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Humanities "vs." science
By Razib Khan | July 27, 2008 4:52 pm
Chad has a post up The Innumeracy of Intellectuals, where he goes on a rant against humanities academics and their blithe complacency in relation to their ignorance of science & mathematics. Two points….
1) One of the major issues with humanistically oriented intellectuals, I believe, is a lack of anthropological fluency with the culture of science. As a case in point, a contributor to the literary weblog The Valve dismissed my assertion that scholars who study science should have some immersion in scientific education at some point with the quip that experience with multiple choice tests wouldn’t add anything to their comprehension. The reduction and dismissal of even an undergraduate science education to multiple choice tests bespeaks a lack of awareness of what science coursework for those majoring in the sciences often consists of (i.e., solving problem sets, laboratories and undergraduate research).
2) One of the major issues with scientifically oriented intellectuals is that they attempt to translate scientific methods into humanistic domains where there just isn’t the proven return on investment at this point. Some forms of Marxism were an attempt to reduce history into a deterministic process controlled by a few parameters; I suspect that explains the attraction Marxism, and socialism more broadly, had for scientific intellectuals early in the 20th century. The hypoethico-deductive methodology which the scientifically educated are habituated to engaging in must be used very judiciously when examining humanistic questions. What exactly do general axiomatic theories have to tell us about the influence of Hellenistic motifs on early Umayyad art? How exactly has Theory really worked out for the humanities so far? Certainly an appreciation of art can be reduced ontologically to neuroscience, but the outcome of the Superbowl can also be reduced to quantum level dynamics. So?
Finally, I also don’t think that the attitude of humanists toward science is really one of superiority. I think it is pretty clear that today science is the queen of the intellectual enterprise, and within science physics is the gold standard by which other disciplines judge themselves. I think most of the bluster by non-scientists about their ignorance is rooted in some embarrassment, just as I think most non-physicists (this is mostly aimed toward biologists) know that they wish their own field had attained even a fraction of the power of physics in modeling the world around us.
Janet touches upon most of the hypotheses re: science vs. humanities….
CATEGORIZED UNDER: Culture
This spring, I’m going to have finally earned my Bachelor’s of Arts in Gender and Women’s Studies with a concentration on race and ethnicity. This field is something I’m incredibly passionate about, because gender, race, class and all other social systems shape our experiences as individuals.
I myself am privileged, growing up in an upper-middle class environment and being able to graduate with no debt, which is something I know is rare and do not take for granted whatsoever. I’m also white (a white Latina; I’m still figuring out the best way to identify myself) or at least “white-passing”, among many other privileges I have. I’m also a woman, which puts me at a certain disadvantage. My privileges do not cancel out the oppression I face as a woman.
And THIS is why I study what I study. My academic field as widened my eyes and I think has made me a better person, with more empathy for others and a better understanding of how institutions shape our daily lives.
I think my education is incredibly important and that’s why it bothers me when people point blank tell me that my field of study isn’t as important as a STEM field. I’m not writing this to say which is better: STEM or the humanities, because they are like apples and oranges, they simply do not compare to one another. STEM is important, that’s how we get our infrastructure, our medicines, our technology and many more things we take for granted. But the humanities are important too: without them we wouldn’t have domestic violence shelters, social workers, counselors, teachers, theorists like bell hooks and Patricia Hill Collins. I’m not writing this to claim that the humanities and social sciences are more important than STEM, because that’s untrue and incredibly biased: we are just different.
STEM is short for the field of studies involving science, technology, engineering and mathematics. The humanities include fields like ethnic studies, gender and women’s studies, philosophy, literature, and more. These fields of study don’t necessarily produce tangible goods and products, like STEM fields do. Bridges aren’t designed, neither are cars. Medicines aren’t invented and the next Steve Jobs surely isn’t coming from a humanities background. We are the teachers, the writers, the artists, the social workers, the theorists (not to say that people in STEM can’t be theorists, but not of the likes of bell hooks or Michel Foucault) and more. We are less likely to make a lot of money and create tangible products.
For some people like myself, going into the STEM field, while more fiscally rewarding, simply isn’t feasible. I’ve failed nearly every math class I’ve taken, struggled with basic biology, let alone balancing chemical equations. Would you trust me to help engineer a bridge or design some cutting edge technology when I can’t even grasp the concept of a logarithm (really, WHAT IS THE POINT OF THOSE THINGS?)? My brain doesn’t function that way. But I can write, I can copy edit, and I can read Judith Butler and pretty much understand what she has to say (which is no small feat, let me tell you). I can debate, make presentations and lead discussions and dialogues.
I think one of the reasons why humanities are considered to be “soft” and “less important” than STEM of “hard sciences” is because they are seen as a more feminine field of study. In our society, we associate masculinity with discussion based around facts rather than emotion, truth being black or white, and objectivity. Because of these societal expectations, STEM is seen as a more valid field of study because it encapsulates all these things. Men are encouraged to go into these fields, and women re discouraged from early on to prefer subjects like English and History. Humanities are seen as feminine because a lot of times there is no “true” answer, and everything is in shades of grey. There is no objectivity, everything is subjective. In the humanities we discuss nuances, emotions, and other things that are seen as feminine, with even our discussion styles based around the idea of consciousness raising. Women predominantly make up the pool of people who work in these fields, much more than men. Because we live in a patriarchal society that devalues femininity at every turn, it’s no wonder why the humanities are seen as less important than STEM, for two reasons: the method in which we learn and explore, and who ultimately ends up taking these jobs.
My work and goals aren’t any less important than the non-humanities, they’re just different. I want to work at a domestic violence shelter. I want to eventually be a professor. I want to help others in my local community. It’s something a lot smaller, and less tangible, but it’s what I’m passionate about. And that’s okay. I’ve been called a bleeding heart, not as a compliment, and every time I can’t help but wonder why is that bad? I’m happy doing what I do, and it’s not any less valid than the people out there doing STEM work. It’s not any less or more important.
Both are necessary in our society, so can we not pit them against each other?