The Voodoo Sciences

Jerry Pournelle, a science fiction writer, essayist and journalist, once wrote (and still stands behind) this fairly harsh criticism of what he describes as the so-called social sciences:

The Voodoo Sciences

I think he makes good points and expresses sentiments that I also harbor.

There's nothing like reality to throw a wrench into what one would like to think is "elegant thought". Rather sadly, even tragically, a fair proportion of people these days seem to think that when they go and study languages or literature or philosophy or theology or X or Y or Z, that they are learning something which apparently they think is important and worthwhile. What they refuse to grasp, however, is how their "education" is not teaching them to think. People with these types of educations tend to end up being inept in the realm of logic, inept of detecting their own biases, inept at reaching correct conclusions, prone to emotions, misinterpretations, and appalling lapses of reasoning. They are prone to this because their education never teaches them to think.

I am aghast to see engineers or physicists thinking of themselves as having inferior intellectual status compared to philosophers and other humanities or "liberal arts" graduates. In my mind, there can be no doubt whatsoever as to which education is inferior and which superior. The difference is vast! All those degrees in mushy and unpalpable subjects are a whole lot of fog and rhetoric that mainly goes around in circles avoiding facts in order to promote various fantasies. Such "educations" are truly as nothing compared to an education that pits the student against reality and requires him to understand it and master it, provide answers that can be verified, develop theories and ideas that can actually be falsified, that hone the student's reasoning. This is what trains the mind in useful thinking. Useful thinking - as in, thinking on which we can base our decisions, and trust that in most cases those decisions will actually be correct; as opposed to thinking that misleads, leads to decisions that will either not have the desired impact or will even be regretted. Thinking that is therefore at best useless, and at worst harmful.

If there is any one discipline in particular that humbles the mind and trains it to think clearly, decisively, while honing awareness of the mind's own fallibility and potential for being wrong, then this is programming. I am not aware of any other discipline that provides such stark feedback. If your program is not behaving correctly, then in virtually all, all cases, it's not the fault of the computer; or of the operating system; or of the programming language. The fault is yours. No other discipline makes you spend years writing concise specifications for what you want to happen, then makes you face the errors you didn't realize you made; over, and over, and over again. No other discipline has such short feedback loops to show you the faults in your thinking process; and consequently, help you improve the accuracy of your thought as much.

Now compare that to a major in philosophy or history or languages or literature, where any interpretation is defensible, and everything you fancy can be thought to pass.



Jožek said...

Denis -- I'm an active programmer, too, and I couldn't agree more with what you said about programming.

However, I wouldn't dare to proclaim programmers, engineers, physicists, etc., as being "superior" to soft-science professionals simply because they deal with hard science. For example, a person might be an excellent programmer, but they aren't capable of producing a few lines of text in their native language without polluting it with a dozen grammatical mistakes. Or, they might possess an in-depth knowledge of all the laws of nature, but they aren't familiar with the most basic geographical and historical facts. I tend to dislike such Fachidiots, as they are called in German, even more than "voodoo scientists" who claim their intelectual and spiritual superiority over more "earthly" scientists and professionals.

denis bider said...

Hey Jožek,

agreed. What I'm claiming is superior is the type of education that makes you confront reality and that provides a feedback loop that tells you unambiguously when you are just plain in the wrong.

I'm not claiming though that all physicists or programmers think more clearly than all philosophers or designers. There are very smart and not that smart people in programming, just like there are in philosophy, and you can't make a really smart person out of a not so smart one.

However, when you do start with a smart person to begin with, I observe that an education in the sciences that provide strong negative feedback when the student is wrong will hone the already smart person's reasoning skills, whereas an education in fields that don't provide such feedback will let even the smart student continue to engage in whatever sort of thinking she fancies, usually sadly inconsistent and dysfunctional, as the student gets no reliable input on what is correct and what is not - or even learns bad habits of thinking from his teachers, who likewise are unbound by reality.

Jožek said...


I agree with you now. As usual, your explanation is very convincing.

boris_kolar said...

I'm disgusted that, for example, "students" of theology can obtain PhD degree, essentially equivalent degree of "education" as real scientists have. Allowing this either invalidates PhD as a measure of education, or is unconstitutional. Based on legal equality of religions, which is in many countries guaranteed by constitution, one could easily invent a new religion and "earn" a PhD title without any effort - or, as I believe, are religions not equal under the law?

denis bider said...

Boris: Hmm, good point, but the problem in this case is more likely the integration of the educational system with the State. The State has all sorts of bureaucratic requirements which define such and such compensation for students who have completed this level of education, or a minimum of that level of education for that type of work, etc. Such bureaucratic rules are bound to be wildly unjust from a whole bunch of viewpoints - unless, of course, your viewpoint is that the measure of reward should be the amount of invested effort, regardless of its effectiveness, a dysfunctional view that many take.