“Reason is larger than science.” So Leon Wieseltier reminds us in his essay “Crimes Against Humanities,” his reply to Steven Pinker’s “Science Is Not Your Enemy.” If well practiced, science reduces errors, but it grants no immunity to nonsense. The closer we get to people, the more utility the humanities have.
Wieseltier mixes too much by putting “physics and biology and economics” in the science bucket. That little list starts deep in science territory, but ends in the contested border zone. No one disputes the position or power of physics. But economics? Social sciences remain fundamentally different from physics.
Economics may have physics-ish aspects (its macro, theoretical and impractically impersonal parts). But economists who bother with observable behavior quickly encounter our unphysicsy features. John Stuart Mill warned that economics “predicts only such of the phenomena of the social state as take place in consequence of the pursuit of wealth. It makes entire abstraction of every other human passion or motive.” Since we’re more than money maximizing machines, "the mere political economist, he who has studied no science but Political Economy, if he attempts to apply his science to practice, will fail."
Mill was right. Economics’ desire for a unifying theory has led it and us astray. The idea of “utility” as meta-motive, the single thing we always seek to maximize, hubristically abstracts away humanness. In the recent financial crisis did people get impossible mortgages because they preferred the utility of greater risk? Or because they were imprudent, or duped, or just following the herd? Could an economics that handles evidently heterogeneous human motives work better? As I’ve noted, economics could fruitfully be more like fiction, and history, and it can stumble when pretending to physics-ness.
Mill said “Laws of mind and laws of matter are so dissimilar...that it would be contrary to all principles of rational arrangement to mix them.” Much of nature is mindless. And though we have physics-able parts, we also have minds. In the realm of minds new ideas can change choices. Nothing in physics chooses. Or innovates. Or changes its behavior because of new ideas. People do. We’re not biological billiard balls. Economics (once called moral science) itself promotes ideas that change behaviors.
John McPhee said the category “non-fiction” is like saying “you had non-grapefruit for breakfast.” Perhaps true, but not fruitfully accurate. Similarly non-science can be usefully analyzed. Not all non-science is nonsense, some is very reliable. Many skills and arts are unscienced. And much remains unscience-able (all that’s subjective).
Wieseltier quotes the maxim “Accept the truth from whoever utters it.” That applies equally to the sciences and the humanities. Neither has a monopoly on reason. It’s wiser to retain and develop diverse thinking tools—to reason humbly, fitting the tool to the task. Much knowledge is reliable, without “totalizing” theory (which can induce blindness).
The porous border between science and the humanities must be patrolled for nonsense smuggled in either direction.
Illustration by Julia Suits, The New Yorker Cartoonist & author of The Extraordinary Catalog of Peculiar Inventions.
Previously in this series: