Wednesday, October 29, 2003

Porphryogenitus is a wee bit ticked off about my misunderstandings of yesterday. However, his extension of remarks sparked a few ideas. My apologies if I'm misunderstanding him again.

So lets go back to attitudes about the Humanities and how this applies. Some seem to have the mindset that because of the difficulty of reaching definitive conclusions in the Humanities, this means they should be scorned. That their study is somewhat pointless and people will not only reach different conclusions but those with axes to grind will, as one letter writer put it "obfuscate in fields where one man's opinion screeched loudly and repetitively can be fobbed off as 'fact'"?. I hold though that the situation is more akin to that of complex scientific questions: you are much better off, then, having the deepest and widest range of knowledge on these matters than not, especially since (again as is common in science) knowledge remains incomplete even while advancing.

That sounds like "scientific methods should be used in the humanities". Am I mistaking the point?

Yes, that means things are somewhat fuzzy and indistinct and people will have different interpretations of the same "data" and thus are more likely to reach different conclusions than they are when it comes to the answer of what 2 + 2 equals. This makes sound judgement all the more important, and fostering it all the more vital. It also makes knowing as much as you can more important, assisting in reaching sound judgements and conclusions.

That definitely sounds like it.

I have some thoughts on judgment. I don't think judgment a characteristic of the scientific method. A theorem that rests on judgment is by definition unfalsifiable - it relies on an element of opinion. Judgment is, itself, a creature of opinion. You can educate opinion - school it with bodies of facts and sharpen it against the strongly-held opinions of others. Opinions that have done their tour through the hot and clangorous smithy might be properly called judgment, and held worthy in the thrust-and-parry of argument. Judgments might be built of facts and theories and logical constructs.

But they're still, in the end, opinions.

At this point, I should note that I don't think that the intellectual world is a simple black-and-white world of Humanities and Sciences, of judgment and the scientific method. Between the Humanities and the Ultimate Hard Science lie a swale of "social sciences" and "soft sciences". As the experts work, the soft sciences have "hardened" as ways have been found to better quantify disciplines like biology, and falsifiable physiologies crowd out the dogmas of psychiatry. Even the hardest of sciences rest on a bed of shrinking assumptions, axioms.

Most of the swale will eventually be filled with mountain, if gravity is allowed to have its way. The scientific method will dominate all disciplines in which it is suited.

My concern is that the scientific method is not suited to all disciplines equally. Of what use is a scientific method in comparative literature?

How about history? A vital element of the scientific method is repeatability. How do you prove that a result is valid, and not a false positive? You have others repeat the experiment or study, and see if they get a similar result. This is necessary to isolate biases, including, most importantly, observer bias. History suffers, intrinsically, from the mother of all observer biases.

How do we know what we know about the American Revolution, for instance? Documentary sources. Testimony. Accounts of battles, letters, records of political meetings, death records, legal records, publications, memoirs. These are given facts, each genesis steeped in its own, unavoidable, individual observer bias. Then? Hundreds or thousands of secondary sources, articles, dissertations, books, historical novels - the considered opinions of all who have studied the series of events, clashing and shattering and reforming until bodies of accepted opinion, judgments are formed. But you can't disprove a historical judgment - you can only discredit it. We can't re-enact the Brandywine campaign to see what might have happened if the British had advanced overland, or landed in the Delaware instead of the Chesapeake. Some folks use counterfactual history or wargaming as a fictional substitute for experimentation, but it's all gameplaying. It's simply an elaborate form of argumentation.

(Now I have a mental image of a panel of English professors leaning over a cluttered table, gaming out a first-person servant's narrative version of Pride and Prejudice, or a poetry class being instructed to re-write "the Second Coming" with Islamic imagery replacing Yeat's Christian eschatology. This might actually be kind of entertaining.)

My point is that the more humanistic of the Humanities aren't especially fruitful grounds for the use of scientific methods. I rather think that too many practitioners in the Humanities have chosen a pseudo-scientific approach to their subjects, in which they force their material into the unsupported confines of airy theoretical constructs, aping the language and habits of rigour while reaching for a substance that isn't there to be grasped. The end result is an ideology of theoretical rigour, which makes sense to no-one but the practitioners themselves, which is often indistinguishable from the wholesale application of political bias by ideological imposition.

I'm concerned that a confusion of judgment with knowledge is at the heart of the rotting of the Humanities. This is not a call, nor an endorsement, of the intellectual abandonment of judgment. I am quite fond of judgment. I am, in fact, excessively addicted to judgment, even in the absence of proper understandings. I am simply unwilling to elevate judgment above knowledge, to allow that judgment has a right to the command of knowledge.

The irresponsible abuse of judgment can quite easily be used to destroy knowledge - to suppress facts or information, to discourage investigation. Both Orwell and Huxley confront that. Huxley, in my opinion, illustrates how bad judgment, under the Ford-worship pretense of "science", can suppress or distort historical fact. It's this Humanities-as-(Pseudo)Science that concerns me.

Perverted judgment is, itself, a threat to knowledge. Look at what happened when Marxists got the whip-hand over agronomy and biology in the Soviet Union - Lysenko and Lamarckian genetics gave both a pretty rough handling when "scientific" political judgments decided which experiments and studies were valid, and which were reactionary mistakes.

Update: Porphyrogenitus reacts poorly to my comments. After wading through a lot of rhetoric, I think what it comes down to is that he wants the "truths" of the Humanities respected. I thought we were talking about "ideas". As far as I'm concerned, "Truth" is a religious property, and while I love religious metaphors, I'm leery of people who ask that their judgments, however well-crafted, grounded, elegant, or clever, be taken for "truth".

"Truth" is the end of conversation, and the beginning of a sermon. Is that the purpose of this discussion? Sermonizing? I fear that this line of reasoning ends with Liberal Arts colleges transformed into seminaries for civics students. Not a grand prospect of the New Academy, is it?

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