Saturday, June 27, 2009

problematizing xkcd

At this point, I've been reading online comics (so-called "webcomics") for over ten years, and still make time in my daily schedule for the habit of dropping by a handful of sites more or less frequently. In that time, I've seen several comics come and go; as some increase in popularity and quality, others begin to wane in both (sadly, often the quality goes before the popularity).

One such comic on which I started to pick up around 2004 was xkcd, Randall Munroe's self-described "webcomic of romance, sarcasm, math, and language." Given my background in mathematics and science, and ties to nerd/hacking culture, I was fascinated and amused by Munroe's quirky insights on life, romance, and "common sense" notions.

As my academic pursuits and interests drifted away from the hard science side of things and further into the liberal arts/humanities, I continued to read xkcd. However, in recent years, I've begun to regard its humor as increasingly less amusing, and, simultaneously, more a matter of concern.

I was interested, upon a quick web search, to find the blog xkcd sucks, not a blind critique of xkcd, but actually a thoughtful criticism on xkcd's particular flaws. All the points which I would raise in a commentary on xkcd have already been raised there, and quite thoroughly.

As an example of my issues with the strip and a subset of its devoted followers, however, consider the following shirt:

(reproduced from the xkcd store)

What is the message of this shirt? In his store blurb, Munroe claims
"We finally figured out that you could separate fact from superstition by a completely radical method: observation. You can try things, measure them, and see how they work! Bitches."

My translation of his message is this: Science Works, and, by implication, Your Methods Don't.

It's a great slogan, except for the awkward fact that it's overly simplistic, and often simply untrue.

"Science: It Works." Works for what? The best answer that I can think of is, Science Works if I am trying to generate a scientific theory. Well, except when it doesn't. Superstring theory, a current promising candidate and hot topic in physics, is often criticized for being untestable and, hence, unscientific.

And even assuming that science always works to accurately generate good scientific theories, it must still collaborate with other disciplines - engineering, marketing, business, and sales - in order to make an impact on the greater scope of humanity. In fact, one could argue (I might argue) that the average individual's incomprehension of scientific advances is as much due to science's inability to disseminate information widely and simply as it is to the average person's apathy towards it or inability to wrap their unscientific minds around advanced scientific information.

I might be criticized for reading too much into Munroe's t-shirt: after all, it's just a handful of words on a tee, why raise my hackles for it?

The answer is twofold:

First, I'm not convinced that Munroe is simply making the claim that Science Works As Science; that is, I am not sure that he is saying "If you want to get scientific results, do science." I strongly suspect, based on the context of his strip, that Munroe is saying "If you want to get results, do science."
If you want to figure out love?
-Do science.
If you want to live a good life?
-Do science.
If you want to make an impactful, caring contribution to humanity?
-Do science.
Maybe this is too strong a reading; but even caricature is grounded in real observation. And my observation is that Munroe seems to be a man who holds the belief that society would be so much simpler, better, and more fun if we could just Do Science and be silly (in a "quirky, zany" way) and stop being such silly (in a stupid, unscientific way) complicated irrational beings.

The problem? Complicated irrationalities are not obstacles to humanity; actually, akrasia and cognitive dissonance lie at the core of humans' special cognitive identity. These complications Munroe seems to disdain are actually what make us human, a fact with which he seems to go back and forth on agreeing.

Second, even assuming that Munroe's intent in this shirt is to present a limited critique of the efficacy of "science vs. superstition" in the realm of generating scientific fact, I am concerned by how Munroe's fans will interpret this shirt.

I obviously wouldn't claim that anything except science has any role to play in, well, doing science: that's simple logic of identity (which, as a matter of fact, is not only a mathematical field, but actually lies well within the realm of philosophy). Superstition is an easy target, a straw man. But the polemic thrust of the shirt seems to be towards something rather less defenseless, proclaiming, in spirit, that "Doing anything except science doesn't work/works less effectively/is useless."

This is quite simply untrue. Even in the life of the most scientifically-minded and capable person, holistic well-being must be based on something other than the Scientific Method: Science, a perfectly good approach to theories, ideas, and empirical observations, is significantly less useful, or even outright disadvantageous, when applied to relationships, aesthetic interests (films, books, art, music), and the like. There are realms of the human experience which science is not meant to address, and testing claims to the contrary, while they are perfectly good hypotheses (it's scientific, after all!), does not result in emotionally and descriptively positive results. According to its own criteria, this thesis fails.

Unfortunately, I think this shirt promotes a unilateral valuation of one's approach to life, a point of view whose traces I've seen in some of my scientifically-minded friends and acquaintances. It saddens me to think of someone valuing any one discipline to the point of allowing themselves to adopt a one-dimensional, one-size-fits-all approach to the many splendors of life, whether the (obviously smart and thoughtful) Randall Munroe, or any of his fans.

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