philosophers, because physicists have no respect for them anyway. Okay, but what about Pinker? He is an important enuf intellectual to be taken seriously.
I have criticized Pinker before for his scientific, political, and religious biases. As Pinker concludes his essay:
And if you object to these arguments — if you want to expose a flaw in my logic or a lapse in my accuracy — it’s the right of free speech that allows you to do so.I do think that it is important to criticize Pinker because he is somehow allowed to define science to the public as much as any other American professor. He is a big improvement over the late Stephen Jay Gould, but he gets away with sweeping and biased statements. His essay reads like what you might expect from some non-scientist who only took some watered-down science appreciation course in college.