Wednesday, September 25, 2013

The Two Cultures. Again.

Been reading a fair deal of Jerry Coyne lately. He writes the whyeveolutionistrue blog. I am in full agreement with his two basic points: evolution is, indeed, true. And God, I'm afraid, is a myth.

And Coyne is a great scientist. His work on speciation is a big deal (haven't read it myself, but I'll trust other folks' opinion on that).

But (here's the but) he reads and writes like a bad college freshman. He doesn't recognize changes in voice, he can't understand subtle arguments or distinctions, he hunts through the works of others for selective quotes to condemn and mock regardless of the passage's intended meaning. In short, as a blogger, he's like a malignant growth on the positions he supposedly represents.

And now he figures that he should share the blessings of his blinkered and deficient worldview to the rest of the world . . . to the humanities in particular. Here he is arguing against someone proposing that the path of influence between the two cultures ought to be a two-way street:

I take issue with that on two grounds: scientists are so pressed for time that we can barely get our own work done and, more important, the potential benefit of philosophy to the conduct of science seems less to me than the potential benefits of infusing humanities with science—benefits described out by Steve [Pinker] in his New Republic piece.
I am not saying that philosophy or the humanities are without value. Far from it. What I am saying is that the marginal benefit of adding more science to the humanities is greater than vice versa. I personally absorb tons of what could be considered “humanities,” including literature, nonfiction, art, and philosophy. They’ve enriched my life immensely—but I can’t say with confidence that they’ve made my science better, or different.  I’d still have published the same work on speciation if I’d never read philosophy, although I wouldn’t be writing this website.  My benefits are personal, not scientific.

Though Coyne's benefits from the humanities may be "immense" I have to question how good a judge he is of his own case. For one thing, he can't read properly.

For another, we have to ask, aren't Coyne's humanistic deficiencies important to his blog, where he sets himself up as a spokesperson for science and atheism? And doesn't that blog trade on the authority he's gained in his scientific area of specialty in order to advance views that are more directly related to his rather incomplete humanist education that his scientific expertise?

Just a small for instance (you can find these practically anywhere Coyne reads unsympathetically). . . here Coyne tries to refute Gary Gutting, who is advocating for more philosophy in science as well as more science in the humanities: 

Gutting: And to tell the truth, rather than speaking about the theory of evolution, it is more accurate to speak of the theories of evolution. The use of the plural is required here—in part because of the diversity of explanations regarding the mechanism of evolution, and in part because of the diversity of philosophies involved. There are materialist and reductionist theories, as well as spiritualist theories. Here the final judgment is within the competence of philosophy and, beyond that, of theology. . .
Coyne: What are those materialist and reductionist theories, much less the spiritual ones? I am aware of only one going theory of evolution, which, while it has its controversial parts, does not deal with “materialism vs. reductionism” much less “spiritualism.”
How does Coyne go from what Gutting wrote to "materialism VS reductionism?" Gutting says AND, clearly meaning to pair the two rather than oppose them. Why can't Coyne tell the difference between what people say and the stupid things he'd like them to have said? Because however life-changing his experience with the humanities has been, he is essentially a philistine. He appreciates the humanities, but he is no judge of their importance, either in his own life or in society, any more than I'm a judge of differential calculus. His very limiting of the impact of the humanities to the "personal" marks him as such.

Stephen Gould had a bit to say (a lot, actually) about scientific philistinism, which he saw as not just happenstance, but as a pervasive and actively cultivated part of the culture:
Virtually every empirical scientist has a touch of the Philistine. Scientists tend to ignore academic philosophy as an empty pursuit. Surely, any intelligent person can think straight by intuition. . . . Although I will try to refute Bethell [an opponent of evolution generally], I also deplore the unwillingness of scientists to explore seriously the logical structure of arguments. Much of what passes for evolutionary theory is as vacuous as Bethell claims. Many great theories are held together by chains of dubious metaphor and analogy.  (Darwin’s Untimely Burial, 1976)
The humanities are about reading carefully, considering fully and expressing accurately. They probably play a small role at the workbench, but work isn't done at the bench for no reason--it's done to advance human interests. And when it comes to analyzing, evaluating, synthesizing and applying those bench results we often see scientists failing badly. Because they are "too busy" to have had a proper humanistic education.

Coyne's problems are indeed general. Steven Pinker, whose New Republic article he cites is a repeat offender in the misreading, misinterpreting, misconstruing and miscontextualizing lockdown. For which Coyne's former student and co-author H. Allen Orr (not a philistine) has repeated taken him down in print (see, here and here). Pinker and Coyne--trading off of real or supposed scientific expertise--have become prominent spokespeople for science. Neither of them could hope for the sort of prominence they have on the basis of their at-best-shaky scholarship, injudicious writing and narrow-mindedness. But their science background, real or imagined, gives them authority in areas where they do not deserve it. And that is the danger of the one-way street of influence between science and the humanities. Scientists are, typically, deficient in some very important areas of human discussion and decision making. But they are completely without compunction in trading on their scientific authority in venturing into every other field that kindles their mild or passing interest. Even if they have little idea what that field actually does, how it works or what it's done. Like the humanities.

The potential benefits of more science in the humanities are definitely worth considering. But there are potential pitfalls as well, which Coyne doesn't see or doesn't care to see. And those pitfalls are already well on display in the work of Coyne and Pinker, who I fear probably are better representative of the *best* than the worst science has to offer at present.

More later.