Current Reading

This blog is primarily for me to blog my responses to books that I'm reading. Sometimes I blog about other stuff too, though.

I'm currently reading The Blank Slate by Steven Pinker.

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Wednesday, February 14, 2018

The common roots of PoMo and the STEM pedestal?

There's a lot to unpack in this Steven Pinker essay in the Chronicle, far more than I have time to unpack.  I certainly don't agree with all of it, and I think he is placing STEM on a pedestal, a practice that I have little patience for.  However, he is placing STEM on a slightly different pedestal than the one I usually bemoan, a pedestal of Truth.  That doesn't make it wholly defensible (STEM is great for "is", not so great for "ought", another point I've long hammered on), but it is a distinction worth noting.  Also, he is tracing today's critics of science to the same roots as the post-modernists of the 90's, a conflation that I've questioned before.

Still, despite his commission of so many sins that I've lamented so often, something in his polemic stirred up some thoughts in me.  I still don't believe that today's critics of science (particularly the critics of social science and applied science) are cast from exactly the same mold as the PoMos who spent the 90's arguing that scientific facts are "just, like, your opinion, man."  But I am starting to think that maybe they have something in common with those who want us to let every idiot out there get a STEM degree:  They both want STEM to be tamed, to be civilized into a certain set of upper-class mores.

Where STEM most offends PoMos and bleeding-hearts alike is in its stubborn insistence that you have to clear some objective hurdles:  Facts are facts, numbers are numbers, you either measured something correctly or you didn't, etc.  While I have a certain sympathy for those who would use cocktail party games of rhetoric to take down STEM egos on "ought" questions, on matters of society and applications, certainly I have no use for them when they want to argue that quantum mechanics is "just, like, your opinion, man."  Cocktail party games of rhetoric are all well and good until stubborn facts get in the way.  Likewise, our inconvenient insistence on facts and objective truth is a thorn in the side of those who want to either engage in patronage (sorry, the idiot son of a donor is still an idiot, and as long as he can't do math he can't do science) or largess (sorry, the idiot son of a pauper is still an idiot, as is the pauper's idiot daughter, and if they can't do math they can't do science).  The elites see largess as one of the things that legitimizes their status, per the observations of Jane Jacobs in Systems of Survival, but it's hard to justify dispensing that largess in the form of a physics degree for somebody who can't do algebra.

Needless to say, the people in my job who are most eager to give physics degrees to idiots who can't do math are always the children of the upper classes, and they always defend their project with bleeding-heart pleas for sympathy, i.e. invocations of largess.  But math is indifferent to both privilege and poverty, being cold and logical.  It cannot be twisted into the service of an educational agenda.  Science is nearly as inflexible, at least in its pure form.  The fruits of science can be pressed into the service of all sorts of agendas, some of them horrifying and others honorable, but scientific knowledge can only be mastered by walking inflexible paths, paths that bend neither for the high-born nor for the recipients of their largess.

This is anathema to the high-born, so they go after the culture of science from many angles.  These days they are less interested in arguing that quantum mechanics is "just, like, your opinion, man" and more interested in arguing that an insistence on the importance of mastering it is "just, like, your privileged, western, patriarchal, heteronormative opinion, man."

So while I still don't think the PoMos were the progenitors of the kool-aid drinkers who besiege STEM departments these days, I am now beginning to think that those two groups have a common ancestry.  (And, sadly, that ancestry comes with a silver spoon...)