Assorted links

by on August 11, 2013 at 4:13 pm in Uncategorized | Permalink

1 Enrique August 11, 2013 at 4:24 pm

I really liked Jessica Crispin’s review of Pinker’s TNR essay and her thoughts on the relation between science and the humanities … I have always thought of science as being about problems that are “soluble” (to borrow Peter Medawar’s beautiful phrase), leaving the humanities with a wide domain … what I don’t like is the pretension to science we see in so many fields, like economics, sociology, etc.

2 Millian August 11, 2013 at 6:12 pm

I didn’t like it as it seems poorly argued. I don’t see what her criticism is, though she claims there is one. Perhaps it is meant to be obvious to people who read books for a living. She seems to resent (unspecified) power imbalances and (unrefuted) claims of the superiority of a scientific way of thinking.

3 Thor August 12, 2013 at 7:55 pm

Exactly. What arguments? That wasn’t arguing, that was venting.

4 Rachmananon August 11, 2013 at 9:04 pm

I found her critique of Pinker to be snark and attitude without substance or much attempt at it. She doesn’t engage with Pinker’s arguments point by point; instead she ridicules him for “having a bee in his bonnet” and smears him by association to Sam Harris et al. So let me be substantial. Pinker is basically right. From experience, I can tell you that it is often taboo (in the technical sense of that term) to attempt evolutionary or Darwinist explanation in many humanities.e.g, in literary theory. One is well advised to wait until one has secured tenure if one is tempted to do so (or be content to get a job grinding lenses or whatever else one can do for a living after excommunication). Pinker is also right as to why it is taboo – evolutionary explanation is smeared as racist/ reactionary/ Eugenic/ politically conservative – and he’s right that this is not accurate at all. (And he’s accurate when he points out that the pseudoscience of eugenics does not follow from Darwin AND has historically in practice been associated with the left – the Progressive movement in the US in the early 20th century (read Walter Nugent’s Progressivism: A Very Short Introduction) and with mid-century Social Democracies in Scandinavia (read Tony Judt’s Postwar) – but that’s a tangent. The gist is that evolutionary understanding has no necessary place on the right-left continuum. (See for example, Peter Singer’s A Darwinian Left)
To cite a different example, it is still quite common for Lit Theory people to appeal to Freudian explanation; those who point out that his theories have been disproven by science are accused of committing “scientism.”
So, there may be minor points one can argue with, but in essence Pinker is right; the humanities, at least big swatches of them, could improve by dropping anti-scientific attitudes and embracing science. OF COURSE science can’t explain everything or explain all the ultimate questions, and I respect the mysterian position. But science CAN -to a non-negligible degree now and surely way more in the future – tell us a lot about human cognition, emotion, and behavior – the concerns of much of the humanities. And really, many humanities people don’t want to know. Pinker is right. (And, by the way, YES, postmodern people with professorships still decry “privileging” scientific “discourse.” Pinker argues – and I’m with him – that science deserves to be privileged, and that we all agree when, e.g., we need to fly somewhere or want to Skype with someone on another continent or have a serious illness that science can fix- postmodernists don’t turn up their noses at that quadruple bypass or stent or pacemaker that extends their lives by two quality decades.)

5 prior probability August 11, 2013 at 10:33 pm

Your points are well taken, but aren’t you confusing applied science (Skype, aviation, etc.) with pure science (research)? Also, why should the humanities embrace “science” (or should I say “pseudo-science”) in matters that are not really “soluble” or testable? Why shouldn’t the sciences embrace the humanities? To me, for example, it’s like the difference between the political economy of Adam Smith versus the bullshit blackboard economics of today. Maybe the latter appears more “scientific” than the former, but I would prefer to read a single chapter of “The wealth of nations” or “A theory of moral sentiments” to a dozen AER or Econometrica articles …

6 cthulhu August 12, 2013 at 12:09 am

You think economics is a science?? (0.05 smiley)

Also, your distinction between “applied science” and “pure science” is nonsense; maybe you are thinking about the distinction between applied math and pure math (which has often been pulled out of the pure world and made to do service in the applied world).

7 LK August 12, 2013 at 2:02 am

“To me, for example, it’s like the difference between the political economy of Adam Smith versus the bullshit blackboard economics of today. Maybe the latter appears more “scientific” than the former, but I would prefer to read a single chapter of “The wealth of nations” or “A theory of moral sentiments” to a dozen AER or Econometrica articles …”

This kind of irrelevant posturing is why your budget is being slashed.

8 Ricardo August 13, 2013 at 11:01 am

“Maybe the latter appears more “scientific” than the former, but I would prefer to read a single chapter of “The wealth of nations” or “A theory of moral sentiments” to a dozen AER or Econometrica articles”

I’m not sure if this is a valid analogy for science v. humanities but it does point to the tendency to idolize rather than critically read historically significant authors and texts. There is a lot to be gained by reading Smith, for sure, but there is also dubious stuff about, say, the labor theory of value in there. The latter is useful for someone who wants to understand intellectual history but not so much for someone who wants to understand the way the economy actually works.

9 SS August 11, 2013 at 11:24 pm


Science is about understanding phenomena, but this tree of understanding doesn’t grow by itself, it takes imagination, it takes creativity, it takes analytical skills, dedication and so much more, to grow this tree.
And then there is the humanities, which provides a lens on humanity and human activity, and is frequently associated with human imagination and creativity, but rarely with analytical skills, because of which the lens is necessarily fuzzy. This is what Pinker is decrying, and this is what the humanities is fighting against, this is the fight at the core, because science is all about increasing our understanding but with analytical care. The funny thing is that if you look at the great novelists, they wouldn’t be truly great if they didn’t have an analytical eye; this fight would be moot if only it be viewed with a scientific eye.

10 Careless August 12, 2013 at 12:57 pm

And he’s accurate when he points out that the pseudoscience of eugenics

Oh good, the creationists are here to tell us what Pinker thinks.

11 Rachmananon August 12, 2013 at 9:23 pm

“Oh good, the creationists are here to tell us what Pinker thinks.” – Short, snarky comments like this are hard to parse, but if this one is meant to be a putdown of my post, let me (certainly not a creationist) tell you what Pinker thinks: 1) Pinker states outright that eugenics is pseudoscience; 2) Pinker argues that in no way does Darwinism imply eugenics; 3) Pinker points out that those who sought to apply eugenics as social policy have as often been from the leftward side of the political spectrum as from the rightward side. In the New Republic piece, he mentions early-20thC Progressives in the US (Walter Nugent’s superb history of the the Progressive era in the US details this, if one wants to follow up); I added the mid-20th C eugenics policies of the Social Democracies in Norway, Denmark, and Sweden, which can be read about in detail in Tony Judt’s magisterial book “Postwar.” This is not meant, by Pinker or me, as a critique of the left and it is certainly NOT meant to imply that leftist thought inevitably (or even “often”) leads to eugenics. Rather it is to point out how misguided it is to dismiss Darwinian approaches to understanding human psychology because one fears that they are certain to have right-wing political implications. As Peter Singer argues in “A Darwinian Left,” Darwinian psychology could just as well turn out to have leftist political implications, or its implications may be orthogonal to current left-right splits. In any event, if they produce accurate, well-supported science one is going to have to deal with them sooner or later regardless of one’s politics.

12 Careless August 13, 2013 at 7:56 am

Your points two and three are correct, but your first is a lie. Pinker bashes the policy of eugenics, but he’s not stupid or creationist enough to think that it wouldn’t work or that it is a pseudoscience.

13 Rachmananon August 14, 2013 at 12:08 am

“A lie”? Come on – you’re being Careless, for he does say it. In this article, Pinker classifies eugenics among “political movements with a pseudoscientific patina”; and in his The Blank Slate he says that “the intricacies of genetics and development would make it far harder [to selectively breed] than the fans of eugenics imagined… some traits, such as scientific genius, athletic virtuosity, and musical giftedness are what scientists call emergenics: they materialize only with certain combinations of genes and therefore don’t ‘breed true.’ Moreover, a given gene can lead to different behaviors in different environments….” Further, he says, if science ever figures out how, still “the costs in freedom to individual and possible abuse by authorities are unacceptable.” If you think he’s wrong or lying, write to the New Republic (of course, he’d surely welcome an attack from the far Right).

14 RJ August 11, 2013 at 4:49 pm


If you enjoyed the rudraveena performance I think you may like this. The instrument is the surbahar (you can think of it as a bass sitar, somewhere on the spectrum between the veena and the sitar) and the performer is Imrat Khan, the younger brother of the acclaimed Vilayat Khan.

I have enjoyed reading your India/Sri Lanka updates!

15 Matt August 11, 2013 at 10:52 pm

As to 1), I’d always heard of that as a Yakuza thing to do (w/ pearls, in that case). If so, it’s certainly not specific to S.E. Asia.

16 v August 11, 2013 at 11:27 pm

Heck yes, more puffins!

17 Nick August 12, 2013 at 12:47 am

Came for ‘Putin collects flower’. Was very disappointed….

18 Daniel August 12, 2013 at 1:15 am

I clicked on 5 because I had misread it. I thought it was “Puttin collects flower”. I was already picturing the rise of a new meme.

19 dtg August 12, 2013 at 6:57 am

Simil is quoted: “I don’t have a cellphone. When you spend all your time checking your cellphone messages, or updating your Facebook (of course I don’t have a Facebook page) then you don’t have any time for reading.”

Simil does not appear to understand the use of the cellphone. Let us hope the rest of his ideas are somewhat more thoughtful.

20 Z August 12, 2013 at 8:54 am

#4: I too am surprised that a sudden loss of purchasing power brought on by money printing has had a negative impact on the Japanese economy. I dare anyone to find an example of massive money printing doing anything but make the economy grow. They must be doing it wrong.

21 AS August 12, 2013 at 10:03 am

Thanks for posting the Balachander piece. You may also enjoy his performance of Raga Amritavarshini

22 Michael August 12, 2013 at 11:32 am

The Laura Ingalls Wilder piece would have been better if it wasn’t so blatantly ideological. Pretty much all of the editorial changes between Laura’s initial draft and the final Little House books can be clearly justified considering that they were being re-written as children’s books. Removing a story about a serial murderers, or adding dialogue (in the voice of the heroic Pa) to existing stories are not exactly controversial decisions in that context; but the article gives the impression that this completely changes the moral of the stories. It doesn’t. Similarly, the factoid about the school for the blind being partly gov’t subsidized is overblown, as the family still had to pony up a sizable amount of money for tuition. Most of this has been well known for a while now.

The Globe wildly overstates its case in trying to sell the Little House stories as a false myth. The tie-ins to the Libertarian Party, however, is quite interesting.

23 Tyler Fan August 12, 2013 at 11:37 am

Simil reads 80 books a year. I would take the over if guessing how many books Tyler reads a year, start-to-finish.

24 Norman Pfyster August 12, 2013 at 2:28 pm


25 john personna August 12, 2013 at 11:37 am

“I am pretty sure it doesn’t work that way, that if Blake had pursued chemistry and Yeats physics they would have been fundamentally different people.”

As I read Pinker, he is arguing against this “two tribes” worldivew, and suggesting that healthy people have respect for both art and science. I’d sure like to think so, and for that I really distrust the “vs” framing.

I think that “vs” grows out of university funding battles. The idea that majoring in physics makes you one kind of person means that physics funding should be fought/supported along tribal lines. A Physicist who reads poetry? Impossible!

26 TallDave August 13, 2013 at 11:17 am

1. I’m afraid to ask anyone I know about this. Sorry, not researching this one.

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: