There is nothing to eat for dinner in our cafeteria, so I head off to the small restaurant on campus. On the way there, a man with a British accent stops me to ask for directions to Kresge auditorium. I point in its direction and say “it’s a few buildings that way” and he walks off before I can elaborate.

I wonder what’s at Kresge tonight. I look around and see I’m standing outside the Stanford Humanities Center (SHC) and there’s a poster on the wall. The SHC is holding a conference and oh, look, the keynote is Stephen Pinker at Kresge tonight. I still have half an hour, so I go get dinner first.

As I think about what just happened, I begin to think the man who asked me for directions was Stephen Pinker — imagine, Pinker asking me for directions! — and I put together the pieces in my mind. Who else would be half an hour early yet in a hurry to get moving while also unaware of the campus.

Alas, I find, it is not Stephen Pinker. Pinker has big curly, poofy hair and no British accent. He gives his lecture with a purple-and-green strip-tease PowerPoint on a PC (Tufte be damned!). (By contrast, Zimbardo used a Gill Sans with Keynote on a Mac.) The building is slightly less crowded than when Amy Goodman came.

Pinker starts off with a joke. Noting that he used to be a assistant professor at Stanford, he jokes that when he comes back here “I always feel like I’m being evaluated for tenure”. His argument is thus:

  1. The humanities are in trouble. Headlines abound about a malaise, there is a drop in student interest, they haven’t caught the public eye.

  2. The humanities are indispensable. Despite the division of CP Snow’s “Two Cultures” (ubiquitously referred to at Stanford as the techie-fuzzy divide, except by Lessig who thought it was techie-mushy), we need the humanities.

  3. Science is vibrant. It’s contributed ideas, powerful writing, and new facts about the world.

If you look at the history of science, it’s been about “consilience”, a sort of “hierarchical reductionism” where each level’s constituent elements are explained by a lower level.

He follows it up with three case studies.

  1. Irregular verb forms. He and his students conducted a series of magnetic brain scans to see how people remember irregular verb forms of past tenses. They notice that when you show them words like “killed” the part of the brain that processes grammar lights up, presumably processing the rule kill+ed. But when you show them an irregular form like “brought” (not “bringed”) then the part of the brain that memorizes definitions of ordinary words (like “duck” or something) lights up.

    How does this tie into the humanities? Well, you can do some literary history. If you look at older textual works you’ll find that they have far more irregular verb forms, which were lost at some point. The science experiment explains why — people either didn’t memorize that form of the word or they forgot it and they just followed the grammar rule. Their children thus also didn’t learn the irregular form and it got lost. Thus, science explains the reasons for these literary changes.

  2. Percept merging. Acoustic scientists have found that under certain conditions two separate sounds will sound as if they are one simple sound, since the ears break down complex signals into discrete objects, much as the eyes break down patterns of light into physical objects. Of course, when the sounds get close the perception system breaks down and merges them.

    He plays a sample sound that demonstrates the phenomena for us. Then he shows a letter he got from a student who made a techno remix of the sample, which he also plays for us (it’s genius and the audience loves it).

    Of course, the real humanistic application of this is in studying songs that use this technique. He shows us two: one by Pachbel and one by an African tribe. Again, science can explain the reasons for certain humanistic results.

  3. Fiction. Why do people spend so much time reading about things that never happened? It doesn’t make much sense. However, if you look at the standard fictional topics, they often involve things which are very deeply rooted in evolution — conflicts between status and roles, conflicts of interest.

In summary, the connections between the humanities and the sciences have the potential to invigorate the humanities.

(In his talk, Pinker uses some great words: “sketchier”, “euphious”, “sensoria”, “polphonous”, and “interdigitated” were the ones I wrote down.)

During the questions, someone asks whether scientists could move over to the humanities after 35, when it’s been shown they’ve typically done their best work. Pinker doesn’t think the skills are precisely transferable like that and he tells a joke about a neurosurgeon having lunch with a historian. The neurosurgeon explains that he intends to build a good practice and make a name for himself before retiring and writing a history of the field. The historian responds that he plans to retire and take up neurosurgery.

But I think the joke puts the lie to Pinker’s point — the humanities really aren’t that difficult to pick up and learn; much of the complication in the subjects is sort of pointless and fake. It seems problematic that his discussion of consilience between the fields doesn’t take this into account.

On the other hand, he also helps me see a vision of art as a sort of grand scientific experiment in seeing what exactly pushes people’s aesthetic buttons through modification and trial and error.

posted November 14, 2004 05:25 PM (Education) (16 comments) #


Stanford: Day 51
Donald Knuth writes Condi Rice
Stanford: Day 52
Stanford: Day 53
Stanford: Day 54
Stephen Pinker on Uniting Techies and Fuzzies
Stanford: Day 55
Barry Scheck on the Dark Side of Justice
Stanford: Day 56
Stanford: Day 57
Stanford: Day 58


Sounds like a distillation of his course here at Harvard, The Human Mind. He definitely used those examples in class last semester. Pinker’s a great lecturer— he kept me awake for a Core class (the Core is the area of courses here that your IHUM would fit in), and that’s hard to do (even when I like the material!).

posted by Margaret at November 14, 2004 06:29 PM #

You may enjoy the book “Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge,” by controversial sociobiologist Edward O. Wilson. Whatever you think of him, he’s a fascinating man and his vision of the broadening of science was for me very inspiring. The book is poignant, because it reads like a plea for the next generation to take up a new direction of science that he knows he will not see finished in the years that remain.

“I remember very well the time I was captured by the dream of unified learning. It was in the early fall of 1947, when at eighteen I came up from Mobile to Tuscaloosa to enter my sophomore year at the University of Alabama…

“Then I discovered evolution. Suddenly — that is not too strong a word — I saw the world in a wholly new way. This epiphany I owed to my mentor… After listening to me natter for a while about my lofty goal of classifying all the ants of Alabama, he handed me a copy of Ernst Mayr’s 1942 Systematics and the Origin of Species. Read it, he said, if you want to become a real biologist.”

And I envy you for getting a chance to hear Pinker speak. From reading his books, my guess is that he is one of the smartest people living today. The scope and depth of his knowledge, and the connections he draws, are amazing.

posted by Jamie McCarthy at November 14, 2004 07:08 PM #

Anything about the opposite; the humanities serving technical/scientific disciplines?

posted by Jon Hanna at November 14, 2004 07:20 PM #

Further to case study 3, Fiction, Pinker has more to say on this in his discussion with Rebecca Goldstein in Seed. On pages three and four they discuss the evolution of morality and empathy, and Pinker memorably suggests that fiction is an enabler of this evolution, a kind of “moral technology”:

We are getting less cruel, and the question is how. The philosopher Peter Singer offers a clue when he notes that there really does seem to be a universal capacity for empathy, but that by default people apply it only within the narrow circle of the family or village or clan. Over the millennia, the moral circle has expanded to encompass other clans, other tribes, and other races. The question is, why did it happen? What stretched our innate capacity for empathy? And one answer is mediums that force us to take other people’s perspectives, such as journalism, history, and realistic fiction.

The whole transcript is fascinating.

posted by Michael Williams at November 14, 2004 09:13 PM #

Hi Aaron! As a young prof in a humanities department (though not at Stanford!), I am somewhat dismayed by the fact that someone as smart as you, and with the interests that you seem to have, is able to dismiss the humanities so casually, and with such confidence. (I wonder whether it’s just an effect of the way the IHUM course is being taught? Maybe you could post a link to the course website so we can see what the course is like.) Smart as Pinker may be, none of his suggestions sound very helpful for us in the humanities: they’re just the usual sort of ideas that scientists wave around when they are asked to talk about the ‘two cultures’. (Part of the problem is assuming that the ‘two culture’ notion is valid in the first place.) Anyway, from reading your postings, you are clearly interested in sociology, communications, and politics. So (to paraphrase your state governor’s speech at the RNC) You Are A Fuzzie! The humanities are (or should be) all about politics, communications, etc! If you want to understand, for example, why so many American voters are willing to vote for Bush, even though this is clearly against their own self-interest (economically), then you need to be prepared to think about culture.
Anyway, on a different note: I can suggest a (to my mind) much more interesting way of bridging techies and fuzzies: the history and sociology of science and technology (have you checked out their program at Stanford?)

posted by Nick Dew at November 15, 2004 01:54 PM #

What are really humanities ? And it is so useful to define it ?

posted by Cn at November 15, 2004 04:08 PM #

Nick Dew: “(Part of the problem is assuming that the ‘two culture’ notion is valid in the first place.)”

Tell it! Tell it, Brother!

— Jon Hanna, a fuzzie techie :)

posted by Jon Hanna at November 15, 2004 05:11 PM #

Mr. Dew: When did I dismiss the humanities? Certainly things like you mention are important. My only point was that they’re much easier to get into and a lot of the complication around them is mostly fake (a position held by many people I respect like Richard Feynman, Paul Graham, Noam Chomsky, etc.). I think it’s pretty plain that one can write a competent work of history with less training than is necessary to be a neurosurgeon.

posted by Aaron Swartz at November 15, 2004 05:50 PM #

Aaron: The neurosurgeon analogy seems somewhat misleading. People who are MDs dont seem to be much smarter than people who hold PhDs in say Economics fromthe same university at least form my experience… while something like “hardness” is difficult to quantify I dont quite understand the diferentiation between the two (where does one draw the line, being a good MD seems to be as much as being “fuzzy” and humane as being a good sociologist).

just some random thoughts, Nik

posted by Nik at November 16, 2004 02:25 AM #

On this last point you make about art, you might find the work of Komar and Melamid entertaining:

posted by Ted Shelton at November 23, 2004 11:34 PM #

Here is a better Komar and Melamid link, showing the way in which they use art “…as a sort of grand scientific experiment in seeing what exactly pushes people’s aesthetic buttons through modification and trial and error.”

posted by Ted Shelton at November 23, 2004 11:37 PM #

Nik is right: history of science and technology is the way to go. Or perhaps the slightly broader STS, science and technology studies. Check it out, Aaron! Browse through books such as Peter Galison, Image and logic: a material culture of microphysics; Thomas Gieryn, Cultural boundaries of science: credibility on the line; Thomas P. Hughes, Rescuing Prometheus: Four monumental projects that changed the modern world

posted by Gustav Holmberg at November 27, 2004 02:30 PM #

Is there a link to the sample of which you speak, and the techno remix?

posted by Donovan Preston at November 29, 2004 12:23 AM #

Pinker is correct when he says the humanities are in trouble, but it’s a self-serving argument. When his friend Dan Dennett can argue that “themostats have beliefs”, we know the sciences are in just as much trouble.

The idea that culture and experience are irrelevant and can be reduced to algorithms simply isn’t very popular with the public, dang them, who insist on creating mythical and metaphysical forms of representation.

Suggested reading - Midgley demolishing Pinker’s last reactionary ramble -

“Evolutionary psychology proposes that we should discover the details of our nature, first by inferring them from the social conditions that prevailed when it was formed in the Stone Age, and, second, by atomising it, dividing it into separate “modules” that determine distinct particles of behaviour.

Despite Pinker, these are desperate strategies that have produced very few results of any interest. The first method fails because we don’t know any Stone Age sociology. (Any moderately persuasive stories that EP has produced owe their plausibility to data from other sources.) The second is mistaken because minds work as a whole and no amount of splitting will reveal their general structure.”

Jaron Lanier’s Half A Manifesto -

“Cybernetic totalists look at culture and see “memes,” or autonomous mental tropes that compete for brain space in humans somewhat like viruses. In doing so, they not only accomplish a triumph of “campus imperialism,” placing themselves in an imagined position of superior understanding versus the whole of the humanities, but they also avoid having to pay much attention to the particulars of culture in a given time and place. Once you have subsumed something into its cybernetic reduction, any particular reshuffling of its bits seems unimportant.”

Don’t neglect that sociology class. Even mediocre sociology is more useful than bad science and bad metaphysics.

posted by pb at December 3, 2004 05:07 PM #

Re: historian vs. neurosurgeon

There isn’t anything special about any subject. You can be a good historian, just as you can be a good neurosurgeon. What’s the difference? Unless you are implying some sort of innate predisposition towards a particular field, then why does it take more “intelligence” to be a good neurosurgeon, then it does to be a historian.

Yes, someone without any training in history can write a good book in history, but the same is also true of neurology. This comes back to the right-left brain schism, where you’re either good at math and science, or writing and the arts. It’s possible to be good in both, with proper practice.

posted by at March 4, 2005 06:59 PM #

I didn’t say there was “anything special about any subject”. I said that doing neurosurgery requires more training than history. (Alan Sokal.)

Do you really believe that someone without any training can be a neurosurgeon?

posted by Aaron Swartz at March 13, 2005 06:39 PM #

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