Monday, June 19, 2017

The Trouble with Scientism: Why history and the humanities are also a form of knowledge

"While replicable fact is the domain of science, human perception and value are the domains of art and the humanities."

This New Republic article from 2012 is an excellent rebuttal to the "scientism," of those who argue that the arts and humanities are somehow less reliable and useful than science:
If Marx and Freud are favorite whipping boys for those worried about the [validity of the humanities], the compliment is readily returned...nineteenth-century physics and chemistry [were infested] with the proliferation of “ether theories.” No less a figure than Maxwell even characterized the ether as “the best confirmed entity in [science].
Rigorous mathematical studies of gene-cultural coevolution reveal that when natural selection combines with cultural transmission, the outcomes reached may differ from those that would have been produced by natural selection acting alone, and that the cultural processes involved can be sustained under natural selection...culture appears to be at some level autonomous and in some sense irreducible, and this is what scientism cannot grasp.
But there is still a deeper reason for the enduring importance of the humanities. Many scientists and commentators on science have been led to view the sciences as a value-free zone...Yet on a broader view, which explores the purposes and their origins, it becomes clear that judgments of the significance of particular questions profoundly affect the work done and the environments in which it is done. Behind the complex and often strikingly successful practices of contemporary science stands a history of selecting specific aspects of the world for investigation.
What we discover depends on the questions taken to be significant, and the selection of those questions, as well as the decision of which factors to set aside in seeking answers to them, presupposes judgments about what is valuable. Those are not only, or mainly, scientific judgments. In their turn, new discoveries modify the landscape in which further investigations will take place, and because what we learn affects how evidence is assessed, discovery shapes the evolution of our standards of evidence. Judgments of value thus pervade the environment in which scientific work is done. If they are made, as they should be, in light of the broadest and deepest reflections on human life and its possibilities, then good science depends on contributions from the humanities and the arts. Perhaps there is even a place for philosophy.
Healthy relationships between the sciences and the humanities should aspire to the condition of the best marriages—to a partnership in which different strengths and styles are acknowledged and appreciated, in which a fruitful division of labor constantly evolves, in which constructive criticism is given and received, in which neither party can ever make a plausible claim to absolute authority, and in which the ultimate goal is nothing less than the furtherance of the human good. 
 Read the complete article here.

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