20.227 great promise, not great threat

From: Humanist Discussion Group (by way of Willard McCarty willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk>
Date: Fri, 29 Sep 2006 08:29:53 +0100

               Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 20, No. 227.
       Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                     Submit to: humanist_at_princeton.edu

   [1] From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk> (56)
         Subject: anti-intellectualism vs the promise

   [2] From: "Hunsucker, R.L." <R.L.Hunsucker_at_uva.nl> (208)
         Subject: RE: 20.224 great promise, not great threat

         Date: Thu, 28 Sep 2006 08:37:48 +0100
         From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk>
         Subject: anti-intellectualism vs the promise

The anti-intellectualism detailed for one part of the world by David
Sewell is not unfamiliar to those of us who live elsewhere. The
seriousness of the situations in which it is growing cannot be
overstated. Common cause with our colleagues in the natural and
social sciences would be foolish in the extreme to reject. If there
are cogent arguments against such statements as these, then please
let them be made. But I doubt that they can be made persuasively.

At the same time, while we can, if we can, the best we as individuals
can do, I think, is to be clear and steadily eloquent about the
promise of what we are now engaged in developing -- eloquent not just
to ourselves and our already committed fellow travellers but to those
who have no particular reason to think one way or another about that
promise. This is difficult to do for all sorts of reasons. Let me
focus here on one of those difficulties.

The dominant model for successful relation between universities and
the wider world since WWII has been Big Science, starting with
the Manhattan Project in the US. In physics, the dominant field at
the time, Louis Alvarez (for whom as a youth I worked as the lowest
of his lowest) did for research in his field what Henry Ford did for
the automobile, and in much the same style. I think some have called
it "factory physics". It was spectacularly successful. But having
been on that scene at the time when it was successful -- graduate
students literally queuing up for the privilege of being involved
somehow, anyhow -- I can say that some, I suspect many physicists
were not particularly happy with the style of work. They wanted to be
cabinetmakers but had ended up being shop managers in a furniture factory.

The point is, I think, that we need to think carefully about what
appeals to people, starting with ourselves.

About a year ago I found myself in a group of classicists, one of
them very prominent in his specialism. They were, as classicists are
wont to do these days, complaining about the fact that their
discipline is declining in numbers. It's a serious problem, which I
do not want in any way to make light of. But it seemed to me then as
now that the way forward for them begins with the appeal I just spoke
of with regards to physics. Transferrable skills, yes, yes, yes....
But is being transferrably skilled, or simply being transferrable,
why people like us went the directions we went? Idealism does not get
much time in the marketplace, but it does get a great deal of
attention wherever it is that our motivations arise, and whenever it
is that people ask the hard questions.

Earlier this week I interviewed a middle-aged investment banker from
the City (the financial district of London), who has decided that
having made his money he wants to do, as he said, something for
himself. So he comes to talk about enrolling in a postgraduate
programme in the digital humanities. He read history at Baliol
College Oxford many years ago and remembers what the intellectual
life was like, and that's what he wants again. I was powerfully
reminded that we do indeed have a very interesting and not
inconsequential audience to address. Do we have the words?



Dr Willard McCarty | Reader in Humanities Computing | Centre for
Computing in the Humanities | King's College London | Kay House, 7
Arundel Street | London WC2R 3DX | U.K. | +44 (0)20 7848-2784 fax:
-2980 || willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk www.kcl.ac.uk/humanities/cch/wlm/

         Date: Fri, 29 Sep 2006 08:22:11 +0100
         From: "Hunsucker, R.L." <R.L.Hunsucker_at_uva.nl>
         Subject: RE: 20.224 great promise, not great threat

[ I'm going to respond in two postings, for reasons both of
length and of content. ]

I appreciate David's graciously and thoughtfully responding
to my posting.

Quite interesting to me are two dichotomies he draws, one
more pronounced and equilibrious than the other.

To begin with the latter : the one (implicitly) setting the
"situation in the United States" off against the (possible)
situation(s) elsewhere.

The USA is indeed where I myself grew up and was educated
(excepting a year's work at a German university), but I haven't
been resident there for more than twenty-five years. That's one
reason I'm particularly interested in his observations, and in
possible answers from others on this list to the question I pose
below, occasioned by his bringing in of Alan Sokal -- someone I
tend myself to consider maybe just as rabidly and possibly even
irresponsibly pro-natural-science-polemical as the practitioners
of "anti-scientistic bullying" are irresponsibly rabid in the other
direction. (But more on that in my next posting.)

[Incidentally just for safety's sake, though the clarification will
probaly not be necessary for most persons on this list : the
term "scientistic" which I used must never be confused with
"scientific" etc. ; see the OED's definition of scientism as
"2. A term applied (freq. in a derogatory manner) to a belief in
the omnipotence of scientific knowledge and techniques; also
to the view that the methods of study appropriate to physical
science can replace those used in other fields such as
philosophy and, esp., human behaviour and the social
sciences" and of scientistic as "Of or pertaining to scientism
(sense 2)". I assume David too is using it in this sense.]

It is coincidentally this very Sokal who in another publication
(_Impostures intellectuelles_, with Jean Bricmont ; later
translated into English) remarked more or less in passing that
the more virulent and polemical varieties of the constructivist/
postmodernistic/relativistic attitude to science, though founded
on writings of latter-20th-century European intellectuals,
flourished much less broadly and obviously in Europe itself
than in North America. When I read this years ago (and I'm
working from memory here in my (cautious) formulation
above), I couldn't help but enthusiastically agree with this

But that's not the same as saying that I understand *why*
such was or is the case. I don't. And this is the perfect
occasion to pose to all of you -- especially those of you
experienced in North American academia, which may well be
most of you -- the question : =3D> *Why* did this culture-wars
phenomenon catch on so much more on that side of the
water than on this, given that the theoretical foundations
were laid much more on this side (not least in France) than
on that ??
This list seems almost the perfect place to initiate such a
deliciously reflexive discussion.

It is certainly *not* the case that the postmodernist (to
compress the whole matter into one not really accurate
but often-applied term) conception of science-in-the-world
marched quickly to victory in the hearts and minds of
Europeans and therefore there was no need further to
engage in dialogues/debates/controversies/polemics on
the matter. Scientism, even in (humanities etc.) academic
circles, is no less endemic here than elsewhere.

Why, then ?? And this against the background of the fact
that Europeans (here including Britons) have in qualitative
terms surely predominated in dissolving the philosophical
foundations of scientism, from Edmond Bouty, Ferdinand
de Saussure, Gaston Bachelard and Ludwik Fleck via Michael
Polanyi, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Karl Popper, Imre Lakatos,
Michel Foucault, Jean-Fran=E7ois Lyotard, Paul Feyerabend,
through Mary Hesse, Stephen Toulmin, Bruno Latour, David
Bloor, Barry Barnes to Karin Knorr-Cetina, Harry Collins, Steve
Woolgar, Michael Mulkay, Steven Shapin, Trevor Pinch, Dan
Sperber and further.

David has therefore a certain point in contrasting the
surroundings in which he has been operating with those in
other areas of the world. The suggestion is that at least part
of the explanation is to be sought in the religious environment.
But somehow that seems at best only a part of the answer.
Maybe even only a small part.

Laval Hunsucker, Amsterdam, Nederland

> -----Oorspronkelijk bericht-----
> Van: Humanist Discussion Group [mailto:humanist_at_Princeton.EDU]Namens
> Humanist Discussion Group (by way of Willard McCarty
> <willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk>)
> Verzonden: donderdag 28 september 2006 9:01
> Aan: humanist_at_Princeton.EDU
> Onderwerp: 20.224 great promise, not great threat
> Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 20, No. 224.
> Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
> www.kcl.ac.uk/schools/humanities/cch/research/publications/hum
> anist.html
> www.princeton.edu/humanist/
> Submit to: humanist_at_princeton.edu
> Date: Thu, 28 Sep 2006 07:53:12 +0100
> From: David Sewell <dsewell_at_virginia.edu>
> >
> On Wed, 27 Sep 2006, R.L. Hunsucker wrote:
> > And then as to David's posting under this heading.
> >
> > This all sounds quite (direly) intriguing, to quote : "a
> historical
> > moment when the authority, independence, and integrity of
> > the natural sciences have been under sustained attack from
> > powerful retrograde forces", "the suppression of inquiry" --
> > which makes one all the more curious to what he's in fact
> > referring. And "empirical evidence" of what ?? Maybe I missed
> > something along the line, but it all sounds sufficiently ominous
> > to merit some discussion even on this list (now that we're off
> > on science as opposed to us). I'm quite curious.
> >
> > I hope he will fill us in and be more explicit, for I'd
> welcome the
> > occasion to see discussed, against the background of an actual
> > specific contemporary situation, concepts such as the authority
> > and independence of the natural sciences -- topics on which
> > there exists a great deal of confusion and misunderstanding, it
> > seems to me.
> I'll do my best to respond without being polemical, but I
> can't respond
> without exposing my own political viewpoint, with which others are of
> course free to disagree.
> The situation in the United States is quite simply that
> scientists in a
> variety of fields, from environmental sciences to evolutionary biology
> to medical research and beyond, have been undermined and put on the
> defensive by the explicit policies and actions of the Bush
> administration and its allies. I'm sure that the broad outlines of the
> situation (e.g., the renewed effort to "balance" Darwinism with
> creationistic theories in the classroom; attempts to censor
> or suppress
> climate researchers at odds with the Administration line on global
> warming) are familiar to Europeans, but the best single source for
> anyone interested in the details would be the just-issued revised
> version of "The Republican War on Science" by Chris Mooney
> (Basic Books,
> 2006).
> I may have overreacted to what I perceived as a "humanities versus
> sciences" reference because of some personal history. I earned a Ph.D.
> in literature and then taught for eight years in an American
> university
> department of English in an environment where the sort of
> social-constructivist critique of sciences that Andrew Ross offered in
> "Strange Weather" was very much in the ascendant. I can
> remember myself
> loosely considering science departments "the enemy", if I
> thought about
> them at all. I left university teaching in 1992 and ended up
> for several
> years working on the editorial staff of the major
> international journal
> of radiocarbon studies, housed at the University of Arizona,
> a position
> that brought me into constant contact with geoscientists,
> dendrochronologists, soil scientists, oceanographers, paleobotanists,
> and archaeologists from all parts of the world. It was an
> education that
> soon made me thoroughly ashamed of the caricatured view of scientific
> practice and epistemology that I'd accepted without questioning. So I
> was on Alan Sokal's side by the time of his famous 1997 hoax
> article in
> "Social Text" (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sokal_affair
> for a good
> brief history of this episode). And I think he was quite prophetic in
> seeing the postmodernist attack on science as ultimately aiding
> reactionary anti-intellectualism; notoriously, the advocates
> of putting
> Intelligent Design into biology classrooms have used the language of
> "teaching the controversy" and appealed to vague notions of
> multiculturalism in arguing that students have a right to have their
> beliefs about human history respected.
> One of the people I came to know at Arizona was Malcolm
> Hughes, head of
> the Tree-Ring Laboratory there, as wonderful a colleague as
> I've had in
> 20+ years of university employment. He was a victim in 2005
> of the sort of
> anti-scientistic bullying that I used to blithely think
> happened in the
> bad old Soviet Union, not the good old USA; see a summary
> account on the
> Union of Concerned Scientists' website
> http://www.ucsusa.org/global_warming/solutions/Barton-Investig

In short, the last few years have been precarious ones for the
"authority and independence of the natural sciences" in these parts.

I'd recommend ScienceBlogs, www.scienceblogs.com, for good discussions
by a variety of folks on current issues in the culture and politics of

David Sewell, Editorial and Technical Manager
ROTUNDA, The University of Virginia Press
PO Box 400318, Charlottesville, VA 22904-4318 USA
Courier: 310 Old Ivy Way, Suite 302, Charlottesville VA 22903
Email: dsewell_at_virginia.edu Tel: +1 434 924 9973
Web: http://rotunda.upress.virginia.edu/
Received on Fri Sep 29 2006 - 04:07:37 EDT

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