Monthly Archives: January 2019

Science needs humanism

I’ll start today with a somewhat bold claim: science cannot exist without humanism.

Note that I’m not merely saying that science is improved by humanists or that it might be wise to have ethics keep pace with our technological advances. To be clear, I would argue for both those points as well; but my claim here goes deeper:

Science cannot exist without humanism.

In other words, the thing we call “science” can only properly exist through a critical examination of the myriad ways in which humans create and interpret the world around them. The humanities are not some nice add-on or a means to slap an “interdisciplinary” sticker on your work — they are, indeed, an intimate a part of the scientific process itself.

To clarify, when I use the word science here, I more properly mean good science — science which is self-critical, methodical, and dogged in its pursuit of genuine understanding. There are, unfortunately, far too many things which would claim the mantel of science while definitively being bad science. Most notably, this includes some truly horrific medical experiments, but there are also more innocuous examples of bad science covering issues of replication, statistical techniques, questionable methodological choices, and even outright fraud.

My argument, then, is that the humanist orientation is a primary factor in differentiating between good science and bad science. I’m not sure I would go so far as to argue that it’s a sufficient condition, but I’ll argue here that it is a necessary condition. Science cannot exist without humanism.

I have done little so far to explain precisely what I mean by science and precisely what I mean by humanism, so let’s back up about two thousand years in order to elaborate.

Aristotle argues for three fundamental types of knowledge: technè, episteme, and phronesis. While not everyone may be familiar with these classifications, these categories still very much underly the Western conception of knowledge, especially, perhaps, within academia.

Techné, or technical knowledge, is the province of professional schools. Doctors, lawyers, and MBAs are educated in the techné of their trades. Episteme is the domain of the sciences. Closest to our modern interpretation of “knowledge,” episteme is the slow, methodical discovery of universal truths. Finally, phronesis is the core concern of the humanities. In, perhaps, a sign of our collective devaluing of this work, phronesis is the least tied to our modern understanding of knowledge and thus is the most difficult to explain.

Often translated as “practical wisdom,” phronesis is inherently action oriented. One of Aristole’s core virtues, it is the ability to determine the right action in any context and to unquestioningly follow through on that action. It is about being virtuous but perhaps more subtly about knowing what is virtuous.

Mcevilley, who argues for the translation “mindfulness,” quotes Epicurus in describing phronesis:

“[Phronesis] patiently searches out the motives for every act of grasping and fleeing, and banishes those beliefs through which the greatest tumult enters the mind.”

While the word defies a simple English translation, you can see, perhaps, why I associate phronesis with the humanities: it is the knowledge of critically analysis, of situating ethical judgements in the context in which they occur. It is the work of perpetually asking the question, what should be done?

When Thomas More, Erasmus, and others began arguing for humanist approaches which centered human — as opposed to godly — agency as a force in the world, this naturally drew on earlier conceptions of phronesis.

Now, these categories of knowledge aren’t perfectly split in the academy. Tenure track pressures of publishing, service, and teaching encourage a certain techné of their own — though someone considered brilliant in their field can often get away with poor demonstration of techné. Additionally, there have been some rather spirited discussions about a technical/humanist divide in philosophy, though here even the technical side — epitomized by metaphysics and epistemology — may still be more phronesis than techné. And Flybjerg has argued that trying to be episteme is the largest failing of modern social science — that to have meaning, social science must strive to be less like physics and more concerned with the phronetic questions of how to build the Good Society.

Yet, despite various intra-disciplinary battles, these type of knowledge have become largely separated from each other — and that divide is punctuated by a clear heirarchy of value. The war between episteme and phronesis is especially fraught – as episteme is broadly valued as a public good while phronesis is devalued as an indulgent exercise in self-reflection.

This divide is particularly striking in our so-called “post-truth” world that nevertheless pursues a strong positivist mentality. While you may be surprised to learn that we’re living in a “positivist” era, in the philosophical sense, the term roughly refers to the assertion that somethings are demonstrably factual and everything else is a matter of opinion.

This is, arguably, a core scientific tenant — if you can measure something, if you can systematically test different hypotheses, you can demonstrate whether something is factually true or not. If you cannot do these things you can make no rational argument as to the truth or validity of a given claim.

The positivist view implicitly devalues humanistic work. Anything that cannot be proven is subjective, and anything that is subjective is hardly worth rigorous study. Anybody may have a mere opinion.

Yet the positive claim also overlooks a core humanist tenant — everything we observe, measure, and interpret is done through the lens of human experience. Even in the hardest of the hard sciences we are biased by what questions we think to ask, what funding we can get to pursue those questions, what methods we choose to apply, what works we choose to cite, what interpretations we find in our results, and whose scholarship we choose to value. Science is, fundamentally, a human endeavor.

If anything, the increasing tendency of “factual” things to be interpreted as “opinion” should only serve to emphasize the permeability of the positivist line. We cannot maintain a positivist system if we cannot even agree on what qualifies as factual.

Perhaps the easy way out of this bind is to belittle those who do not see the facts that we do, who, as far as we can tell, refuse to be properly thoughtful and educated. The challenge here, then, is differentiating a noble heretic who fights for Truth against a biased system from a troublesome troll who maliciously spreads misinformation cloaked in “factual” arguments. History has seen no shortage of either type of agent, and each are equally greeted with scorn in their time.

The truth of tomorrow is not necessarily the truth of today.

That’s not to descend into total relativism and claim there is no such thing as truth and that all of reality is merely a matter of opinion. Rather, I would argue, truly good science requires remaining constantly skeptical. A good scientist interrogates the the biases of their data, methods, and fundamental way of thinking — and that inherently means being skeptical of our individual and collective ability to accurately determine what is “true.”

This is not at all easy to do — we are each products of and contributors to our collective social context and it is arguably impossible to entirely separate ourselves from that context. Given that this challenge comes at the bottom of an increasing to-do list of practical career pressures, the whole task even more daunting.

So while we each ought to seek to be humanists in our scientific endeavors, perhaps we’d do well to be glad that there are whole departments of scholars engaging seriously in this difficult work; questioning which parts of our received reality are deeply true and which parts are warping our precious scientific perceptions.

We cannot continue to pretend that science can be separated from the human experience, that it is somehow immune from the biases and fallibility of the humans who conduct it. We must recognize that the humanities are a public good and, indeed, provide the very foundation which allows for our work.

So when I argue that science needs humanism this is what I mean; that all scientific endeavors are prone to error and we cannot fully, scientifically, assess their truth-claims without first understanding the possible scope and implications of those errors. While we might prefer to separate the order of the scientific process from the messiness of human systems, aiming to do so is fundamentally bad science; it discards too many relevant variables. Good science requires self-skeptism, it requires an awareness of what is missing as much as it requires an awareness of what is there. Science needs phronesis, it needs to examine what is right as much as it needs to examine what is true.

Science cannot exist without humanism.


The ego of public life, part III

In July of 2013, I started writing publicly every (work) day. Then, after four and a half years, in November 2017, I stopped.

There are a lot of reasons why I started writing — and a lot of reasons why I let the habit go.

I was re-finding myself in 2013. After my father passed away in early 2012, I was absolutely shattered. I spent at least a year and a half just wandering the void; existing in the world without really living in it.

When at last I was ready to start thinking about picking up the pieces, I found I had become a very different person than I had been before. More caring, more compassionate, more acutely aware of the silent struggles we’ve all gotten so good at hiding from the world. And I felt more strongly than ever the need to put my own voice, skills, and energy to work towards the ongoing task of repairing the world.

This was a quandary for me. I’d long been committed to social justice; to doing what I could to make the world just a little bit better than I found it. But, at the same time, I had come to deeply internalize the belief which was consistently reinforced through so many of my experiences in the world: my voice didn’t matter. I didn’t matter.

I had aimed to put my time and energy towards good work simply because that was the right thing to do. It was laughable to think that anything I could do would ever amount to anything or that anyone would ever care for my opinion or insight.

It’s the sort of paradox which only makes sense within the bounded logic of one’s own head. I’d worked hard to elevate the agency of others; I’d argued that the voices and perspectives of all people are critical to building a more just world; I’d put so much of myself into advocating for these ideals — but I had never really believed them. How could I, if I didn’t believe in myself?

In my first post back in 2013, I described this challenge in relation to my plan to start writing publicly:

My struggle with blogging is that…in many ways, it requires a lot of ego. Well, I would say ego, but another may generously say “agency.” It requires standing up and saying, “I do have something to say, and I believe it’s worth your time to listen.” And that can be a lot to muster.

I see this challenge more broadly in the idea of being an active citizen, of truly engaging in public life…Even in smaller acts of engaging. To actively contribute to your community means believing that you have something to actively contribute.

Over the years, this sense of egoism continued to be the hardest struggle for me. Finding time and topics weren’t always easy, but those paled in comparison to the more fundamental challenge of constantly putting myself out there. Of acting like I had something worth saying even when I felt as though I were nothing at all.

But it was a good habit. It made me a better writer. It made me a better thinker. And doing all this writing publicly helped me find my voice. It helped me discovered who I am and showed me that, indeed — words do matter. Much to my surprise, I found that sometimes even my poor, broken words could help.

So I kept writing.

As foolish, egotistical, and self-important as it seemed. I kept writing.

But things changed over the years. I got busier with graduate school, I had other writing tasks I needed to prioritize, I needed to pass my qualifying exams and propose my dissertation. I have no end to my list of practical excuses.

There are reasons and there are reasons, though. Fundamentally, I was scared. I started meeting strangers who would seek me out to tell me how much they loved the way I write; who would tell me that I had somehow managed to put into words something they had been thinking or feeling. I started getting more pushback on every sloppy mistake I made as I rushed to fulfill my self-imposed quota of posting every single day. I started to more deeply appreciate the consequences of my words as actions — while it still seems impossible to imagine, I found that my voice did have power.

As I grappled with these issues in mid-2017, I reflected:

In some ways, public writing feels even more egotistical than before. Being a doctoral student raises the stakes of self-importance; I’m declaring a value for my contributions through my occupation before I even open my mouth. Doctoral students may be nobody in the fiefdoms of academia; but it remains a fairly fancy calling to the rest of the world. I can hardly consider myself to be a nobody while laying claim to the capacity to someday contribute to human knowledge.

This was a lot to take in. How could my voice matter? In what universe would people begin by assuming I was possessed by a comfortable air of self-confidence? What did it mean for me — a person holding so much privilege in this world — to be taking up space?

My writing started to feel like less of an exercise of civic duty and self-discovery and more of a venue for self-aggrandizement.

At the same time, I was becoming less impressed with the quality of my writing overall. I’d gotten tired, lazy — relying on tired tropes of self-righteousness without thorough thought or depth. This tone was popular in some circles, but it did little to advance the sort of dialogue I want to pursue. It didn’t reflect the sort of writer, scholar, or person I wanted to be.

So I stopped.

I’d once needed to find myself through writing in public and then I needed to find myself by reflecting in private.

But I’ve missed this. I’ve missed the intentional thought that comes from public writing. I’ve missed the ongoing learning I’ve gained through on- and offline conversations about my posts. I’ve missed hearing thoughtful criticism of my views and my writing — I remain grateful to every person who has trusted me enough to tell me when they think I’m wrong or when I could have expressed myself better. I’ve missed making time to think about things beyond what’s required of me.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve continually caught myself “writing in my head” as I used to do all the time. I’m not quite sure where that voice went in the fervor and anxiety of the past year, but I’ve started to realize that I need and value this space. Something has changed in me once again, it seems.

All of this is to say: I’m back. I won’t be posting every day, but I will be posting regularly — at least once a week.

I will write about science, math, social justice, and democratic theory. I will write about mental health and graduate school and random facts I picked up somewhere. I will write about whatever I need to say that week.

As always, I invite your thoughtful reflections as I continue this journey. We will certainly not always agree, but I will value your perspectives and consider your arguments seriously and genuinely.

They say that democracy is dead — that people can’t talk about anything of import any more. But I don’t believe that. I refuse to believe that. Democracy’s not dead — it’s only resting.

I look forward to learning from you all.