Life During Wartime: Unreasonable Science

By Max Fenton ’19

An odd education policy debate has raged in state legislatures for the past year — whether or not computer-coding classes should be as treated a foreign language. After all, computers speak their own kind of language, and coding is a valuable skill both as a form of communication and as a practical tool. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, Georgia and Rhode Island are expected to take up this debate during the 2017 legislative session, and the larger policy debate is very much unresolved. 

But why has computer coding suddenly struck the fancy of education experts and politicians? The answer lies in a larger, more national obsession with the sciences that has colored national discourse on a variety of topics. If there is one thing that an increasingly divided America seems to agree on, it is the immediate relevance of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), and the immediate irrelevance of most social sciences and (especially) the humanities. Where science is infallible, the humanities are easily warped towards a particular ideology. 

Science has become a catch-all term for knowledge, specifically of the natural world. But what does science actually mean? Though its definition is increasingly tortuous, the meaning of the word has its roots in method, the pre-ordained procedures and techniques of hypothesis and experimentation that organize how phenomena are meant to be investigated. But in the modern sense, “science” as we know it is both an incredibly broad and narrowing conception. It ranges from the hailed successes of NASA and SpaceX on social media to amazing new discoveries published in peer-reviewed journals to a broader, abstract notion equalizing “science” with “progress” (It is this latter type of science that I will denote with a capital S). 

Science has become the catch-all term for rapid modernization, and at the same time, it has narrowed acceptable discourse, education  and belief to a tiny sliver. If Science is ever questioned by religion, social criticism, the humanities, or even morality, those who do not automatically support Science fall on the incorrect side of history, a group of luddites determined to hamstring inevitable modernity. 

Modern Science has thus totalized itself as the sole true way of describing reality. It has immunized itself of any criticism, and has been placed in our overriding quest for modernity as the source of truth. Along the way, proponents of Science have demonized critics and have attempted to regulate what is truly considered knowledge. Though meaningful social criticism is always healthy and should be encouraged, Science has been deemed as free of any potentially problematic values. 

From its use as justification for racism in the 18th and 19th centuries, to the use of vivisection without anesthesia up until the 20th century and to the more modern concerns of animal testing, Science certainly should not be immune from righteous criticism. But our national discourse on Science has taken care to sweep these ethical concerns under the rug, doing the most die-hard Science proponents a favor in freeing them of responsibility to check their own beliefs.

Perhaps the most recognizable facet of this new dogmatic obsession with science is the elitism of scientists in the academy. Perhaps I am little more than a bitter humanities major preaching to the choir, but the obsession with STEM and Science-as-Truth has delegitimized entire fields of study and has propagated the “easy major” myth. Contrary to the worst myths of STEM elitism, my philosophy major is not easy. Like science, it requires the comprehension of specific processes, arguments and hypotheses. And for those who would argue that it’s all made up, consider that the scientific method is itself an entirely arbitrary construction, and that methods are themselves “made up” to help understand the world. 

Furthermore, a common point I hear from other humanities and social sciences majors is on the real, raw, emotional labor that is poured in to writing a paper or book. Majors other than STEM require a considerable deal of effort, even if it is applied differently, and we are passionate about what we study, often for purely existential purposes. Entire fields — queer theory, gender studies, and various forms of ethnic and cultural studies are the product of a desire for recognition and ultimately survival. 

If you still refuse to consider this work hard emotional labor, then you are missing the point. If the ultimate quest of education is to search for truth, the scientific or the humanistic are both valid pursuits. But holding the former over the latter, or worse, as its substitute, threatens to poison discourse and insulate critical thinking from necessary criticism.