Sunday, September 27, 2009

Scientism and Humanity

I am the son of a scientist and a mathematician (well, businessman, but trained in math), and in my brief non-academic life I found myself in a program teaching Marine Biology. Now, at Stanford, I am taking courses in education, yes, but also Computer Sciences. One of these courses is the highly scientific Computational Tour of the Human Genome, though some education Professors are more scientific in their approach than the genetics Professors. It may come as a surprise, then, when I say that there is something very unsettling to me about science and the roll it plays in modern society.

Recently I read an article by Mark Slouka in Harper's Magazine while waiting in the Estes Park library. The article was called “Dehumanized: When Math and Science Rule the School." The crux of the article was the slow death of the humanities in education, in the face of increasing “scientism,” a term Slouka uses to remind us of the difference between science, as a way of trying to understand the world, and science, as a dogma. That scientism is rampant is clear from the preponderance of the cliché, “studies show,” as if the studies themselves were more important than how or why they were undertaken, and who is interpreting the results.

I do not intend to summarize the article, because it does an excellent job without my interference. Instead, I want to try to reflect on the seeming opposition of science and humanities, because I don't believe – and neither does Slouka, I imagine – that there is actually a difference. The question, really, is what words, what language, can really capture the actual opposition that exists? Is it scientism against humanity? Is it dogma against critical thinking? Is it money against happiness? Is it good against evil? I doubt any of those captures the problem that Slouka exposes; I know none of them is totally satisfying to me. But hopefully we can at least explore the issue without too much linguistic bewitchment.

Something from my first paragraph is surprising to me, as I look back over it. How is it possible that geneticists – and I don't mean Professors of genetics, the men teaching this class are also at the forefront of their field – are less “scientific” to my untrained eye than my Professor of Language, Identity, and Classroom Learning? It makes no sense that, when studying something as transparently linguistic as “identity,” you'd have a highly refined and quantitative attempt to understand how people characterize themselves. There has been an explosion of possible identities – according to my Professor – as time has gone on. More and more words are being used to describe who we are, and each study of identity needs to be more complicated than the last.

Well, yeah! A little Kant is all you need to remind yourself that, really, we're not dealing with objective realities here, and subjective realities are as numerous as there are people on the earth. There may be some overlap in what we mean when we say “I am an American,” or “I am a surfer,” or “I am well-educated,” but there's a lot that does not overlap as well. Even simple geographic identities are rife with connotation and symbolism, such that “Americans” are sometimes called “true Americans” or “red-blooded Americans,” because they embody some mystical and poetic meaning of the word that transcends being a mere citizen. How much more complicated does identity get when we characterize pathologies or neuroses, when we try to understand cultures and sub-cultures, or when we try to explain the various ways students learn?

The value of typing people into various identities is unquestionable, because it allows marketers to target certain groups, it allows educators to tailor lessons, and it allows social networks to grow. The broader the definition, in some sense, the more accurate it is, but the less precise. Like with the motions of electrons, the more we hone in on particular individuals, the more illusive identity becomes. And yet the very effort of scientifically classifying identities is just that: an attempt to hone in on individuals, to type more effectively and more precisely, to determine exactly who someone is according to some objective and external criteria.

Contrast that to the geneticists. “This is the dogma, and like most dogmas, it is wrong,” was the prelude to our review of how genes are translated and transcribed. Those very things you may have learned in high school – though, lets be honest, who remembers mRNA and protein synthesis? – and which you can find in educational youtube videos don't quite happen that way. That's just a simplification. Indeed, my main takeaway so far in A Computational Tour of the Human Genome is that, frankly, biology is complicated, and most of the mainstream understanding of the field is deeply flawed.

That's not to say that the geneticists are not trying to probe deeper, or to reach more concrete and precise conclusions about the nature of “junk DNA” (DNA that, as far as we know, serves no purpose) or mobile, self-replicating strands that jump around through your chromosomes. It just means that geneticists recognize and are comfortable with the conditional nature of their work in a way that, it seems to me, the identity “scientists” are not. I say this from the perspective of process, mainly. Genetics is a science, and the scientists and their experiments are following a process that is, after all, the work of over a thousand years of philosophy. The modern study of identity – which might seem a philosophical, or literary, or musical question – is none of these; instead it is the work of scientism, the belief that the scientific process requires laboratories and computer programs and clearly defined variables in order to be useful. In summary, the geneticists are willing to admit confusion, difficulty, and the possibility that they are wrong, where the study of identity is not.

While I'm more interested in the process of understanding identity compared to the process used in genetics. There is, however, something of a confluence in the subject matter that identity and genetics study, and, ironically, I would argue that genetics has a more nuanced understanding of identity than literature about identity does. That's not to say that there is any agreement as to which gene codes for which trait at this point in the development of genetics, because that is certainly not true. There are numerous obstacles between now and a true, practical sequencing of the human genome. What we do know, however, is that no two people – even twins – have exactly the same genetic structure, or even the same amount of DNA (that is, the same number of base pairs). What we do know, however, is that different populations and ethnic cultures have tendencies for widely different genetic structures – let alone particular genes.

In other words, genetics can create of kind of broad classification of genetic identity – though, of course, few geneticists would argue that your whole identity comes from your genes. This kind of grouping is perhaps less philosophically instructive than we would hope, but it does give us a framework around which we can, ultimately, delve into those philosophical questions. What does it mean to be European, or African, or Polynesian? In what way has culture influenced genetics, or vice-versa? What are the essential genetic traits that characterize a tendency for artistic thinking, or mathematical thinking, or athletic skill? The kind of conditional understanding present in the study of genetics demonstrates a humility in the face of these questions; it does not assume that answers will be easily forthcoming, or that we can truly understand what is in the soul of a human being through experimentation alone.

There's more to be said about genetics and identity, I'm sure, but that's not really what I'm after. Instead, I want to better understand why it is that we put in opposition scientific thinking and philosophical or literary thinking, and what it is about the way we have come to understand science that makes that opposition seem so natural.

Historically, science was once “natural philosophy,” and rose out of the efforts of philosophers to understand the natural world. It was also, largely, the product of a newfound focus on the process of understanding instead of on ideas. Whereas the ancients – Plato, Aristotle, and the like – were concerned with eternal “forms,” Descartes and the moderns that followed (how's that for reducing the history of science to a sentence?) were focused on how that knowledge related to the material world, and how it came about. Discourse on Method is a telling title for a work that, really, is the origin of modern thinking.

That's not where science and philosophy separate, however. That happened sometime more recently, and Husserl's Crisis of the European Sciences – for all of its nonsensical jargon – was a response to an alarming transformation in the way that philosophy, and the humanities more generally – were interacting with science. Unfortunately, Husserl uses terms like “problem-hozion” and “meaning-fundament,” which confused me quite a bit when I was reading him as a Senior at St. John's, so I'm not really equipped to talk about Husserl. Nevertheless, the essential message is well-taken: somewhere, somehow, science and the humanities became opposed fields, and, worse, science became “practical” while the humanities became “a waste of time.”

That's not totally fair, since plenty of people who went to liberal arts colleges get jobs, and even art and music majors manage to make a living in most cases, but I bring up the discrepancy in the way we talk about the humanities and the sciences for good reason. The connotations surrounding the humanities are generally unflattering. Consider the following: fuzzy, pie-in-the-sky, metaphysical, vague, impractical, touchy-feely, intangible. These are the kinds of words that get attached to the humanities. The sciences, on the other hands, get the following: hard facts, practicality, logical, tangible, reasonable.

Part of my point, here, is that the associations we tend to make are flawed. It's the scientists who are generally more conscious of the vague, impractical, and intangible in their work, and often the humanities – especially subject to the desire to turn themselves into science – make a claim on hard facts and logic. Of course, even non-scientism humanities are anything but touchy-feely. They may be confusing, and they may require a less structured thought-process in order to comprehend (or to not comprehend, which is sometimes the point), but they are far from useless when confronting issues like, say, trying to understand one's hopes and aspirations, or solving the philosophical and moral problems we confront every day when we drive, or cook, or write emails.

No one ever wrote a symphony about emails, for reasons other than mere anachronism, and most musicians and philosophers are concerned with “deeper” issues that, ultimately, our society might call impractical for good reason. But what's the value of practicality anyway? That's probably the bigger question. Why do we, as a species, as a society, or as individuals, choose to pursue the kind of ends we have become accustomed to calling appropriate? Is profit the best organizing principle for a society? For a lifestyle? What about survival? Or art? Is scientific knowledge more valuable than an opera? Is it better to answer questions, or to ask them?

I don't know how to address those questions, nor do I know if I should, and we're veering dangerously close to an overly-abstracted and philosophical discussion at this point, so let me re-frame the issue one last time. Science is a study of the natural world, while scientism is an attempt to apply the scientific process in a deliberate and quantitative way to abstract concepts. What happens to humanities in this system, and what should happen?

Well, for one thing, we see that students who play an instrument score higher on standardized tests. So we encourage engaging with the humanities because it makes our population smarter. We'll ignore, for the moment, that wealthier students score higher on standardized tests, and that welathier students are also way more likely to play an instrument. Assuming that playing music – or drawing, or reading literature – does increase a student's ability to solve qualitative and quantitative problems, why aren't the humanities taken seriously? Is it because the humanities are only valuable, under that construction, as a means to a particular end, rather than as an end in themselves?

Modern humanities often consist in classes like “History of Rock and Roll” or “Introduction to Sit-Com Writing.” Fun as those classes may be, it's no wonder they're not taken seriously. I dare you to laugh at a class about Plato's Repulbic, or Dante's Divine Comedy. But this self-marginalization is a symptom of a belief that science, not philosophy or literature or music, is what really matters. Except it's not the scientists who think that, it's the rest of us. Scientism is dangerous for this reason, more than any; the very experts – the priests and cardinals at the top of the hierarchy – don't actually follow the religion. There is a way of thinking where the sum of human knowledge and experience and debate is important, and no particular area has precedence, because we need citizens – who can consider moral questions – as much as we need employees – who can fill in spreadsheets. What happens when we lose the citizens? And have we lost them already? And why?

Husserl's crisis, it seems to me, is a subtle one, and the movement away from liberal arts and humanities has made schools like St. John's College “obsolete,” or at least terribly impractical. Except liberal arts are not obsolete or impractical, and the real crisis we're dealing with is not a scientific one. It's a crisis of identity, not for individual people, but for a whole way of thinking. The humanities are too broad for a particular identity, of course, but it's not their crisis I'm worried about. Scientism – the recourse of a society that defines itself on a certainty built upon mere words and concepts no two philosophers would define the same way – gives us a false sense of cultural, global identity. Man is the creature that knows, we might say. But Man is also the creature that deceives himself, and he would be a lot better off if he was willing to say “I don't know” more often.


  1. Not to contradict you, but we laughed at a whole bunch of classes including our seminars on the Republic, Husserl and mocked Descartes tirelessly for years. Just sayin'. Also, maybe because i just made my students read it, but your post reminds me alot of that awesome essay, "Music and Fractal Landscapes" from Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency. Read it again, you'll see it. Keep up the posts, they're keeping me quite entertained. You even made it onto my Opera speed dial page.

  2. Having too much free time I now just finished Slouka's article which was pretty awesome. Maybe it's because of my Waldorf Education, but I was fairly convinced by this essay by Bertrand Russell . He argues, some 70+ years ago, that the sciences are neglected in liberal education. Paraphrasing his essay in contrast to Slouka's, he suggests that the sciences are democratic, because everyone who participates, even the lab grunt, adds to the overall growth of the science and human knowledge. This is untrue of the humanities where only the rarest of talents add a lasting effect to the subject.

    The humanities are aristocratic as nearly everyone who is involved with them stands in the shadows of the giants who came before. In science, however, we stand on thier shoulders. Science requires massive collaborations and the collective work and intelligence of everyone involved. Each breakthrough is brought about from thousands of experimental results and inadequate hypotheses. Lots of scientific work is misguided, but each experiment produces some result which might be important to future breakthroughs, or, at the least, it has ruled out one correlation. Sometimes new theories are composed out of the decaying pieces of old ones, and nearly every effort in the scientific community finds a way to make itself useful.

    More philosophically, the work of science is about shunning dogma, working with a community, contributing to something beneficial for all humanity, and, above all, an impassioned desire for knowledge (philo-sofia that's right I just did that. Eat it philosophy professor Slouka). These sentiments can give people who work in science a feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment, and even happiness. People who promote the humanities often falsely claim exclusive rights to making fully developed men.

    I am biased on the subject, and I don't mean to knock the humanities or deny that they are undervalued today. I would, however, say that the article is too obsessed with the humanities, and sees the scientific outlook as something not nearly as useful as he should.
    My point, put simply, is that the pursuit of science and scientific theory contains what Slouka only sees in the humanities, and, in addition, he seems to associate the scientific mindset with the underlying problem of capitalism in America. They are different.

    Now i'm just ranting. I guess i need my own blog. I'm going to stop wasting time and start being productive (see what i did there?.)

  3. To be fair, we were laughing in a much more sophisticated and haughty way. Right? Isn't that how it works? I'm still not quite up on this Straussian esotericism stuff...