I’m coming very late to the party on this one, but I wanted to comment on Philip Kitcher’s recent article on scientism, published in The New Republic.
A while back I did two posts on scientism (here and here). The first of these posts was titled, “What is Scientism?”, since it’s never been entirely clear to me what someone accused of scientism is actually guilty of. Often it just means you are guilty of being dismissive of religious “ways of knowing,” such as direct experience of God or divine revelation. Since I think one ought to be dismissive of such things, I am often keen to defend some form of scientism.
One of the main points I made in those posts was that science should be viewed as a method of investigation, and not as an activity confined to studying the natural world. Certainly when people use the term “science” they are probably envisioning lab coats and test tubes, but it is also very common to speak of taking a scientific approach to a problem. If I said that someone trying to locate his missing car keys by retracing his steps was behaving scientifically, would anyone think I was abusing language? The whole point of the term “social science,” as I see it, is to connote a branch of inquiry that uses scientific methods to investigate questions that are different from what natural scientists generally think about.
Critics of scientism will often point to history as some devastating counterexample. The subtitle of Kitcher’s article is, “Why history and the humanities are also a form of knowledge.” Since I regard it as obvious that the work historians do produces knowledge, it had not occurred to me that in defending scientism I was attacking history. As I see it, historians produce knowledge by using scientific methods to study the past. Many critics at the time, both here and at other blogs, retorted that historians have specialized skills that scientists lack, and use methods that are unique to their fields. Indeed they do, but that is beside the point. Biologists and physics have different skills and employ different techniques in their daily work. A physicist in a biology lab wouldn’t know what to do. But biology and physics are plainly manifestations of the same underlying investigative method, and history is as well.
Thus, you can imagine my delight upon coming to this passage in Kitcher’s essay:
The contrast between the methods of the two realms, which seems so damning to the humanities, is a false one. Not only are the methods deployed within humanistic domains — say, in attributions of musical scores to particular composers or of pictures to particular artists — as sophisticated and rigorous as the techniques deployed by paleontologists or biochemists, but in many instances they are the same. The historical linguists who recognize connections among languages or within a language at different times, and the religious scholars who point out the affiliations among different texts, use methods equivalent to those that have been deployed ever since Darwin in the study of the history of life. Indeed, Darwin’s paleontology borrowed the method from early nineteenth-century studies of the history of languages.
Bingo! That’s almost exactly the point I was making. But now I’m confused, because this seems like an argument in favor of scientism, not against it. Domains of inquiry that do not fall under the umbrella of natural science produce knowledge by employing the same kind of methods scientists use. So why all the hand-wringing when someone says that science is the only way of knowing? Why the endless desire to draw firm lines between academic disciplines? Why did so many critics of my earlier posts act as though it was some great insult to suggest that historians were behaving scientifically?
Here’s another place where I think Kitcher has it exactly right:
The problem with scientism — which is of course not the same thing as science — is owed to a number of sources, and they deserve critical scrutiny. The enthusiasm for natural scientific imperialism rests on five observations. First, there is the sense that the humanities and social sciences are doomed to deliver a seemingly directionless sequence of theories and explanations, with no promise of additive progress. Second, there is the contrasting record of extraordinary success in some areas of natural science. Third, there is the explicit articulation of technique and method in the natural sciences, which fosters the conviction that natural scientists are able to acquire and combine evidence in particularly rigorous ways. Fourth, there is the perception that humanists and social scientists are only able to reason cogently when they confine themselves to conclusions of limited generality: insofar as they aim at significant—general—conclusions, their methods and their evidence are unrigorous. Finally, there is the commonplace perception that the humanities and social sciences have been dominated, for long periods of their histories, by spectacularly false theories, grand doctrines that enjoy enormous popularity until fashion changes, as their glaring shortcomings are disclosed.
These familiar observations have the unfortunate effect of transforming differences of degree into differences of kind, as enthusiasts for the alleged superiority of natural science readily succumb to stereotypes and over-generalizations, without regard for more subtle explanations. (emphasis added)
It’s that bold-face line that I think is perfect. It’s not that natural science is one thing and social science is a different kind of thing. It’s that we have a set of common sense investigative methods that produce reliable knowledge, and these methods can be applied to problems in all sorts of areas. When applied to the relatively simple systems of the sort considered by classical physics, they produce a level of predictive accuracy that is the envy of every other discipline. When applied to more complicated systems, like human communities or animal behavior, things get messier. No doubt this messiness implies that we need to be a bit more cautious in accepting the conclusions of social sciences, but they steadily produce knowledge nonetheless.
But now I’m really confused. The rap against scientism was supposed to be that it arrogantly denies the possibility of nonscientific ways of knowing. The thrust of Kitcher’s argument, on the other hand, is that natural scientists need to recognize that researchers in social science and the humanities are more like them than is sometimes recognized. I agree, as noted before, but that was precisely the point I raised in support of scientism.
So what’s going on here? I tend to like scientism, but I agreed with most of what Kitcher had to say in this article. It took a while before I realized the solution to the problem. Kitcher, I think, is not really discussing knowledge, or “ways of knowing,” at all. He is talking about something else. Consider this:
The critical light of history has been reflected in the contributions of novelists and critics, and of theorists of human rights. Social and political changes, in other words, followed the results of humanistic inquiry, and were intertwined with the reconciliatory efforts of the citizens of Coventry and Dresden. Even music and poetry played roles in this process: what history has taught us is reinforced by the lines from Wilfred Owen that Britten chose as the epigraph for his score — “My subject is war, and the pity of war. The poetry is in the pity. All a poet can do today is warn.” It is so easy to underrate the impact of the humanities and of the arts. Too many people, some of whom should know better, do it all the time. (emphasis added)
Yes, of course the arts and the humanities can have great cultural impact. Kitcher knows people who routinely deny that? Really? It’s just that I thought we were talking about “knowledge” not “cultural impact.” That’s why I like that bold face line. It was historians who produced the knowledge. The role of the arts was not knowledge production, but something more like consciousness raising or knowledge transmission. The arts are not about producing knowledge, but that is only a diss to the arts if you think knowledge production is the only valuable or important thing.
It would seem, then, that Kitcher is not really discussing “ways of knowing”. Considering the social context in which this argument often plays out, it is telling that he does not even mention religion at all. Kitcher’s real beef is with people who are disrespectful towards the humanities and the arts. Well, if a devotee of scientism is someone who makes blanket condemnations of anything that isn’t natural science then I would ask to be excused from their ranks. But that is not at all what I had been led to believe scientism was about.
This brings me to my most serious criticism of Kitcher’s article. I keep wondering who he’s arguing against. He does not provide a single quotation of anyone providing the blanket dismissals he assures us happen all the time. The usual whipping boys in this regard are E. O. Wilson and Alexander Rosenberg. Sadly, I have not read anything by either gentleman. I have seen Rosenberg quoted as saying that history is bunk, but I’d like to see the full context of that before commenting on it. I would also like to know what that means in practical terms. For example, does he think academic history departments should be eliminated?
Maybe there are people out there who take the extreme views Kitcher argues against, but I really don’t understand what all the hand-wringing is about. A handful of writers getting over-enthusiastic in their support of science hardly seems like evidence that some dangerous, blinding ideology is afoot. When I survey modern American culture, whether inside the academy or in society at large, I hardly think an excessive reliance on science is what we need to worry about just now.