I second Chad Orzel’s well stated concern of our colleagues in the humanities’ inability to add two numbers together. Well, actually, I’m seeing Chad’s critique and raising one rant.

It is not just a lack of background in math and science, it is also, as Chad says, a lack of shame about it. As an Anthropologist, I’ve been forced to work side by side with people who, while fantastic in many ways and just wonderful folks (with exceptions, of coruse), not only throw around that they can’t “do math” but even do this in reference to basic arithmetic. They can’t add. They can’t subtract. How do they go to the grocery store?

A little while back a grad student who is very very smart about a lot of thigns (and can do math) was asking my advice regarding how much to ask her (non math/science) department in a proposal for grad student research funds. Her gut feeling was to ask for a LOT but worried that this would be percieved as a show of hubris.

I told her “Ask for at least that amount … this cannot be seen as hubris. They can’t count! They won’t know!!! Hopefully they’ll find someone who can use a calculator and divide the money up evenly!!”

(We laughed.)

There is discussion as to why this asymmetry between science and humanities (with the social sciences representing a spectrum fitted between the two extremes) comes form.

I know the answer to that question. The humanities has evolved into a field where the show is the end game. The facade is the core. The whole point is the presentation. This equips those in the humanities to spend their time fluffing their own feathers and denigrating others (especially in the sciences and the science-oriented end of the social sciences) and for this they get tenure and promotion. A scientist who spent all of her/his time attacking the humanities would (generally) not get very far as a scientist. But the reverse … a lala shishi social scientist or a person in the humanities who takes aim, fires, and totally misses a shot at the sciences gets kudos in their own field.

This is certainly, not by a long shot, what most people in the humanities are busy doing. But the humanities are structured today to have a fighting wing that does nothing else. Science studies is what it is sometimes called. Scientists do not have a “humanities studies” wing.

Is it not obvious that this is at least an important factor?


  1. #1 Stephanie Z
    July 28, 2008

    Greg, one of these days, you and I are going to have to have it out on the social sciences. I suspect we agree on a lot, but you’ve come close to getting push-button rants a couple of times lately.

    That said, the social sciences do study the humanities to a degree. They’re just working it in very tiny chunks because it’s a complex topic (to an extent that the humanities themselves are largely unaware of), and they’re slow because they’re still building the tools they need to make sure they’re studying what they say they are (both math and rhetoric have such a head start). I think they’ll get better at it over time and start to make the humanities terribly uncomfortable too. Just wait until they start to make the humanities face some of that complexity.

    They’ll probably do it faster if they’re given more of a seat at the “science table” instead of being pushed into the liberal arts. They’ve earned more than they’re usually given on that score, even if they do have plenty of work left to do. And it can only help to steep the kiddies in a culture of rigor.

    Okay, any more and I’ll rant in good earnest.

  2. #2 Greg Laden
    July 28, 2008

    The social sciences definitely study the humanities, no doubt whatsoever. I’d like to know what specific subfields/people/whatever you are thinking of.

    But the science-sciences do not study the humanities except in very indirect ways (lie my sister’s PhD thesis on sound … she is a composer, and studied certain aspects of sound perception using AI and experimental results. Pure science but ultimately looking at music).

    And the social sciences study the humanities. The “science studies” which come from the humanities side of the social sciences, do not “study science”…. they do nothing of the kind. They troll science. (there are a few exceptions, but they are rare). They are little more than attack dogs defending nothing important but being very aggressive. There simply is non analog in the life sciences, physical sciences, math, engineering, etc. Nobody can write a thesis in Biology that explains how the humanities have got it all wrong.

    Right. So I don’t mean that the humanities/soc.sci have a unit that studies science. I mean that they have a wing that aggrandizes the humanities side of the hum-soc.sci-science spectrum at the expense of the sciences. In petty, small minded and counter productive ways. (And I’m being nice here…)

    (I quickly add … some of my best friends are in the humanities….. 🙂

  3. #3 Stephanie Z
    July 28, 2008

    I’m thinking largely of perception and persuasion studies, since that’s my background. Definitely still far from addressing the humanities directly, although I think the studies on the utility of logic in persuasion are the closest I’ve seen to challenging how the humanities looks at itself.

    I’m not disagreeing with you on how the humanities “challenge” science, although I appreciate the distinction you make about studying vs. studying. I’m just pointing out where I think the challenges to the humanities will come from and why they’re not as visible yet as they could be.

    And isn’t it a good thing that you have so many best friends? 🙂

  4. #4 Matti K.
    July 29, 2008

    “The humanities has evolved into a field where the show is the end game. The facade is the core. The whole point is the presentation. This equips those in the humanities to spend their time fluffing their own feathers and denigrating others…

    … a lala shishi social scientist or a person in the humanities who takes aim, fires, and totally misses a shot at the sciences gets kudos in their own field.”

    You are expressing yourself very diplomatically. That’s fine, there is no need for vulgar F-words!

  5. #5 Hank
    July 29, 2008

    Note: I’m not involved in academia other than as a student at a technical (and technical only) institution, so take what I write with a good helping of salt.

    There certainly is more to humanities than po-mo swagger and from the sidelines sniping at other sciences. Just consider linguistics for example.

    Broad generalizations around fuzzy or circular definitions aren’t helpful in a discussion.

    With that said, being proud of ones ignorance is breathtakingly stupid and a completely different beast from acknowledging your weaknesses and for one reason or another choosing not to improve. You cannot know everything.

    Sadly, I’ve seen the same defensive reactionary attitude towards humanities from colleagues and classmates and that “too cool for school” attitude really irks me.

  6. #6 Philip H.
    July 29, 2008

    NOw hold on a minute. Are you seriously saying all the humanities can’t do math? And for that they get a what F++ in your book of grades for people? What disciplines are you including in the humanities then?

    MY dad is a historian, and between him, his archaeologist, anthropologist, linguist, library scientist, and religious studies colleagues, I think I got a fairly good introduction to the humanities growing up. I don’t recall that they were a math deficient group, and several of them have co-authored fascinating papers with some ecologists I know looking at historical ecological questions – which I think requires a fair bit of math.

    I guess what rankles me here is your painting all humanities practitioners with such a broad brush. Were such sweepingly negative statements made about about scientists, my read of your blog is that you’d be the first to leap up and shout “Nay” because it’s better to deal with individual failings or foibles then to impugn a whole profession. So if you have specific people whose work you think needs . . . dissection, then go for it. But let’s not get off the rails trashing whole academic communities. That’s just not called for.

  7. #7 Greg Laden
    July 29, 2008

    Phillip: Those are all social sciences, not humanities.

    This is why I speak of a spectrum, humanities at one end, science at the other, with the social sciences stretched out in between.

  8. #8 Bob
    July 29, 2008

    As someone with an MA in folklore/mythology/early English Literature and a Masters in Information Science, I find these debates quite entertaining. I’ve probably always leaned slightly towards the science side of things; my MA thesis was a Proppian analysis of Twelfth Night compared to historical and modern Beauty and the Beast tales. I would identify myself as a New Historicist. I can do Lacan and Derrida if I have to, but don’t like it.

    For my MIS degree, we programmed some genetic algorithms and other fun computer related things. It wasn’t as actively math intensive as a computer science degree, but I would still call it a hard science.

  9. #9 Charlotte
    July 29, 2008

    Here in the UK I suspect the reason so many ‘humanities’ types drop science/maths as soon as they can is that the subjects are, in some sense, harder. If you’re reasonably literate, it’s possible to bullshit your way through an essay on a course you didn’t really understand, and pass it. If you don’t understand the basics of a maths course, OTOH, you’re likely to fail horribly (my best ever was 10%). That’s a pretty major disincentive for arts undergrads to venture out of their fields.

  10. #10 El Guerrero del Interfaz
    July 29, 2008


    Have you noticed that a lot of, if not most, scientists or technical people have some humanities as their hobbies? I wonder how many humanists do science as a hobby…

    El Guerrero del Interfaz

  11. #11 anonymousse
    May 13, 2009

    You claim that “Scientists do not have a ‘humanities studies’ wing.” That’s what anthropology – your supposed field – is. Perhaps you are as poor at employing language as you claim scholars in the humanities are at mathematics.

  12. #12 Greg Laden
    May 13, 2009

    anonymousse: For the most part, the anthropologists who study the humanities as they are are not scientists, and would be unhappy to be called scientists.

    There are scientists who study creativity and the products of humanities etc, but not the epistemology of the humanities. Well, maybe there are a few, but I can not think of one.

    Perhaps you could lend a bit of credibility to your claim if you could provide a few names, maybe a department or two where this is done and so on.