Two Cultures of Incompressibility

Also coming to my attention during the weekend blog shutdown was this Princeton Alumni Weekly piece on the rhetoric of crisis in the humanities. Like several other authors before him, Gideon Rosen points out that there's little numerical evidence of a real "crisis," and that most of the cries of alarm you hear from academics these days have near-perfect matches in prior generations. The humanities have always been in crisis.

This wouldn't be worth mentioning, but Rosen goes on to offer an attempt at an explanation of why the sense of crisis is so palpable within the humanities, an explanation based on a comparison to the sciences. Which basically serves to demonstrate that he doesn't spend much time with scientists.

The argument is basically that scholars in the humanities have a sense that they're in crisis because their work doesn't get the wide notice that work in science does:

Any educated person can rattle off a list of the great achievements of science and technology in the past 50 years: the Big Bang, cloning, the Internet, etc. People who have no idea what the Higgs boson is or why it matters still can tell you that it was discovered in July 2013 by a heroic team of scientists and that the discovery reveals something deep about the universe. What does the average educated American know about the great scholarly achievements in the humanities in the past half-century? Nothing. And this is no accident.

That's fine, as far as it goes. Science has produced some notable triumphs in the last half-century or so, and those are widely know of if not widely understood. The problem is when he continues on with his argument:

Any humanist can list dozens of groundbreaking books, and if you have the time and patience, he or she can begin to tell you why they matter. But there are profound limits on what you can learn about the humanities secondhand. Most discoveries in the humanities are about cultural objects — books, paintings, etc. More specifically, they are discoveries about the meanings of these objects, their connections to one another, and the highly specific ways in which they are valuable. And the trouble is that this sort of discovery simply cannot be conveyed in a convincing way to someone who has never wrestled with the things themselves. To choose just one example: In 2010 Princeton professor Leonard Barkan, one of the most distinguished humanists of our time, published a beautiful book about Michelangelo’s drawings. The book calls attention to the striking fact that nearly a third of these drawings contain scrawled text: from finished poems and strange fragments to shopping lists and notes to self. Barkan’s book shows beyond doubt that our experience of the drawings is deeper when the drawings and texts are read together. But if you don’t have the drawings (or the extraordinary reproductions in Barkan’s book) in front of you, what can this mean to you? A capsule summary of Barkan’s “discovery” — admittedly an odd word in this context — is like a verbal description of a food one has never tasted. The description may persuade you that there is something there worth tasting, but in the nature of the case, it cannot begin to convey the taste itself.

He then offers a second example, from his own field of philosophy, and concludes that "Like discoveries elsewhere in the humanities, discoveries in philosophy are incompressible: Their interest can only be conveyed at length by taking one’s interlocutor through the argument."

There are two big problems with this. The first is a sneaky rhetorical jump when he moves from comparing the "great achievements of science and technology in the past 50 years" to lamenting the lack of interest in a specific Princeton professor's art history research. Those things really aren't comparable, unless you want to say that a recent book about Michelangelo's shopping lists is an intellectual triumph on the same level as the Big Bang. An actual apples-to-apples comparison would be between Barkan's neglected book and, say, Princeton physics professor Mike Romalis's experiments on fundamental symmetries. Romalis's work is awesome, and I suspect I esteem his group's publications as much as Rosen does Barkan's art book. I doubt very much, though, that you would have any more luck finding people on the street who know about Lorentz violation tests at the South Pole and why they matter than you would finding people who know about Michelangelo's drawings and why they're interesting.

The bigger problem, though, is with the whole notion of research as "incompressible." I almost choked on my tea when Rosen got to the part where he talks about how to address the problem:

Problems like this do not have quick solutions. Still, some of the main steps are clear enough. First, since the value of the humanities will be always lost on people who never have worked through a poem with someone who knows what he or she is talking about, humanists have a special obligation to see to it that teachers are well trained and that school curricula incorporate serious study of the humanities. (The new “Common Core” standards are a disappointment in this regard.) Second, we must face the fact that while scientists have armies of journalists eager to popularize their work, we humanists will get nowhere unless we write books that non-experts can read with pleasure.

Ah, yes, those armies of journalists. Who are so well paid, well publicized, and well thought of in the scientific community...

In fact, it's not at all difficult to find scientists making almost exactly the same complaints about "incompressible" research. The most common complaint from scientists about science journalism is that it's just a bunch of dumbing-down and over-hyping of results that can only truly be appreciated if you grind through all the details. The intersection of Rosen's piece and the whole BICEP2 business I ranted about in the previous post-- which is in part an incompressibility argument-- made for one of those great "Information Supercollider" moments you get in blogdom.

When scientists complain that their research is impossible to summarize and make interesting without losing its precious bodily fluids essential core, they're wrong. It's not easy to do, and it's often particularly difficult for those who are closest to the research, but at the heart of every scientific experiment, there's a simple and interesting idea.

I'm fairly certain that the same holds for scholarship in arts and literature, as well. It may not be easy, but I have a hard time believing that it's impossible to distill humanities research down to a short, simple description. Mostly because it's regularly done-- Rosen makes a pretty good stab at it with his description of Barkan's book (which sounds interesting; not interesting enough for me to actually seek it out and read it, but interesting in an "Oh, that's cool" sort of way that would work in a cocktail party/ elevator pitch context). And great works of philosophy are regularly boiled down to a few pages or even a few lines, mostly in the works of later philosophers. Among the handful of non-science books I kept from my college days is a survey of ethical philosophy that was a supplemental text for a course on ethics in literature, which gives short summaries of a wide range of big-name philosophers and people working in the same general vein. It doesn't cover all the details of, say, Kant's various intricate arguments, but there's enough there to get the right basic idea, in a manner that makes it seem interesting to a casual reader.

Is that kind of treatment going to convey to the average reader the full majesty of humanities scholarship? No, but remember the standard set out at the start of this: "People who have no idea what the Higgs boson is or why it matters still can tell you that it was discovered in July 2013 by a heroic team of scientists and that the discovery reveals something deep about the universe." If that level of incomplete understanding is good enough to point at as something science has that the humanities lack, then it ought to be enough on the other side of the Two Cultures gap, as well.

Now, of course, there's a core point to Rosen's argument that I do agree with, namely that scholars of all sorts ought to do a better job of communicating their results to the general public. This is largely a self-inflicted wound-- the cultures of incompressibility and incomprehensibility have come about because academics both inside and outside the sciences have chosen to reward narrow technical publications over broader general-interest ones. What matters for promotion and professional status is publication aimed exclusively at other scholars-- a scholarly monograph that maybe a hundred other academics will read will do more to advance your career than a general-audience book that reaches thousands.

That's a choice that we as academics-- both in science and elsewhere-- have made, and it's a choice we can un-make if we really want to. It requires a fundamental shift in mindset, though, away from the notion of incompressible scholarship, to a recognition that anything one group of humans find interesting enough to be worth doing can and should be made interesting to a wide range of other humans. And that this is something worth celebrating and rewarding.


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Maybe it's the scientist in me talking, but whenever I hear something like "oh, it's really complex, you could never understand even the beginnings of it without a substantial amount of effort or special initiation to particular group, so I won't bother trying", I smell bullshit. I was re-reading some Feynman recently, and there's a quote from him in the preface which summarizes things nicely: "You know, I couldn't do it. I couldn't reduce it to the freshman level. That means we really don't understand it."

That's not to say that I don't think some things are complex and difficult to explain - most things *are* more complex than even an advance summary portrays. It's just that you should be able to give a 30,000-ft overview and encapsulate the major points to any reasonably-educated person who's willing to listen with an open mind. If you can't do that, I have strong suspicions you're likely bullshitting yourself. Doubly so if you refuse to even try.

Let me say that mathematicians have the same problem, complicated by the fact that school education keeps mathematics at 18th century level. We literally don't have the words to explain what our research is about. [E.g.: in school you hear about DNA, but not about groups or manifolds.]

Really interesting essay. I just wanted to point out that things aren't necessarily improved by compressibility. I can compress my research over the last two decades to one pithy sentence, but that doesn't mean that anyone will take note of it. Saying that I've written the biography of the most important forgotten intellectual of the nineteenth century generally only provokes the response, "Well, if he was so important, how come I've never heard of him?"

By Gabriel Finkelstein (not verified) on 07 Jul 2014 #permalink

"Most discoveries in the humanities are about cultural objects — books, paintings, etc."

That is a shockingly limited view of the humanities. This definition is so narrow as to exclude even the production of new cultural artifacts in favour if merely analysing the old! My list of great accomplishments in the humanities in the last 50 years would start off with the Civil Rights movements... desegregation, feminism...

By Ryan Gerber (not verified) on 07 Jul 2014 #permalink

Barkan's work, and the research of many others in the humanities, can be summarized in one sentence: "I'm exploring $INTERESTING_FEATURE in ${ARTIST}'s work." $ARTIST may be an author or a composer, but the same principle applies. And it's not that different from scientists who are studying $INTERESTING_FEATURE in $SYSTEM, where $SYSTEM might be a kind of star, the atmosphere, a chemical compound, or a part of the body. In either case, it may be difficult to explain why $INTERESTING_FEATURE is worth studying, but it shouldn't be too difficult to explain that $INTERESTING_FEATURE exists, or what it is. The biggest challenge in the latter, for scientists and humanities researchers alike, is to do so without relying on jargon known only to specialists in that field.

And in the Web era, the claim that you actually have to have a copy of the work in question handy is a flimsy excuse. Reproductions of artwork, or MP3s/videos of musical compositions, or the text of novels or essays in the public domain, should be readily accessible, so at worst you could point your audience to an online resource and say, "If you look in this spot you will find an instance of $INTERESTING_FEATURE." The humanities actually have it easier here than scientists, because while most well-off people have access to the internet, few people have a vacuum chamber lying around the house.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 07 Jul 2014 #permalink

Assuming film counts as a humanity, I think awareness of best picture oscar winners is a bit higher than say, chemistry nobel prize winners. As for the michaelangelo example, a deeper understanding is likely in the eye of the beholder. If I'm a history buff, then the text adds something. If, instead I'm a graphic artist/painter, then the text is less significant than the composition or the line quality, etc.

By brian ledford (not verified) on 07 Jul 2014 #permalink

Er, so what are the humanities equivalents of the big bang, cloning, the Internet, etc.?

You can explore the human condition in ever increasing detail, but it's still the same human condition we've been mostly rediscovering again and again over the past tens of thousands of years: birth, death, love, hate, jack-asses screwing things up, people trying to fix the things that jack-asses screw up, etc. etc. If anything, the biggest changes in our understanding of ourselves and our place in the universe come from the world of science.

Thank you Science!

By Obstreperous A… (not verified) on 07 Jul 2014 #permalink

Thanks for pointing out Romalis's work. I like the breadth, from fundamental symmetries to medical technology. That is a Renaissance man.

See, Romalis is so under-publicized that even physicists don't know about his stuff... It's an outrage!

The big paradigm-shifting developments in the last few decades of humanities scholarship would be in the loose agglomeration of stuff that gets tagged as "postmodernism" (though that term has a more specific meaning than the common use of it). The idea that, for example, texts don't necessarily mean what the author wanted them to mean is a fairly revolutionary development in literary academia.

You may or may not care for that collection of ideas, or find them useful in a larger context, but they've transformed a lot of humanities fields in ways that are probably comparable to the effect of the Big Bang on astronomy.

Good point. I do tend to take a rather dim view of it. I guess time will tell if it ends up in the dumpster with all the hundreds of other -isms that have swept the humanities in the past century or two.

In any case, Rosen above: "What does the average educated American know about the great scholarly achievements in the humanities in the past half-century? Nothing. And this is no accident."

You know something has entered popular consciousness when it makes "The Simpsons":
"Moe: It's pomo! Postmodern! Alright, weird for the sake of weird."

By Obstreperous A… (not verified) on 08 Jul 2014 #permalink

I wrote a biography of the guy who first made both of Obstreperous Applesauce's arguments, namely, that science is the true measure of culture because it's the only culture that progresses, and science (or rather the Copernican and Darwinian Revolutions) have redefined our sense of self and our relation to the world.

So while I agree with Ob-Ap's argument that it's frustrating to see people rediscover the human condition, it's also frustrating to see people rediscover criticisms of the humanities that are over a century old.

By Gabriel Finkelstein (not verified) on 08 Jul 2014 #permalink

"great scholarly achievements in the humanities" "The Big Book of Irish Erotic Pottery" On a more serious note, Eric Segal's "Love Story," the perfect synthetic novel. So? Wait, WAIT! The late J. D. Salinger's life work is about to be disgorged in dribbles. The complete story of the Glass family! Yowza!, and so what.

I knew it was nonsense when I saw him attacking Common Core. If he is ignorant of how it potentially improves exposure to the humanities in the "close reading" example given in the quoted text, which is arguably within his own field, he must be totally ignorant of what science is and what we think of how it is communicated and taught. Thanks for taking the time to detail the many ways he is ignorant of science and science journalism and using your liberal arts education to do a pretty good job of explaining it to him.

I would simply ask him to identify the broadly read science magazine that addresses science at the same level that The New Yorker addresses the humanities (by publishing original works as well as criticism), and ask him why he doesn't read it.

By CCPhysicist (not verified) on 08 Jul 2014 #permalink

GF @ 11

No, just to be clear, I don't find it at all frustrating that people rediscover the human condition. In fact the variations on a theme are what help make art history so interesting, for example.

Nor did I say that science is "the true measure of culture" (whatever that is). Simply, those who fail to incorporate the formidable findings and methods of science into their thinking are only impoverishing themselves.

But OK. Apparently you were just doing some sort of postmodern critique.

By Obstreperous A… (not verified) on 08 Jul 2014 #permalink

Usual warning about getting excessively snippy in comments. I don't want to start deleting or disemvowelling comments, so let's keep things civil, please.

My apologies.

By Obstreperous A… (not verified) on 08 Jul 2014 #permalink

See, Romalis is so under-publicized that even physicists don’t know about his stuff… It’s an outrage!

A more serious angle on this, relevant to the "Two Cultures" topic, is that a scholar who is respected for work on, say, philosophy and literature, or linguistics and sculpture, would be regarded as very well-rounded. However, a person working on fundamental symmetries and medical devices would be considered "just a physicist."

I like this debate, and I don't want to snip. But I disagree strongly with OA's characterization of the Two Cultures. OA writes that science is empirical, whereas the humanities are interpretive. This is wrong. Ignorance is ignorance. Not knowing Twain is the same as not knowing thermodynamics. Second, OA writes that knowledge in the humanities is ephemeral and that most of it will will end up in the dumpster. Well, if this true of the humanities, it is even truer of science, which is continually revising its methods and findings.

In contrast to OA's contention, science and the humanities don't actually differ all that much in method. Both build on a basis of empirical investigation. Both reserve their highest praise for novel interpretation. After all, what is Darwinian theory to biology, or special relativity to physics? And both are filled with reams of nonsense. Do we need any more reminders that the findings of most scientific publications aren't replicable?

The point of this debate isn't to find ways to justify one's scholarly talents; rather, it's to show that all scholarly talents are worthy. Arguing over the relative merits of the Two Cultures is like arguing over the relative merits of hammers and saws.

By Gabriel Finkelstein (not verified) on 09 Jul 2014 #permalink

GF @ 18
Please don't put words in my mouth. It only tempts me to be snippy.

There is so much amiss in how you characterize what I said, and the points you make, that I hardly know where to begin. So I'll just take one point for starters. I did not say that "knowledge in the humanities is ephemeral." Simply stated: ideology is not the same as knowledge, and it is ideology that goes (or should go) into the dumpster-- hence my reference to '-isms'.

To bottom line it, the article and others' comments here make a pretty effective response to Rosen. What doesn't sit comfortably with me is the symmetricality, or false equivalency, that Rosen seems to imply between the so-called two cultures. Science is massively open ended, the the humanities relatively closed.

The comparison has been made between the big bang theory and postmodernism. The big bang says something about the ultimate origins and functioning of the universe. Postmodernism says you can creatively interpret the ambiguities inherent in the works of others. If you were a journalist, which would you deem more newsworthy?

And before you make any more assumptions about where I'm coming from, let me point out that for years I made my living as an artist.

By Obstreperous A… (not verified) on 09 Jul 2014 #permalink

Not knowing Twain is the same as not knowing thermodynamics.

Here is an important difference between science and humanities: the question of what constitutes canonical stuff that everybody should know. Physics is physics everywhere in the world, so I would expect someone claiming a certain level of education in physics to know certain things, whether they are American, Brazilian, Chinese, Danish, Ethiopian, etc. I cannot expect the same in most humanities fields: sure, I can expect someone who was educated in an English-speaking country to be familiar with Mark Twain, but I should not be surprised if somebody who grew up in China knows about as much about Twain as I do about most of the major Chinese poets, i.e., little or nothing. What's considered important in humanities fields will necessarily depend on one's cultural background, and that's not true for science.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 09 Jul 2014 #permalink

There is a not at all uncommon way of looking at the world that would say that neither the Big Bang nor postmodernism are especially newsworthy, as both as so remote from the everyday concerns of ordinary people. You will also find plenty of folks out there who will argue that art and the interpretation thereof are far more important than scientific esoterica like the Big Bang, because great works of art speak to universal emotional truths, and the nature of what it is to be human, or some such.

I don't have much sympathy for either of those worldviews, but they're not uncommon, even among highly educated professionals. Which of the Two Cultures is really the more important is not at all a clear and easy to decide question.

I think we're getting somewhere, at least with respect to the source of our differences. First, "ideology" is a straw man that's weak by definition. It may in fact be the case that truth in the humanities is entirely servile to politics, but that assertion is just as "postmodern" as the "postmodernism" OA decries. Either there are universal standards of validity based on argument and evidence, or there aren't. Like OA, I scorn the fashions that have swept the humanities in the modern period, but I also scorn the fashions that have swept science. (Vernalization? Martian canals? The luminiferous ether? Eugenics? Lobotomies? Phrenology? N-rays? Elective affinities? I could go on and on.) Herd thinking is herd thinking. Second, I disagree with Eric Lund that what's important in the humanities is necessarily a function of cultural background. Actually, it's more a function of ignorance. With a little effort it's not all that hard to appreciate the great works of other cultures, and those in the humanities who are expert in their specialties tend to agree on what's worth studying. The fact that I've read more Dickinson than Du Fu doesn't make Du Fu less important. By the same token, physicists all over world may agree on the importance of general relativity, but they probably have little appreciation of the importance of the Price equation to evolutionary biology. It's the growth of knowledge, and not the nature of knowledge, that makes us provincial. Which leads me to my final point of disagreement, and I doubt that it's one we'll overcome. The belief that science differs from the humanities in being "massively open-ended" is just that—a belief. OA isn't clairvoyant, and he has no idea whether science will continue to make significant breakthroughs at the rate it has over the last couple centuries. There are plenty of good arguments to doubt his confidence that it will, as John Horgan and John Barrow have contended.

I had the first word, so I'll leave it at that. It's been fun.

By Gabriel Finkelstein (not verified) on 09 Jul 2014 #permalink

"Which of the Two Cultures is really the more important is not at all a clear and easy to decide question."

I appreciate a tactful response. I tend to see the whole business of two cultures as a problematic, perhaps self-perpetuating way of looking at things, and that relative importance is not so much the issue. That said, journalists will necessarily make judgements about what has broad appeal. When that crosses into pandering or propaganda is of course also an issue.

These days it would be hard to guess which would generate more excitement, a cure for cancer, or the fall TV line up.

By Obstreperous A… (not verified) on 09 Jul 2014 #permalink

GF @ 22

I'm not sure we got anywhere at all. Ideology does not necessarily mean politics. In fact politics the way you seem to mean it had nothing to do with the point I was trying to make. (Don't get me started on politics.) Nor is it about fashion if we're choosing words carefully... But fair enough, believe me, I'm more than happy to agree to disagree and move on.

By Obstreperous A… (not verified) on 09 Jul 2014 #permalink

Maybe the problem is that it depends on how you view knowledge.

That is, the sciences tell us an awful lot about how the world works. One of the ways science can self-correct, and how we determine if we're on the right track, is whether it holds up for people of wildly differing backgrounds. The Rocket equation works no matter who uses it; nuclear weapons and power plants work no matter who tries building one. If you want to fly a plane it has to be a certain shape and size and move a certain speed. You can't bullshit your way around any of it, you can't claim that you see the world differently and therefore you won't fall at 9.8m/s/s when you jump off the Empire State Building.

The humanities problem in the face of that is simple: give me any position in the humanities, for example, "murder is a bad idea." I can use the very same premises to argue precisely the opposite. I can't do that with Relativity. If the speed of light is constant then the implications are that relativity is valid. You can't go from there and argue it isn't and have your experiments work.

Postmodernism only exacerbated the perception that humanities scholar are essentially just making shit up. I know they aren't, and you know it, but I suffered through the heyday of postmodernism as an undergrad and I can tell you that I started to wonder if any of the people we were reading (I'm looking at you Gilbert and Gubar) cared about actual physical reality in the slightest.

If you see knowledge as what describes the physical world around you then the humanities are going to lose out.

On top of that we have an education system that actively discourages certain kinds of analysis, and that means when you get to undergrad humanities courses, to anyone with a modicum of training in the "hard" sciences, the weaknesses (and straw men) in the humanities look trivially easy to attack. The former science student gets an A with little effort and thinks all humanities students are dullards.

I don't know if this is helpful or not, but if you think of the sciences in terms of a continuum of 'hardness' or achievable rigor (physics, biology, psychology...) and then include the humanities, the humanities would tend to fall far enough to the soft side as to seem superficially different categorically. You could probably argue against there being an actual discrete difference though.

You could also look at it in terms of accessibility, most anybody with a little education can get a reasonable first hand grasp on great literature. Give them a stack of first tier, peer reviewed, physics journals however, and it's a different story.

By Obstreperous A… (not verified) on 10 Jul 2014 #permalink

Postmodernism only exacerbated the perception that humanities scholar are essentially just making shit up. I know they aren’t, and you know it, but I suffered through the heyday of postmodernism as an undergrad and I can tell you that I started to wonder if any of the people we were reading (I’m looking at you Gilbert and Gubar) cared about actual physical reality in the slightest.

This is exactly what drove Alan Sokal to write his parody article, "Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity". As Sokal said upon revealing the hoax, "Anyone who thinks the laws of physics are mere social conventions is invited to transgress those conventions from my apartment window. (I live on the twenty-first floor.)" Sokal provided evidence to back his view that some humanities scholars really were making stuff up. Sokal noted that one of these so-called scholars equated his fifth limb to the square root of -1. I'll let your inner twelve-year-old math nerd finish that joke.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 10 Jul 2014 #permalink

There's a question that needs to be addressed seriously not rhetorically about systems here. The scientific method while hardly perfect, is specifically designed to weed out fraud and nonsense. Can you say that about postmodernism? Referring to the arguments around the Sokal business, I'd like to propose that attacking the foundations of science and basically putting it in the same category with fanciful myth making, if not outright superstition, is potentially very deleterious to society.

By Obstreperous A… (not verified) on 11 Jul 2014 #permalink