Humanities v Science: let’s rename it Humanities & Science

Following a post by Dr. Orzel on the divide between the humanities and the sciences, there was a flurry of stuff over at Science Blogs, including stuff from Dr. Free Ride (who, by the way, is my life guru, blogger AND tenured prof in philosophy of science, her posts are always reasoned and thoughtful and interesting…sigh…someday I’ll get her autograph), and others, but I can’t find the links right now because they’re gone from my google reader.  Anyway. 

The basic issue is that people in the humanities admit readily they know nothing of science and math.  No one looks down on them for this.  But people DO look down on scientists and mathematicians who can’t tell Rennaissance from Impressionism.  And most of our undergraduate curriculums are based on forcing literature and music down the throats of our pre-meds, while allowing our English majors to skate by in “physics for poets”.   I do want to point out, though, that many of my pre-med friends had a tough time in religion, and many of my english lit friends had an equally tough time in physics.  Both sides ended up whining about it constantly.

I have noticed this issue myself in many different situations, but I have also noticed that the funny looks go both ways.  While I can garner myself some respect among the humanities by showing off my extra bachelors in Philosophy, in the sciences I am more often greeted with looks of disdain or puzzlement.  Having a degree in something “fluffy” like Philosophy must mean that I’m a REAL nerd (I am, thanks), and my well-roundedness is sometimes even viewed with derision by my colleagues in biomed.  My own ADVISOR calls me a geek.

I am proud of my extra degree, thanks.  I worked for it, and I enjoyed most of the intro classes far more than I ever enjoyed slogging through organic chemistry (sorry to the organic chemists out there, and I want to let you know I’ve come to much more of an appreciation now that I no longer have the prof who made it such a chore).  Not only that, but my grounding in Philosophy taught me important things that I never got from my Biology major.  Like writing.  Sure, we had a “writing in the sciences” class, but it was a one-credit seminar, and really pretty useless.  It did cover looking up articles in pubmed, citing things, etc.  It DIDN’T cover basic sentence structure, paragraph structure, and general writing issues. 

Most of my colleagues hate writing.  They throw up their hands in despair over sentances that end up being half a page long.  Unfortunately, writing has become one of the most important parts of academic success.  Your grant can’t just contain data, it has to contain paragraphs and sentances that makes all that data understandable.  Furthermore, I think the general problems with writing also hamper communication to the non-science community. 

Do I think this means scientists should be forced into Art History?  Of course not.  But I also think that we should put a little more emphasis on those classes that teach scientists communication skills, writing, presentations, and public speaking.  These classes may give you an appreciation for literature or drama, but more importantly, they will also help your career.  And, hey, if you actually get some presentation skills, maybe I won’t fall asleep in your seminar. 🙂

On the other side of the issue, do I think “physics for poets” is a good idea?  Not really.  What I DO think would be a good idea would be classes that allow humanities majors to appreciate what scientists do, and to apply that to their own lives.  Music as math is one idea, but what about biology and medicine?  People in all walks of life have more access to science, more access to findings, and they need to learn to tell truth from fiction.  An English lit major may not need to know about string theory, but they DO need to know the difference between an antibiotic and a vaccine, viruses and bacterial infections, the difference between Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, and what makes a tumor cancerous vs benign.  I feel a class like that will teach them stuff they NEED to know, as well as possibly giving them an appreciation for what we do. 

So that’s my $0.02.  Can’t we make classes that meet in the middle?  Can’t we all just get along?

7 Responses

  1. I admire your gradual appreciation of organic chem – I can only hope to one day reach the same heights of magnanimity.
    Basic “faith” in human nature tells me that there will always be two sides of the fence, and funny looks on both sides. Though there is a wistful part of me that says that communications classes should be English-based, and marked by the according department. No free rides, and less of the “well, it’s not REALLY required to graduate. Sure, this sentence doesn’t actually make grammatical sense… but the data holds up. We’ll just give them a pass.” It might also make said classes more interesting. I’m not opposed to physics for poets, though. Sometimes a taste is all you need to realize you want to switch your major, and we can all use a brain-stretch from time to time.

  2. “It DIDN’T cover basic sentance structure, paragraph structure, and general writing issues.”

    ironically, you have a typo here: sentence.

  3. Eeek! Thanks! It’s fixed.

  4. frankly, I find stuff like “math of powered flight” to be at least borderline condescending, like saying, “We know you can’t understand what we do, so here’s something so easy you can handle but which we will scoff at you for taking.”

    also, as someone doing a PhD in might be considered a humanity…the scientific method has bled over at least to the social sciences, and so an understanding of the hard sciences, and particularly the theory of science would be really helpful. many of colleagues go apoplectic at the thought of math or statistics, and have highly flawed understandings of what constitutes scientific rigor.

    We’ve also got methodologies that masquerade as science when they abhor rigor, repetition, and deny the existence of causality. Post-positivism can be scientific, just see statistics. But some of the stuff we do is not science and we don’t know it.

  5. unfortunately, I’ve only recently discovered the joys of philosophy, and the true nerd-dom that it takes to study it.

    I say unfortunately because I’ll probably never have another chance to study it in a formal setting… but I’m starting to get into the 18th century philosophers on my own… even just wrote a recent blog post about it.

    It’s funny, because most scientists don’t realize that all the great scientists were also philosophers, from Descartes to Einstein.

  6. Ecoli: I saw that post! I am impressed. I know that lots of people have a hard time ‘getting’ philsophy at first unless it’s guided in some way.

    Do not consider yourself unfortunate. The best philosophers tend to be the ones who never took a real philosophy course, because they are the ones most likely to strike out on their own and come up with new directions instead of sticking to the old tired questions.

    Once you’re done with the 18th century, may I recommend studying Karl Popper? He’s considered one of the founders of the modern philosophy of science as it is taught today. Also, on the other side, is Ludwig Wittgenstein, who’s TLP is just mind-boggling.

    Perhaps we should have some discussions and you can make me pick up Hume again!

  7. thanks scicurious.

    I actually do have a book that was a gift from a philosophy professor (I did take one class on the philosophy of technology) that has diverse essays from people like Popper, Kuhn, etc. I’m going to work my way through that one next.

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