Upon surveying the American landscape these days, it’s hard to believe that an over-reliance on science is something we need to worry about. That hasn’t stopped some in the humanities from manufacturing the entirely fictitious threat of “scientism.” It’s a hard term to pin down, since it is seldom defined the same way twice, but mostly it just means that someone is whining about the lack of respect accorded to his discipline. Theologians and philosophers seem especially keen on leveling the charge.
It certainly happens occasionally that someone writing in the name of science intrudes into the humanities and makes a hash of things. That’s hardly evidence that the writer is in thrall to a blinkered ideology that blinds him to the value of anything that isn’t science. When confronting such things, just say he made a bad argument and move on. After all, humanities professors routinely say dumb things about science, but no one rails against humanitism.
I think, though, that I might now have found the silliest invocation of “scientism” to date. It is in this book review, written by William Deresiewicz and published in The New Republic. The book under review is Jane Austen: Game Theorist, written by Mark Suk-Young Chwe, who is a political scientist at UCLA. Chwe’s argument, apparently, is that Jane Austen anticipated significant ideas in game theory.
Deresiewicz did not like the book. He seems to think it is a terrible insult to suggest that the great writers not only had insight into human behavior, but might also have anticipated developments in science as well. He opens with:
Proust was a neuroscientist. Jane Austen was a game theorist. Dickens was a gastroenterologist. That’s the latest gambit in the brave new world of “consilience,” the idea that we can overcome the split between “the two cultures” by bringing art and science into conceptual unity—which is to say, by setting humanistic thought upon a scientific foundation. Take a famous writer, preferably one with some marketing mojo, and argue that their work anticipates contemporary scientific insights. Proust knew things about memory that neuroscientists are only now discovering. Austen constructed her novels in a manner that is consistent with game theory. Bang, there’s your consilience.
There is only one problem with this approach: it is intellectually bankrupt. Actually, there are a lot of problems, as Michael Suk-Young Chwe’s abominable volume shows. If this is the sort of thing that we have to look forward to, as science undertakes to tutor the humanities, the prospect isn’t bright.
Chwe’s book might be as bad as Deresiewicz suggests. I have no opinion on that. What is interesting is that Deresiewicz did not feel it was sufficient simply to criticize the book. Instead he tries desperately to present Chwe’s book as emblematic of a broader, insidious movement to have science devour the humanities. He would have a stronger case if, in the course of a lengthy article, he had managed to produce more than two examples, one published six years ago. (That book being Jonah Lehrer’s Proust Was A Neuroscientist.) When you’re out of gas by the third sentence, you might want to reconsider your argument.
Chwe is the author of this essay, titled “Scientific Pride and Prejudice,” in The New York Times. He writes:
Science is in crisis, just when we need it most. Two years ago, C. Glenn Begley and Lee M. Ellis reported in Nature that they were able to replicate only six out of 53 “landmark” cancer studies. Scientists now worry that many published scientific results are simply not true. The natural sciences often offer themselves as a model to other disciplines. But this time science might look for help to the humanities, and to literary criticism in particular.
I think it’s safe to say that a person who would write that is not someone who thinks that the humanities have no value in an age of science. I don’t think Chwe really needs to have this explained to him:
Though really, of course, [Shakespeare] was none of these. He was a dramatist, just as Austen was a novelist. She didn’t write textbooks, she had no use for concepts, and she wasn’t interested in making arguments. If she had a research program, as Chwe insists, it was into the techniques of fiction and the possibilities of the English language. She was no more a social theorist than Marx or Weber was a novelist.
Deresiewicz spent so much time being snarky and derisive that he forgot to support his assertions with evidence. I’d like to see the quote from Chwe’s book that provoked this little outburst, since there is simply nothing in the review to suggest that Chwe was confused about Austen being a novelist, or to suggest that he thinks that her (alleged) insight into game theory is the only thing you need to know about her. The subhead of the online version of Deresiewicz’s essay is “Using science to explain art is a good way to butcher both,” but he presents absolutely nothing to show that Chwe was doing any such thing. Chwe’s argument is that Austen anticipated major ideas in game theory. How does that constitute using science to explain art?
(As an aside, the print version of Deresiewicz’s essay had the subtitle, “The traduction of literature by scientism.”)
The humanities are genuinely under attack nowadays. Shrinking budgets and an increasingly corporate mindset in higher education have everyone trying to justify themselves on the grounds of immediate practical usefulness, which is not an easy argument for the humanities to make. But it hardly helps matters when folks in the humanities start railing haplessly at imaginary threats. People like Deresiewicz are not the solution to any problem the humanities are facing. They are part of the problem.