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June 2, 2013 7:18 AM   Subscribe

For decades the sciences and the humanities have fought for knowledge supremacy. Both sides are wrong-headed
posted by the man of twists and turns (49 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite

Somehow you just knew this was by a philosophy professor before even clicking it.
posted by shmegegge at 7:22 AM on June 2, 2013 [4 favorites]

When was the last time a theoretical physicist solved a problem in history?

What is using neutron activation analysis to determine where the stone for stone tools was quarried, thereby determining the extent of trade routes in the ancient world?

OK, I'll take self-righteous poncing for $800.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 7:32 AM on June 2, 2013 [39 favorites]

For decades the sciences and the humanities have fought for knowledge supremacy.

Really? That's news to me; I always thought they were generally complementary disciplines working to answer fundamentally different kinds of questions.

But then again, I'm a non-academic so what the Hell do I know?
posted by ZenMasterThis at 7:41 AM on June 2, 2013 [12 favorites]

Really? That's news to me; I always thought they were generally complementary disciplines working to answer fundamentally different kinds of questions.

But the money and prestige have to go somewhere so here we are
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 7:46 AM on June 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

humanity has found cultural ways to exploit or get around physics. We built aeroplanes to fly despite the limitations imposed by gravity

Oooooh for Pete's sake
posted by samofidelis at 7:47 AM on June 2, 2013 [24 favorites]

I can but note that there seems a shift going on in which increasingly the humanities have begun to use evolutionary theory, science, imaging etc while discussing their own humanities fields, and there is increasingly an emphasis upon science and technology in many of our schools, at all levels.

If we know but little about memes, we do know that ideas (memes) catch on, cancel out previous ones at times, and beget new one.
And technology? well, as an example, way back in late medieval times, the Brit developed the long bow, made from yew trees, that were incredibly powerful and could be used by the common soldier...that led to the ordinary man becoming important in war and gave him the ability to take out a knight, outfitted in armor, riding on horseback...Is it by chance that soon thereafter we get the Magna Charter and the House of Commons

But then despite developing technical things and their impact upon cultural things, we still retained even through WWII the idea that officers of enemy forces were to be housed and treated differently than ordinary soldiers of enemy forces...a left over from class distinctions.

I find in my own reading etc that whereas once I was deeply involved in humanistic things, I know increasingly read up on science materials, if not overly complicated.
posted by Postroad at 7:47 AM on June 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

That’s a striking claim given the dearth of novel results arising from feminist science. The last time I checked, there were no uniquely feminist energy sources on the horizon.

Three paragraphs in and I'm done. Christ, what an asshole.
posted by col_pogo at 7:57 AM on June 2, 2013 [4 favorites]

To elaborate, no one I know of in science studies today is "anti-science" or sees the practice of studying science as a cultural and social practice as a "war." I don't know why people get off so much on that rhetoric, but there you go. This guy appears to have loved all that 90s science war nonsense.
posted by col_pogo at 8:02 AM on June 2, 2013 [4 favorites]

"Published on 8 October 2012"

I was shocked to discover that this wasn't written in 2002. Haven't heard arguments about this kind of Academics War for a long time, at least since Consilience, which most scientist seems to agree is just Con-silly. Different disciplines cover different things and contribute to society in different ways. Hooray! What else needs to be said?
posted by Potomac Avenue at 8:04 AM on June 2, 2013 [4 favorites]

I was sure this was going to be about cats.
posted by grounded at 8:12 AM on June 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

I wasn't so thrilled with this particular article and so don't want to defend its particular claims about the culture wars, sokal examples from 10 years ago, dubious comments about feminism, etc.

However, I think those in this thread who are suggesting that the science vs. humanities divide is amicably settled and over aren't really right. I think the current front for this "war" (or whatever it is) is in university administration, where allocation of funding (especially from divisional budgets) and other resources (space etc) is progressively being skewed towards departments and groups that themselves bring in grants, satisfy 'vocational' agendas, etc. Not only that, but university fundraising initiatives at higher levels are also being skewed this way by trustees, university presidents, etc. My (fairly prominent) institution is in the midst of a massive capital campaign, and all of humanities were essentially left out of the picture (there is one subinitiative that possibily some humanities people could make a slightly plausible pitch related to). Most new faculty lines in the short term in the arts and sciences division are related to this campaign, and so it appears that this will substantially impact hiring over the next few years as well as budgets. Presumably the high-level decision makers believe (and I guess they might know) that these are the things that donors will pay for, and so the overall allocation of resources may represent a larger cultural divide.

I'm not in humanities and the humanities people at my institution don't (yet) seem to blame us scientists down in the trenches, but they are really frustrated with the current situation. The structuring by administrators of funding between humanities vs. sciences as a zero sum game where humanities systematically lose, is not going to be good for the cultural divide as this continues, and I don't think this general issue is going away. (My personal belief is that the deprioritization of humanities in higher ed in the long run is a disaster for higher ed as it currently exists.) I'm at a private school but I understand from colleagues that the problem is even worse at public schools, especially in states where right-wing agendas push state schools towards vocational training rather than higher education.

I think this situation is definitely a reason for the trend that Postroad mentions above, the increasing adoption of (fundable) scientific methods/tools/ideas in some humanities fields.
posted by advil at 8:33 AM on June 2, 2013 [14 favorites]

Professor Fuller furiously strode through the halls of the unfamiliar department building, seething with barely-constrained contempt for the pathetic and misled students that he passed. Finally, he reached his goal: Room 305-B, the so-called "Organic Geochemistry Lab".

The door burst open with one mighty kick. Years of righteous anger spilled out all at once: "Why do you insist on fighting me for knowledge supremacy?!"

Professor Larson, startled, looked up from his experiment. "Huh?"

"The airplane is a cultural exploit defeating the limitations of physics! Admit it! Admit it!"

Professor Larson looked over his right shoulder, then over his left, and finally back at Professor Fuller. "Huh?"
posted by Flunkie at 8:34 AM on June 2, 2013 [9 favorites]

According to Google Scholar, Irigaray has about 18k citations since 2000. Latour, ~25k. Lacan, ~50k. Emily Martin's celebrated, patently flawed article about the egg and the sperm alone has received hundreds of citations in the same period.

I've heard this response quite often-- 'the science wars are so over'. From a cursory glance at the bibliographical record and my own conversations with grad students in the humanities, however, I don't get the sense that much was learned from the "90's science wars nonsense" at all.
posted by lambdaphage at 8:45 AM on June 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

When was the last time a theoretical physicist solved a problem in history?

What is using neutron activation analysis to determine where the stone for stone tools was quarried, thereby determining the extent of trade routes in the ancient world?

Applied physics.
posted by baf at 9:09 AM on June 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

Pretty sure humanities and sciences are like PB&J. And there are some people who dislike fruit jellies and some people who dislike peanut butter but by-and-large those people are silly and/or allergic to weird things, and not indicative of some cultural whatever.

The real struggle is in shallow versus deep understanding, and what makes it such a difficult struggle is that there is no universality to the struggle; I can understand one thing very well and another thing not at all, and knowing the thing I know well doesn't excuse my ignorance for the other thing one whit. That's how Stephen Hawking can be simultaneously brilliant at one thing (physics) and a complete arse about another (philosophy). And it's what makes men like Einstein, who are passionate about how various fields are connected on very, very deep levels, so awesomesauce.

Both the sciences and the arts are much-maligned these days, and I feel they should be trying to hold hands and join together and make people think more about how awesome they both are. The "fight" between the two is as stupid as fights between Mac and PC people or cat and dog people or people who pronounce GIF with a "juh" and people who are gonna burn in hell for their blasphemous pronunciations of things.
posted by Rory Marinich at 9:33 AM on June 2, 2013 [2 favorites]

lambdaphage: Could you explain what you mean? I'm not sure what your point is (not saying that to be a jerk, I'm just not parsing your post properly for some reason.)
posted by Saxon Kane at 9:33 AM on June 2, 2013

Applied physics.

I hope this is tongue-in-cheek. Otherwise it is the clearest example of the No True Scotsman ever observed in the wild. How do we know a physicist is not theoretical? Why, because they solve problems in 'the real world', of course!

History would also be much worse off without population genetics, which was developed in large part by people trained as statisticians and mathematicians. (Or perhaps it would be better to say "will soon be", since the insights it has delivered have been quite recent, due to advances in sequencing). Many fields in philosophy (in the Anglophone world, at least) have been radically transformed by results from pure mathematics and statistics, or even through collaboration with cognitive scientists: it is impossible to say where philosophy would be today without certain advances from a variety of scientific fields. Computational musicology has applied statistical analyses to large corpora in order to yield insights that would have been practically impossible for a traditionally trained scholar to obtain.
posted by lambdaphage at 9:35 AM on June 2, 2013 [2 favorites]

lambdaphage: you should have made more than a cursory glance, then. Lacan and Irigaray are not primarily or centrally involved in science studies. You may well disagree with the tools they propose for understanding society or culture. I do. But they are not primarily engaged in any sort of conflict with science. From Wikipedia, I see that Irigaray's great sin is to have said something apparently quite silly about e=mc^2 that Sokal and Dawkins could laugh about. But looking for "Irigaray and Einstein" in Google Scholar doesn't actually bring up anything written by her for pages.

I don't dispute that there have been humanists who make some bizarre claims about science. Grad students in English who write epistemological checks that their theoretical methods can't cash. Sure. But that is all generally quite peripheral both to what they do--which as with Lacan and Irigaray is in the main not concerned with science, non-overlapping magisteria and all that--and to the yeoman work done in the mainstream of critical cultural and social studies of science. Which is generally grounded in empirical work (ethnography, survey work, archival work--and yes, textual analysis.). (I'll cop to some No True Scotsman-ing here, lambdaphage. Mea culpa.)

The areas where some psychoanalysts and the humanists are actually opposed to mainstream science is in things like interpretations of the economy, of gender relations, and so forth--precisely the areas where science is at its softest, at its most obviously entangled in cultural, political, or social relations. And in fact here feminists have actually made important contributions--check out Ann Fausto-Sterling, for instance. Much economic science is highly problematic. So is a lot of the stuff out there on sex and gender. And that's why there's a lot of focus on these areas by feminists and other critical humanists. I guess they should be out designing new power sources? or maybe helping the physicists with their historical work? (Seriously, this article. I don't even. I just. Ugh.)

And then there's Latour, who is a different kettle of fish from the psychoanalysts entirely. Much of what he says is aimed at bringing the material world into sociological analyses: that is, precisely not the kind of "ooh it's all a social construction, the physical doesn't matter it's all a matter of intepretation and human ideas" guff that gets set up as a strawman in these debates. He is not out to "fight science," but to promote a sociology that incorporates the material world. His success here is debateable, as is the extent to which his circumlocutions and wry (some say smug) tone are valuable. But again, this isn't the stuff of which "science wars" are made.

Now sometimes people in science studies do make critical, political claims about science. Often these are well-founded, both in their critiques of specific epistemic claims by specific sets of scientists and in their critiques of the political implications of certain scientific practices. Which is not to say that I've never seen overblown claims sympathetic to non-mainstream views about science (GMOs, climate change, evolution) that I find frustrating and wrongheaded. And I've seen critical social scientists being overly dismissive of claims by evolutionary or policy scientists.

Is this a war, though? I'd say border skirmishes at most. And besides, as advil points out, if there is a war going on, it's an institutional one in which the humanities are vastly outgunned and from which the sciences stand to gain little.
posted by col_pogo at 9:41 AM on June 2, 2013 [8 favorites]

"I decided to get Ph.D. in experimental physics because experimental physicists have their own room in the Institute where they can hang their coat, whereas theoretical physicists have to hang their coat at the entrance."
-George Gamow
posted by charlie don't surf at 9:42 AM on June 2, 2013 [3 favorites]

After reading too many articles like this one, I still have no idea what the science/humanities fight is actually about. What is the disputed territory? What would winning look like, to either side?

This might be very naive, but it seems like scientists are the people whose job it is to find out what rocks are made of and how squid are put together, and stuff like that. And humanities people criticize literature and art, and think about how aesthetics results from hierarchical power structures, and stuff like that. Where is all this conflict coming from? It's like if there was a decades-long dispute between, like, plumbers and truck drivers.

No, here's what it's really like. It's like meeting for the first time a married couple who have been fighting for decades, and trying to decipher why their conversation is going the way it is:

"Honey, I'm going to buy a bottle of water. Do you want one?"


etc., etc.

Maybe there is some backstory, some secret history, of which I'm ignorant.
posted by officer_fred at 9:43 AM on June 2, 2013 [5 favorites]

I still have no idea what the science/humanities fight is actually about.

posted by charlie don't surf at 9:46 AM on June 2, 2013 [4 favorites]

Saxon Kane,

No problem. My comment was primarily directed at the view col pogo offers, which, as I understand it, can be summarized briefly as:

'the complaints that scientifically-minded people levy against various scientifically illiterate celebrities in the humanities are irrelevant and outdated, since nobody in the humanities presently endorses or even takes seriously the positions that said celebrities espoused.'

I say that this claim is false because many wrong and not-even-wrong beliefs about science held by these figures are widely accepted by broad segments of the humanities today.
posted by lambdaphage at 9:51 AM on June 2, 2013


Yep. In fact, I strongly believe that a lot of the adoption of the deconstructionist theories of the 80s and 90s by humanities departments was that by declaring their discipline primary by fiat of ontological underpinning and political correctness (back when that was a thing) they could demand more funding over unfashionable departments like geography and rhetoric.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 9:52 AM on June 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

> "For decades the sciences and the humanities have fought for knowledge supremacy."

In the grim darkness of the far future, there is only bore.
posted by kyrademon at 9:53 AM on June 2, 2013 [3 favorites]

many wrong and not-even-wrong beliefs about science held by these figures are widely accepted by broad segments of the humanities today.

"Broad segments" may be possible, but I'd argue these are no longer mainstream segments. If anything mainstream humanities is falling over itself trying to collaborate with science and social science and write the next Freakonomics or Bonk.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 9:55 AM on June 2, 2013 [1 favorite]


Well goddamnit. I thought this was an important issue that as a citizen I had a duty to consider carefully. But it's just an internecine struggle for funding, with a battlefield that wants to expand to include the inside of my head? Well fuck that. It's a beautiful day where I am. Life is short. I'm going outside to find someone to play Frisbee with.
posted by officer_fred at 9:57 AM on June 2, 2013

I still have no idea what the science/humanities fight is actually about.


And whether you can mock people who you think might know more than you, because it makes you feel weak and confused when they point out something you say violates physical laws and/or is racist.
posted by tychotesla at 9:57 AM on June 2, 2013 [5 favorites]

It's been almost 10 years since I was amidst academia but it was changing quickly even back then. People were tired of culture wars probably because everyone looked outside the wall and realized that there was a culture and political movement that thought both science and humanities were Liberal Conspiracies. What's the point of arguing about the philosophy of knowledge when there's an administration that literally argues that Lies Are Truth. We (academics) can all agree that P =/= Not P, and that the Bible is not the only book anyone should read at least, so hey, let's cut this crap out, we're just confusing outsiders. Hopefully that peace can last 1000 years.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 10:02 AM on June 2, 2013 [2 favorites]

Then, outside of academia, there are the people who pick one side or the other as an excuse for smugness. I never want to read a comments thread about Science Majors Vs. English Majors again.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 10:07 AM on June 2, 2013 [7 favorites]

I think with the imminent bursting of the university bubble, the wars -- especially relating to funding -- are about to go into shooting mode. When students start deciding that it isn't worth a lifetime of debt to study the humanities (which, perhaps, are really very valuable in some abstract sense but don't tend to prepare you for a career as anything except a college professor) then inevitably the money is going to shift to the notorious STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) parts of the university.

If I were a humanities professor right now, especially if I worked in a department whose title included the word "Studies", I'd be scared shitless. When the budget cuts hit, not even tenure will protect them.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 10:39 AM on June 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

"Then, outside of academia, there are the people who pick one side or the other as an excuse for smugness. I never want to read a comments thread about Science Majors Vs. English Majors again."


I agree with others that within academia things have cooled down in this conflict (though I'd say that the two cultures are still largely distinct and isolated from each other), but within the general culture there's still very much a lot of animosity.

And I really, really, really hate it. I'm in that tiny minority of people who have approximately equal interest and history, both personal and academic, in both of Snow's Two Cultures and when they snipe at each other, it's like Mom and Dad fighting.

So those threads here where these arguments play out upset and anger me greatly. And the mutual ignorance (which, to be fair, is not so bad here as it usually is elsewhere) is so infuriating, especially when coupled with caricatures of the opposing side and smug chauvinism about one's own.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 10:51 AM on June 2, 2013 [4 favorites]

Part of the current disagreements (I refuse to use the word war) between the hard sciences and the humanities is the capability of large-scale statistical analysis of automatically generated data sets - sometimes called Big Data. This has very real implications in fields like linguistics, see Norvig and Chomsky's recent pissing contest:

Noam Chomsky, speaking in the symposium, wasn't so enthused. Chomsky critiqued the field of AI for adopting an approach reminiscent of behaviorism, except in more modern, computationally sophisticated form. Chomsky argued that the field's heavy use of statistical techniques to pick regularities in masses of data is unlikely to yield the explanatory insight that science ought to offer. For Chomsky, the "new AI" -- focused on using statistical learning techniques to better mine and predict data -- is unlikely to yield general principles about the nature of intelligent beings or about cognition.

This critique sparked an elaborate reply to Chomsky from Google's director of research and noted AI researcher, Peter Norvig, who defended the use of statistical models and argued that AI's new methods and definition of progress is not far off from what happens in the other sciences.
danah boyd's Six Provocations for Big Data has an interesting analysis of what this may mean for fields which, by necessity, have been relatively small N size, and used mostly qualitative methods. What does it mean for participant observation in Anthopology when you can instantly cull activity logs from the smart phones and social streams of nearly the entire population, instead of spending 2 years with a 20 person sample?

One way that I've heard described for large-scale data analysis and small-scale qualitative / theory work to exist side-by-side is the T model. That means that you do large-scale analysis to get a really broad view of a particular topic (one example I've seen is using Twitter data to track political bias), and using that data you then find really interesting trends to drill down on with the small N stuff, through ethnography, case studies, historical analysis, critical theory, or what have you.

But, then again, I come from a cross-disciplinary field, so maybe this sort of collaboration is less objectionable for me than if I was in an Anthro program, or something.
posted by codacorolla at 11:41 AM on June 2, 2013 [4 favorites]

> After reading too many articles like this one, I still have no idea what the science/humanities fight is actually about.

The root of the issue is that most "educated" people know about, say, Monet or Beethoven and can easily identify a Monet waterlilies painting or the Fifth Symphony, but if you asked them about the Second Law of Thermodynamics, there's a good chance they would not only not know what it was but have no idea what "thermodynamics" was.

There's a secondary issue that post-modern critical theory demotes science to "just another story" - one narrative describing the world amongst many. This drives a lot of people absolutely nuts, because you can use this to simply disregard "truth". Even saying that word "truth" I understand that I'm walking into the "whose truth is it, anyway" issue - but, whether they admit it or not, all rational humans in practice treat Newton's Laws as very different from any aesthetic or philosophical laws or theories, because they instinctively believe that e.g. if you step off the building you will plummet to your death.

I don't think this is a "both sides have a point" issue, frankly - though of course there are hotheaded assholes on both teams. Science and technology types for the most part have the greatest respect for culture - if you announced at your typical science faculty party that you had no idea what Beethoven actually did, people would be quite surprised! And the Brian May/Art Garfunkel "mathematician(*) becomes musician" sort of story is not uncommon - would be far more common if it making a living wage as a musician wasn't so very hard - but I have to go back as far as Leonardo to find a trained artist making direct contributions to science.

I feel it has to do with fear. Science (including math) is the branch of human endeavour where you have to be objectively right (or at least, not provably wrong) each and every time. Most people who specialized in some non-science have had poor experiences with being taught these fields, and don't want to open their mouths for fear someone will jump down their throats.

It's a real shame, because if you're actually in these fields, you spend a lot of time being wrong and being corrected by others and no one thinks anything of it (to a point, of course). The phenomenon of someone coming up with an idea and then immediately knocking their idea down is extremely common in science and technology - because that's what we're trained to do, look for defects in our own ideas.

It certainly exists in the art world too, but less frequently, because we're trained to come up with an idea, and then a justification for it. Which is perfectly reasonable, don't get me wrong! When you're making art, you need to nurture ideas that you personally like. Unlike science, in art almost any idea can be grown into a brilliant creation - it's the actual development that counts. Beethoven originally wrote the Eroica dedicated to Napoléon, but eventually decided he was a bloodthirsty conqueror and changed the name - this is only an academic curiosity to most, as it should be - the final music speaks for itself.

Compare and contrast with, say, Lysenkoism - literally millions of man-years were expended on this idea, and yet none of it was able to overcome that the theory of acquired characteristics underneath it was simply wrong.

The solution is the same as the solution for a lot of problems - better education. I know a shitload about painting throughout history, but I never had to pick up a paintbrush to learn it. Why should people be required to "do" science in order to learn it?

My specific solution to this is pretty radical. I think US schools should be putting a lot more emphasis on history than they do - but I think some of these extra resources should be spent on teaching the history of math and science - talking about these great intellectual ideas in the context of other ideas and events at the time, and allowing people to reason about these ideas without having to do the math.

Later on, in math or science classes, students would re-encounter these ideas and have them put on a more solid mathematical basis - but some students would never get to those math and science classes, and this would be perfectly fine, because they'd actually have some intuitive idea what Newton's Laws really meant and why they were important.

Here's a question for anyone still reading - if you "aren't a science type", without looking it up, what can you tell me about Newton's First Law? And if you have to say, "Nothing" - let me assure you that it is almost certainly not your fault - it wasn't taught to you, or it wasn't taught to you properly.

(* - OK, May studied math/physics as an undergraduate, but I liked the alliteration...)
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 12:16 PM on June 2, 2013 [6 favorites]

lambdaphage: that is not an accurate summary of my position. My point is that while many of these theorists may be popular, that has little to nothing to do with a "war on science"--or, indeed, scientific illiteracy, unless you want to make a case for the absolute correctness of, say, methodological individualism in the social sciences or some sort of evolution- or neuroscience-based approach to gender relations.

Since I'm evidently contributing to the very sort of debate that I find so tiresome (oops!), I will bow out.
posted by col_pogo at 1:34 PM on June 2, 2013

One threat, albeit off in the distance, to the humanities is someone putting a pin in the credentialist bubble. If "check the BA box" is deprecated as an HR screening tool, than only STEM degrees will have any clear economic value. The "this person is intelligent and can defer gratification in favor of results" value of an English or History degree is quite easily replicable by a glance at an SAT score and a three-month probationary period.

It's worth noting that this is already the rule in many parts of the developing world, where non-STEM undergraduate degrees are regarded as unserious and (perhaps more to the point) are pursued only by those who cannot gain admission to a STEM program.
posted by MattD at 1:55 PM on June 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

The root of the issue is that most "educated" people know about, say, Monet or Beethoven and can easily identify a Monet waterlilies painting or the Fifth Symphony, but if you asked them about the Second Law of Thermodynamics, there's a good chance they would not only not know what it was but have no idea what "thermodynamics" was.

If you're going to bring out a something like the Second Law of Thermodynamics, it's kind of disingenuous match it up against Beethoven or Monet. Try Affirmative Action or Identity Politics or Anarchism instead. Plenty of people think they know what it is, few actually understand how it's applied or understand the justifications.

I feel it has to do with fear. Science (including math) is the branch of human endeavour where you have to be objectively right (or at least, not provably wrong) each and every time.

I also think it has to do with fear. Humanities (including Identity Politics) is the branch of human endeavor where you might be told something you think is fine turns out to be kinda racist and so on. A lot of people fear coming to grips with the fact that they are dependent on culture created by others.

My specific solution to this is pretty radical. I think US schools should be putting a lot more emphasis on history than they do - but I think some of these extra resources should be spent on teaching the history of math and science - talking about these great intellectual ideas in the context of other ideas and events at the time, and allowing people to reason about these ideas without having to do the math.

Remember when "Gender Studies" was the butt of many a joke?


Look, I agree that we all need more education in the sciences. Definitely! But really we need more education in everything really. Scientists and technology types being able to identify Beethoven is really fucking different than, for example, scientists thinking critically about rape culture or other cultural concerns.
posted by tychotesla at 2:10 PM on June 2, 2013 [3 favorites]

> If you're going to bring out a something like the Second Law of Thermodynamics, it's kind of disingenuous match it up against Beethoven or Monet.

"Disingenuous" means "Not candid or sincere, typically by pretending that one knows less about something than one really does." So I hope you mean something else and not that I'm trying to mislead you!

But this sort of proves my point. The Second Law of Thermodynamics is about as central as you can get to science. I tried to pick something that was as absolutely fundamental as I possibly could, something that's a "household word" to scientists in physics, chemistry, biology... and then I tried to compare this to "names that everyone knows in the humanities".

> Try Affirmative Action or Identity Politics or Anarchism instead.

With all due respect, these are nowhere near as fundamental to the humanities as the Second Law of Thermodynamics is to science.

I'm only reasonably expert on one of these topics, anarchism, and this allows me to be aware that there are multiple, mutually exclusive definitions of the very word itself. Some anarchists believe that anything to do the state is intrinsically wrong; others believe any hierarchical organization is wrong; still others (like me) believe that while you need "managers", all power must flow intrinsically from below and that managers and organizers work for the people and not the other way around. (My mother's last job was in a cooperative daycare - where everyone from the cook (who had a PhD in economics) to the coordinator earned exactly the same, and the group at some point had to fire one of their coordinators (everyone cried).)

But honestly I'd be surprised if you talked to many scientists who couldn't do a pretty good job at defining all three of affirmative action, identity politics or anarchism. The first anarchist I ever met was a math professor...

> scientists thinking critically about rape culture or other cultural concerns.

I really think you just haven't met very many scientists. A lot of them are really politically active, very many on the left (I assume you're "left wing" as I am because of your list of topics).
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 6:48 PM on June 2, 2013 [4 favorites]

I seriously hate it when STEM people cite the Sokal affair in order to make jabs at how wishy-washy the Humanities are, because that incident does not really say anything about the value of knowledge production within the Humanities or how it actually operates.

The article that Sokal submitted was to a somewhat unusual journal that was not peer reviewed. No one reviewed it before it was published, and it definitely would not have made it past if it had. The Humanities produces TONS of second-rate scholarship replete with fuzzy logic. But that is how it operates. It is like a tree that produces a plethora of acorns, only some of which can actually grow into something really worthy. Being published in a journal in the Humanities does not have the same authority on truth claims that it does in the hard sciences. It is okay in the Humanities to publish not so great scholarship in journals, largely because there is often something to be salvaged and repurposed even in those works (it's the reason why the Humanities and Social Sciences still use Freud even though most of his theories do not hold water from a scientific standpoint...they have been disassembled and repurposed in order to pose other questions).

All Sokal did was breach a level of trust that was supposed to be established, that people submit to such journals with a sense of integrity and purpose towards greater Humanistic knowledge. All he did was generate an atmosphere of distrust and suspicion while giving the STEM fields a Straw Man to laugh at.
posted by adso at 8:55 PM on June 2, 2013 [6 favorites]

With all due respect, these are nowhere near as fundamental to the humanities as the Second Law of Thermodynamics is to science.

OK. Would you like to suggest an alternative? Does it matter? My point is that a STEM type could have never heard of Beethoven or Monet and that would be fine. It's the equivalent of a Humanities type knowing in intimate detail how a termite colony works. The larger conversation is not about things such as that, it's about having respect for and knowledge of other disciplines.

To make this exchange a little more concrete: As a kid I read Matt Ridley's great books on genetics, which lead me to Richard Dawkins and other similar authors. I was swept up in a well sourced journey that both described fundamental principles of life and that righteously dashed the schemes of creationists and others. As I grew older I realized two things.

First, that Dawkin's intelligent and well sourced opinions didn't mean the worldview he & colleagues presented was an accurate portrayal of the vast majority of post-modern theory, or the state of academia and related culture (caveat: at least now!).

Second, that Dawkins or similar had been a cultural touchstone for a lot of STEM types, and a lot had never moved past a rational-thinking-centric* worldview. For a lot of otherwise intelligent people post-modernism has become another way of saying "bullshit" ("it's been confirmed by the Sokal Affair!"), Feminism would never pay for the sins of twenty to thirty year old ramblings, and PC and cultural tolerance are understood as code words for "I hate science and freedom!".

That's the narrative of science vs. certain-parts-of-the-humanities that many (often tech-elite) parts of my generation inherited. It's why things like the Skepchick controversy happen in communities that pride themselves on rational thinking. "Science, it works bitches!"

But honestly I'd be surprised if you talked to many scientists who couldn't do a pretty good job at defining all three of affirmative action, identity politics or anarchism.

Shrug. I see enough that it's worrisome. But there are a lot of possible reasons we might have differing experiences. I seek out both humanities and science discussion, I live in a STEM boom town, I'm a little more than half your age and meet people who are the same, etc. Ultimately I just think both realms need to be preserved and better taught, and I'm sure you do too.

* which is not a diss on rationality, it's a diss on trying to understand humans as rational agents.
posted by tychotesla at 9:08 PM on June 2, 2013 [3 favorites]

I like this quote from Daniel Dennett,"There is no such thing as philosophy-free science; there is only science whose philosophical baggage is taken on board without examination."
posted by blue shadows at 9:31 PM on June 2, 2013 [3 favorites]

That footnote about rational agents is extra relevant, now that I think of it.

I may have mentioned this in the Behavioral Economics thread a while back, but in the class by Dan Ariely that I took he was pretty vocal in his delight of po-mo nonsense generators. He included a po-mo nonsense answer in a multiple choice quiz and so on. It was odd, and in the context of the previous thread I was wondering if it was a sign of tension between Behavioral Economics (the new kid) and Psychology (with that humanities reputation).
posted by tychotesla at 9:32 PM on June 2, 2013

I respect col_pogo's decision to bow out here, but in case anyone else is still playing along at home I'd like to respond to a few points that may be of general interest. Apologies also for any misreading, although I hope it's clear how such a reading could be made in good faith.

Perhaps we have been trading on different definitions of "science studies". To be honest, I am unsure exactly what the relationships are between that and "critical science studies", "sociology of science", "science, technology and society [studies]", "history and philosophy of science" and finally "philosophy of science". I understand what at least several of these entities are, but am specifically unsure of what "science studies" is supposed to mean other than... the study of science. So in that sense, I can't understand how Irigaray and Latour are not fair game (although they are far from isolated offenders).

Irigaray's sins are not limited to a single remark about e=mc^2; they are manifold and are documented at length in book-length treatments of this sort of thing by Sokal and Bricmont, Koertge, and Gross and Leavitt. Irigaray comments on science in at least four separate works (1985, 1987, 1992 and most recently 2008, with apologies if I'm being inconsistent in referencing the original or English translation). In her latest treatment, which was published in an anthology of Continental philosophy of science edited by a member of a very strong department and published by a supposedly reputable press, she still makes howlers such as: "[b]iology is beginning to approach certain issues rather late: for example, the constitution of placental tissue, or the permeability of membranes." (p. 288) This is nonsense: the permeability of membranes was understood and exploited to great effect (e.g. dialysis bags), and advances in the theory of cell wall permeability have led to at least one Nobel prize. Decades ago. It's astonishing that even after all this a scholar would still make such pronouncements about easily verified facts. Ditto Irigaray's discussion of fluid dynamics, or Lacan on complex numbers and topology. I don't see how these claims cannot be concerned with mathematics and science "in the main": they're either about science or not, and correct or not. Respectively, 'about science' and 'not'.

Judging from Latour's work on relativity, I got the sense that "ooh it's all a social construction, the physical doesn't matter it's all a matter of intepretation and human ideas" is not actually that far from his considered view. This work is discussed in all three books mentioned above, I believe. Here is one of the chapters if anyone is interested. I don't have the heart to redo what John Huth already did, but I would be glad to know if anyone can find fault with it.

col_pogo suggests I check out Anne Fausto-Sterling. It's been a while since I've read anything by her, so I checked out her academic homepage. Her current research interest is applying dynamical systems theory to human development. Great-- substituting "prokaryotic gene regulation" for "human development" practically gives you my job description, so surely I will be able to make sense of her work. Except, I start looking through of her papers which she cites as "case studies" of her "method" and find that... there's no dynamical systems theory there at all! I wonder, is there something else besides what I think of as dynamical systems theory that Fausto-Sterling could be referring to? On her webpage she describes DST as having much to do with the analysis of stability of systems and having been applied heavily in systems biology, both of which are true, so she must be referring to DST in the conventional sense. But where is it in all of her papers touting its successful applications to human gender differences? There's not a single model presented in any of the papers I checked, or even any non-trivial discussion of dynamical systems (please alert me if I've just missed it.) If Fausto-Sterling was intended as a counter-example to the stereotype of humanities scholars borrowing sexy terms from the sciences without understanding their meaning, I don't think it succeeded.

I did find, however, a paper dating from 2011 which suggests that no behavioral differences are detectable between male and female infants before six months. This is widely known to be false-- Jennifer Connallan's work from over a decade ago, which received much attention and hundreds of citations, demonstrated differences in attention towards faces and objects in one-day-old neonates (!). This work is not discussed. In another paper, Fausto-Sterling abstracts from the work of Thornhill and Palmer the thesis that: "Rape is a behavior that can be changed only with the greatest difficulty because it is wired somehow into men’s brains" which is nowhere near accurate, literally from the first sentence of their book. Elsewhere in print, she actually proves that she has not read the book she is criticizing by asking why Thornhill and Palmer didn't substantiate their thesis with data for rates of rape-related pregnancy, an obvious point which the authors addressed in the text.

So I guess I'm not terribly taken with her engagement with the relevant literature either.

PS: None of this should be construed to mean that I believe no one in the humanities is doing serious scholarship on science. That is categorically false, and I am glad to personally know many historians and philosophers of science and read with admiration many more. My issue is with specific figures and their acolytes.
posted by lambdaphage at 10:04 PM on June 2, 2013 [2 favorites]

Fausto-Sterling is a feminist, but she's not a humanist. She's a biologist, with a PhD and tenure and everything, so frankly I don't know what to tell you here. Maybe you should march to Brown and revoke her credentials? Maybe she's a fringe figure in her discipline? I'm neither a biologist nor in gender studies, so I don't know her work particularly well--except that she wrote what seemed to me like a pretty evenhanded book for undergrads on the social and biological bases of sex and gender. She did seem like someone who engaged seriously with the scientific literature as well as with feminist critiques thereof. I hope that she isn't as sloppy in her treatment of the evidence as you seem to be suggesting. I'd have to go back and revise my opinion of the book.

I will also have to read this essay on Einstein by Latour and/or the Huth chapter to know how that might be relevant. I hadn't heard of either.

My point about Irigaray and Lacan is that the question is not whether those attacking social/cultural studies of science (what I'm calling "science studies," sometimes known as "science and technology studies," or STS) in the 90s spent a lot of time discussing them. It is that they are not are not particularly central to the field of science studies.

And indeed, if we search the online syllabus archive at 4S (the Society for Social Studies of Science) we see some 15 hits for Latour, but 0 for Lacan and just 1 for Irigaray.

Although I think your ire is misdirected, lambdaphage--you're better off worrying about Tom Coburn than Luce Irigaray--thanks for giving me some productive leads. I'll look up the Koertge volume and Huth's chapter.

And all this has inspired me to go read Hacking's Social Construction of What?, which is apparently a sensible rundown on the science wars and just what it means to talk about construction (or constructivism). (Without having read that, I'd say that to me the main point to remember is that saying that something is constructed is not the same as saying it is false. A skyscraper is socially constructed; that's not to say that it isn't also physically constructed or that it will fall over if we stop believing in it. Although it might fall over if we stop the social processes involved in its maintenance. I'm objectively pro-structural engineering! Which is to say that there's no need to have these fights. Most of the time the people in them are arguing past each other. The inflammatory rhetoric of the 90s is not useful, and where it's still present on either side it should be dropped.)
posted by col_pogo at 3:24 AM on June 3, 2013 [2 favorites]

Why does France insist school pupils master philosophy?
posted by homunculus at 3:34 PM on June 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

I don't know what to say about Fausto-Sterling; she's definitely trained as a biologist and did serious work in fly cell biology until about the mid 80's. After that, she was middle author on one dev psych paper this year but otherwise seems to have jumped ship to the humanities, judging by the names of the journals. Since roughly the year that I was born, it seems that almost everything she published in a biology journal has been either a review or essay (rather than a standard scientific article). Troublingly, there's some stuff on her website's publication page about flatworms, but the only references I can find to those papers are on her website: pubmed and google have never heard of them. I don't know what that's about. I think most working scientists would look at such a record and surmise: "this person definitely did science once, but has since moved on to other things". (Which itself is fine, of course, unless you want to bill yourself as a working biologist.) I'm not trying to revoke her credentials, but her publication record would raise a lot of questions if she were trying to get hired today. I think "fringe figure" might be closer to the mark-- it would be interesting to run an informal survey at beer hour this week and find out how many people in my department have ever heard of her, but my personal sense is that Fausto-Sterling is much better known in the humanities than in biology, which is what you would expect from her pubs.

I'm glad to hear that Latour, Irigaray et al. are not central to science studies. Again, I'm not gunning for science studies per se rather than a certain chunk of the humanities at large who attempt to hold forth on science and fail bizarrely. Although I'm not sure how relieved I would be to learn that Lysenko's work was still being taught (as anything other than a tragic historical note) in 'only' 15 biology courses, the general point is taken.

I've read some of Hacking's work on the philosophy of probability and statistics, but I haven't read The Social Construction of What?. Thanks for the recommendation-- perhaps I'll stop by the library today.
posted by lambdaphage at 9:13 AM on June 4, 2013

My last take on this, I swear. Latour very much is a central figure in science studies--not to say everyone agrees with him. He's also a deliberately ironic figure, which means you can't always take him seriously, which isn't perhaps the most helpful characteristic in a social scientist.

Thanks for your take on Fausto-Sterling. These things are very difficult to read from different disciplines, as I guess our whole exchange here has shown. But we ended up with comity, more or less, so it's all good.
posted by col_pogo at 2:44 PM on June 4, 2013

col_pogo, it's worth pointing out that science studies were only one front of the so-called Science Wars. It's not relevant that Lacan and Irigiray aren't significant figures in that territory.

Lacan, Irigiray, et al. were also targets in the Science Wars, because of how they regularly appropriated scientific and mathematical concepts. The ways in which they used these concepts were indicative of prideful ignorance, as well as suggestive of obfuscatory intent and/or profoundly confused thinking.

So, when lambdaphage points out that they're still being cited approvingly, it is evidence that many of those arguments within the Science Wars have been forgotten or ignored. You could spend years trying to master Lacan's Topology, laboring under the misimpression that he had ever understood topology in the first place.

For example, here is a blog post from 2011 that attempts to explain Lacan's use of Topology. The author begins with the unintentionally humorous sentence, "The use of Topology by Lacan has baffled many of his readers, most especially those with no background in Maths." It's amusing and bemusing that the author fails to mention that the most baffled of all will be those readers with a background in math, especially topology! (It's also worth pointing out that this explainer page skates over the most contradictory and nonsensical claims made throughout Lacan's Topology.)

Imagine a physicist who attempts to explain quantum physics by invoking history, but with sentences like, "as history tells us, World War I was started in 1884 by the Japanese". Elementary errors are passed off not only as fact, but as what is commonly accepted to be fact within that field. Attempts to handwave these errors as being the mere product of metaphor fall flat - how, metaphorically speaking, did the Japanese start World War I in 1884? Now imagine that you go online to read an explanation of how this history ties in with quantum physics, only to be told that those without a background in history may find this approach puzzling.

None of this is to say that Lacan and Irigiray have nothing else of worth to say. However, it is telling that the Science Wars did not seem to make much of a dent in their reputations.
posted by Sticherbeast at 2:49 PM on June 4, 2013 [2 favorites]

Jerome Kagan, Salon: Science doesn’t know everything - "We understand much about human nature, but scientists are ignoring many important topics, like ethnicity and class"
posted by the man of twists and turns at 5:44 AM on June 11, 2013

How to sell philosophy
posted by homunculus at 11:14 AM on June 12, 2013

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