A few weeks ago I participated in an online debate sponsored by The Economist around the question: Are Smart Cities Empty Hype?. I argued the case against the motion. In my opening statement I said that I strongly believe that digital technologies and the many data services they are enabling will make cities smarter and help transform them over time. Later, in my closing remarks, I pointed out that since the qualifier smart essentially means information-based or data-driven, the promise of smart cities is inexorably linked to the general promise of big data and data science, which some have felt are themselves being over-hyped.
Over the holidays, I learned about an intriguing debate that took place this past year in the New Republic. Billed as Science vs the Humanities, it raised a number of important questions. To what extent does the promise of data science apply to different kinds of disciplines, including the humanities? Can big data tools and related methods help the humanities achieve a more scientific understanding of human nature? Let me make some general comments before getting to the debate itself.
Scientific revolutions are launched when new tools lead to new measurements and observations. Early in the 17th century, Galileo made major improvements to the recently invented telescope which enabled him to make discoveries that radically changed our view of the universe. Over the centuries we have seen that new tools, measurements and discoveries precede major scientific breakthroughs in physics, chemistry, biology and other natural sciences disciplines.
Similar breakthroughs have been much harder to achieve beyond the natural sciences, especially when it comes to the study of human nature, that is, the way we feel and behave. But, the situation has been rapidly changing in the past few decades. First of all, advances in behavioral science, neuroscience, genomics, evolutionary biology and related disciplines have shed significant new light on such people-oriented studies. And then there is the advent of big data.
With big data, we have essentially turned our measuring instruments on ourselves. We’ve been using the ubiquitous digital technologies and devices all around us to collect massive amounts of information on who we are, what we do and how we interact as individuals, communities and institutions. We are now aiming to develop data science methods of inquiry to extract insights from all that data by applying tried-and-true scientific methods, that is, empirical and measurable evidence subject to testable explanations and predictions.
One of the most exciting part of data science is that it can be applied to many domains of knowledge, given our newfound ability to gather valuable data on almost any topic. But, as is the case with smart cities, it’s fair to ask whether the promise is real or mostly hype.
The New Republic debate focused primarily on two themes. How much light can science truly shed on the kinds of disciplines that the humanities deal with, e.g., culture, philosophy religion, history, literature, art, music and so on? And, should the humanities welcome the attention of scientists or resist their intrusions?
Steven Pinker, an experimental psychologist and cognitive scientist at Harvard, made the case for Science in the opening article: Science is Not Your Enemy: An impassioned plea to neglected novelists, embattled professors, and tenure-less historians. Leon Wieseltier, a writer, philosopher and long time literary editor of the New Republic argued the Humanities side in his response: Crimes Against Humanities: Now science wants to invade the liberal arts. Don't let it happen. Then, they each had their final say in Science vs the Humanities, Round III.
“This is an extraordinary time for the understanding of the human condition,” wrote Pinker. “Intellectual problems from antiquity are being illuminated by insights from the sciences of mind, brain, genes, and evolution. Powerful tools have been developed to explore them, from genetically engineered neurons that can be controlled with pinpoints of light to the mining of big data as a means of understanding how ideas propagate.”
Pinker takes an expansive view of science. He reminds us that: “The great thinkers of the Age of Reason and the Enlightenment were scientists. Not only did many of them contribute to mathematics, physics, and physiology, but all of them were avid theorists in the sciences of human nature.” Over the past few centuries, we have made huge progress in applying scientific methods to help us understand the world around us.
“One would think that writers in the humanities would be delighted and energized by the efflorescence of new ideas from the sciences,” he adds. “But one would be wrong. Though everyone endorses science when it can cure disease, monitor the environment, or bash political opponents, the intrusion of science into the territories of the humanities has been deeply resented. . . In the major journals of opinion, scientific carpetbaggers are regularly accused of determinism, reductionism, essentialism, positivism, and worst of all, something called scientism.”
He further adds that the humanities should welcome this new infusion of ideas coming from the world of science, since “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.” So, rather than recoil from the intrusion of scientific methods, the humanities should embrace them.
Wieseltier dismisses this broad view of science and its incursions into the realm of the humanities. In his response article, he writes that the scientific worldview does not suffice to explain the entirety of the human worldview. Scientific methods will likely oversimplify the investigation of complex human affairs. Scientific clarity is not the only clarity there is, and scientific knowledge should not be conflated with knowledge as such.
“Science confers no special authority, it confers no authority at all, for the attempt to answer a nonscientific question. It is not for science to say whether science belongs in morality and politics and art. Those are philosophical matters, and science is not philosophy, even if philosophy has since its beginnings been receptive to science. . . [T]he reach of the scientific standpoint may not be as considerable or as comprehensive as some of its defenders maintain.”
Science and the humanities use very different methods and vocabularies even when studying related topics. For example, philosophers study how we think quite differentlyfrom brain scientists and they study how we make decisions quite differently from behavioral economists and psychologists.
“The technological revolution will certainly transform and benefit the humanities, as it has transformed and benefited many disciplines and vocations,” adds Wiesletier. “But it may also mutilate and damage the humanities, as it has mutilated and damaged many disciplines and vocations. My point is only that shilling for the revolution is not what we need now. The responsibility of the intellectual toward the technologies is no longer (if it ever was) mere enthusiasm. The magnitude of the changes wrought by the new machines calls for the revival of a critical temper.”
Pinker writes that “for all its growth in the budgets and the real estate of universities, scientific thinking is still marginalized in the major arenas of opinion and influence, which are rife with statistical illiteracy, religious obscurantism, indifference to data, and the insularity of obsolescing academic fiefs.” Wieseltier, on the other hand, is surprised that scientists feel under attack because of the humanities insistence that there is more to the world than science can disclose. “This is a little startling, since it is the humanities that are declining in America, not least as a result of the exaggerated glamour of science. . .”
Big data and data science have the potential to usher an information-based scientific revolution to the study of social institutions and human behaviors. However, this is all in the very early stages and should be approached with the proper spirit of collaboration and humility. Considerable research and experimentation are needed to understand what works and what does not; what is real and what is hype. I believe that such studies could prove to be among the most exciting challenges in the 21st century.