In an intelligent recent essay for The Washington Post, the Colby College English professor Aaron Hanlon draws on work in the sociology of knowledge to argue that “the humanities have a credibility problem.” That problem, Hanlon says, stems from two linked deficits: First, the humanities do not appear to the public to involve “real, methodical scholarly inquiry” and, second, what method they do engage boils down to assertions of political prejudice. “Indeed,” Hanlon writes, “people often assume that humanities scholars start with political commitments and backfill the evidence rather than starting with questions to answer through some relatively transparent process.”

Hanlon doesn’t quite say whether he thinks either or both of these assumptions are warranted. That’s because he’s concerned not with “truth” per se but with what he calls, drawing on the ideas of the historian of science Steven Shapin, “credibility.” In a 1995 essay published in Perspectives on Science titled “Cordelia’s Love: Credibility and the Social Studies of Science,” Shapin continued an analysis of what he’d called, in a 1994 book of that title, “the social history of truth.” Shapin asks: How do we know whom to trust? How do we recognize the truth when we hear it? Shapin is concerned in part with the heuristics that non-experts in any given area use to judge expert claims — what he calls, in a 2019 LARB essay that picks up on the themes of “Cordelia’s Love,” “social knowledge.” Unlike substantive technical knowledge, social knowledge is about “knowing whose opinion to take, and to take seriously, about matters of which you happen to be ignorant.”

Such questions are of course especially urgent with respect to things like vaccine skepticism and climate-change denialism, where practical exigencies depend on attitudes toward expert consensus. But Shapin is adamant that the solution is not better scientific education. After all, the actual science remains hopelessly incomprehensible for all but the truly initiated. And almost nobody claims to be anti-science: The rhetoric of science is as dear to the cranks pushing homeopathy as it is to the CDC. The technical language of science, Shapin writes, can command assent from lay publics despite, or even because of, those publics having no real understanding of the terms of art employed. (Shapin quotes a character from the television show Absolutely Fabulous who, reading the “impenetrable technical prose on a jar of anti-wrinkle cream,” exclaims: “I don’t know what this means, but it’s forcing me to believe it.”) The terms themselves are assumed to reflect a valid process of inquiry.

For decades now — since the ascension of “theory” — humanists have claimed a similar prerogative for their own terms of art. As Fredric Jameson put it in 1982, “Why should there be any reason to assume” that the problems of culture are “less complex than those of biochemistry?” But the public has tended to assume that humanistic study has less warrant for specialized language than biochemistry, and perhaps for good reason. In “Cordelia’s Love,” Shapin explains why: “The late modern world is thickly populated with entities about which the authority to speak resides solely with very highly specialized, and very highly bounded, communities. Only certified physicists — and indeed physicists of a certain speciality — can pronounce on the existence and characteristics of intermediate vector bosons,” for example. That’s because the expensive, technologically restrictive, and hyper-specialized nature of modern scientific practice gives scientists what the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman — one of Shapin’s sources — called “monopolistic possession” of their areas of study. As Shapin says, such a monopoly means that scientists enjoy “massive control of the conditions of their credibility.”

Humanists, even humanists who pursue highly arcane or technical areas of research, enjoy no analogous monopoly and are therefore vulnerable to what Shapin calls a “credibility ‘handicap.’” But there’s a silver lining. Because concepts from the humanities and the social sciences sometimes enter the broader culture with astonishing success — Shapin gives examples from psychoanalysis like “the unconscious” and “psychic regression"; we might more recently think of concepts from sociology like “gender performativity,” “intersectionality,” or “emotional labor” — they can “actually come to constitute the phenomenal base to which they refer.” People “make sense of their lives by organizing them with respect to such notions,” something they do not do with respect to monopolized scientific objects like “quarks.”

That also means, though, that the public can talk back — and they do. To the extent that specialized notions like “toxic masculinity” become objects of intense suspicion rather than vernacular adoption, humanists and social scientists have a credibility problem. This is not a pronouncement on the truth or falsehood of a given concept, only on its relationship to the public. That’s the problem Hanlon’s Post essay is interested in: what Shapin calls “the conditions of credibility between experts and laity.” Canny right-wing politicians have recently proved very good at exploiting this credibility deficit; that’s what the Republican war on “critical race theory,” for instance, is all about.

But, as Shapin says, there are other meaningful “vectors” of credibility, too, including those between expert classes or even within a differentiated expert community. The suspicion of undue politicization that Hanlon says the public feels toward academic humanists also exists, mutatis mutandis, within the humanities themselves, and occasions fierce internecine debate in fields like philosophy, literary studies, and anthropology — all the fiercer as those disciplines contract.

A chorus of scholars in humanistic fields has become concerned in recent years that something has gone badly wrong in the disciplinary procedures for argument and verification. In what Hanlon calls humanists’ attraction to “a kind of pure activism committed to rejecting the values that govern institutional and civic credibility,” internal critics see a grave threat. “Moralism,” rather than “politicization,” is often fingered as the culprit. Consider Michael Clune’s polemic against what he sees as the humanities’ self-deluded role in “moral education,” Nan Z. Da’s quarrel with “moral prescriptivism,” or Nicolas Langlitz’s lament that “American cultural anthropology is now a moral-political project invested in promoting the values of progressives in the United States.” Some of these complaints against what Sumana Roy calls “moralitis” are indeed concerned with the attitudes of outsiders — “What claim do I have on the public?,” as Clune puts it — but the primary target of most of their arguments is intramural. The credibility crisis is inside the house.

Read Shapin’s “Cordelia’s Love” here and Hanlon’s Washington Post piece here.

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    Write to me at len.gutkin@chronicle.com.

    Yours,

    Len Gutkin