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That COVID-19 took a terrible toll not only on children’s academic learning but on their behavioral and psychosocial development is now conventional wisdom. A postmortem in The New York Times issued four years after schools closed gives pointed expression to the now dominant point of view:

“The more time students spent in remote instruction, the further they fell behind. And, experts say, extended closures did little to stop the spread of COVID.”

A Times editorial published five months ago made the point even more bluntly:

“The school closures that took 50&nsbp;million children out of classrooms at the start of the pandemic may prove to be the most damaging disruption in the history of American education. It also set student progress in math and reading back by two decades and widened the achievement gap that separates poor and wealthy children.”

As the Times acknowledges, “There were no easy decisions at the time. Officials had to weigh the risks of an emerging virus against the academic and mental health consequences of closing schools.” During the early stages of the pandemic, it was not yet clear how the virus spread or what precautions made the most sense. Intense fears about children as carriers of infection led many parents to keep their children home even after schools opened. Even today, disagreement still rages over the effectiveness of masking and social distancing and enhanced ventilation.

Yet throughout the pandemic, science, the public was repeatedly told, should and would inform public policy.

Which brings us to a much-debated topic of the day: scientism. That’s the idea that science is the only valid or reliable way to understand the world. Scientism asserts the superiority of scientific knowledge over other forms of understanding, such as the wisdom derived from philosophy or religion or cultural, historical or social scientific analysis.

Let me be clear, the very definition of scientism is contested and there are those who regard scientism as a straw man: as a punching bag that is easily refuted or dismissed. But the pandemic revealed that scientism is real.

If you’d like to learn more about scientism, I’d urge you to consult a valuable 2018 collection of essays, Science Unlimited?: The Challenges of Scientism, edited by Maarten Boudry and Massimo Pigliucci, which asks whether scientism truly captures an important intellectual stance and examines the potential dangers associated with it. The contributors engage in a balanced discussion, weighing both criticisms of and defenses for scientism, considering its impact on various fields, including philosophy and religion.

Even though science and scientism are often conflated, they differ fundamentally in their approach and implications. Whereas the scientific method is based on observation, hypothesis formulation, experimentation and the validation or refutation of hypotheses and seeks to understand the natural world through a rigorous process of inquiry, skepticism and peer review, scientism describes a belief system that elevates scientific knowledge and methods as the only valid means of understanding every aspect of life, dismissing or devaluing other forms of knowledge, inquiry or interpretation.

Unlike science, which acknowledges the provisional nature of its conclusions, remaining open to revision and correction, scientism tends to view science as the sole arbiter of truth. It is more dogmatic, and is often dismissive of other forms of knowing or understanding that do not fit within a strictly empirical or quantitative framework. Also, while science is a method that can inform ethical and policy discussions, scientism holds that science alone can and should determine ethical and policy decisions.

But as the philosopher David Hume insisted, you can’t derive an “ought” from an “is.” That is, observations about the world as it is do not logically lead to conclusions about what the world should be. Put somewhat differently, facts can’t, by themselves, define values or policy or moral prescriptions.

To its critics, scientism is problematic because it overlooks the importance of subjective experiences, moral judgments and cultural contexts that science alone cannot fully address. However, a commitment to empirical evidence and scientific reasoning is crucial in many contexts. The key issue with scientism arises when it is applied inappropriately to areas where its methods are not suited.

Scientism makes another claim that isn’t easily dismissed: that a science-like methodology is applicable to all areas of inquiry, not just the social sciences, but the humanities, too. This suggests that other disciplines should apply the same rigor and respect for objectivity as do the sciences. A scientific approach would also emphasize the importance of evidence, testable hypotheses, rigorous methods and well-defined theoretical frameworks.

I personally think that my discipline, history, would do well to re-embrace the social-science–history model that was popular in the early 1970s, applying quantitative methods, statistical analyses and social science–derived theoretical frameworks from social science to understanding historical phenomena. It should strive to bridge the gap between traditional historical narratives and the empirical methodologies of social sciences, aiming to uncover patterns, causes and effects in historical events through a more data-driven and analytical lens.

But I also believe that the humanities as a whole must do much more to foster cross-disciplinary dialogues with STEM fields in order to overcome the humanities–science binary and show how the humanities can enrich the scientific discourse, challenge the limitations of scientism and foster a more holistic approach to understanding the natural world and our place within it.

Many scientists, including some of the most prominent, are convinced that the humanities have little to offer scientists. This viewpoint reflects differences in objectives and methods and the perceived utility of the contributions that the humanities can make.

In a review of the Boudry and Pigliucci anthology, the science writer Philip Ball cites a number of striking examples. Richard Feynman reportedly said that “the philosophy of science is as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds,” while the prominent science writer, Lawrence Krauss, declared, somewhat similarly, that the philosophy of science “has no impact on physics whatsoever.”

There are reasons for this disdain. Unlike the sciences, the humanities emphasize conceptual analysis and interpretative frameworks, which many scientists consider too abstract or detached from the practicalities of scientific research. Many scientists may struggle to see the immediate relevance of humanists’ contributions to their work. Discussions within the philosophy of sciences about scientific realism, theory choice and the underdetermination of theory by data seem far removed from what scientists actually do day-to-day.

Also, the sciences and the humanities have very different criteria for success. Success in the sciences is often measured by empirical discovery, innovation and the ability to predict and control phenomena. The humanities, however, evaluate success based on insight, understanding and the ability to interrogate and interpret human experiences and cultural practices.

But there are specific ways that humanities can make meaningful contributions to scientific discourse. Here are six.

  1. Humanists can offer critical perspectives on the methods, aims and impact of scientific inquiry. By bringing philosophical rigor, ethical sensitivity and cultural awareness to the study of science, they contribute to a more nuanced, reflective and socially engaged understanding of science and its role in society. They can analyze the epistemological and ontological assumptions underlying scientific theories; scrutinize the criteria used for theory selection and evaluation in science; and question the goals of scientific inquiry, asking whether its primary aim is to understand the world, predict phenomena, control the environment or improve human welfare. They can also address issues such as the moral responsibility of scientists, the equitable distribution of scientific benefits and risks, and the long-term consequences of scientific advancements, while examining how societal values influence scientific priorities.
  2. Humanists can contextualize scientific discoveries and the process by which scientific theories, conceptual frameworks, methods and terminology change over time. Humanities disciplines such as history, philosophy and cultural studies can help us understand the historical, cultural and philosophical backgrounds in which scientific ideas emerge and help us recognize the cultural and social factors that contribute to scientific discoveries and changes in scientific practice and theories over time.
  3. The humanities can examine the ethical implications of scientific research and technological advances. Humanists can explore the responsibilities of scientists to society, the ethical use of emerging technologies and the moral implications of scientific discoveries on future generations.
  4. The humanities can question assumptions and uncover limitations or biases in scientific practice. By examining the underlying premises of scientific theories and the cultural, gender and socioeconomic biases that can influence scientific research, humanists contribute to a more inclusive and reflexive science that is aware of its limitations and the diversity of perspectives that can enrich it.
  5. The humanities can challenge scientistic explanations that overemphasize the organic, the biological and the neurological, and promote a more nuanced understanding of phenomena. By incorporating insights drawn from the social sciences, arts and humanities, humanists can advocate for a more nuanced understanding of human experience that cannot be fully explained by science alone.
  6. The humanities can examine the cultural and societal impacts of scientific developments. The humanities can explore the ways in which scientific developments influence and are influenced by culture and society. This includes studying the representation of science in literature and media, the public understanding of science, and the role of scientific innovation in shaping societal norms and expectations.

The humanities need to do more to overcome the artificial divide between its disciplines and the sciences, arguing for a more integrated approach to knowledge that values the contributions of both approaches. So, let’s promote a vision for a future in which the humanities and sciences are more fully integrated in education and societal discourse—including potential impacts on policy, innovation and cultural understanding.

The fusion of the sciences and the humanities may seem as fanciful as the daydream of cold fusion. Nonetheless, those of us on the humanistic side of the two cultures have a responsibility to advocate for a more integrated and holistic approach to scientific understanding. The humanities and the sciences truly can enhance each other and the humanities’ future will hinge, in part, on its ability to demonstrate its relevance in an increasingly science-based world.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin and the author, most recently, of The Learning-Centered University: Making College a More Developmental, Transformational, and Equitable Experience.

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