Let me be clear, while I am bothered by a narrativizing trend, in no way I am implying that one can have a non-narrative or non-theoretical understanding of empirical fact. Even the selection of what counts as a fact and the typologies around that. This is a tautological and fundamentally about definitions. My issue is simpler than that and yet harder to articulate clearly, one has a set of typologies that lock out any possible outside data, paradigms and models cannot change and cannot come anything closer to useful or true. We cannot ignore that all knowledge is situated in a theory, even if it is just some implicit theory of mind.
This is the tricky thing about language though and about metaphors in our models. I may imply some kind of naive realism about facts because I am pushing my language to try to talk to a general audience about two fundamentally separate but related issues: one) the way psychological heuristics can be used to disengage and disarm any criticism and two) when a paradigm, historical methodology, teleological stance, or something goes wrong and can no longer adapt to new facts. To use a metaphor, when this happens, ideas become brittle and break. In politics, this is PARTICULARLY common, and especially when politics stand in for moral positions they way one used to treat religion as being.
Let’s look at this in other places, however, as politics isn’t the only limit. I was reading an excellent post at edge,
But the rhetoric of science doesn’t just risk the descent into scientism. It also gives science sole credit for something that it doesn’t deserve: an attention to the construction and operation of things. Most of the “science of X” books look at the material form of their subject, be it neurochemical, computational, or economic. But the practice of attending to the material realities of a subject has no necessary relationship to science at all. Literary scholars study the history of the book, including its material evolution from clay tablet to papyrus to codex. Artists rely on a deep understanding of the physical mediums of pigment, marble, or optics when they fashion creations. Chefs require a sophisticated grasp of the chemistry and biology of food in order to thrive in their craft. To think that science has a special relationship to observations about the material world isn’t just wrong, it’s insulting.
Beyond encouraging people to see science as the only direction for human knowledge and absconding with the subject of materiality, the rhetoric of science also does a disservice to science itself. It makes science look simple, easy, and fun, when science is mostly complex, difficult, and monotonous.
A case in point: the popular Facebook page “I f*cking love science” posts quick-take variations on the “science of x” theme, mostly images and short descriptions of unfamiliar creatures like the pink fairy armadillo, or illustrated birthday wishes to famous scientists like Stephen Hawking. But as the science fiction writer John Skylar rightly insisted in a fiery takedown of the practice last year, most people don’t f*cking love science, they f*cking love photography—pretty images of fairy armadillos and renowned physicists. The pleasure derived from these pictures obviates the public’s need to understand how science actually gets done—slowly and methodically, with little acknowledgement and modest pay in unseen laboratories and research facilities.
The rhetoric of science has consequences. Things that have no particular relation to scientific practice must increasingly frame their work in scientific terms to earn any attention or support. The sociology of Internet use suddenly transformed into “web science.” Long accepted practices of statistical analysis have become “data science.” Thanks to shifting educational and research funding priorities, anything that can’t claim that it is a member of a STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) field will be left out in the cold. Unfortunately, the rhetoric of science offers the most tactical response to such new challenges. Unless humanists reframe their work as “literary science,” they risk getting marginalized, defunded and forgotten.
Hence all the “scientific skeptics” I met with undergraduate degrees in the humanities. I used to think it was rare, but when I was involved in that I noticed it was actually quite common because people who work deeply in scientific thought realize how precarious some of these ideas are, and ones who are particularly reflective realize that rhetoric matters. That is not just because it convinces the public to fund science. Rhetoric matters because it has subtle effects on our typologies and methods. It banks on things we see and don’t see, and like the vulgar Marxists I was talking about earlier, often this enthusiasm for “science” is dangerous to any idea of science itself–it romanticizes it while also emptying out the relationship to other areas of life. It may damage the funding in the humanities but even STEM itself won’t always be safe. In fact, ask the B.S. in Biology how much work they have in their field.
When you no longer can adjudicate and adjust to changing inputs and the world around you, the metaphors that color your dealing blind you to facts that would, when your model is adjusted, make your theory stronger–in the sense of more useful. When that cannot happen, things fall apart.
That is what is wrong with the narrative cop-out: it is not we should become naive realists about facts and values. To imagine that we don’t have an ideology. We are always situated: the bigger problem is can our worldviews adapt to our historical and physical circumstances, can they process information, and can they help us bring about what we really want. If a worldview can’t deliver on its end, what do you think it will deliver you personally?
(originally published here)