In general I would agree with this article by Steven Pinker in the New Republic: Science is not the enemy of the Humanities. I’m not going to address the broader philosophical issues that he unconsciously raises (e.g. in that he seems to assume a utilitarian ethics), however Pinker makes several mistakes of data:
By most accounts, the humanities are in trouble. University programs are downsizing, the next generation of scholars is un- or underemployed, morale is sinking, students are staying away in droves.
There are actually relatively good indicators that generally, since a steep decline in proportion of students in 70s and 80s, since then the Humanities are not in decline (although here we find the perhaps typical American substitution of “English Majors” for the “Humanities”). And I think, that the crisis is one of higher education in general is one of ever-growing demands of an instrumentalist mangagerialism on Faculty: and this affects the Sciences (especially the hard physical sciences) as much as the Humanities. Universities tend to love their Commerce and Law faculties at the expense of the others.
Then Pinker went and asserted this:
The humanities have yet to recover from the disaster of postmodernism, with its defiant obscurantism, dogmatic relativism, and suffocating political correctness.
Now he shows he’s simply afraid of what he doesn’t understand, simply by asserting the standard labels of denigration and dismissal and hoping no-one notices. Post-modernism is not, central at it core, anything about “obscurantism”, “moral relativism” and “political correctness”; anyone who asserts so simply hasn’t read many so-called post-modernists (most of whom are properly defined as structuralists and post-structuralists anyway). It also overlooks the fact that in general, apart from a post-modernist style in architecture, it is actually a label applied to a human condition or age, not a methodology or a belief system. Pinker utterly confuses a label of description for one of methodology. What he’s done is just assume the worst examples he could find (which of course, are unquoted and unreferenced and just assumed) are the typical ones: it’s exactly what he accuses Humanities scholars of doing when they point to artefacts of the 20th century scientific revolution like the atomic bomb.
Actually and that’s an argument I don’t think he adequately deals with. Yes social darwinism is unscientific claptrap wrought by humans with the worst intentions, but how does Pinker account for the fact that one of the most revolutionary scientific discoveries of the 20th century (the discovery and quantification of the atomic forces of the atom’s nucleus) leads straight to the creation of the H-bomb? Not in a roundabout way either, but by the many of the very same scientists who helped make those same discoveries? From all accounts Teller was an immoral monster of the first order. I don’t make this point lightly, but nor do I make the point to condemn all science and scientific progress. I think this one example falsifies Pinker’s apparent belief (which I may be mistaken about) that all science automatically results in the morally good. The social good is defined only by science acting in concert with ethics, politics, philosophy, history, linguistics, economics, literature, and art – in short by science, the social sciences, and the humanities: not by science alone.
This is the problem: just like physicists don’t like misguided lectures on the “hermeneutics of gravity” from half-baked social scientists, humanists would prefer not be lectured on their discipline from someone who wilfully misunderstands a large portion of their own discipline or wishes to assert their own discipline’s natural superiority.