To the Editor:
Though I enjoyed his essay, “The Intellectual War on Science” (The Chronicle Review, February 13) Steven Pinker is a committed polemicist and I find it slightly amusing that he is still waging war against postmodernists (and poststructuralists) when those of us who dallied there -- not quite in the doctrinaire ways he suggests -- have realized that, as with most intellectual movements, postmodernism didn’t have all or even most of the answers. He’s also waging war against the guardians of high culture. What he talks little about, until the end, is where the humanities are now: interested in data, in cognitive science, and, in one strand of structuralism that overlapped with postmodernism, the scientific study (including data collection) common to speech act theory and some forms of narratology and poetics, rooted in many of the same methods and the findings of linguists. In retrospect, the anti-scientific vein of postmodernism was a blip: The mid-20th-century literary critics were at least striving for the kind of objectivity that they saw in the sciences (they never quite made it there methodologically). And that, given current scholarly trends, is closer to where we are now.
Even with C. P. Snow’s article, the split was never complete. For instance, if I harbored a suspicion of science, it was the one I found ironically best formulated by Stephen Jay Gould in the early 1980s when he was writing about how we (Americans in particular) approach social problems: If people are sick, we need, say, a medical treatment or prevention for typhus or cholera. True. We have to be able to treat acute cases and reduce the risks of exposure. The focus was on treating the individual body. But, as we also found out in those cases, we can do more permanent good (and prevention) by developing good water supplies and sewage systems (and now we have to think about those in larger ecologically systemic terms). Gould was arguing at that time against the medicalization of every problem when sometimes a sociocultural approach informed by science would do more permanent good. Eventually, that was pretty much the way we first tackled the AIDS crisis: scientifically informed education, prophylaxis, etc. That gave medicine time to catch up. Now the two approaches go hand in hand.
One reason I’ve spent my whole career in liberal arts colleges and programs -- from my undergraduate years into my senescence -- is that there is the possibility of cross-fertilization: Some of the most beautiful images I’ve ever seen were the videos of fractals that the Augsburg mathematician Bev Durkee showed us at a faculty retreat. That these have their counterparts in nature (or is it the other way round?) is, a humanist might say, wondrous. The sociological and cognitive work being done on the effects of reading, while still of varying quality and in its infancy, offers insights that may well underscore (not to mention, better inform and correct) humanist intuitions about the “critical reading” my colleagues and I have been talking about on team reforming our general education program. Anyone who walked the old halls of our old Science building knew that our colleagues were working in the laboratory equivalent of a Dickensian workhouse -- and we had to do better than that.
I don’t disagree with Pinker about the anti-scientific and broader anti-intellectual strain in American society and particularly in politics: We have a long history of that in this country, as well as a cycle of religious revivalism and enthusiasm that has been carefully plotted by historians and literary scholars who have examined the record. But in the academy and among most of the besieged intellectual classes the intense focus on science’s failings or flaws, some of which Pinker alludes to, that once suggested that those problems undermine the whole enterprise has become about as plausible as rejecting Beethoven because the Nazis liked him (well, Wagner, maybe, but that’s a different issue).
No humanist today, even those not engaged with or in the sciences, can pretend that we can dispense with reason, the scientific method, or the knowledge thereby produced: Whatever antagonism there has been is or should be obviated by the know-nothingism we are witnessing at the highest political levels and in at least a sizable portion of the populace that supports them or, more accurately, that they have been able to rally. There it seems to me we as educators and as a generation (boomers in particular) have failed: Was it our relativism that in this country allowed creationism and evolution to square off in our science classrooms? Haven’t our journalists persisted in the fallacy of representing, as it took Colbert to show us, the 97% or so of experts who agree that humans contribute significantly to climate change against the tiny percentage who oppose this consensus by just two talking heads speaking as if equally authoritative. Think what might have happened instead if a statistician skilled in graphic representation of data had been called on to depict the scientific consensus graphically on our news shows. We might be living in a different world.
I don’t disagree with Pinker about society at large. But his diagnosis seems to conflate society at large and campus culture. I won’t pretend the latter is perfect or completely devoid of the problems “out there,” which is in fact where our students are coming from; anyone who has seen as many movements come and go, for good and ill, as I have over 35 years as an academic professional would be a fool to think so. But if we need a sense of where we are now, at least in the academy, we would do better — on the Augsburg University campus at least — to walk the skyway from Lindell Library to the new Hagfors Center for Science, Religion, and Business: The CSBR and that bridge signify a unified resistance to the war on science and, more broadly, on the pursuit of knowledge.
Professor of English