Scientism, Solutionism and Hackathons, Pt.3

So this is the last part of the series (for now), be sure to read Pt.1 and Pt.2

This is a random grabbag of my thoughts I guess. The last article I’d highlight (and everything I linked before, I really enjoyed so you should read them) is FUCK THEORY. I guess it sets the tone for this post – up until now I’d like to think I’ve been pretty deferential about the whole issue, so let me blow off some steam with this post.

Let’s be perfectly clear – “science” as we think of it today is a new thing.  It dates back to the middle of the 19th century, when the disciplinary divisions we today regard as entirely natural were formalized by people like Hermann von Helmholz.  Before that there were no “scientists”:  there were thinkers, writers, philosophers, ethicists, geometers, and doctors.  There were also theologians, who Pinker dismisses out of hand, even though “science” would not exist without the precedent of Roger Bacon and Albertus Magnus.  “Science” is a fully historical product of the regimentation, organization, and professionalization of what used to just be people observing the world and thinking about it.  Science is the transformation of knowledge into a cliquish guild.

FT is pretty mad about the whole Pinker thing, with good reason. Pinker’s brand of scientism is feeding a generation of people who are eating his criticisms right up. But the concept of science itself is a social construction.  There is a lot of ugly hate towards social sciences and the humanities, which is really silly if you think about it. I’ve been working in an interdisciplinary program, but my focus has been so called “soft-science” as informed by humanities perspectives. Media studies is a bastard of STS, art theory, literary criticism, communications studies, philosophy, and whatever “hard science” people want to bring into it (engineering via architecture, technology via digital media, etc). We are willing to slap the label “media” onto anything because we are concerned with the mediation of people and ideas and the social ramifications of that process. But it’s impossible to to these types of meta-analyses, or cross-disciplinary intertextual deconstructions of thingification (etc etc) without paying homage to the fields that engender such work.

More simply, Pinker’s point , that some “more scientific” disciplines could inform others through method and practice, is good at heart, but he mangles and abuses this thought in an attempt to colonize the humanities for science. I’m sure there were many howling in the night, gnashing their teeth when he blithely wrote

“A consilience with science offers the humanities countless possibilities for innovation in understanding. Art, culture, and society are products of human brains. They originate in our faculties of perception, thought, and emotion, and they cumulate and spread through the epidemiological dynamics by which one person affects others. Shouldn’t we be curious to understand these connections? Both sides would win. The humanities would enjoy more of the explanatory depth of the sciences, to say nothing of the kind of a progressive agenda that appeals to deans and donors. The sciences could challenge their theories with the natural experiments and ecologically valid phenomena that have been so richly characterized by humanists.”

As though there was not interdisciplinary work being done in the those fields, with toes trod on by Pinker’s obliviousness. FFS, one of the oldest and most important methods of communication research is quantitative content analysis. But back to FT:

Assholes like Steven Pinker think that people in the humanities resist their ideas because we don’t understand “science.”  But the truth is that many people in the humanities love and embrace the sciences:  there are historians of science, there are digital humanities, there are philosophers of technology.  What we resist isn’t “science”; what we resist are obnoxious fucking ignoramuses like you who come up in our house and tell us how ignorant we are, how much we don’t understand, and what we should be doing with our research.  This is not an issue of science vs. humanities – this is the nature of contemporary academic research and, indeed, human nature itself.


There is a circlejerk of sorts going about the internet, enforced a culture which devalues the humanities (“_____? Why would you major in that? What kind of job do you expect to get? Well, those who can’t do, teach! HAW HAW HAW”). This comes from the STEM crisis/STEM gap issue. Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past twenty years, you’ve been told how America is getting stupider, how we’ve lost so many STEM jobs overseas, and maybe you’ve laughed at the folly of the American university. The Sokal hoax and the perceived weirdness of the humanities (and postmodernism in general, which Pinker doesn’t seem to care for) has instilled many a skeptic in how many tax dollars the university deserves to receive (whether or not we’re talking about a public university – there’s still the NEA and federal grants for academic work). So it’s easy to adopt the attitude that “what we need is SCIENCE, and not this goofy sociology or philosophy crap!” And it’s especially visible in some corners of the internet, where proud engineering undergraduates denounce every other major as worthless (“except maybe the economics students. I mean, we need somebody to fix the economy”).


At the same time, there’s another circlejerk going on at places like reddit’s /r/athiesm (or /r/trueatheism), the glowing parody of which is the magicskyfairy subreddit. I should preface this by saying – yes, some people experience social repression for their beliefs (or lack thereof, depending on how you define atheism), and much of what one sees on the internet is the venting of frustrated and lonely atheists. These people embrace an idea of science (and in some cases, maybe even identify as scientists) because they feel it’s the antithesis to religious belief. Scientism is an actual, real ideology to them, regardless of how much they actually know about biology or astronomy or any type of science itself. Even here, me writing the word, has washed it out to their level.

Even if people who think like that are a small minority, I think it’s worth taking a moment to consider those two frames of mind and how scientism appeals to a broad public who are consistently skeptical of the value of the humanities (and to a lesser degree, social sciences), particularly during a poor economic climate, where the post-industrial society is on shaky footing, and where there is an unstable social landscape of increasing diversity, contentious amounts of cultural literacy, and many wide ranging social ills that people are aware of but have no consensus on. In light of that, it might be worthwhile to consider the real value of non-STEM work, and how encouraging critical thought (in addition to a technical literacy of the sciences) is beneficial and desirable for us all.

2 thoughts on “Scientism, Solutionism and Hackathons, Pt.3

  1. 1) I thought Pinker was trying to make the same point at the beginning of his piece: that there wasn’t always this distinction between science and other stuff. He isn’t claiming those thinkers in the name of science. He is saying we should be more like them, not constrained by artificial professional boundaries.

    2) Similarly, I don’t think Pinker wants to colonize the humanities. He is also inviting humanities people to weigh in on scientific issues. LOL!

    3) I agree that the (artificial) STEM crisis is a big source of the negative emotions surrounding this issue. And I really wish to see more people talking about this from my preferred angle- scientists are more exploitable by the powerful. They can build you weapons, or do many things with the end result of turning your money into more money, etc. Our universities have been almost completely converted into profit machines serving the empire, so they can’t get enough of that hardcore science. A lot of the people decrying Pinker are apparently innocent of political awareness.

    P.S. the “LOL!” is a joke (obviously)

  2. I will take scientism over mysticism and rhetoric any day. Also you should read your link in the “But the concept of science itself is a social construction”, the position of the author is that science is not a social construction.

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