Monday, September 23, 2013

The Sciences and the Humanities

I'm reading two blog-type articles.
Steven Pinker at the New Republic, "Science Is Not the Enemy of the Humanities" and Gary Gutting's response on the NYTimes Stone blog, "Science's Humanities Gap."

I spend much of my time standing in just exactly this space where the humanities and the sciences overlap. Some days, the landscape looks smooth and even, without discontinuities. Scientific, empirical methods inform philosophical inquiry, and ethical evaluation clarifies and directs scientific practice. Other days, the landscape is riddled with ditches. My experience in this place is so variable that I can't get through more than a couple of paragraphs of Pinker's piece without both nodding along with him and groaning at his blinkered, biased writing.

Like him, I have some colleagues in the humanities who will say idiotic things about how environmental and social harms are inevitably driven by science and technology. But why should I or anyone take them seriously? The same people who decry biotechnology's poisoning of our food with engineered DNA hire landscapers to spread pesticides and fertilizers with well-known negative health and environmental effects on their lovely lawns. The same people who denounce technology's corrosive effects on modern society walk around with a kid babbling at them on one arm while their nose (and and their attention) is buried in the tiny screen at the end of the other.

Likewise, I have colleagues in the sciences who are worse than ignorant about what we do in the humanities--they are outright hostile. The hostility I observe is not driven, oddly enough, by the ignorance and hypocrisy which gets under my skin, but by a belief that the humanities have no utility for students. Students are told, more or less, that an interest in the humanities will at best distract them from the studies that matter and may actually make them worse scientists or worse engineers. This tactic goes hand-in-hand with a trivializing attitude about the training required to be proficient in a humanities discipline. "I'm a philosopher, too" a biologist once said to me, "I have a Doctorate in Philosophy, don't I?"

Pinker writes:
"The humanities have yet to recover from the disaster of postmodernism, with its defiant obscurantism, dogmatic relativism, and suffocating political correctness."
While this is a true description of some humanists, it's false of most, and it plays into just exactly the kind of stereotyping which Pinker laments. While Pinker regrets the 1990's fad for postmodernism, he backs the current fad for "the digital humanities," which is just like the old analog humanities, except making full use of computer resources. Ten years from now, we'll shrug at the shallowness of the view that digitizing poetry, philosophy, literature, and history will make it more meaningful. It does make it more accessible (a boon when it comes to organizing and interpreting historical archive holdings), but digitizing alone does not create new ideas or change old ones.

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