Science and Humanity


I was tempted to begin my response to this question by saying that this debate has been raging for some time, but in reality it is a debate which very much belongs exclusively to the 20th and 21st centuries. Throughout much of intellectual history, students and scholars demonstrated an admirable inclination to polymathy which is hard to recreate in an age of academic hyperspecialization and unwieldy disciplinary expansion. If it seemed that someone like Descartes or Newton knew about everything, it bears remembering that the sum total of digestible human knowledge was at that time much smaller. Yet, though many brilliant people throughout history have expressed preferences for particular fields of study, I cannot recall an instance in which they bragged about the difficulty of one branch of study over others as a peculiar form of merit. Yet, for all of that, I cannot remember a time in my own life when students and even professionals did not debate the relative ‘difficulty’ of different modes of study, usually with an eye to justifying their own choice of college major or career. One may in these discussions be inclined to conclude that life is but a latrine, so prevalent are its pissing contests.

In antiquity, philosophers freely traversed a range of topics from mathematics to rhetoric, and saw no conflict in feeling ardent enthusiasm for and dedicating substantial intellectual resources to several wholly disparate modes of study. Many, at least as far back as Gibbon, date the decline of learning in the west to the collapse of the Roman Empire. Yet a more sensitive analysis may suggest that the decline of learning in the west can be attributed to the cultural values of the Romans themselves. Their own hard-headed emphasis on instrumentalized learning left little room for the free-wheeling intellectual play which was more congenial to the Greeks. I teach Latin professionally, and I love Latin literature, but I would be hard pressed to think of much Latin that I actually enjoy reading outside of the standard Golden/Silver age syllabus packers and the literature of the Renaissance. To be sure, Rome’s physical and political dominion in the Mediterranean lasted for centuries, but the period during which Roman intellectual life flourished is embarrassingly small, and even the most ardent enthusiast for Latin literature would have to concede that Rome’s literary fame rests upon a canon far less diverse and protracted through time than that of Greece.

All of this is by way of suggesting that narrowly utilitarian education is excellent only in generating maximal utility, but it is likely to have a stultifying effect on the intellect more generally. The argument about whether STEM[1] disciplines are ‘harder’ than those in the humanities may be taken at face value as a simple attempt to extend the old urinary range, but underlying the claim that STEM fields are harder lurks the implicit claim that STEM fields are more worthy than the humanities. Worse still, the value accorded to STEM fields has a transitive effect: the STEM student, in light of the instrumental value which they are expected to produce for employers, is also more worthy as a citizen than the humanities student. Some people who cannot even draw a convincing stick figure are inclined to dismiss art degrees as idle self-indulgence, as though the artist does not work hard or even suffer inward torment for their craft. The psychic cost of a day at the canvas is surely as great as the psychic cost of a day in the lab. Yet, while the day in the lab may well produce something of value for the boardroom or the Pentagon, the day in front of the canvas is more likely than not to produce something which, in helping us to engage with and question our humanity, tends to be slightly subversive.

One could always find ways to make life harder for oneself. Even if it were possible to rank fields of study by reference to their difficulty, it would be a fundamentally useless exercise. To be sure, physics can be hard – but what about those who study physics and Greek? What if art and music were then added on top of it? One could endlessly add intellectual and creative pursuits to the schedule, and this would make life more difficult, but is there any value in difficulty qua difficulty? Labor saving devices have been developed precisely because humans are, as a rule, averse to imposed difficulties, though they are perfectly willing to take on difficult tasks as a part of the agonistic striving for superiority against their fellows. In this sense, the debate over academic difficulty is just an extension of our darkest desires for power, and the irresistible urge to validate ourselves as defined against others. In the brutal battle to subvert others and proclaim your own superiority, you must hope that you had enough to drink.

[1] I should note that I despise the acronym ‘STEM’, since it strikes me as an underhanded attempt on the part of industrial, corporate, and government interests to co-opt science and mathematics as a part of gadgets and gizmos production. The scientists and mathematicians I have met have been full of wonder and curiosity about the world, but I have met few engineers who were not wholly inconsiderate people focused exclusively on instrumentalization and utility.

15 thoughts on “Science and Humanity

  1. Hi! I’m a physicist. I’m also someone fascinated by the history of Mesopotamia and the larger Middle East, I’m someone who has traveled everywhere he could, and I generally have, I think, a broad interest in almost every intellectual pursuit. I’ve lived in a refugee camp and in the heart of Victoria, in London. I feel obligated to present these bona fides because if I simply said that I study quantum effects in ultracold matter, you might dismiss my work as something useful only to the Pentagon or the board room.

    Every time I see an academic culture war piece, it’s inevitably written by someone who studies the humanities, who insists that people on the other side of that divide are constantly belittling him or her and his or her work. I can tell you that over here in the debased world of science (and I’m including the opinions of all the benighted engineers I know), people either don’t think about this conflict at all, or think it’s preposterous– because, like me, they have a deep passion for scholarship of almost any sort.

    This brief essay doesn’t seem much different from other things I’ve read on the subject, other than perhaps being more pleasantly written. This fixation on a perceived slight… it’s like the behavior of kids who felt they were outcasts in high school, convinced that the jocks are at their party scheming how best to further demean the poor, virtuous nerds. The jocks aren’t thinking about us at all.

    1. Hi Thomas,

      I think that Erik’s point is that the false dichotomy that pits science against the humanities is one that is exploited by people outside either field and that because of financial and utilitarian interests, we (both scientists and humanists) often buy into the nonsense with some of us arguing constantly for the importance of our fields and others blithely believing in the superiority of their own without critically questioning it.

    2. I concede that this is largely true of both scientists and mathematicians, who are on the whole committed to intellectual activity and not cultural crusading. Yet I rarely meet an engineer who does not have some snide remark in the chamber ready to be discharged when they discover that anyone has any non-instrumentalized interests. It is for this reason that I highlighted the fact that this attitude may be attributed to corporate and industrial forces rather than the actual intellectuals in any given field.

      1. No, no no no. This is now an exercise in walk back. Erik wrote “the day in the lab may well produce something of value for the boardroom or the Pentagon, the day in front of the canvas is more likely than not to produce something which, in helping us to engage with and question our humanity, tends to be slightly subversive.” It is very difficult to read that in any way that does not drip with derision.

        No. What you have, I think, is confirmation bias. You have people you crossed paths with who you’ve decided are awful. Is it possible you don’t know how to talk to that kind of people? What — who — is the common denominator in each of the pairwise interactions you’ve had with these engineers? I feel like I can tell when someone has a negative opinion of me that doesn’t feel well earned. I don’t bend over backwards to appeal to that person. Have you paid much attention to how many human resources managers you think are awful? Why not? How many people who part their hair on the right are philistines? Maybe these people are in fact dreadful. Is it really because these people are engineers, or is it because they are from certain circle of society, or a million other factors that might be responsible? Or is it really because they’re better at math than you but worse at it than I am?

        There’s a dumb joke that people often make — by people, and often, I guess I mean me, and like four times a year — that the only mathematically significant thing the Romans accomplished was to murder Archimedes. It’s absurd, it’s dumb, it’s funny to nerds (once again, I guess by nerds I probably just mean me). And I’m sure it’s not accurate; I’m quite sure that the idea that Roman society was without exception less interested in pure mathematics than the typical Greek poking at the sand with a stick is just absurd. I just haven’t been connected to the right people or to their work. The fault isn’t in this huge swath of dead people, it’s in me, and how I connected to them.

        I genuinely think that the engineers you find so vile are only reflecting the contempt that you do not seem aware you communicate. I’m not trying to dunk on you; I hate how that’s our default mode for the internet. I’m not “striving for superiority against [my] fellows.” I mean sincerely to try to show you something that you’re not seeing. I hosted a speaker this week at my institution. She’s a world famous scientist. We were at dinner last night with some of my students and all of us were talking about how the LIGO gravitational wave measurements would be remembered like Eratosthenes’s measurement of the circumference of the earth. We all understood what that meant. How much do you understand about how the wavelike nature of light (and indeed, matter) can be used to measure the literal rippling of spacetime due to the collision of two black holes? We all have physicist on our degrees, but she and I are really just engineers of a particularly esoteric variety, specializing in understanding vibrational modes and laser interferometry. The two kids, who knows where they’ll end up. Maybe in your bad stack, maybe in the good.

        There’s a guy who writes for the Chronicle of Higher Education who made some snarky comment on twitter during the 2016 Republican primary campaign that the reason everyone on stage was such an idiot was because we disdain the humanities and the arts in favor of STEM disciplines. His particular complaint was prompted by Ben Carson, who he said clearly typified this problem — he didn’t bother to check, but Carson’s undergrad education was in psychology, which is a social science and, I suspect, not exactly the chemistry or physics background the writer presumed. I looked it up at the time, and there were, I don’t know, fifteen or sixteen people in the primary, and the only one who had majored in the hard sciences was Bobby Jindal (double majored in bio and public policy). But put all of that aside — we haven’t even begun to question the implicit assumption that writing a dissertation on The Song of Roland better prepares you to lead than getting a master’s degree in EE while studying how to integrate renewable power sources into the existing grid.

        Every time I find someone who insists that scientists lack the close reading skills of scholars trained in the humanities — like that guy surely would — it seems like that person very often thinks that we could fix global warming by building a big air conditioner. That’s not a solution that fails because a big AC would be expensive and those vile capitalists won’t pay for it; it fails because of the Laws of Thermodynamics. That’s not some deep, obscure mystery from physics; not understanding why it wouldn’t work is You Never Heard of Shakespeare? kind of shocking. It’s “people who cannot even draw a convincing stick figure” kind of shocking.

        The reason you’re thinking so much about how wrong everyone is to to believe that STEM disciplines are harder and therefore more worthwhile is because you believe that they are not, and are not — and that in fact they are much simpler and far less worthwhile — disregarding the condescension, like I said, would require a pretty incredible leap of faith. I studied physics and I read Xenophon and fragments of Heraclitus and a ton of other stuff I’ve since forgotten. I couldn’t manage make time to learn Attic or Doric or whatever it is that classics students study as undergraduates, but I think I almost fit close enough into the example you were using — someone who studied physics and Greek. I am certain your Greek is excellent. I have really serious doubts about your physics.

        Sorry this is disorganized. I’ve been running on about four or five hours of sleep for the last year and a half. I’m trying to get my lab up and running to build wickets for the Pentagon, and I honestly should have spent this time working on an extra credit assignment about Aristarchus of Samos for my astro students. They’re a bunch of kids from the poorest part of a doomed state, and I think they deserve to learn this. Please, please stop shooting buckshot up my butt all the time. Stop sneering at us. We’re not myrmidons.

      2. Like I said, disorganized — but one thing I forgot to point toward: look at your latest response — you concede. Concede! How kind of you to concede that we’re not ALL terrible, that we may have genuine intellectual activities, some of us, occasionally. Concede. The tone of superiority is absurd. I am committed to cultural crusading, but I think you’d find that we’re on the same side of the culture war you insist we have to have, if you could stop trying to ostracize me from the circle of True Intellectuals.

    3. Tell that to the dean of my institution’s college of engineering, who routinely refers to our college of arts and sciences as the college of arts and crafts.

      If, as you say, most STEM folks ignore the argument, perhaps that’s a result of their not constantly being asked to prove their discipline’s utility.

      1. And what do you and your colleagues sincerely think of the engineering students and faculty? We are rarely asked to prove our discipline’s utility to our peers in the humanities and arts — because so many of them have already decided that we have no genuine value. To many of you we are often seen more as mechanics than as academics.

  2. Excellent analysis of the utilitarian bias of saying a branch of learning is more difficult. Another question is for whom people can have a “gift” for languages or mathematics or history, which makes them “easy” and the other disciplines difficult.

    1. There is something to this. I speculate that those who are in graduate school for a given discipline do not find the *subject* particularly difficult. Perhaps due to my constitutional indolence, I studied and enjoyed Latin and Greek because they seemed so easy, though I concede that they may have been easy because I enjoyed them. Yet, I have taught several students who, though they could easily ace exams in physics and chemistry, seemed wholly incapable of mastering the most rudimentary grammar in Latin.

  3. What a strange analysis. To answer a question about whether STEM fields are harder than humanities, a humanities person–a Hellenist, it appears–turns inward and drives a wedge down the center of his (her?) own field:
    “To be sure, Rome’s physical and political dominion in the Mediterranean lasted for centuries, but the period during which Roman intellectual life flourished is embarrassingly small, and even the most ardent enthusiast for Latin literature would have to concede that Rome’s literary fame rests upon a canon far less diverse and protracted through time than that of Greece.”
    How is that responsive to the question? The author cites ‘utilitarianism,’ but I honestly can’t see how that concept is relevant to the sentence just quoted (which seems focused on aesthetics, diversity, and longevity).

    1. Properly speaking, I am a Latinist. The brief interlude about the comparative paucity of the Roman cultural tradition was meant as an illustration of the dangers of narrowly-circumscribed intellectual pursuit with an eye firmly fixed on yielding utilitarian value. My aim was to emphasize the stultifying effects of an educational curriculum in which the practicality was the primary concern.

  4. Do you, as a Latinist, think that your job is harder than that of a rapper or the lead guitarist of a garage band? If we can say that the psychic cost of the scientist who is toiling over projects in the lab is likely equivalent to that of the painter at the canvas (I don’t disagree with this point), then we can follow that logic all the way through and say that the person who spends all day trying to compose the best twitter memes is exerting just as much of a psychic effort on their projects, or that the Insane Clown Posse is exerting just as much psychic effort on their projects.

    Whether or not a particular discipline is hard is a subjective value claim. I think that the grievances you fellas voice about “*THE* false dichotomy of STEM vs Humanities” falls somewhat flat. This kind of subjective, disciplinary dichotomizing in academia is equally applicable to any two fields or sub-fields, and it is subject to change depending on what room you walk into next and what people you are engaged with at a particular time.

    If we want to get rid of (or just mitigate) the “narrowly utilitarian” model in academia, should we be as eager to provide “hip-hop studies” courses at Universities as we are to provide philosophy courses? Do you think that hip-hop studies are just as *worthy* on a college campus as classical studies? How far can we extend that? What about a course which covers the history of the Insane Clown Posse? How about “reality TV show 101” courses? Would those be as *worthy* as classical studies?

    I’m just trying to point out that we all do that kind of dichotomizing, and that we all have subjective value claims about other disciplines or art forms. You’ve done it yourself in this essay by deriding physicists and engineers (I deride them too, but in this essay you seem to be saying “hey, we don’t suck; no-one on campus has to suck…. but anyway, here’s why you physicists and engineers actually DO kind of suck”).

    1. Also, what is this “decline of learning in the west”? Is there any evidence of a decline of learning in the west, or is this just something that you assume has taken place?

      And, you seem to be painting with a broad brush when you talk about the
      “value accorded to STEM fields”. As a blooming classical biologist, whose field of study is increasingly being downsized and driven out of state universities on account of its lack of contemporary professional utility, I can say that the STEM field that I have fallen in love with is often given a kind of derisive scrutiny that the humanities and arts are generally given. And it seems like this scrutiny comes mostly from other biologists. So, I argue that this is not a STEM vs humanities thing; its inherent in all disciplines and sub-disciplines.

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