Dr. Pangloss on Science and the Humanities

Steven Pinker’s latest article in The New Republic seems designed to enrage the very audience that it wants to assuage: “neglected novelists, embattled professors, and tenure-less historians.” In seeking to convince these hardy defenders of the humanities that modern science is not in fact the “enemy,” Dr. Pangloss, er, Pinker paints a rosy picture of our best of all possible worlds in which scientific advancements, like those of the 18th-century Enlightenment, point the way toward boundless human enrichment. The humanities ought to embrace the sciences, so Pinker, instead of slandering them as purveyors of a domineering, positivist, technocratic ideology — “scientism” — that is responsible for a variety of social evils, including the defunding of university departments of history, English, comparative literature, etc. Just as in his cloying book on the global history of violence, The Better Angels of Our Nature (2011), Pinker celebrates the present state of affairs as a vast improvement over the benighted past. “We have the works of the great thinkers [Descartes, Spinoza, Hobbes, Locke, Hume, Rousseau, Leibniz, Kant, Smith] and their heirs, and we have scientific knowledge they could not have dreamed of,” he writes. “This is an extraordinary time for the understanding of the human condition.” Progress unbound! Humanities, rejoice!

A closer examination of his argument, however, shows that Pinker is rather benighted by his own optimistic ideology. He is of course a tenured professor at Harvard, which automatically renders his “impassioned plea” to embattled professors and tenure-less historians somewhat heavy-handed. Pinker has lost perspective on the comforts of his own position. He has completely forgotten what it’s like to be a young and vulnerable academic. That he associates young academics rather condescendingly with “neglected novelists” further indicates his insensitivity to the journeymen of the trade. Whatever arguments he has to make in favor of reconciling the sciences and humanities are subject to a one-sided blindness. The author of this blog post, being a mere “tenure-less” grad student in the humanities, is accordingly blind to the totality of the situation — but at least he reflects critically on this blindness.

One consequence of Pinker’s blindness is that he attributes the various critiques of “scientism” that he cites (by Philip Kitcher, Dave Pruett, Wesley J. Smith, Julian Friedland, Sam Harris, Leon Kaas et al.) to a misguided prejudice against science. Although he notes the “eclectic politics” of these critiques — coming from the left and the right — and uncovers real prejudices in them, he nevertheless sets up a straw man: “science is the enemy.” Pinker then embarks on a noble defense of the “mindset of science” and its “moral worldview” against its irrational detractors. What he misses are the specific, practical changes that have resulted in recent decades from an exclusive valuation of scientific research at the expense of other forms of knowledge (collectively, the humanities).

One example is the standardized graduate student funding model introduced three years ago at the University of California-Berkeley (this writer’s home institution). Whereas before, on the flexible “dean’s normative time fellowship” (DNTF) model, all graduate students were guaranteed two years of additional university funding so long as they completed their first three years on schedule (the “normative time”) — and these two additional years could be postponed by a year of departmental or extracurricular funding and then supplemented later by teaching assignments, etc. — now the new “doctoral completion fellowship” (DCF) model stipulates that grad students, once they accept the two additional years of funding, must finish their degrees in those two years. No postponements, no supplements. While some have welcomed the new model as a much-needed incentive for grad students to finish their doctorates earlier rather than later (the stereotypical image of the “eternal grad student” on Year 10+ of university funding comes to mind), others have pointed out that it effectively forces students to finish in five to six years. That timetable works fine for students in the natural sciences, whose dissertation projects involve predictable schedules (planned lab time, timed experiments, etc.) and reliable outside funding, but it could be disastrous for students of the humanities, whose research is far less predictable and whose dissertations are by nature longer and require more time for composition. One of the chief architects of the DCF model is the Dean of the Graduate Division, Andrew J. Szeri, a professor of mechanical engineering. Clearly scientific norms have come to dominate the graduate student funding model at one of the finest research institutions in the country. It is to be hoped that Berkeley’s new chancellor, the historian and anthropologist Nicholas Dirks, might counterbalance this trend.

The perceived conflict between the sciences and the humanities is less philosophical, as Pinker would have us believe,  than practical and institutional. Not only are departments on both sides waging a war for funding in an age of constricting budgets, but they are also fighting a rhetorical and normative battle over which logic and values should govern university life. The modern university is like a zoo: many different species of scholar live together in the same general environment, but they require very different nourishment, feeding schedules, climates, etc. What representatives of the humanities fear is that they, the small fish who seem to be losing the war, are being tossed into the same tank as the big fish of privately- and federally-funded science. And what has been happening in these academic zoos has also been happening in society at large: ever more spheres of life that had once been insulated from the pragmatic logic of “scientism,” which dovetails so nicely with capitalism, are falling under its sway.

Scientism, which surely is a polemical term of abuse, nonetheless fits all too easily into the logic of the capitalist free market, which demands quantifiable, itemized results that translate into profit and loss. The scientific endeavor is quite creative, imaginative, and “qualitative” in the best sense; but there’s no denying the fact that the results of scientific research — in physics, chemistry, biology, engineering, medicine, etc. — are much more marketable than the knowledge produced in the humanities. Rhetorical questions pointed at the humanities like, for example, “Who cares about gender norms in the early work of Emily Dickinson?” really signify something like “Who would want to buy that article/book?” or “What can we do with that knowledge?” The commodious and pragmatic dimensions of academic production, as well as of all other kinds of production, today are unavoidable. And that’s essentially what most addressees of Pinker’s “impassioned plea” mean when they decry “scientism” or any of its variants.

The wonderful German words Wissenschaft, which translates as “science” or “discipline” but literally means “activity that produces researched knowledge” (per Duden), and Geisteswissenschaften, literally “intellectual sciences” but colloquially “humanities,” harken back to the early 19th century, when the disciplinary barriers that today separate the natural sciences (Naturwissenschaften) from the humanities were a great deal more permeable. Despite the focus in recent decades on fostering interdisciplinary research, it would be unrealistic to expect the reunification of the humanities and sciences anytime soon.1 Pinker’s implied expectation of just that comes off as a utopian longing blinded by a particular ideology. This is his concluding thought:

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.

What better illustrates Pinker’s lack of appreciation for the socioeconomic pressure on scholars in the humanities? He seems to accept academic downsizing as a fait accompli, and attributes the humanities’ vulnerability to their lack of “new ideas.” Pinker is part of the very problem he tries to explain not because he’s a scientist and not even because he’s a tenured Ivy-League professor, but rather because he complacently accepts the neo-liberal hierarchy of values, which rests on the twin pillars of capitalism and “civilized democracy.” He doesn’t ever consider that capitalism in its current form may not stand beside the pillar of democracy, helping to uphold our society — that it may in fact be the crack in that pillar, threatening to bring the whole edifice down on our heads.

  1. And as the historian Martin Jay has argued, nor should we want to. See the essay “The Menace of Consilience: Keeping the Disciplines Unreconciled” in his collection: Essays from the Edge: Parerga and Paralipomena (Univ. of Va. Press, 2011).  (back)

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