Abolish the Walls

The modern university should be less divided, not more: Rebutting "Let's Abolish Social Science"

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Michael Lind’s call for the abolition of the social sciences and his vision of a future university in which the humanities and sciences are housed in separate facilities that turn their backs on each other is a sad indictment of the state of American education. That such a proposition could even be entertained demonstrates the failures of our discipline-based silos, our relentless competition for resources, and our ossified structures of knowledge. But this cleaving of science from humanities is based on a deep misunderstanding not only of the social sciences, but also of the sciences as a whole and their relation to the arts and humanities.

In Lind’s divided New University, where the humanities and sciences are strictly divorced, some of the greatest achievements of human thought would never have happened. Leonardo da Vinci was self-taught because the restricted elite institutions of his day would not accept him. Yet this freed him from the narrow strictures of a church-controlled pedagogy and allowed him to heretically mix together art, empirical science, and applied technology in scandalous but creative ways. Maria Sibylla Merian, one of the first scientific explorers, was one of the greatest entomologists and botanical illustrators of the 18th century. Her skilled and beautiful illustrations and classification of the plants and insects of Suriname drew on the study of natural history, painting and drawing, close observation, and expertise in printing and publishing.

Let us not turn away the da Vincis and Merians of the 21st century by narrow and close-minded learning. Let us abolish the division of knowledge and open our minds to the full symphony of human thought. It is only through a well-rounded education that reaches across the disciplines that the fullest understanding is achieved.

In Response To...


“Social science was — it is best to speak in the past tense — a mistake.”

Read “Let’s Abolish Social Science” by Michael Lind »

Where Lind gets it right is in his merciless attack on rational choice theory, “mathiness,” and what he calls “physics envy.” By all means, let’s abolish that kind of pseudoscience. But that has little to do with the best aspects of the social sciences as a whole, and it diminishes social science to reduce it to such a parody of science. Even more problematically, at the basis of Lind’s dismissal of social science is a basic misunderstanding of science itself and the philosophy of knowledge that guides both science and social science. If we can try to clear up his naïve caricature of science (“Asteroids and atoms go where they have to go. Human beings go where they want to go.”), we can perhaps then move toward an appreciation of the fundamental role of the social sciences in any university education.

Einstein’s theory of relativity taught us that the perception of physical phenomena changes depending on the position of the observer. Danish scientist Niels Bohr’s subsequent discovery that electrons “jump” energy bands contributed to the understanding that light exhibited qualities of both wave and particle. This wave-particle duality became the basis for understanding the quantum mechanics of all matter and the notion that any particle can be in many places at once — existing as a probability wave until an observer tries to measure it. The troubling philosophical implications of this were that quantum “reality” was fundamentally unknowable, famously described in Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger’s thought experiment about a cat that could be in two places at once. In other words, asteroids and atoms do not go where they have to go; they go where we think we have detected them.

Social science incorporates these fundamental ideas through the notion that all knowledge is situated, and that science itself is embedded in communities of practice that stabilize into what Thomas Kuhn called scientific paradigms. This does not imply that all knowledge is relative, but that all knowledge is dependent on the location of the observer who makes sense of it, the questions that he or she is seeking to answer, and the tools or methods that are used. Just because quantum mechanics tells us that there is more space in a wall than matter does not lead us to believe that we can walk through walls. There still must be agreement amongst a community of practitioners about basic epistemic questions (“how we know”) before we can establish ontological realities (“what we know”). Social studies of science have deepened our understanding of the social processes through which what we know in science depends on how we know it, which should be a basic part of the training of all scientists.

Lind wants to fence off such historical and hermeneutic approaches as part of the “humanities” — which he absurdly imagines taking place in a mish-mash of traditional buildings with toga-wearing faculty — and leave “science” with its supposedly objective laws and certainty to the real natural science faculty with their “ultra-modern glass and steel boxes.” This is a recipe for disaster because it denies the interpretive and complex nature of science itself, and dismisses the relevance of the social sciences to knowing the fundamental nature of reality. Social science is not “faux-physics” — rather, Lind’s cartoonish idea of “genuine science” is faux-physics.

Social scientific knowledge of social phenomenon proceeds in the same way that all scientific knowledge does — not by proving general laws of humanity (a 19th-century dream of both science and social science), but by forming communities of practice that seek to ask specific questions and provide the best approximation of what we observe based on data collected at particular moments, using specific data collection tools and methods, both qualitative and quantitative. If these observations are uncertain, complex, and entangled at different scales, this is not a failure to find the kind of scientific laws that Lind longs for science to provide. Instead, the uncertainty of contemporary social science parallels modern physics’ acceptance of nonlocality and entanglement as proven by John Bell in 1964 and subsequent experiments by John Clauser and Stuart Freedman: “spooky actions at a distance,” as Einstein put it, are indeed possible, and contemporary scientists still do not fully understand why or how.

That doesn’t mean we relegate physics to the interpretive domain of the humanities, or, for that matter, exile biologists who have made surprising and unexpected findings that contravene existing models. Instead it means we are coming closer to a mutual understanding of the world as an interpretative achievement. Social science is not simply a hermeneutic field, a story we tell about the world, any more than physics or biology are; all sciences have a degree of irreducible uncertainty, a duality of understanding, because the physical world does too. Some top physicists today even say that the universe is a hologram. We should be comfortable with this instability and not seek to purify this insight into faulty dreams of old-fashioned interpretive humanities versus hard factual science.

The social sciences are not the pathetic pantomime of science that Lind describes. Nor should our understanding of the structure of the human world be reduced to a bunch of individual decisions driven by psychological motivations. Human beings do not simply “go where they want to go” — as Lind himself acknowledges in his description of institutions constraining action. While Lind seems sympathetic to Verstehen approaches (based on insight and understanding) and rightfully bothered by the worst kinds of narrowly economistic rational choice theory, he seems to have missed the more recent emergence of complexity theory, relational theory, the spatial turn, new approaches to materiality and the mobilities turn, among other new theoretical directions in the social sciences.

Ultimately Lind’s attack on pseudo-scientific methods leaves us with a depleted sense of both science and humanities. Against his withered university I would hope we could imagine something far more hopeful, multidisciplinary, productive, and polymath. Rather than build walls, let’s throw open the doors. Let us ask: What is education? What is it for? Why does it matter? Let’s have a real debate about the future of education, not chase the already defeated bogeymen of 19th-century positivism. Social science is a key part of developing complex understanding and should be required of scientists and engineers as much as of arts and humanities students.

In the New University, let’s work in multi-disciplinary teams and educate students across the full liberal arts spectrum, which includes the arts, humanities, sciences, and humanistic social science. The National Science Foundation, for one, has called for social scientists to be part of research proposals involving scientists and engineers, given the urgent need to understand questions such as human impacts on natural systems or what drives more sustainable technological transitions. Engineering programs are also realizing the need for ethics training and participatory approaches that encompass social scientific theory and methods. Even the latest proponents of Big Data need a sociological imagination and disciplinary knowledge from the social sciences to help frame relevant questions and interpret massive data sets.

Let’s abolish the obsession with STEM education (science, technology, engineering, math), as if these were the only kinds of knowledge that mattered in the world. Indeed, medical education now requires the sociology of health and medicine to be a required part of the MCAT exam. Citizen science recognizes the need for incorporation of lay people into previously expert-led processes in order to generate more complete knowledge and fair processes for decision-making. This is a time more than any other when social science needs to come to the fore as a distinct and valuable set of approaches, tools, and theoretical perspectives.

Let’s notice that “impractical” learning and sometimes even aimless curiosity are instigators of not only discovery and innovation, but also — equally as important — of beauty, joy, and satisfaction. While we’re at it, let’s rid our universities of the burdensome bureaucracies that constrain faculty and students from doing what they do best. Let’s reduce the cost of education or even make it free. Let’s decry the micro-management of cost centers and market-driven strategies that pit departments and colleges against each other, preventing us from doing truly cross-disciplinary teaching and learning.

Let’s bring humanistic and social scientific perspectives into the sciences and engineering, which will ultimately benefit from more rounded understanding. Let’s give every student exposure to the social sciences so that even physicists, engineers, biologists, and computer scientists better understand the foundations of human action, the social construction of knowledge, and the human relation to nature and technology. Social science can help us better appreciate the historical contextualization and path-dependency of knowledge and ultimately realize the social nature of what we perceive as reality. As we all do our best to observe, describe, measure, and understand our complex world, we need to educate students to the best of our abilities, with a full range of human capacities drawing on the arts, humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences. •

Mimi Sheller, Ph.D., is Professor of Sociology and founding Director of the Center for Mobilities Research and Policy at Drexel University. She is author and co-editor of nine books, including most recently Aluminum Dreams: The Making of Light Modernity; The Routledge Handbook of Mobilities; and Mobility and Locative Media. She is currently President of the International Association for the History of Transport, Traffic and Mobility, founding co-editor of the journal Mobilities, and Associate Editor of Transfers: Interdisciplinary Journal of Mobility Studies. E-mail her at mimi.sheller@drexel.edu.
Dan Schimmel, BFA (1989) University of California, Berkeley, MA (1996) and MFA (1997) University of Iowa, is an artist based in Philadelphia and born in Missouri. He has exhibited work at the Delaware Art Museum, Susquehanna Art Museum, Delaware Center for Contemporary Art, Allentown Art Museum, and State Museum of Pennsylvania. For ten years he was Director and Curator of Exhibitions at the Esther Klein Gallery in Philadelphia, and from 2010-2013 was the founding Director of Breadboard, an art, science and technology program at the University City Science Center. Email him at dan.schimmel@gmail.com.

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