The “scientism” vs. humanities debate goes on

6a012876c6c7fb970c01676913b1fd970b-500wiFewer college students, it seems, are majoring in the humanities. Those in the humanities often blame this on several factors, including economics (STEM majors seem to be doing better than humanities majors in the job market), the lack of appeal of post-modernism, and the rise of “scientism,” which is the supposedly widely held belief that the humanities can and should be subsumed by the sciences. Whether many scientists actually believe such a thing is really up for debate. But some stodgy philosophers like to set up this straw man and then demolish it with glee, usually using some variation of the following argument:

 Imagine a scientific explanation of a painting—a breakdown of Chardin’s cherries into the pigments that comprise them, and a chemical analysis of how their admixtures produce the subtle and plangent tonalities for which they are celebrated. Such an analysis will explain everything except what most needs explaining: the quality of beauty that is the reason for our contemplation of the painting. Nor can the new “vision science” that Pinker champions give a satisfactory account of aesthetic charisma. The inadequacy of a scientistic explanation does not mean that beauty is therefore a “mystery” or anything similarly occult. It means only that other explanations must be sought, in formal and iconographical and emotional and philosophical terms.

This quote comes from a recent essay by the literary editor of the New Republic, responding to another one written by Steven Pinker which made the rather reasonable argument that those in the humanities should not put up a wall to keep out science, which can actually supplement and enhance the study of philosophy, literature, linguistics, and anthropology.

Richard Feynman nicely summarizes the scientist’s reaction to the old painting argument:

Common refrains from those in the humanities include “science looks at the what and how, philosophy the why,” and “STEM majors cannot think creatively, argue well, or write coherently (e.g., here, herehere, and the comments here for a taste of these sentiments). Where these assumptions come from is anyone’s guess. Why do those in the humanities think their discipline is the only one offering the ability to philosophize, write, and think? I worry about the decline in people’s interest in the humanities just as much as the next person, but I also find it hard to pity those who apparently believe that they have a monopoly on the ability to think about the big picture and appreciate the beauty of human culture and of the universe. We could all use a lot more practice reading, writing, philosophizing, and appreciating art. I just don’t think that this has ever been purely the domain of those specializing in the humanities.

The humanities has long suffered from a decidedly anti-scientific sentiment. My friends who were schooled in the humanities simultaneously criticize GMOs, vaccines, global warming, while embracing homeopathy and other pseudo-scientific practices, without having a firm handle on the science behind any of them. Your average scientist has taken anywhere from a handful of humanities courses (through their general elective courses in college, which tend to be heavily humanities biased), to making philosophy a large portion of their research pursuits. Many specialists in humanities, on the other hand, have barely taken a course in the sciences since high school. The college courses that qualify as humanities majors’ sole “quantitative reasoning” requirement, if they have to take one at all, include titles such as Dinosaurs and the History of Life and Biodiversity (both at Columbia) and Counting People (at Harvard).

Our country might be going through a crisis of the humanities, but of much more concern to me is humanists’ crisis in scientific understanding. So why then does it so often feel as though our reasonable arguments are falling on deaf ears?

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