A Pox on Both Your Cultures

A lot has been written about Steven Pinker’s article about “scientism,” most of it mocking his grandiose overreach in passages like this:

These thinkers—Descartes, Spinoza, Hobbes, Locke, Hume, Rousseau, Leibniz, Kant, Smith—are all the more remarkable for having crafted their ideas in the absence of formal theory and empirical data. The mathematical theories of information, computation, and games had yet to be invented. The words “neuron,” “hormone,” and “gene” meant nothing to them. When reading these thinkers, I often long to travel back in time and offer them some bit of twenty-first-century freshman science that would fill a gap in their arguments or guide them around a stumbling block. What would these Fausts have given for such knowledge? What could they have done with it?

And, I have to admit, this is eminently mock-able. At the same time, though, I don’t think this is really any more hubristic than, say, this fatuous bit of nonsense from Leon Wieseltier, who boldly addressed a commencement address to a narrow subset of the graduating class–only the humanities majors– and proclaimed:

If Proust was a neuroscientist, then you have no urgent need of neuroscience, because you have Proust. If Jane Austen was a game theorist, then you have no reason to defect to game theory, because you have Austen.

So, you know, in keeping with Newton’s Laws, every bit of grandiose idiocy is matched with an equal and opposite bit of grandiose idiocy. Though, despite being published in the same (online) magazine, Wieseltier didn’t come in for anywhere near the mockery Pinker did, presumably because nobody knew enough about him to have a pre-existing dislike of his bombast.

So, really, this has been a pox-on-both kind of summer in the Two Cultures. If you were to put a gun to my head and make me choose between them, I’d seriously question your life choices even within the field of hypothetical violent thuggery, but I’d probably come down on Pinker’s side. The reasons why are bound up in work-related frustration, but I think in a sense they come down to the flip side of Sean Carroll’s plea to discard the whole notion of “scientism.” Sean writes that “The word “scientism” doesn’t helpfully delineate a coherent position,” and I basically agree with that. But I think the same can be said about whatever it is that Wieseltier is arguing for— it’s not actually a coherent… anything.

While science is most assuredly not without its flaws, at least I’m fairly clear about what it does: scientists ask questions, construct models, test those models against observations, and refine them as needed. It’s a process that moves in fits and starts, with blind alleys and false steps and occasional catastrophic misdeeds, but at least it’s moving. My esteem for academic humanities is at a low ebb at the moment, mostly because they don’t seem to be going anywhere, or even particularly concerned about the lack of motion. Wieseltier and his fellows spend endless words congratulating themselves for grappling with Big Questions, but they seem curiously uninterested in ever answering any questions, even simple ones. (For the record, “It’s complicated” or jargon-laden versions thereof is not an answer in any meaningful sense.) The mere act of talking about important issues– or, in some cases, talking about the importance of talking about important issues– seems to be regarded as a praiseworthy end unto itself, and the idea that one might try to reach some sort of a conclusion or make a decision seems to be regarded as a quaint anachronism.

I find this absolutely maddening. So while Pinker’s piece is unquestionably overdone, I end up with marginally more sympathy for him than most of his opponents. So, you know, he can get one of the lesser poxes– chicken or cow, something easily treated with readily available medicines. But on the whole, I think I enjoyed the two hours or so of pointless wailing SteelyKid treated us to today more than I’ve enjoyed any of the entries in this latest round of Two Cultures sniping. In the end, it’s all just another meeting of the Department of Persecution Studies. Which, as much as I try to stay out, just keeps sucking me back in…

6 thoughts on “A Pox on Both Your Cultures

  1. I ran into something like this in my undergrad years in the 80s, and to my mind it was maddening as hell.

    But in all fairness this may be a subculture issue. Scientists are concerned with empirical measurements and falsifiable hypotheses. Technologists are concerned with reliable interactions between elements of systems. Now go hang out with professional musicians, as in, members of signed bands, and be prepared for a wild ride. Same case with artists, as in painters whose talents are widely recognized, and who pass the serious test of Artist-with-a-real-capital-A.

    What you find is that musicians and artists are largely nonverbal thinkers, who use language in a way very much like what most of us here would recognize as dream-logic. This isn’t “better or worse than” in some overarching sense: it’s better for some purposes, worse for others, just as our science/technology state of high rationalism is better for some purposes and worse for others.

    Paraphrasing UC Davis psych professor emeritus Charlie Tart: what’s the best state of consciousness for driving down the freeway?, for making love?, for solving a difficult math problem?, for playing the violin? He was deliberately (and effectively) debunking the then-current idea that there are “higher” states of consciousness in some overall ontological sense.

    So we have scientists and technologists on one hand, and musicians and artists on the other, each with their own baseline states of consciousness, subjective realities, worldviews, and ways of communicating. People in the humanities have their own as well, which is just close enough to ours that we can see it’s fundamentally different to ours. And when, due to the prevailing culture, people in the humanities start borrowing language from science & tech, they end up sounding like crappy imitation scientists, rather than thoughtful and competent people in their own fields.

    And when they make nonsensical comments such as “if you have Proust you don’t need neuroscience,” keep in mind that our frequent comments about their culture and worldview come off as equally obnoxious to them (e.g. go look up the comments in ArsTechnica about the “religion & IQ” article).

    This is not to support some kind of postmodernist BS to the effect that reality is subjective; only that individual and subcultural worldviews are subjective and not convertible to common denominators.

    Better for us all to just live & let-live, and if we think we’re better thinkers, then it’s up to us to offer not only the olive branch, but real and honest praise for those in the humanities who we believe do have some real wisdom.

  2. I’m still new to this whole science world thing, what with the not having graduated yet and all. But I have taken note of it, on both sides of the fence and I am only now beginning to understand that this is something that has been going on for much longer than recently. While I can’t say that it is very pleasant to acknowledge, but I’ve also chosen which side I am on.

    Its one thing to say that there is some rivalry, though I think it is more often cleverly masked disdain. I have some science professors, knowing their audience and making jokes at the expense of liberal arts. I’ve also had liberal arts professors whom I suspect knew exactly how little I thought of their disciplines.

  3. Now go hang out with professional musicians, as in, members of signed bands, and be prepared for a wild ride.

    Yet there are some people who can live in both worlds. Brian May took 35 years off of physics grad school to be the guitarist for Queen, then went back and finished the degree. Einstein, in addition to his physics talents, was a world class violinist. These are the two most prominent examples, but the phenomenon is more widespread than you may think.

    Wieseltier and his fellows spend endless words congratulating themselves for grappling with Big Questions, but they seem curiously uninterested in ever answering any questions, even simple ones.

    I first heard this specific complaint in high school. It was from my calculus teacher, explaining why he considered and rejected majoring in philosophy. There are people on that side of the quad who are researching good questions, but certain departments over there are stuck in exactly that rut.

  4. Einstein, in addition to his physics talents, was a world class violinist.

    Kind of a nitpick, but I think this is an overstatement. At least, I’ve never gotten the impression that he was more than an enthusiastic amateur on the violin, not “world class.”

    Brian May, on the other hand, is pretty awesome.

    Regarding the more general question of the value of the humanities, I agree that there are useful points to be made regarding subjectivity and cultural factors in the understanding of anything, including science. I don’t mean to claim that there’s nothing of value in the whole business, or anything like that.

    What frustrates me, though, is that theories of subjectivity and the like can tip over into a sort of paralysis, where the assertion of subjectivity and complexity becomes a justification for indecision. It’s such a great platform for criticizing absolutely any action as bound up in hidden interests and biases that it becomes impossible to do anything that can’t be taken badly. And thus it becomes impossible to make any kind of constructive suggestion, let alone taking any kind of action beyond endlessly discussing the nature of conversations about dialogues regarding debates. Which drives me up the wall.

  5. Re. Eric @ #3: “…the phenomenon is more widespread than you may think…” I was writing from personal experience, as an engineer who has also worked in music production and who knows both of those worlds intimately. With one of the bands I worked with, I recall thinking that understanding their verbal communication was like “following a butterfly in a windstorm.”

    Yet in the eng/tech universe including some of our clients, there is an oddly similar phenomenon that I refer to as “terse is worse,” whereby people don’t use enough words to disambiguate their meanings. Very often they use only sentence-fragments missing key components such as verbs to go with nouns and vice-versa. This appears to have a rough correlation with the rise of pocket-telegraphs (“smart”phones), neo-telegraphy (“texting”) and multi-tasking (I’m tempted to create another neologism for the latter, along the lines of “half-assing”). I’ve started fighting back by reminding people that “Twenty Questions is an expensive game.”

    Re. Chad @ #4: Agreed, theories of subjectivity can tip over into paralysis, and also into overt BS, which is why I tread carefully in that area and explicitly disavow postmodernism. What I’ve lately been doing about this is to differentiate “experiential facts” from empirical facts, and attempt to treat the former as a type of data, whereby experiential facts (e.g. “when my hand is near this cup of hot water, my hand feels warmth”) are subject to approximately similar methods as empirical facts (attempt to replicate and obtain similar report from other observers, etc.).

    The point of that is to cut through the “talking about talking about it” nonsense and achieve some kind of clarity or convergence (e.g. “what’s the range of minimum temperature differences that humans can detect with their hands?”).

    Similarly, “two NOTs don’t make an AND” applies to the endless rounds of critique upon critique: after all the mutually-cancelling NOTs are removed, what’s the AND? It should always be possible to reduce any series of statements to something clear and unambiguous, even if to assert clearly that an ambiguity exists, such as in the language of religious/philosophical mysticism properly defined (“encounter with the ground of being or ultimate realities”), for example, “the separate self is an illusion.” A statement like that can be addressed: “Do you mean that unitary personality is a cognitive artifact?”, in which case we can discuss data from cog sci about independent processes running simultaneously in the brain, etc.

    If a series of statements can’t be reduced to something clear and straightforward, then one can reasonably conclude that someone is indulging in mystification (making mysteries where none exist) or obscurantism, or that they simply don’t know what they’re talking about.

    The fact that an era of academic careers was built around postmodernism and the assertions that a) there is no empirical reality and b) everything is a matter of point-of-view, has created an entire category of tenured professors who have a direct personal stake in sustaining that worldview. But in the end, results are what count. A field that gets frozen in something analogous to amber will rapidly lose interest to those who are motivated by real curiosity and the desire for real progress of knowledge. As for the humanities, I’m inclined to believe that over time, increasing knowledge in the cognitive and social sciences will give rise to new philosophical paradigms that are grounded in facts.

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