In a column called Peer to Peer Review, it’s appropriate to review our peers once in a while, so I’d like to discuss last week’s column by Rick Anderson on “science and religion in the library.”
He’s not talking about the Qs and the Bs. In the column, Anderson writes: “For my purposes here, I’m going to define as ‘science’ those aspects of library work that deal with figuring out and describing things as they are, and as ‘religion’ those that deal with figuring out how things should be and why they should be that way.” He later gives examples by dividing questions between “is” and “should,” such as the following:
Is: “We have to cut Journal X if we’re going to subscribe to Journal Y.”
Should: “Journal Y is too expensive and its publisher makes too much money.”
My question is, why would he want to make such a distinction? It’s an odd approach to the topic, and the analogy to science and religion is pretty forced. What do we gain by thinking in those terms?
It’s very similar to a distinction Anderson made between political and nonpolitical views in a Scholarly Kitchen article last year, where he argued that making purchasing decisions based on, for example, one’s stance on open access publishing or particular publishers was putting “politics” over patron needs. There, he wrote, “By ‘politics,’ I mean our personal views about how the world ought to be, and more specifically our views about how the scholarly communication economy ought to be structured.” I extensively criticized that distinction here and here. The gist of my criticism is that the distinction is a false one. Librarians don’t have “personal” or “political” views on how scholarly publishing should function. They have professional views based on professional experience, and to label them as merely personal, or even political, is an attempt to marginalize them.
The science/religion distinction functions the same way. Dividing is and ought questions between science and religion is also a poor analogy. We have much better and more apt distinctions, such as practical and theoretical, or perhaps pragmatic and philosophical. Both are more accurate and less loaded than talking about politics or religion.
Anderson claims that “it’s important to emphasize that ‘science’ questions are not better or more important than ‘religion’ questions, nor vice versa. Both are essential.” However, that’s not really true, especially in academia. Practice and theory are both essential but not science and religion. In academia, science deals with facts and knowledge about the world based on standards of evidence. In the broader and older use of the word science (e.g., the sense meant by library science), the entire academy is devoted to science, to the discovery and creation of scientia, knowledge.
Religion, on the other hand, concerns faith in propositions that can’t be proven by scientific standards of evidence, and outside of religious institutions of higher education, it plays no role in the academic mission, except perhaps as an object of study rather than a motivation for action.
Thus, calling questions or propositions “religious” within the context of academic libraries, like calling them “political,” functions to push them outside the bounds of professional discussion. Politics and religion are contentious, frequently irrational, and have no place in discussions of issues regarding academic libraries. However, librarians don’t justify their professional actions or beliefs by saying Jesus or Karl Rove told them so.
Rhetoric matters. What we call things and the stories we tell ourselves about them influence the way people think about them. If librarians bring their personal politics into a discussion of scholarly publishing, or if they base their arguments in the stormy emotional field of religion instead of the cool, rational domain of science, it sounds as though they might be acting unprofessionally. However, librarians are doing neither of those things.
If we label these questions in an impartial manner, it’s harder to marginalize them. Questions about what we ought to do aren’t necessarily political or religious. They’re philosophical, specifically ethical. What should we do? How should we live? These questions can be answered in a political or religious way, and they can have political or religious implications, but at their most basic, they’re philosophical questions. Arguing that the status quo is good and arguing that things should change are both philosophical arguments about what the future should be like. They are both arguments “that deal with figuring out how things should be and why they should be that way.”
Labeling certain questions or propositions about scholarly publishing as political or religious makes it more likely that we will avoid discussion rather than engage in it. There are good reasons for encouraging this if you believe that the status quo of scholarly publishing is a good thing and the future should pretty much be like the present. As such, it’s a profoundly conservative rhetorical move and could subtly affect our thinking, unless we recognize the potential and guard against it. It’s important that we do so, because these issues need to be addressed, not evaded.