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Scientism in the Humanities (2021-03-01)

Photograph of a Lucanian fourth century BCE red figure krater held at the cleveland museum of art. Original photo by Tim Evanson on Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0 via the Getty Iris Blog, quoted in turn from Sarah E. Bond's excellent blog, History From Below. Photograph of a Lucanian fourth century BCE red figure krater held at the cleveland museum of art. Original photo by Tim Evanson on Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0 via the Getty Iris Blog, quoted in turn from Sarah E. Bond's excellent blog, History From Below.
Photograph of a Lucanian fourth century BCE red figure krater held at the cleveland museum of art. Original photo by Tim Evanson on flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0 via the Getty Iris Blog, quoted in turn from Sarah E. Bond's excellent blog, History From Below.

There is a broad consensus in the media at least, that "the humanities" are in desperate trouble, they are in absolute crisis. Enrolment is crashing, so is funding, job offers are primarily for precarious highly exploitative sessional work in post-secondary institutions for academics, or in a grab bag of diverse things outside of academia. I think it is quite clear that in much of the primarily english-speaking world, the humanities are being deliberately strangled by a longterm capitalist fundamentalist campaign against the kind of training and education that makes people harder to exploit. They insist that all education should be strictly vocational, and that the only real vocational training is in the trades or in so-called "STEM" fields, "science, technology, engineering, and mathematics." Never mind that the pressure on students to go into those fields means that the number of people struggling for the jobs in those fields will inevitably skyrocket, depressing wages and making it that much harder to get and stay employed. After all, that is how it works in a capitalist system. If every effort is made to defund instruction and jobs in the humanities, and then train every possible person with influence on students' educational choices to tell them that there are no jobs in the humanities, then we can expect to see declining enrolments in the humanities over time. After all, if there is no way to train in the humanities because there are no classes, instructors, or publicly accessible libraries available, regardless of what a student may prefer, they are going to be preferentially channeled to where there are classes, instructors, and library resources available. But that is hardly the result of an "open competition" or anything remotely like it. Now, here is the interesting thing. For yet another project, I had to do some research and dig into the numbers on enrolment, costs, programs and the like in the humanities, especially in the context of post-secondary education. I went in expecting to see practical confirmation of the stories summarized above, because regardless of what I would like to believe, the wall to wall consensus was so absolute it seemed there must alas, be something real behind it.

What I learned is that on one hand, there has been a general enrolment drop in the humanities, but that it is primarily a generational cohort effect. That is, the cohort of young people of an age to enter post-secondary education in any area of study over the past 5 to 10 years is smaller than its predecessor or its successor. Logically then, we should expect enrolments in that cohort to be lower in any case. I also learnt a lot about imploding enrolments in the ethically dubious business schools, where their entire funding model is based on convincing students to pay insane tuition and work for free in order to get a guaranteed six figure salary. On the other hand, a few humanities faculties had been fooled into lowering their entrance grade averages so that weaker students who actually wanted to take more difficult programs applied to go into the humanities and then took courses in a different faculty. But it turns out academic weakness doesn't dissolve merely because a student has cleverly gamed their way into university or college. As a result those students often wind up in awful academic trouble, when it might have been better for them to leave school and work for a couple of years and sort themselves out. Their difficulties aren't about "the humanities" or "STEM" at all as such. Furthermore, statistically humanities majors may have a lower starting salary than "STEM" majors, they soon catch up and often have better long term employment numbers. That is, they get employed at least as often, stay employed, and make their way into solid longterm jobs. Yes, this is all averaged, but that is true of any field of study. The truth is, when it comes to employment, it's a crapshoot, and the best thing if we can manage it is to build a set of diversely applicable knowledge and skills, plus strong imaginations and a willingness to experiment.

In the meantime, a corrosive dynamic has set in among a sadly large number of academic administrators, including many who originally served as instructors in the humanities. First, having imbibed the demand to cut, cut, cut, they are busy competing in the most destructive way possible for the academic jobs they are helping to shrink access to and generally shrink the numbers of. Second, they are moving into the better paid "administration" jobs, which seem to consist mostly of hobnobbing with rich people to beg them for endowments that generally go into building ego projects like buildings with their names on them rather than basic infrastructure. That, or they are busy obsessing on how to spend an ever growing advertising budget disguised as "public relations" in which the desire is always to come up with another simplified logo and snappy slogan to "brand" everything with. And since "STEM" is supposed to be where it is at, everyone is under pressure in the humanities to somehow be "sciency."

The quick and easy sciency hit is to go after the brass ring of "digital humanities." Now, I wholeheartedly agree that computers are extremely useful tools that can help with an amazing number of research goals in the humanities. They make possible massive data analysis that was simply impossible before, and allow for work that would otherwise take far longer to be completed far faster by crowdsourcing. There are many positive uses for computers in the humanities, especially when we take care to bring them in thoughtfully and with consideration of the ethics of what we are doing. But "data mining" and pretending to have made a big discovery by running a statistics package over the complete digitized works of some author or other is at best putting on a show, not "science." It is sciency, an attempt to put up a veneer of science while not actually doing any science. So is the attempt to misuse science to shore up various "post-structuralist" and "post-modernist" theories and modes of analysis. Queer theory and affect theory are probably two of the biggest offenders on this score that I know of, where abusing material from science plus shoving a pile of mystifying bafflegab on top is supposed to catch that sciency ring. The great hope is that nobody tries to read or test this stuff too closely, at least, not until the tenured folks have retired. But this is ridiculous on so many levels, not least because there is a real intersection between "the sciences" and "the humanities" with no need to play up being "sciency."

We all use the basic method behind successful scientific research, and successful humanistic research every day, no bafflegab or shell games required. Every day, all of us apply this simple technique. It all starts with when we bump into a question or challenge we are not immediately able to answer or solve, but we need to for some reason. So we start out with a preliminary answer, a best guess, and see how it works. Depending how well it works, and what parts of any of it works, we revise our preliminary answer, gather some more information, and try again. We are guided by such logical expectations as cause and effect relationships, and checking whether what we are seeing is actually causation or just accidental correlation. These are the basic elements of the vaunted "scientific method." But the truth is, this is no mere scientific method. These are the elements of the general method we use to make sense of and cope with our world. We could simply cause it "the reasoning method."

The big difference between "the sciences" and "the humanities" is that for awhile, people specializing in the sciences characterized by the heavy use of mathematics, that brilliant and surreal human language, got a bit intellectually drunk. For awhile there, it seemed like mathematics had only single and unchanging answers, and if the real world could be characterized by mathematics, then it too must have a set of single and unchanging answers. Meanwhile, the people specializing in the humanities with far less to no usage of mathematics were still caught up in questions that refused to yield simplistic answers that stayed put, no matter how hard anybody tried. Of course that means most areas involving study of human thought and behaviour, other animals, biology, and politics. And then the deterministic aura of mathematics fell apart all accidentally under the pressure of David Hilbert's program for research in which he identified many excellent problems to study, and in time a young scholar named Kurt Gödel came along to show that mathematical systems – dialects, if you like – couldn't be complete and self-consistent. For a whole range of reasons unrelated to the mathematics, between that and the uncertainty principle in physics, it became impossible to continue demanding that there be only a few simple answers to what were turned out to be stubbornly complex questions. So in a great irony, "STEM" has gotten a lot more like "the humanities" in a good way, while cynics have been trying to create a self-defeating sciency veneer on the humanities that they don't need.

Copyright © C. Osborne 2021
Last Modified: Monday, May 29, 2017 2:03:23