Izabella Laba, a noted mathematician at the University of British Columbia, recently posted some tweets that used me as a bad, cautionary example for how “STEM faculty should be less contemptuous of social sciences.” Here was the offending comment of mine, from the epic Walter Lewin thread last fall:
[W]hy not dispense with the empirically-empty notion of “privilege,” and just talk directly about the actual well-being of actual people, or groups of people? If men are doing horrific things to women—for example, lashing them for driving cars, like in Saudi Arabia—then surely we can just say so in plain language. Stipulating that the torturers are “exercising their male privilege” with every lash adds nothing to anyone’s understanding of the evil. It’s bad writing. More broadly, it seems to me that the entire apparatus of “privilege,” “delegitimation,” etc. etc. can simply be tossed overboard, to rust on the ocean floor alongside dialectical materialism and other theoretical superstructures that were once pompously insisted upon as preconditions of enlightened social discourse. This isn’t quantum field theory. Ordinary words will do.
Prof. Laba derisively commented:
Might as well ask you to explain calculus without using fancy words like “derivative” or “continuous.” Simple number arithmetic will do.
Prof. Laba’s tweets were favorited by Jordan Ellenberg, a mathematician who wrote the excellent popular book How Not to Be Wrong. (Ellenberg had also criticized me last year for my strange, naïve idea that human relations can be thought about using logic.)
Given my respect for the critics, I guess I’m honor-bound to respond.
For the record, I tend not to think about the social sciences—or for that matter, the natural sciences—as monolithic entities at all. I admire any honest attempt to discover the truth about anything. And not being a postmodern relativist, I believe there are deep truths worth discovering in history, psychology, economics, linguistics, possibly even sociology. Reading the books of Steven Pinker underscored for me how much is actually understood nowadays about human nature—much of it only figured out within the last half-century. Likewise, reading the voluminous profundities of Scott Alexander taught me that even in psychiatry, there are truths (and even a few definite cures) to be had for those who seek.
I also believe that the social sciences are harder—way harder—than math or physics or CS. They’re harder because of the tenuousness of the correlations, because of the complexity of each individual human brain (let alone 7 billion of them on the same planet), but most of all, because politics and ideology and the scientist’s own biases place such powerful thumbs on the scale. This makes it all the more impressive when a social scientist, like (say) Stanley Milgram or Judith Rich Harris or Napoleon Chagnon, teaches the world something important and new.
I will confess to contempt for anything that I regard as pompous obscurantism—for self-referential systems of jargon whose main purposes are to bar outsiders, to mask a lack of actual understanding, and to confer power on certain favored groups. And I regard the need to be alert to such systems, to nip them in the bud before they grow into Lysenkoism, as in some sense the problem of intellectual life. Which brings me to the most fundamental asymmetry between the hard and soft sciences. Namely, the very fact that it’s so much harder to nurture new truths to maturity in the social sciences than it is in math or physics, means that in the former, the jargon-weeds have an easier time filling the void—and we know they’ve done it again and again, even in the post-Enlightenment West.
Time for a thought experiment. Suppose you showed up at a university anytime between, let’s say, 1910 and 1970, and went from department to department asking (in so many words): what are you excited about this century? Where are your new continents, what’s the future of your field? Who should I read to learn about that future?
In physics, the consensus answer would’ve been something like: Planck, Einstein, Bohr, Schrödinger, Dirac.
In psychology, it would’ve been: Freud and Jung (with another faction for B. F. Skinner).
In politics and social sciences, over an enormous swath of academia (including in the West), it would’ve been: Marx, Engels, Trotsky, Lenin.
With hindsight, we now know that the physics advice would’ve been absolute perfection, the psychology and politics advice an unmitigated disaster. Yes, physicists today know more than Einstein, can even correct him on some points, but the continents he revealed to us actually existed—indeed, have only become more important since Einstein’s time.
But Marx and Freud? You would’ve done better to leave the campus, and ask a random person on the street what she or he thought about economics and psychology. In high school, I remember cringing through a unit on the 1920s, when we learned about how “two European professors upset a war-weary civilization’s established certainties—with Einstein overturning received wisdom about space and time, and Freud doing just the same for the world of the mind.” It was never thought important to add that Einstein’s theories turned out to be true while Freud’s turned out to be false. Still, at least Freud’s ideas led “only” to decades of bad psychology and hundreds of innocent people sent to jail because of testimony procured through hypnosis, rather than to tens of millions of dead, as with the other social-scientific theory that reigned supreme among 20th-century academics.
Marx and Freud built impressive intellectual edifices—sufficiently impressive for a large fraction of intellectuals to have accepted those men as gurus on par with Darwin and Einstein for almost a century. Yet on nearly every topic they wrote about, we now know that Marx and Freud couldn’t have been any more catastrophically wrong. Moreover, their wrongness was knowable at the time—and was known to many, though the ones who knew were typically the ones who the intellectual leaders sneered at, as deluded reactionaries.
Which raises a question: suppose that, in the 1920s, I’d taken the social experts’ advice to study Marx and Freud, didn’t understand much of what they said (and found nonsensical much of what I did understand), and eventually rejected them as pretentious charlatans. Then why wouldn’t I have been just like Prof. Laba’s ignorant rube, who dismisses calculus because he doesn’t understand technical terms like “continuous” and “derivative”?
On reflection, I don’t think that the two cases are comparable at all.
The hard sciences need technical vocabularies for a simple reason: because they’re about things that normal people don’t spend their hours obsessively worrying about. Yes, I’d have a hard time understanding organic chemists or differential geometers, but largely for the same reasons I’d have a hard time understanding football fans or pirates. It’s not just that I don’t understand the arguments; it’s that the arguments are about a world that’s alien to me (and that, to be honest, I don’t care about as much as I do my world).
Suppose, by contrast, that you’re writing about the topics everyone spends their time obsessively worrying about: politics, society, the human mind, the relations between the races and sexes. In other words, suppose you’re writing about precisely the topics for which the ordinary English language has been honed over centuries—for which Shakespeare and Twain and Dr. King and so many others deployed the language to such spectacular effect. In that case, what excuse could you possibly have to write in academese, to pepper your prose with undefined in-group neologisms?
Well, let’s be charitable; maybe you have a reason. For example, maybe you’re doing a complicated meta-analysis of psychology papers, so you need to talk about r-values and kurtosis and heteroskedasticity. Or maybe you’re putting people in an fMRI machine while you ask them questions, so you need to talk about the temporal resolution in the anterior cingulate cortex. Or maybe you’re analyzing sibling rivalries using game theory, so you need Nash equilibria. Or you’re picking apart sentences using Chomskyan formal grammar. In all these cases, armchair language doesn’t suffice because you’re not just sitting in your armchair: you’re using a new tool to examine the everyday from a different perspective. For present purposes, you might as well be doing algebraic geometry.
The Freudians and Marxists would, of course, claim that they’re doing the exact same thing. Yes, they’d say, you thought you had the words to discuss your own mind or the power structure of society, but really you didn’t, because you lacked the revolutionary theoretical framework that we now possess. (Trotsky’s writings are suffused with this brand of arrogance in nearly every sentence: for example, when he ridicules the bourgeoisie liberals who whine about “human rights violations” in the early USSR, yet who are too dense to phrase their objections within the framework of dialectical materialism.)
I submit that, even without the hindsight of 2015, there would’ve been excellent reasons to be skeptical of these claims. Has it ever happened, you might ask yourself, that someone sat in their study and mused about the same human questions that occupied Plato and Shakespeare and Hume, in the same human way they did, and then came up with a new, scientific conclusion that was as rigorous and secure as relativity or evolution?
Let me know if I missed something, but I can’t think of a single example. Sure, it seems to me, there have been geniuses of human nature, who enlarged our vision without any recourse to the quantitative methods of science. But even those geniuses “only” contributed melodies for other geniuses to answer in counterpoint, rather than stones for everyone who came later to build upon. Also, the geniuses usually wrote well.
Am I claiming that progress is impossible in the social realm? Not at all. The emancipation of slaves, the end of dueling and blasphemy laws and the divine right of kings, women’s suffrage and participation in the workforce, gay marriage—all these strike me as crystal-clear examples of moral progress, as advances that will still be considered progress a thousand years from now, if there’s anyone around then to discuss such things. Evolutionary psychology, heuristics and biases, reciprocal altruism, and countless other developments likewise strike me as intellectual progress within the sciences of human nature. But none of these advances needed recondite language! Ordinary words sufficed for Thomas Paine and Frederick Douglass and John Stuart Mill, as they sufficed for Robert Axelrod and for Kahneman and Tversky. So forgive me for thinking that whatever is true and important in the social world today, should likewise be defensible to every smart person in ordinary words, and that this represents a genuine difference between the social sciences and physics.
Which brings us to the central point that Prof. Laba disputed in that comment of mine. I believe there are countless moral heroes in our time, as well as social scientists who struggle heroically to get the right answers. But as far as I can tell, the people who build complex intellectual edifices around words like “privilege” and “delegitimation” and “entitlement” and “marginalized” are very much the same sort of people who, a few generations ago, built similar edifices around “bourgeoisie” and “dialectical” and “false consciousness.” In both cases, there’s an impressive body of theory that’s held up as the equivalent in its domain of relativity, quantum mechanics, and Darwinism, with any skeptics denounced as science-deniers. In both cases, enlightened liberals are tempted to side with the theorists, since the theorists believe in so many of the same causes that the enlightened liberals believe in, and hate so many of the same people who the enlightened liberals hate. But in both cases, the theorists’ language seems to alternate between incomprehensible word-salad and fervid, often profanity-laced denunciations, skipping entirely over calm clarity. And in both cases, the only thing that the impressive theoretical edifice ever seems to get used for, is to prove over and over that certain favored groups should get more power while disfavored ones should get less.
So I’m led to the view that, if you want to rouse people’s anger about injustice or their pity about preventable suffering, or end arbitrary discrimination codified into law, or give individuals more freedom to pursue their own happiness, or come up with a new insight about human nature, or simply describe the human realities that you see around you—for all these purposes, the words that sufficed for every previous generation’s great humanists will also suffice for you.
On the other hand, to restrict freedom and invent new forms of discrimination—and to do it in the name of equality and justice—that takes theory. You’ll need a sophisticated framework, for example, to prove that even if two adults both insist they’re consenting to a relationship, really they might not be, because of power structures in the wider society that your superior insight lets you see. You’ll need advanced discourse to assure you that, even though your gut reaction might be horror at (say) someone who misspoke once and then had their life gleefully destroyed on social media, your gut is not to be trusted, because it’s poisoned by the same imperialist, patriarchal biases as everything else—and because what looks like a cruel lynching needs to be understood in a broader social context (did the victim belong to a dominant group, or to a marginalized one?). Finally, you’ll need oodles of theory (bring out the Marcuse) to explain why the neoliberal fanaticism about “free speech” and “tolerance” and “due process” and “the presumption of innocence” is too abstract and simplistic—for those concepts, too, fail to distinguish between a marginalized group that deserves society’s protection and a dominant group that doesn’t.
So I concede to Prof. Laba that the complicated discourse of privilege, hegemony, etc. serves a definite purpose for the people who wield it, just as much as the complicated discourse of quantum field theory serves a purpose for physicists. It’s just that the purposes of the privilege-warriors aren’t my purposes. For my purposes—which include fighting injustice, advancing every social and natural science as quickly as possible, and helping all well-meaning women and men see each other’s common humanity—I said last year and I say again that ordinary words will do.
Update (Oct. 26): Izabella Laba has written a response to this post, for which I’m extremely grateful. Her reply reveals that she and I have a great deal of common ground, and also a few clear areas of disagreement (e.g., what’s wrong with Steven Pinker?). But my most important objection is simply that, the first time I loaded her blog, the text went directly over the rock image in the background, making it impossible to read without highlighting it.