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Physicist, Startup Founder, Blogger, Dad

Thursday, August 08, 2013

Science and the Humanities

Steve Pinker: Science Is Not Your Enemy, An impassioned plea to neglected novelists, embattled professors, and tenure-less historians.
New Republic: ... The humanities are the domain in which the intrusion of science has produced the strongest recoil. Yet it is just that domain that would seem to be most in need of an infusion of new ideas. By most accounts, the humanities are in trouble. University programs are downsizing, the next generation of scholars is un- or underemployed, morale is sinking, students are staying away in droves. No thinking person should be indifferent to our society’s disinvestment from the humanities, which are indispensable to a civilized democracy.

Diagnoses of the malaise of the humanities rightly point to anti-intellectual trends in our culture and to the commercialization of our universities. But an honest appraisal would have to acknowledge that some of the damage is self-inflicted. The humanities have yet to recover from the disaster of postmodernism, with its defiant obscurantism, dogmatic relativism, and suffocating political correctness. And they have failed to define a progressive agenda. Several university presidents and provosts have lamented to me that when a scientist comes into their office, it’s to announce some exciting new research opportunity and demand the resources to pursue it. When a humanities scholar drops by, it’s to plead for respect for the way things have always been done.

Those ways do deserve respect, and there can be no replacement for the varieties of close reading, thick description, and deep immersion that erudite scholars can apply to individual works. But must these be the only paths to understanding? A consilience with science offers the humanities countless possibilities for innovation in understanding. Art, culture, and society are products of human brains. They originate in our faculties of perception, thought, and emotion, and they cumulate and spread through the epidemiological dynamics by which one person affects others. Shouldn’t we be curious to understand these connections? Both sides would win. The humanities would enjoy more of the explanatory depth of the sciences, to say nothing of the kind of a progressive agenda that appeals to deans and donors. The sciences could challenge their theories with the natural experiments and ecologically valid phenomena that have been so richly characterized by humanists.

In some disciplines, this consilience is a fait accompli. Archeology has grown from a branch of art history to a high-tech science. Linguistics and the philosophy of mind shade into cognitive science and neuroscience.

Similar opportunities are there for the exploring. The visual arts could avail themselves of the explosion of knowledge in vision science, including the perception of color, shape, texture, and lighting, and the evolutionary aesthetics of faces and landscapes. Music scholars have much to discuss with the scientists who study the perception of speech and the brain’s analysis of the auditory world. ...

16 comments:

LondonYoung said...

Too bad humanities types so often lack even a basic understanding of science and math ... "what is the derivative of x?". This is like a science major not knowing what the renaissance was - except that they aren't embarrassed.

Diogenes said...

Pinker's preciousness is nauseating as usual. Maybe Steve could talk to him. "Uh. Steve to Steve. When you talk that way you sound less intelligent, not more."

"No thinking person should be indifferent to our society’s disinvestment from the humanities, which are indispensable to a civilized democracy."

Thanks Mssr Pinker. I didn't know that. I didn't know I wasn't a thinking person. But I'm not indifferent. I cheer this disinvestment. Man has outgrown the humanities. They're an anachronism.

As usual the way things are and the inheritance of the way things were is taken as if it were necessary. The humanities are left over from a time when higher ed was purely a class marker.

Rastus Odinga-Odinga said...

I honestly feel that the university where I work, and probably most universities, would do well to reduce the faculty of arts to about a tenth of its current size [after completely abolishing those departments universally recognised to be utterly worthless, sociology and political science of course].

ben_g said...

right, they're proud

tractal said...

Not really. The 'pride' is just reactive insecurity. A decent % of these people are self-conscious charlatans or close, and like all good confidence men they double down when threatened. Again though it isn't fair to judge the humanities by the 'Post Modernists': there are serious people who think they're nuts, and the two factions have been fighting it out for a while. The latter group tend to know what derivatives are. The really illiterate people aren't so many in number, but they are vocal and expert at moral intimidation. Basically, the story here is that a bunch of aggressively stupid punks got a foothold in the academy during the late 60s and have clung on tight.

David Coughlin said...

I had the good fortune to have a friendly relationship with an art historian. If the schools of thought in the humanities were taught, related really, more aggressively rather than shredded to wispy nothingness at the 100-level general education course level, they would have more value. A 100-level physics course is much more intense than a 100-level philosophy course.

BobSykes said...

I am 70 years old. I was trained as an engineer and taught engineering for 37 years. I was fortunate to take courses in the humanities and social sciences before they were politicized and lobotomized. And I have enjoyed a lifetime of reading in those areas.


People do need the humanities, but the modern university literally does not have humanities or social science departments. Instead it has collectives of sectarians who think chanting dead ideologies constitutes learning. Many of them are truly vicious sexists and racists. The discrimination against white men and Asians is so severe that they are avoiding the humanities and social scientists. Many elite schools systematically exclude Asians and middle class/midAmerica whites. And many small liberal arts schools have suffered serious enrollment losses. Our neighbor Kenyon College, once a male only college, actually has a quota for men (at least 45%) because men are not enrolling, and why should they.


I strongly believe that one way to save the humanities is to return to gender segregated schools. Men only schools with male faculty and women only schools with women faculty.

LondonYoung said...

The Thought Police will be swinging by shortly to take you off to the Ministry of Love.

LondonYoung said...

This is why it is impossible to teach math and science to humanities types beyond a given level of maturity.

mazzini said...

You're just a common idiot, unfortunately.

Diogenes said...

Thank you, but...

Nothing wrong with pursuing the Geisteswissenschaft on your with an inheritance like Kierkegaard and Schopenhauer or selling your work like Shakespeare. Big, big moral problem with supporting your habit with tuition. There's even a term "the academic novel", novels written by those who can't support themselves with their novel writing. Those who can't do teach.

And those natscis who laugh at philosophy and literary pretensions are common. We may agree on that.

Carson Chow said...

It's not clear at all that humanities types hate science. Writers like Thomas Pynchon or Italo Calvino are revered in intellectual circles and their work is infused with scientific and engineering metaphors. The pride of not knowing math is similar to the pride of not being able to remember names.

Robert Buttons said...

The Scientific method has limits, which should be glaringly obvious to a physicist. Smolin's "The trouble with physics" highlights said troubles.


The social sciences are essentially the study of human choices. It should be obvious, on its face, that should produce some difficulties for the scientific method, namely the problem of reproducibility. Heisenberg taught us the act of measurement can create unsurmountable artifacts on the system being measured---a problem magnified in the realm social sciences.


Admittedly, the scientific method has produced remarkable successes in the field of (intelligence) psychometrics, but the scientific method has been an unabashed failure in the field of economics.


I don't mean to disparage the scientific method, just highlight some weaknesses.

Robert Buttons said...

No, they now know the ins and outs of statistics and the scientific method and are abusing it at every turn. I read a paper that "proved" the tabula rasa claptrap of "all kids are born with equal intelligence", only to find out the author used "the number of books in the home" as an independent intelligence variable. Corrected for books, all kids have nearly equal intelligence. LOL!!


There is a danger in allowing these neo-Lysenkoist pseudo-scientists to use (their brabd of) the scientific method as cover.

Diogenes said...

LY has the usual misinterpretation of 1984. Did he ever read Fromm's essay?


1984 is not about Stalinism.


It's about liberal capitalism.

Diogenes said...

Should it be surprising that "an" O'Brien, as the Bob Costases might say, an inner party member, should be so blind or feign it?


Not really. The vulgarians have triumphed in the US and the Angloshpere in general.


"Winston...If the Party says that the possessive of Xerxes is Xerxes' and not Xerxes's then it is. If I think it is and you think it is, then it is."

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