When humanities and science intersect

3 minute read

I haven’t linked to the “scientism” conversation that has been unfolding between Steven Pinker and a number of specialists in the humanities this summer. It’s complicated and involved, and I didn’t like Pinker’s essay very much to begin with. I found nothing whatsoever to like in the long screed written in response to Pinker by Leon Wieseltier.. It is beyond me why New Republic thinks these things will sell subscriptions.

Let’s face it, both science and the humanities would be better off with fewer old dudes arguing about disciplinary boundaries.

But this short contribution by Daniel Dennett had such a pungent paragraph about Wieseltier that I can’t resist quoting it: “Let’s Start With A Respect For Truth”.

Pomposity can be amusing, but pomposity sitting like an oversized hat on top of fear is hilarious. Wieseltier is afraid that the humanities are being overrun by thinkers from outside, who dare to tackle their precious problemsor "problematics" to use the, um, technical term favored by many in the humanities. He is right to be afraid. It is true that there is a crowd of often overconfident scientists impatiently addressing the big questions with scant appreciation of the subtleties unearthed by philosophers and others in the humanities, but the way to deal constructively with this awkward influx is to join forces and educate them, not declare them out of bounds. The best of the "scientizers" (and Pinker is one of them) know more philosophy, and argue more cogently and carefully, than many of the humanities professors who dismiss them and their methods on territorial grounds. You can't defend the humanities by declaring it off limits to amateurs. The best way for the humanities to get back their mojo is to learn from the invaders and re-acquire the respect for truth that they used to share with the sciences.

That’s certainly true enough. If you can’t explain what you are doing to the public, there’s a good chance it doesn’t merit doing.

But I would interject that there wonderful public education and outreach programs aren’t limited to science, I’ve experienced many in the humanities. I’m participating in the Wisconsin Science Festival later this month, under the banner of the UW-Madison Institute for the Humanities; and I’ll be presenting at the Chicago Humanities Festival in November. At both events, I’ll be talking about our scientific work in human evolution, but doing so with a humanities emphasis, for an audience looking for those connections between science and the humanities.

I can say from experience that there are scholars who describe themselves as having humanistic approaches who are deeply anti-science. But the bitterness I’ve encountered in such folks has been made pungent mainly in the dry air of public inattention. They’re old prunes wizened with tenure. They’re often nuts – I mean, they really say nonsensical things. But their influence is waning.

By contrast, the young and dynamic humanists are mostly fascinated by science and looking for ways to incorporate science into their work. Some of the hottest scholarly areas in the humanities represent intersections of technology or science with human societies. Universities are hiring faculty whose scholarship focuses on transhumanism, on human-animal interactions, on genetic engineering, on ethnicity and genetics, and on the growth and interactions of online, or “virtual” communities. Those kinds of topics cut across academic departments in the humanities, from literature to philosophy to anthropology.

Sure, I wish scientists wrote more about these areas, they can in many cases bring a much more informed perspective about technology and processes that underlie social changes. But theirs is not the only experience. What both scientists and humanists need more of, is people who can write clearly.

UPDATE (2013-09-11): More from 2011: “Is research in the humanities a waste of time?” My thoughts about an essay critical of the low public value of humanistic scholarly books and articles:

I agree most strongly with his description of the "human cost" of the current system. Smart, conscientious people, as he writes, should not be asked to "labor their lives away on unappreciated things." Embalming so much thought in a journal distributed only to a few libraries would in the best case be a waste of postage. As Bauerlein shows, the thoughts themselves amount to a university-subsidized vanity press for scholars, because a name on a book spine is academic wampum.

Some of the same criticism can be applied more generally outside the humanities. Work on stuff that matters to somebody! Even if you are supporting a niche group, your research can help to build and support a community, not just your own ego.