Wed 6 Feb 2013
Eric Cantor’s recent call to shift funding from the social sciences to the hard sciences (“Funds currently spent by the government on social science — including on politics of all things — would be better spent helping find cures to diseases”) reflects a profound misunderstanding of the complementary role these two epistemological arenas play. John Sides has covered a range of reasons why the social sciences should not be seen as superfluous to needs, all centering on the fact that social phenomena are central to human well-being and happiness. As he notes:
My problem with this laser focus on the hard sciences and on medicine is that it pretends that people’s quality of life simply depends on physical phenomena—how fast computers are or how much their knee hurts and so on. That’s simply not true. Much of people’s happiness—indeed, including whether they have access to computers or can endure a physical malady—depends on social phenomena.
Even more compelling is Mark Slouka’s 2009 article in Harpers, which offers one of the clearest defenses of the humanities I have ever read: simply put, without the humanities it is very difficult to be a functional citizen in a democracy (but in their absence it is very easy to produce a docile population of workers).
Let me take Slouka’s argument past what really read like something of an either/or tradeoff between the humanities and what he called “mathandscience” and toward a point of complementarity here: simply put, science is a way of seeing the world that enables particular understandings of that world. Science has facilitated spectacular changes in the way we live, from household technologies to medical advances. But science is but one way of seeing the world, one that does not tell us what we should do, or what else we should do. Those questions are the province of ethics, justice, and empathy. Science is poorly equipped to address any of these.
This is why science and technology require the social sciences and humanities. They help us separate what is possible in the world from what should be done in the world. Remember, history is littered with examples of highly rational, scientific projects that killed huge numbers of people in the name of a greater good or a logical goal (anyone remember the Soviet collectivization of agriculture under Stalin? How about the far less brutal, but still problematic ujamaa collectivization in Tanzania?). Without the arts, humanities, and social sciences, we are left with a tool (science) and no guidance about how to use it. Further, the growing field of science and technology studies shows that the capacities of particular technologies, in and of themselves, tell us little about who will adopt them and why. Trevor Birkenholtz’s work in India, for example, demonstrates that farmers continue to use tubewells, even though they know that this practice contributes to groundwater depletion, because the use of tubewells is closely bound up in one’s identity as a good and prosperous farmer. Without such insights, how can we work with farmers in this region to identify locally-appropriate alternative water-supply technologies?
Cantor, and those like him, live in an odd world where technologies and commodities are social goods unto themselves with universal and obvious value. Existing social scientific work already demonstrates this to be untrue. Defunding such work will not make his beliefs more true, it will just make it harder to make the world a better place with the scientific tools we have and will develop in the future.