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.

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