Gene Expression

Humanities “vs.” science

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….

Comments

  1. #1 agnostic
    July 27, 2008

    It’s OK if arts majors are ignorant of math and science, as long as they don’t talk about them in any way (e.g., by quoting Freud, or talking about “imperial Western science”). Ditto for vice versa.

    The idea of a liberal education, except for those who would elect to pursue it anyway, is too idealistic, just like forced multiculturalism. You take a whirlwind tour through the other group’s mysterious ways, ooh and ahh, and write it all off as silliness not very long after the trip is done.

    However, people should be required to learn from another field if its relevant to their own. Everyone has to learn statistics, no getting around it. Hell, everyone has to learn *middle school math* where you learned what proportions are, and how to solve an equation like “1 / 10 = X / 500″.

    Easy example is the ceremonial dance that intellectuals go through when talking about “the horrors of modern war,” pretending to get quantitative by citing death counts — and forgetting to divide by population size to get the rate, which is what matters. Nearly 1/2 of males in the German states died in the 30 Years War during the 17th C, while about 1/6 of male Frenchmen died in WWI.

    Same with high school math, where you learn about non-linear functions. I forget where I read it, maybe The Human Web, but a historian says something like, “the year 1000 is as distant from 1500 as 1500 is from today,” implying that people in 1500 would’ve been as surprised or whatever by the world in 1000 as we are by the world in 1500.

    But that’s only if the changes were linear. Population growth surely wasn’t: exponential starting around 1800, pretty static before then. Etc.

  2. #2 Mikado
    July 28, 2008

    I am a social scientist by training, and I certainly mourn my lack of mathematical ability. I am only now coming realise the potential of statistical methods in complimenting my qualitative research. Unfortunately, I now face the reality of learning an entire field in an unstructured manner. (As a side note, if anyone has any advice on the topic, I would be grateful)

    I think a lot of the fear surrounding these types of methods comes from the belief that quantification does more harm than not examining something at all, which is a terrible shame.

  3. #3 bgc
    July 28, 2008

    Scientists and humanities have very different intellectual descent, I think.

    Humanities is a descendent of the education given to the old priestly ruling class; and forms the basis of the current ruling class in public administration, education and the media. In other words, the ‘mandarin’ class – who combine expertise with ‘culture’.

    Of course, both the subject matter and the way the subject matter in humanities is taught has transformed over centuries. I’ve studied a humanities subject (English Lit) to Masters level, and what struck me was that the discourse is nowadays almost entirely moralized – the built-in morality being that of political correctness and counter-enlightenment.

    Science has a separate intellectual origin. Although much of science was done by upper class humanities trained mandarins (such as the Royal Society members) science is more of an offshoot of modernity. Scientists are mostly technocrats and ‘amoral’ in their discourse – or rather the morality is instrumental, and organized around the concept of ‘truth’.

    What is interesting is that the one place where science and humanities are united is among the scientist-mandarins who have a PC-moralized statist perspective on science. These folks tend to dominate the public arena.

    SJ Gould would be a prime example of PC-moralized mandarin science – SJ Gould’s ideas really don’t make sense if you extract the moralizing (and his moralizing doesn’t make sense without the science). (This was brilliantly brought out in SJG section of The End of Science by John Horgan.)

  4. #4 outeast
    July 28, 2008

    Bold assertions, bgc, which need substantially more evidential support than your own clearly strong prejudices.

  5. #5 agnostic
    July 28, 2008

    Ah, there’s some good mandarin thinking for you — it’s the boldness of the assertions that set off the “I need more evidence” detector, not their plausibility (whether a priori or based on relevant evidence).

    If I had to guess, I’d say you were in the medical field, although it’s only a weak hunch. That’s another place where humanities people wear the cloak of science. It’s not an insult, and they wouldn’t take it that way, as they view scientists as a bunch of sub-elite nerds.

  6. #6 outeast
    July 28, 2008

    it’s the boldness of the assertions that set off the “I need more evidence” detector, not their plausibility

    Actually, no. One thing was the nonsense about ‘Scientists (sis) and humanities hav[ing] very different intellectual descent’, followed by a lot of stuff that shows that the writer has very little idea of the history of science.

    Then there was the repeated use of highly loaded, prejudicial, and question-begging language (all that stuff about mandarins, for instance), which really sat awkwardly next to the implicit claim to an apoliticality ‘organized around the concept of “truth”‘.

    Then there was the contrived (and well-poisoning) dichotomy between a supposed majority of sientists, who ‘are technocrats and “amoral” in their discourse’, and ‘scientist-mandarins who have a PC-moralized statist perspective on science’.

    Then there was the comfortable extrapolation from very narrow personal experience (‘I’ve studied a humanities subject (English Lit) to Masters level’) to the whole of the humanities field.

    And so on.

    Basically, by ‘bold assertions’ I meant ‘horseshit’.

    Thie above has nothing to do with my own views on the relative merits of the many fields of humanities and science.

  7. #7 toto
    July 28, 2008

    SJ Gould’s ideas really don’t make sense if you extract the moralizing

    SJ Gould’s main ideas are:

    1- that evolution occurs mostly by periods of fast change spliced with periods of long stasis;

    2 – that adaptation is just one of the components that explain the forms of modern organisms (with an emphasis on previous history as another component); and

    3- that species-level selection (i.e. decimation of entire species) is an important factor in evolution, in opposition to the (supposed) focus on the continuous adaptation of species by individual selection.

    You may disagree. You may also point out possible strawmen arguments (e.g. against the semi-mythical “adaptationists”). I fail to see the connection with “moralising”, or how the ideas don’t “make sense” without it.

    This was brilliantly brought out in SJG section of The End of Science by John Horgan

    Oh, wait, you were relying on a second-hand account by a popular science journalist? Never mind.

  8. #8 bgc
    July 28, 2008

    My comments were based on a few decades of reading and research – which is hard to sumarize – but some of which you are welcome to peruse at

    http://www.hedweb.com/bgcharlton

    and http://medicalhypotheses.blogspot.com/

    the main single source is:

    http://www.hedweb.com/bgcharlton/modernization-imperative.html

    But – hey! – you don’t have to agree with me.

  9. #9 John Emerson
    July 28, 2008

    I thought Horgan’s contribution to that book was horrible, but I still read it for the interviews.

  10. #10 deadpost
    July 28, 2008

    “If I had to guess, I’d say you were in the medical field, although it’s only a weak hunch. That’s another place where humanities people wear the cloak of science. It’s not an insult, and they wouldn’t take it that way, as they view scientists as a bunch of sub-elite nerds.”

    What??? Dude! Medicine is a SCIENCE!
    Last time I checked, pre-meds study biology, chemistry, and all that jazz, ‘cept applied to bettering mankind. If a engineer uses his knowledge of physics to better mankind, does that make him in the humanities too?

  11. #11 Thursday
    July 28, 2008

    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.

    The sciences are becoming more and more useful in informing us about things that were difficult to explain, like the arts. We may not be there yet, and it is good to remain humble about what we do and do not know, science will eventually explain a good deal about the arts that many artists and critics would prefer to remain under wraps.

    Artists tend to resist scientific explanation, because they like to cultivate a cult of mystery surrounding what they do. They like to present themselves as a kind of secular priesthood in touch with mysterious forces. Science kills this, though ironically it doesn’t make an artist’s work any less enjoyable as an experience.

  12. #12 deadpost
    July 28, 2008

    “The sciences are becoming more and more useful in informing us about things that were difficult to explain, like the arts. We may not be there yet, and it is good to remain humble about what we do and do not know, science will eventually explain a good deal about the arts that many artists and critics would prefer to remain under wraps.

    Artists tend to resist scientific explanation, because they like to cultivate a cult of mystery surrounding what they do. They like to present themselves as a kind of secular priesthood in touch with mysterious forces. Science kills this, though ironically it doesn’t make an artist’s work any less enjoyable as an experience.”

    What do you mean, like how evolutionary psychology can explain away romance novels or something? :P

  13. #13 Coriolis
    July 28, 2008

    Actually bgc seems to make a decent point, although I would dispense with all the intellectualist lingo and reduce it to:

    Scientists separate moral judgements from their work, humanists do not.

    Which… is basically true it seems to me, although I don’t know how insightful or useful it is.

    And I have to chime in on the humanists should know better camp as well. For all that I enjoyed alot of what Scott Atran was saying at the beyond belief conference some time ago, at some point he put up some graphs of casualties in wars vs. time, basically trying to claim that while we have fewer wars they are much more violent (as an argument that human societies haven’t improved over time). And really, counting casualties, instead of casualties/total pop in that scenario is completely stupid.

    If you can’t realize why, simply think about a society of 1000 people where 10 are murdered a year, and a society of a billion people where 1000 are murdered a year. Which one is less violent?

  14. #14 razib
    July 28, 2008

    Scientists separate moral judgements from their work, humanists do not.

    1) part of this is structurally integrated into the subject matter. economics emerged out of moral philosophy. physics emerged out of natural philosophy.

    2) there are plenty of natural scientists who inject morality/humane considerations into their work, either out of sincerity (see joan roughgarden’s *darwin’s rainbow*) or tactically (see attempts by out-of-africanists vs. multi-regionalists to paint their own position as the most PC). there’s an average difference, but a lot of overlap.

  15. #15 dearieme
    July 28, 2008

    “within science physics is the gold standard by which other disciplines judge themselves”: once it was true; is it still? Parts of physics seem to have become mere yarn-spinning; others empty mathematical modelling. I fear that public respect for science ought to be in decline – phoney health scares, bogus environmental panics and such deserve nothing less.

  16. #16 razib
    July 28, 2008

    Parts of physics seem to have become mere yarn-spinning; others empty mathematical modelling.

    that’s only because they’ve achieved so much. what is intractable remains philosophy, but in physics so much has turned out to be soluble that now they are back at the beginning and turning philosophical since that’s all they have left :-) (that assertion is what economists would call “stylized,” but i think you get my drift)

  17. #17 Thomas M.
    July 28, 2008

    “SJ Gould’s ideas really don’t make sense if you extract the moralizing

    SJ Gould’s main ideas are:

    1- that evolution occurs mostly by periods of fast change spliced with periods of long stasis;

    2 – that adaptation is just one of the components that explain the forms of modern organisms (with an emphasis on previous history as another component); and

    3- that species-level selection (i.e. decimation of entire species) is an important factor in evolution, in opposition to the (supposed) focus on the continuous adaptation of species by individual selection.”

    Perhaps he was thinking of Gould’s well-known views on evolutionary psychology? Those were quite obviously built on moralizing on his part.

  18. #18 bob koepp
    July 28, 2008

    re the Gould digression, I figured the reference was to his championing a “dialectical method” in biology.

  19. #19 mph
    July 29, 2008

    Parts of physics seem to have become mere yarn-spinning

    It’s called “string”, not “yarn”. Sheesh.

  20. #20 Coriolis
    July 29, 2008

    Well, as a physics grad student, I have to admit that we have our stupidity in string theory. But to be fair, I think alot of physicists are turning against it, now that so much time has passed without experimental verification and with the absolute stupidity that some string theorists are spewing (basically saying they might not need experimental evidence). But really, string theory is a very small minority in physics, and it’s shrinking rapidly. It’s only because so many smart people at good universities got into it back when it looked like it had alot more promise that it’s still around. String theory is a fine subject to be continued by mathematicians but without experiments it’s out of place in physics.

    As for quip about “mathematical modeling”, that is ALL of physics, mathematical models that work. Some might say all of science. So I don’t particularly understand the point :P.

  21. #21 Oran Kelley
    July 29, 2008

    Perhaps he was thinking of Gould’s well-known views on evolutionary psychology? Those were quite obviously built on moralizing on his part.

    Mmmm. They were partially based on moralizing. His main point was that a) EP was fabulously unrigorous (as further elaborated upon by the Panksepps); and b) there were political motives behind the respectability gained by EP in spite of a).

    In the moralizing line, he did advocate the EP should be held to an even higher standard of rigor that other scientific speculation because of the possibility of impact on social policy, etc.

    re the Gould digression, I figured the reference was to his championing a “dialectical method” in biology.

    Do you know what dialectical method is? It’s certainly controversial, but it doesn’t look particularly concerned with morals or moralizing: wikipedia.

  22. #22 Oran Kelley
    July 29, 2008

    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.

    This is an accurate observation. I knew some of the people involved with the Sokal hoax. They were very concerned to hitch their caboose on to science’s star, and they couldn’t be more happy than when scientific findings seem to support their fundamental beliefs (for instance, as in Sokal’s piece, their radical epistemological skepticism).

    It surprises me that so many here at scienblogs don’t seem to realize the intellectual mojo science has and bristle defensively at every perceived sign of disrespect.

    Who is the universal symbol for genius? Einstein. Not Robert Frost. Not Jacques Derrida.

  23. #23 Ambitwistor
    July 29, 2008

    Mikado,

    It’s hard to teach yourself statistics to the point where you can use modern techniques in your research. I did it, but it took me years. Your best bet is to find a statistician or statistically-literate collaborator who will give you a crash course in statistics in exchange for learning about or developing techniques to solve an interesting applied problem. It’s too easy for a self-taught researcher to get themselves in big trouble using methods they don’t fully understand. Better to find an expert collaborator who will invest enough in the project that they’d sign their name to a paper, and learn how they approach the problem.

    If you’re a social scientist interested in statistics, I would highly recommend reading regularly the blog of Andrew Gelman, as well as the two books he has coauthored (the introductory “Bayesian Data Analysis” and the more specialized “Data Analysis Using Regression and Multilevel/Hierarchical Models”). IMHO these hierarchical regression models are the future of social science statistics. (Not that you should trust my judgment, as I’m a natural scientist.) I also like Jim Albert’s book and blog. (All of these references use the Bayesian approach to statistics, which I think is the most powerful and flexible. I’m not familiar with the traditional non-Bayesian approaches to social science statistics.)

  24. #24 dearieme
    July 29, 2008

    Your point has some force, Coriolis. But “mathematical models that work” is my sort of physics; my sneer was at the empty stuff – much of the stuff passed off as Climate Science is a good example.

  25. #25 Ambitwistor
    July 29, 2008

    dearieme,

    Speaking as a physicist, you’re wrong to sneer at climate modeling as “empty”. Climate models are far from perfect, but they do correctly reproduce many observed and well understood features of atmospheric-ocean circulation, as well as attaining reasonable accuracy on the major climatological mean observables.

  26. #26 Douglas Knight
    July 29, 2008

    agnostic:
    Population growth surely wasn’t: exponential starting around 1800, pretty static before then. Etc.

    cite?
    that’s certainly not the conventional wisdom, unless “pretty static” just means a smaller exponent. Also, I thought that there was a lot of population growth in Europe due to new world food before 1800, but maybe that didn’t affect world population so much.

  27. #27 agnostic
    July 29, 2008

    Google image search population europe, go to the pic from the visualizingeconomics website.

    Population size is stable once it’s at carrying capacity, unless they enter into a new niche, as Europeans did just before or during the industrial revolution.

  28. #28 Douglas Knight
    July 29, 2008

    The source seems to be Angus Maddison. He has a spreadsheet at his home page.
    http://www.ggdc.net/maddison/Historical_Statistics/horizontal-file_03-2007.xls
    He has western European population doubling from 1000 to 1500 again to mid 18th century.

  29. #29 razib
    July 29, 2008

    He has western European population doubling from 1000 to 1500 again to mid 18th century.

    there was a major correction between 1300-1400. the european average is a decrement of around 1/3 i think, but some nations like england were hit particularly hard.

  30. #30 Arcane
    August 1, 2008

    Do you know what dialectical method is? It’s certainly controversial, but it doesn’t look particularly concerned with morals or moralizing

    You seem to miss the point that the kind of “dialectical methods” that Gould was espousing were Marxist in nature. In fact, he freely admitted that he was interested in the idea of punctuated equilibrium because of his readings of Marx. And he opposed evolutionary psychology because of his Marxist political inclinations.

  31. #31 Oran Kelley
    August 4, 2008

    @ Arcane:

    I repeat:

    His main point was that a) EP was fabulously unrigorous (as further elaborated upon by the Panksepps); and b) there were political motives behind the respectability gained by EP in spite of a).

    There were/are plenty of good scientific reasons to dislike a lot of EP, and Gould cited many of them in his anti-EP writings.

    And secondly, I’d repeat that though his liking for dialectical method came down to him through Marx, it’s essentially a Hegelian thing and doesn’t come prepackaged with any particular politics.

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