Daniel Dennett on Science and the Humanities

In August, Steven Pinker wrote an excellent piece on the place of science in the humanities. Leon Weseltier responded. Here is Dennet’s response (brilliant as usual):

Postmodernism, the school of “thought” that proclaimed “There are no truths, only interpretations” has largely played itself out in absurdity, but it has left behind a generation of academics in the humanities disabled by their distrust of the very idea of truth and their disrespect for evidence, settling for “conversations” in which nobody is wrong and nothing can be confirmed, only asserted with whatever style you can muster. Wieseltier concedes the damage done to the humanities by postmodernism “and other unfortunate hermeneutical fashions of recent decades” but tries to pin this debacle on the “progressivism” the humanities was tempted to borrow from science. “The humanities do not progress linearly, additively, sequentially, like the sciences,” he avers, in the face of centuries of scholarship and criticism in the humanities that have corrected, enlarged, illuminated, and advanced the understanding of all its topics and texts. All that accumulated knowledge used to be regarded as the intellectual treasure we humanities professors were dedicated to transmitting to the next generation, and Pinker is encouraging us to return to that project, armed with some new intellectual tools—both thinking tools (theories and methods and models and the like) and data-manipulating tools (computers, optical character recognition, statistics, data banks). Wieseltier wants no part of this, but his alternative is surprisingly reminiscent of the just discredited fads; perhaps he has not completely purged his mind of the germs of postmodernism.

Pomposity can be amusing, but pomposity sitting like an oversized hat on top of fear is hilarious. Wieseltier is afraid that the humanities are being overrun by thinkers from outside, who dare to tackle their precious problems—or “problematics” to use the, um, technical term favored by many in the humanities. He is right to be afraid.


Health: it’s not a popularity game

Yesterday morning I attended a great panel discussion at Cape Town’s Open Book Festival. The topic was “Science: Separating Fact From Fiction,” and it was billed as a conversation between James Gleick (who kindly signed a copy of his book for me and thinks I have a cool name), Kathryn Schulz, Leonie Joubert and Guy Midgley about ‘whether science is failing us or we are failing science’. It was indeed a conversation between those four people, but they spoke more about belief: how and why we believe the things we do (do you “believe” in the Higgs boson particle?), and what scientists and journalists play – or should play – in “democratizing” science (there was some discomfort with the word democratizing: I think “popularize”, or “make understandable to non-scientists” was the gist).

There was some good banter and a general acknowledgement of the importance of promoting scientific literacy in the public at large, which each of these speaker-writers do in their own way (and of course Ben Goldacre got many a shout-out for being one of the main shouters – LITERALLY – in this game. If you are one of the remaining 5 people who have not read and tweeted about the extract from his new book, Bad Pharma, out TODAY, go do so immediately. And the foreword is here).

Leonie Joubert brought up Tim Noakes and his recent conversion (yes, I think the religious allusion is appropriate) as an example of a problem when it comes to the public understanding of science, because it is largely based on a sample of one, and most people do not understand that the plural of anecdote is not data (yes, even science has tired cliches). Of course Noakes would beg to differ, as he did on Twitter in response to someone live tweeting Joubert’s remarks:

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