Tuesday, July 27, 2004

Generalism: Science and the Humanities

(NB I have re-written the later part of this entry)

I oughtn't update so often -- I don't want to set up unrealistic expectations. I don't think I can keep up an every day or every other day pace forever.

Nevertheless, I want to comment on this:

Tim Burke on "The Limits to Generalism"

...and Burke's blog doesn't allow comments. Also I want to draw other people's attention to the piece.

Burke is a historian who seems to be interested in a lot of the things which interest me. Plus he writes well, and I mostly agree with his conclusions.

He went to a conference on autonomous software agents, hoping to learn something about simulating societies, and got lost in the computer jargon. Since he generally believes our elaborate system of academic specialization is unnecessary, this was a discouraging experience. He says "I repeatedly extoll the virtues of generalism, but it cannot do everything. The sinking feeling I repeatedly had during the conference was knowing that to even get to the point where I grasped the substantive difference between different algorithms or formalisms proposed by many of the researchers at this conference, where I could meaningfully evaluate which were innovative and important, and which were less attractive, would take me years of basic study[...]" I read this wondering how hard it would be for me to understand (I've had a couple of classes in this stuff, as electives) and thought again that it was just as well I'd studied the sciences, because it seems much easier for a scientist to be to understand the humanities than vice versa. I like the idea of generalism too.

But then Burke acknowledges that asymmetry (natural because the whole purpose of the humanities is to generate "broadly comprehensible and communicative insights rather than highly technical ones.") and adds an important caveat: scientists who actually try to publish in the humanities often read selectively and shallowly, "cherry-picking material from anthropological scholarship they like and ignoring contradictory work."

He specifically accuses Jared Diamond of this (although without vitriol) and points out that computer scientists did something similar in the early days of AI enthusiasm: "Some scientists tend to forget that on a series of crucial issues, skeptics in the humanities were closer to the truth for decades than scientists, most notably in the early debate between philosophers of mind, neuroscientists and computer scientists working on artificial intelligence about how easy it would be to create AI."

I read this part as a sort of (unwitting) response to this paper I wrote, in which I was rather hard on the modern humanities:

"However, one can never do an experiment to discover whether a book is good. In history, one can always hope to turn up evidence for or against a theory by more closely examining primary sources, but this doesn’t help when all of the sources are well known, and one must decide among different interpretations. [...] The modern scholars do not attempt to weed out the best and worst ideas from among this huge crop as their forbearers did among the smaller number of ideas within their culture. They do not go through this exacting process of examination and judgement. How can they? What standards would the modern scholars use? There are no objective grounds on which one can declare Nietzche wrong and Monique Wittig right, and no consensus, anymore, on subjective grounds."

I went around while I was writing this, trying to provoke all of my humanities friends into argument. I wanted them to defend their disciplines. I was very annoying about it.

Tim Burke here gives me exactly what I was looking for -- a very good defense. Tackling philsosophical and historical questions with the scientific method is one thing; trying to apply the scientific method to fields where you can't hope for repeatable experiments (or masssive amounts of statiscally representative observational data, uninfluenced by the process of observation, as in astronomy) is simply sloppy thinking.

I wrote my essay right after reading a book called "The New Humanists" to which Jared Diamond contributed, along with a lot of those AI optimistic computer scientists Burke mentions. I said these were scientists who "poached subject matter from the humanities". I also said, "Famously, physicist Alan Sokal was driven by this impatience to hoax the academic journal 'Social Text' by submitting a paper about socially constructed science, which he designed to be flattering to biases of the academics (who claim to be unbiased) and deliberately filled with factual errors and intentional nonsense. It was accepted, published, and praised. This story seems to me to show that other scientists have the same problem with the modern humanities that I do, and that it is a real problem, not just a grudge. Unfortunately, there is no obvious solution to the lack of standards, since few would really wish to go back to the sometimes bigotted criteria we discarded."

Burke "replies": "Alan Sokal’s hoax hit a real target, but if you want to think and write about problems like the nature of existence and knowledge, or about why and what a cultural work means to its audiences, sometimes you really are going to have to go into deep waters that require a complex conceptual framework."

This point is well-taken, and my description of humanities scholarship as a lot of differing opinions with no way of deciding between them, doesn't take into account the value of "semantics arguments" which do have productive results -- clear ways of thinking and speaking about a topic, without which there really is no hope of consensus or a conclusion.

There's another good point, in answer to my essay, that Burke didn't raise, but which has been impressed upon me by a couple of history-of-science seminars, a conversation with a librarian friend, and the experience helping to edit a paper outside of my field... I say, "In history, one can always hope to turn up evidence for or against a theory by more closely examining primary sources, but this doesn’t help when all of the sources are well known, and one must decide among different interpretations," but fail to acknowledge the amount of work that "closely examining primary sources" actually invovles, or the real importance of it. It's so easy for us to forget, to re-write the past, because the truth is buried in a mountain of trivia. Mining this mountain for real information is back-breaking labor, in a figurative sense, but the truth is more valuable than gold. Without that kind of excavation, people can be made to believe anything. It's "1984" and history has always been what the people in power say it is...

I think I'll have to re-write that part of the essay. My original point was that it used to be objective science versus subjective humanities, but now the humanities are neither. It seems frustrating to me that they don't come to objective or subjective conclusions. But perhaps the point isn't to come to conclusions. Perhaps "descriptive" is more important than "deductive" in this context. I think I have been insufficiently appreciative of the value of simply looking at the world and describing it. In one sense, that's a trivial task, just stating the obvious. But just because something might be obvious if you looked, doesn't mean there's no value in recording it -- you won't ever look at most of these documents, these time periods, these cultures. You can't. I'm tempted now to think of humanities scholars as latter-day Lewises and Clarks. They'll explore metaphorical continents for me and report back, because I haven't got enough lifetimes to explore for myself. And if they come back telling different stories, well, that's what always happens when you send multiple parties of explorers. One may find mountains full of monsters and the other peaceful jungle people. The continents are big, and even if they weren't, eyewitnesses rarely agree. That doesn't mean their testimony isn't important.

Oh, and one more thing--

Burke says, "Theoretical physics would be far enough away in every respect that I might not ever reasonably expect to understand it, let alone do it, given that much of it cannot even be translated from its mathematical conception into broadly communicative prose. At that point, you have to have enough faith in the entire system of knowledge production to just say, “I trust you to do what you do, and to do it how you do it”"

I don't think theoretical physics should be that way. I'm sure Tim Burke could understand it, at least as well as I do, if the physicists would only learn to write...

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