Most of us accept a priori the institutionalized distinction between the sciences and the humanities. If asked, we can tick off the names of “disciplines” that are “scientific” and those that constitute “the humanities”… (The “social sciences” are somehow less centrally – more vaguely? — “scientific” — but what do we mean essentially by these distinctions?) [It’s worth noting that novelist CP Snow famously posited this distinction in his Cambridge lecture and subsequent book “The Two Cultures” — ca. 1959.]
We might say that science is “empirical” meaning that it is based upon real, physical evidence? Or perhaps that it’s “inductive” – its theories or “laws” flowing from observations of facts… Or perhaps that it is “quantitative” or “technical” – its conclusions determined by the use of sometimes very complex mathematical logic or by complex apparatus. We might also say that it employs a rigorous methodology that includes exact logical provisions for “falsifiability” [SEE: Karl Popper, The Logic of Scientific Investigation – and elsewhere], for open peer review – including test by replication – and for validation by demonstration of predictive power… Science also is systematically accretive and depends on careful citation and documentation, building upon itself like a coral reef…
But, it strikes me that any humanist should feel uncomfortable at the assumption that the humanities do not – or are incapable of – meeting these standards at least most of them in most cases? (I’ll leave it to the reader to assess what is most essentially “humanist” – but I often have the uncomfortable sense that the humanities may too often depend for their esoteric authority upon the incoherence of their evidentiary base or upon the imprecision of language or between languages…?)
I attribute “beauty” as a primary motive/value to “the arts”… (The American poet Randall Jarrell once said: “Criticism is the poetry of the prosaic.”) And I heard, anecdotally, a few years ago that the performance artist, Laurie Anderson, was invited to a discussion about “the arts” and “the sciences” and before too long was asking “What are we doing here?” I understood this to be an intuitive recognition that the arts and the sciences are on very similar tracks… I believe that artists are able to operate more spontaneously, intuitively and imaginatively — perhaps more “aesthetically”? but less “systematically” ? Scientists often operate on that same frontier but with the requirement that they test their intuitions using the scientific method and then publicly disclose their “tests”.
“Belief” is ultimately the subjective preserve of the individual — and the institutional preserve of religion. Maintaining the distinction between “belief” and reason (or logic) is a fundamental value of the Enlightenment — particularly in public discourse.
OK so what am I getting at here? And why?
Ultimately all policy — whether “scientific” or not — and all human decisions should be based on logical analysis and on evidence. Both evidence and analysis are susceptible to testing, to evaluation and thus to reasoned discussion. Our civil discourse will always be improved by clear specification of analytical logic and by free, open and effective disclosure of empirical evidence or DATA.
Respecting data there are a series of fundamental criteria that must be satisfied to validate it’s “authenticity” and its probative value (its effectiveness as evidence). As citizens, we have the right to demand that public policy and public decisions be based on well-formed logic and on valid evidence… Discussion that occurs in our public fora should always distinguish between matters of logic and fact and matters of belief.
We’ll pursue these notions – in the context of free, open effective access to data and in the context of science literacy – in future posts…
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