Humanities scholarship on the culture of scientific and engineering communities can often appear as contentious as it is fascinating.
With the possible exception of business research, there is perhaps no other discipline that many humanities scholars seem to loathe more. For many cultural critics, engineers like Elon Musk and scientists like Richard Dawkins – social icons both – can make for tempting targets. Anything and everything that a humanities professor detests can be projected onto the generalized and often demonized STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) fields, and vice-versa.
But lost in the melee is an inescapable truth: that science and the humanities are in many respects symbiotic, and each can be clarifying forces for the other. Joshua Foust’s “Blood Moon” not only depicts the apogee of the technology-driven, technocratic utopia – laid low by rogue code borne of quite literally outdated human antagonisms – but illuminates the way fiction can serve as a bridge between the cold equations of science and the humanities’ ponderous pursuit of truth.
So what gives? STEM-humanities tensions have flared up amid a 21st century renaissance in popular science (and science fiction as a literary genre). It also comes at a time when the humanities field is facing harsh criticism from the scientific community. Despite impassioned essays about the value of liberal arts and the humanities (a staple of major news publications), there remains major pushback from prominent figures in the scientific community that such an education is worthless in today’s economy. Tech entrepreneur Peter Thiel famously called a liberal arts education worthless, but none of the response pieces adequately explained why scientists should care what the humanities have to say about our world.
Yet before scientists criticize the humanities, they ought to try to better understand the field.
Yet before scientists criticize the humanities, they ought to try to better understand the field. Astrophysicist and public intellectual Neil deGrasse Tyson is harshly critical of the utility of a humanities education, but his criticism can often appear silly, and even wrong. For example, in his acclaimed Fox series Cosmos, Tyson was simply incorrect about the some of the ideas and eventual fates of a few of the historical figures he profiled.
For a critique to make sense, it should be based on something real. Another physicist, Alan Sokal, thought he had found the best way to prove the humanities worthless. In 1996 Sokal published an article in The Social Text titled “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity.” If the title sounds nonsensical, that’s because it was. Sokal designed it as a prank to expose the gullibility of contemporary humanities scholarship. Sokal, along with theoretical physicist Jean Bricmont, accused some humanities scholars of promoting pseudoscience through meaningless metaphors. Sokal and Bricmont leveled choice barbs liberally, with targets ranging from psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan to the philosopher Jacques Derrida.
Yet the sciences can be just as prone to fits of incoherence. In 2002, a pair of French media personalities named Igor and Gricha Bogdanov came under fire for publishing physics articles in academic journals that seemed to be mostly gibberish. The Bogdanov brothers compounded suspicion about their work by using fraudulent online identities to defend themselves in discussion forums. The Bogdanov Affair, as it’s now known, is often held up alongside the Sokal Affair as evidence of errant publishing standards even in the hard sciences.
One common thread between the two incidents was the way jargon set the pace for both debates. While Sokal meant for his paper to mock the humanities, he demonstrated a poor understanding of what the humanities actually study – just as some physicists criticized the Bogdanov brothers for merely stringing together buzzwords without the depth of meaningful content. The reality is that the sciences and the humanities can and often do overlap. To wit: the philosophy of science, which considers the ideas that drive science as a field, is a subset of the humanities.
Regardless, the tension between science and the humanities is not a modern phenomenon; it has deep roots in the Enlightenment, and specifically the Romantic Movement. Romanticism critiqued the Enlightenment as corrupting humanity’s propensity for wonder and affinity with nature. And it is from that cultural critique of the Enlightenment’s emphases on reason and scientific processes that the modern idea of Science Fiction first came into being: not a celebration of science, which it often is now, but as a critique. Mary Shelley, the godmother of the genre, animated this notion in her 1818 novel Frankenstein. It was science ad absurdum, after all, that created Viktor Frankenstein’s monster.
More recently, science fiction has evolved to include both an affirmation of humanity and a celebration of science. Modern science fiction seems to view science and humanities as complementary. The Japanese novelist Abe Kobo saw science fiction stories as a “hypothesis with which to plumb reality.” While Abe is known primarily for his novels, he had an abiding interest in technology. He was educated in medicine at Tokyo Imperial University and was allegedly able to hold technical conversations with physicists. Abe was also a prolific literary critic and essayist; his ideas and language are infused with the culture of critique, and he was influenced by Japanese and international avant-garde movements. It would be a tall claim to accuse Abe of knowing nothing about the sciences.
A similar cross-disciplinary skill set is ideal in American fiction. The late Michael Crichton might be the closest analogue to Abe. Instead of avant-garde literature, Crichton strictly wrote popular fiction. He graduated from Harvard Medical School after briefly flirting with an undergraduate degree in English Literature. Crichton had a strong grasp of science that was reflected in his fiction. As an example, his novel Jurassic Park was focused as an exploration of Chaos Theory and why John Hammond’s effort to subdue nature would ultimately fail. Crichton used his story as a vehicle to apply scientific theories based on physics to real-life scenarios.
Even so, pro-science novelists are not without their flaws. Crichton’s views on climate change and global warming were controversial, to say the least. His novel, The Rising Sun, was firmly planted in the Japan bashing of the early 1990s. Even Abe Kobo was seduced by wrong-headed ideas. Donald Keene recounted that Abe believed in a debunked linguistic theory on the exceptionalism of the Japanese language to account for why Abe found learning foreign languages so difficult. More contemporaneously, there are even people with backgrounds in science that oppose vaccinations and GMOs as matters of lifestyle. Something like science should instruct them to be skeptical of rather unscientific superstitions, but for whatever reason it does not.
This mindset is, in some ways, an evolution of the so-called California Ideology – a mix of techno-libertarian ideals that underpin much of Silicon Valley entrepreneurialism, and promise economic and social utopia through, essentially, gadgetry. As this ideology has grown over the past two decades, it has inspired its own pushback from cultural critics, who accuse it of dehumanizing people through neoliberal economics. And, just as the longstanding tensions between science and the humanities have occasionally produced outrageousness, in this century it has resulted in a counter-movement called the Dark Enlightenment, which rejects both Romantic appeals to humanity and Enlightenment appeals to reason.
The worship of science and engineering sounds suspiciously like a theological scenario from a subculture that largely (and hypocritically) tend to hate theology.
It is telling that many members of the Dark Enlightenment are software engineers who have taken the Californian Ideology to an extreme. Adherents of the Dark Enlightenment claim scientists are the only members of society fit to rule, and that non-scientists should have no say in how society is ordered and run. The Dark Enlightenment is tightly associated with something called the singularity: a speculative point where artificial intelligence’s computing potential increases exponentially and surpasses humanity’s. It’s the point where humankind reaches a not-at-all figurative man-machine interface, become true cyborgs, and attain immortality through technological means. If this sounds like science fiction, that is because it probably is. It reads suspiciously like a theological scenario from a subculture that largely (and hypocritically) tend to hate theology.
These beliefs, born of a narrow idea of what science is and spread by technologists, can have a powerful effect on society. Whether people like it or not, the technology industry’s stature has grown immensely over the past few decades. Its own evolution and progress has become intertwined with the American government. As a result, there is a glamorization of its scions, often mixed with varying doses of fear and paranoia towards its promising future. One example of the way this ideology has seeped into public policy is the Obama administration’s goal to encourage STEM education at an early age – a laudable enough goal, one might think. Who wouldn’t want young American children to learn Mandarin when they’re five or univariate calculus in elementary school? But that won’t change the fact that such an educational goal is simply unrealistic. It is an idea being advocated by people who underestimate the difficulty employing such a curriculum is (and have probably never written a line of code themselves).
Yet even as technology executives are courted by the government, they reject the idea of existing as a part of American society. Modern day technology leaders, from genomics executive Balaji S. Srinivasan to Elon Musk, are plainspoken about the appeal of forming a new society “governed by technology.” This is where Joshua Foust’s short story has its roots: the foundation of an “opt-in” economic colony away from governments, regulations, and doubters.
There is a clear fantastical edge to these economically utopian fantasies, founded in the Californian Ideological belief that if only government would get out of the way then technology could make everyone happy and prosperous. Much like the Romantic rejection of the Enlightenment, and now the Dark Enlightenment’s rejection of both, the Californian Ideology requires ignoring copious history and scholarship that shows how vital a democratic government is to creating a just and fair society. Thus, while Musk wants to build a space colony to generate wealth and save humanity, it remains broadly unclear how or why colonizing space would lead to direct economic benefits. It is an idea motivated purely by achievement without any attention brought to some of the other necessities for life in space.
In contrast to Silicon Valley dreams of building a new world, science fiction requires diligence in its world-building. Thus, science fiction writers have detected things that Elon Musk has probably missed in dreaming up his hypothetical space society. For example, Hideo Kojima, the creator of the Metal Gear Solid videogame series, understood that a space colony would have to be a highly medicalized society to survive. He created one such medical society in Policenauts, where characters living on a space colony are pre-occupied with health to an almost obsessive degree. A lot can go wrong in space, where a stray pathogen in an enclosed environment can quickly become a plague that kills everyone.
Foust does not take his moon society in that direction, but you can see the same threads being pulled. In his moon society, the moon colonizers are so dependent on their computers that they struggle to survive as their gadgets fail, one by one. Moreover, some of the current cultural paranoia about Chinese hacking features prominently. The colonists were fixated on the Chinese colony’s speculative responsibility for a computer virus, while the actual cause of the malfunction was not nearly so high profile. In a lot of ways this was reminiscent of the alleged hack against Sony Pictures over its film The Interview, a satirical movie about an attempted assassination of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un. Many in the media and policy commentariat were quick to pin the blame on North Korea, though the case was never publicly resolved. There are many reasons to be skeptical that Pyongyang was the culprit, and the likelier scenario is much more mundane: a disgruntled ex-employee, perhaps, or some other hacking collective.
That’s the thing with fiction – it risks upsetting people.
So we can see how it comes full circle: science finds literature silly; literature highlights the absurdity of scientific people; and people in the real world get upset and lash out. That’s the thing with fiction – it risks upsetting people. Novelist Salman Rushdie still has a price on his head from Iran over The Satanic Verses. The Japanese translator for the novel was even stabbed to death. And, if we’re honest, certain writers would be unemployable in some east coast cultural hubs for criticizing the wrong people. But if fiction is subtle enough, however, it can critique certain institutions without fear of political retaliation. In a way, they can serve the same purpose as the jesters in William Shakespeare’s plays. It was the Fool, after all, who was allowed to tell King Lear the truth.
There is a clear risk in taking fiction too seriously, but there is an even bigger risk in not taking it seriously enough. “Science,” as a thing, does not stand in opposition to “humanities,” as another thing. The strengths of each field help to shore up the weaknesses of the other, forcing more scientific literacy on literature and philosophy and making science more human. The pop culture ascendency of both science and science fiction as a critical force suggest that neither is necessarily dominant over the other. Instead, both are necessary.