The Trouble with Scientism: Why history and the humanities are also a form of knowledge
May 15, 2012
There are two cathedrals in Coventry. The newer one, consecrated on May 25, 1962, stands beside the remains of the older one, which dates from the fourteenth century, a ruin testifying to the bombardment of the Blitz. Three years before the consecration, in one of the earliest ventures in the twinning of towns, Coventry had paired itself with Dresden. That gesture of reconciliation was recapitulated in 1962, when Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem received its first performance at the ceremony. The three soloists were an English tenor (Peter Pears), a German baritone (Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau), and a Russian soprano (Galina Vishnevskaya).
Since the 1960s, historians have worked—and debated—to bring into focus the events of the night of February 13, 1945, in which an Allied bombing attack devastated the strategically irrelevant city of Dresden. An increased understanding of the decisions that led to the fire-bombing, and of the composition of the Dresden population that suffered the consequences, have altered subsequent judgments about the conduct of war. 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. But understanding why the natural sciences are regarded as the gold standard for human knowledge is not hard. When molecular biologists are able to insert fragments of DNA into bacteria and turn the organisms into factories for churning out medically valuable substances, and when fundamental physics can predict the results of experiments with a precision comparable to measuring the distance across North America to within the thickness of a human hair, their achievements compel respect, and even awe. To derive one’s notion of human knowledge from the most striking accomplishments of the natural sciences easily generates a conviction that other forms of inquiry simply do not measure up. Their accomplishments can come to seem inferior, even worthless, at least until the day when these domains are absorbed within the scope of “real science.”
The conflict between the Naturwissenschaften and the Geisteswissenschaften goes back at least two centuries, and became intensified as ambitious, sometimes impatient researchers proposed to introduce natural scientific concepts and methods into the study of human psychology and human social behavior. Their efforts, and the attitudes of unconcealed disdain that often inspired them, prompted a reaction, from Vico to Dilthey and into our own time: the insistence that some questions are beyond the scope of natural scientific inquiry, too large, too complex, too imprecise, and too important to be addressed by blundering over-simplifications. From the nineteenth-century ventures in mechanistic psychology to contemporary attempts to introduce evolutionary concepts into the social sciences, “scientism” has been criticized for its “mutilation” (Verstümmelung, in Dilthey’s memorable term) of the phenomena to be explained.
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. Let us consider the five foundations of this mistake in order.
THE MOST OBVIOUS EXPLANATION for the difficulties of the Geisteswissenschaften,the humanities and the study of history and society, is that they deal with highly complex systems. Concrete results are often achieved in particular instances: historians and anthropologists are able to be precise and accurate by sacrificing generality, by clear-headedly disavowing the attempt to provide any grand overarching theory. No large vision of history emerges from our clearer understanding of the bombing of Dresden, but the details are no less powerful and significant. In this respect, moreover, matters are no different in the natural sciences. As we shall see, science often forgoes generality to achieve a precise and accurate answer to an important question.
In English we speak about science in the singular, but both French and German wisely retain the plural. The enterprises that we lump together are remarkably various in their methods, and also in the extent of their successes. The achievements of molecular engineering or of measurements derived from quantum theory do not hold across all of biology, or chemistry, or even physics. Geophysicists struggle to arrive at precise predictions of the risks of earthquakes in particular localities and regions. The difficulties of intervention and prediction are even more vivid in the case of contemporary climate science: although it should be uncontroversial that the Earth’s mean temperature is increasing, and that the warming trend is caused by human activities, and that a lower bound for the rise in temperature by 2200 (even if immediate action is taken) is two degrees Celsius, and that the frequency of extreme weather events will continue to rise, climatology can still issue no accurate predictions about the full range of effects on the various regions of the world. Numerous factors influence the interaction of the modifications of climate with patterns of wind and weather, and this complicates enormously the prediction of which regions will suffer drought, which agricultural sites will be disrupted, what new patterns of disease transmission will emerge, and a lot of other potential consequences about which we might want advance knowledge. (The most successful sciences are those lucky enough to study systems that are relatively simple and orderly. James Clerk Maxwell rightly commented that Galileo would not have redirected the physics of motion if he had begun with turbulence rather than with free fall in a vacuum.)
The emphasis on generality inspires scientific imperialism, conjuring a vision of a completely unified future science, encapsulated in a “theory of everything.” Organisms are aggregates of cells, cells are dynamic molecular systems, the molecules are composed of atoms, which in their turn decompose into fermions and bosons (or maybe into quarks or even strings). From these facts it is tempting to infer that all phenomena—including human actions and interaction—can “in principle” be understood ultimately in the language of physics, although for the moment we might settle for biology or neuroscience. This is a great temptation. We should resist it. Even if a process is constituted by the movements of a large number of constituent parts, this does not mean that it can be adequately explained by tracing those motions.
A tale from the history of human biology brings out the point. John Arbuthnot, an eighteenth-century British physician, noted a fact that greatly surprised him. Studying the registry of births in London between 1629 and 1710, he found that all of the years he reviewed showed a preponderance of male births: in his terms, each year was a “male year.” If you were a mad devotee of mechanistic analysis, you might think of explaining this—“in principle”—by tracing the motions of individual cells, first sperm and eggs, then parts of growing embryos, and showing how the maleness of each year was produced. But there is a better explanation, one that shows the record to be no accident. Evolutionary theory predicts that for many, but not all, species, the equilibrium sex-ratio will be 1:1 at sexual maturity. If it deviates, natural selection will favor the underrepresented sex: if boys are less common, invest in sons and you are likely to have more grandchildren. This means that if one sex is more likely to die before reaching reproductive age, more of that sex will have to be produced to start with. Since human males are the weaker sex—that is, they are more likely to die between birth and puberty—reproduction is biased in their favor…