Two Cultures and Expertise

Academics of all sorts are highly protective of their scholarly territory. It’s an unavoidable consequence of the process of becoming an academic– I’ve often joked that getting a Ph.D. requires you to become the World’s Leading Expert in something that nobody else cares about. To make it through grad school, no matter what discipline you’re in, you need to really like what you’re doing, and that produces a tendency to angrily attack anyone who trespasses on “your” turf.

There’s an interesting difference, though, in the way that scholars from the humanities and socials sciences approach the sciences, and the way that scientists approach the humanities. I’ve written before about the maddening way that humanists have of regarding science as Too Hard, and cheerfully accepting as educated people with no meaningful knowledge of science and math.

For all that I find that personally annoying and damaging to society, though, they generally are careful not to denigrate the sciences as fields of research. They regard science for the most part as something beyond their capabilities, and the capabilities of their students, but they don’t deny that science is important, or that it’s a subject worthy of study. They don’t want to deal with it themselves, and don’t much care if their students get meaningful exposure to science, but they agree that it’s something worth doing. They also tend not to make grand pronouncements about scientific facts (for the most part– there are exceptions)– they may occasionally make claims about how science is “socially constructed,” but it’s rare to hear a scholar in a humanities discipline holding forth on, say, the superiority of string theory to other theories of quantum gravity.

Interestingly, the reverse is often not the case. In fact, some of the people who are quickest to explode with indignation when somebody from outside the sciences says something stupid about science– say, a crazy person filing a lawsuit about a particle physics experiment– are also among the quickest to denigrate or discard research in the social sciences or humanities.

This tendency is a big part of why scientists– particularly physical scientists, but all scientists– have earned a reputation for arrogance. Scientists are prone to not only holding forth about topics in other fields of scholarship as if they know better than the people who make the careers in those fields, but are also known to go to the extreme of denying that there’s anything interesting or worthy there in the first place. This is why things like the infamous Sokal hoax blow up so messily– it’s an attack not only on the specific scholarship of some bad and obfuscatory writers, but on the academic worth of an entire field of scholarship. That would require an awful lot of gall from a scholar in that general area, but scientists feel free to do this sort of thing in a casual and off-hand manner.

I’m prone to this sort of thing myself– I often make snarky comments about publicized research in education and economics, based on very little knowledge of those fields. I try to keep my comments as narrow and specific as possible– “it seems to me that this result could just be statistical noise” rather than “this field is bullshit”– but I don’t always succeed.

I do make an effort, though, to recognize the scholarly effort of people in other disciplines. One of the nice things about working at a small liberal arts college is that I have a good deal of contact with people from widely different fields, which gives me a chance to pick up a bit of what they do. I can’t say that I understand what my friends in English are talking about when they talk about their research, but I can see that there is serious intellectual effort there.

I also make an effort to give some deference to scholars discussing their own fields of research. After all, I would get kind of miffed if somebody with a Ph.D. in 19th Century French Literature started offering dumb explanations of quantum physics. It’s only fair, in return, to give some leeway when, say, a historian who studies Central Asia starts talking about the war in Afghanistan. Even when what they say doesn’t match my reading of the situation, or fit with my political biases, I have to give them the benefit of the doubt, because that’s what they do for a living.

I could do better at this, but I do try. I wish more of my colleagues were making a similar effort.

Comments

  1. #1 Anon
    March 31, 2008

    Being an experimental psychologist, I feel sometimes (simultaneously) like I am in a field which straddles the gap you are speaking of, or like I am in a field which exemplifies that gap. Never is this more apparent than when teaching the big intro classes, where A) we present the full range of what psychology is, from the hard-nosed neurophysiochemical, to the touchy-feely personally validated flights of fantasy that make up much of the history of clinical psychology, and B) we must present this to our widest range of students in a General Education course, so we have Senior Physics Majors with four years of profs pooh-pooh-ing the “soft sciences”, and freshmen for whom this is their first (and sometimes only) science class in their careers. It is so important to get everything right, and to present it well, without either inflating its importance or diminishing it.

    I have to know my biology very well, and present evolution thoroughly, as it is the foundation of any biological science (and psychology must be a biological science, despite what some of my colleagues will assert). I must know enough physics to explain why the mind-body problem is a big deal, and why quantum effects cannot possibly be responsible for overcoming that perceived (illusory) gap, and why “energy manipulation” is not what it claims to be…

    On the other hand, the data in psychology are, depending on area, complex enough to require a *lot* of mathematical and statistical knowledge. (I remember fielding a phone call from a Clinical Psych doctoral student, looking for help with statistics–with “the hard stuff–t tests, ANOVA, that sort of thing.” Yup, the sort of thing our introductory statistics courses cover. We need so much more.)

    At the other end, what good is a science of psychology if it cannot speak meaningfully about the behavior of groups (sociology, political psychology, anthropology), or of creativity in individuals (poetry, dance, music)? And we do. (In truth, some psychology speaks of these things in gibberish, but this appears to be true in any field.)

    And psychology adds to our understanding of these other sciences, if only by showing that there are other explanations, at the level of the behaving person, for some of the phenomena that have been assumed to be operating at a different level. For instance, N Rays, reported in scores of physics journal articles, now known to be a threshold event of the visual perception apparatus combined with poor experimental control and confirmation bias. Had Blondlott known what experimental psychology knows about visual perception, he’d have changed his control procedures and seen for himself. As a physicist, though, he was accustomed to trusting his observations. (Psychologists know our subjects can be lying to us–intentionally or not. We also know–or rather, we have learned through experience–the limits of our introspective observations.) It is not a huge surprise that it was again physics that vouched for the authenticity of Uri Geller. There was no natural explanation for these physical phenomena–and that was true, if they were taken, as the subject matter of physics, to be an honest result.

    And of course, even within my own department, I can point to people with no grasp of science at all (in my opinion), whose own views, if they were merely subjected to a tenth of the critical examination these same people put toward competing views, would fall apart instantly. (We even have a “scholar for 9/11 truth” on our faculty.)

    Anyway, I guess this is a long-winded way of saying I agree, and that it is good to see your call for this effort. I hope it can be heeded.

  2. #2 Philip H.
    March 31, 2008

    As the oceanographer son of a history professor and grandson of an English teacher and a Preacher, I have never been able to fathom why “hard” scientists so easily reject the “soft” scientists as being uneducated and lacking value. All the oceanography in the world will never tell you why Darwin got on that blasted boat and stayed on it all those years, nor will all the particle physics in the world tell you why the Aurora Borealis stirs your soul. I can’t imagine my life without either set of disciplines.

  3. #3 Martin
    March 31, 2008

    Thanks for an interesting post.

    My own background is in Complex Systems, and my Ph.D. was multidisciplinary, covering immunology, ecology and sociology, as well as a bit of history. I think that a lot of scientists purely on the physical side of things are actually quite ignorant of just how rigorous and well-based many of the so-called “soft” sciences are.

    I remember a fellow Ph.D. student who was working on image interpolation, and wanted to figure out a way of measuring whether the images looked “realistic”. Naturally the only way to achieve this would be to bring in humans and perform a rigorous survey, but he was adament that asking people was somehow “unscientific”, to the detriment of his work.

    Sociology is a discipline that comes in for all sorts of criticism from people who haven’t got a clue what sociologists even do. Network theory, nonlinear physics and complex systems theory all owe a debt to sociologists. Just because a system is “fuzzy”, doesn’t the study of it less “scientific”.

    The problem, I think, is that a lot of scientists actually have a very poor understanding of the range of scientific techniques available. I’ve had biologists, for example, tell me that they can’t understand what simulations or modelling can possibly tell them about an organism.

    More generally you see this ignorance in the lack cooperation between fields. University departments still spend far too much time in isolation from their immediate neighbours.

    I suspect this goes back to Postgraduate education. I can’t speak for elsewhere, but in the U.K., once you’ve picked your Ph.D. you spend your time on that, with very little further “research education”. As a result, people seem to become very narrow-minded very quickly.

    Anyway, just my two-cents…

  4. #4 thm
    March 31, 2008

    Part of the reason that physicists, in particular, look down on other academic disciplines is that we all read Feynman’s popular books when we were at some impressionable age. Feynman writes anecdotes about his experiences with several academic disciplines in which the reader is left with the impression that the work done in each of these fields is trivial and boring for someone as brilliant as Feynman, and perhaps by extension, all other physicists.

  5. #5 Harry Abernathy
    March 31, 2008

    Some of the arrogance from people from the “hard” sciences towards those from the “softer” ones comes from the “I could do your job” mentality. There are many physicists, chemists, and engineers who, in their spare time, are rather obsessive about literature, history, language, music, etc. So on some level they can be as much as an expert on some small “softer” subject as people in that field. They may not have the same breadth of knowledge, but they can have a fair amount of depth. The same can rarely be said for the reverse case.

    Sort of related: I often think of Charles Kavalovski, who was a tenured physics professor who was also a french horn player. At age 35, he started auditioning for symphonies and ended up spending 25 years as principal horn player for the Boston Symphony. In contrast, how many professional musicians could become a particle physicist at age 35?

    I know it’s not a fair comparison, but I do see some of that attitude present in scientists. I have to fess up to some of it myself. Both my wife and I speak French, and we’re both good at teaching. Bu while I can help her out with her work as a French teacher, she cannot help me out with my work as a materials scientist. True, we both chose our respective professions, but there’s still that little bit of information stewing in the back of my mind…

  6. #6 Jonathan Vos Post
    March 31, 2008

    This is an important topic.

    It’s always delightful to see C. P. Snow’s “the two cultures” alleged gap so wonderfully bridged as in the best Science Fiction. Further, those who self-identify (and/or are identified by Universities as Literature/Humanities) can tell us interesting things about the enterprise of Science. Likewise, those who self-identify (and/or are identified by Universities as STEM = Science/ Technology / Engineering / Math) can tell us interesting things about Art, Literature, and the Humanities. See, for instance, the Brian Boyd citation below.

    Wikipedia is pretty good on this topic, beginning:

    “The Two Cultures is the title of an influential 1959 Rede Lecture by British scientist and novelist C.P. Snow. Its thesis was that the breakdown of communication between the “two cultures” of modern society — the sciences and the humanities — was a major hindrance to solving the world’s problems. As a trained scientist who was also a successful novelist, Snow was well placed to pose the question.”

    “The talk was delivered 7 May in the Senate House, Cambridge, and subsequently published as The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution. The lecture and book expanded upon an article Snow wrote for New Statesman magazine, published 6 October 1956, also entitled ‘The Two Cultures’. Published in book form, Snow’s lecture was widely read and discussed on both sides of the Atlantic, leading him to write a follow-up, The Two Cultures: A Second Look (1963).”

    “Snow’s ideas were not without critics, however. For example, he was derided by literary critic F. R. Leavis in The Spectator, who dismissed Snow as a ‘public relations man’ for the scientific establishment.”

    Chad Orzel seems to me to agree with Stephen Jay Gould whose 2003 book “The Hedgehog, the Fox, and the Magister’s Pox” [which as the Wikipedia reference summarizes] assumes the dialectical interpretation, and argues that Snow’s concept of “two cultures” is not only off the mark, it is a damaging and short-sighted viewpoint; and that it has perhaps led to decades of unnecessary fence-building.

    I believe that Chad touched on it, as I commented:

    “Story of Your Life” Guest Lecture

    #1:

    “I agree with you completely that this is HARD SF. In this case, the Hard Sciences being Physics (Feynman Diagrams and Least Action), Linguistics (had the class been in that Department, it might have gone quite differently), and Astrobiology.
    Prediction: you are invited again to bridge the alleged ‘Two Cultures Gap.'”

    My own complicated life results in part because both of my parents were book editors in New York City, with English Lit degrees from Harvard and Northwestern, cum laude and magna cum laude. My double B.S. from Caltech is in Math and English Literature. Since those don’t lead to employment, I did a M.S. in Computer Science, and PhD (All But Degree) in what’s now called Nanotechnology and Artificial Life.

    Asimov, Benford, Brin, Clarke, Heinlein, McDonough, and many others that we could name are prime counterexamples to C. P. Snow’s specious Two Cultures.

    Shakespeare, other poets and other literary figures were grappling in their own ways with the Big Questions. Science has developed into an alternative approach. Even enemies of Science, such as the Intelligent Design liars behind “Expelled”, and Neal Adams, being apparently unable to use “higher math,” have depended upon idiosyncratic writing which may be considered Prose Poetry, and illuminated by movie special effects or computer graphics the way that William Blake made his own etchings, by his own invented technology, to illustrate his own quirky take on cosmology and other weighty issues. Blake considered himself radically opposed to Isaac Newton, even though both Blake and Newton were influenced by a common metaphysical thinker, Jakob Boehm.

    I’m saying that we should be polite to Neal Adam and his ilk. Without having acquired “higher Math” — which I believe he might be able to do, if he applies himself assiduously — Intelligent Design people (the enemy) and their ignorant followers (some of whom we may yet save through education) should not be judged as scientists, but appreciated and also criticized as artists. There is room within the post-“Two Cultures” society for alleged descendants of Leonardo da Vinci.

    For example, I see that Robert Frost critiquing Creationism and its later bastard child Intelligent Design in this poem:

    I found a dimpled spider, fat and white,
    On a white heal-all, holding up a moth
    Like a white piece of rigid satin cloth —
    Assorted characters of death and blight
    Mixed ready to begin the morning right,
    Like the ingredients of a witches’ broth —
    A snow-drop spider, a flower like a froth,
    And dead wings carried like a paper kite.
    What had that flower to do with being white,
    The wayside blue and innocent heal-all?
    What brought the kindred spider to that height,
    Then steered the white moth thither in the night?
    What but DESIGN of darkness to appall? —
    If DESIGN govern in a thing so small.

    [Robert Frost, emphasis JVP]

    References:

    “The Art of Literature and the Science of Literature”, Brian Boyd,
    The delight we get from detecting patterns in books, and in life, can be measured
    and understood, The American Scholar, 2008 [google for it online, in what is as I write this, the current issue]
    [Brian Boyd, professor English at the University of Auckland, New Zealand, is the author of Vladimir Nabokov: The Russian Years and Vladimir Nabokov: The American Years, and has edited Nabokov's fiction, verse, memoirs, letters, and scientific prose.]

    Booksthatmakeyoudumb [google for it online]

    Two Cultures in the Philosophy of Mathematics?
    Posted by David Corfield
    http://golem.ph.utexas.edu/category/2008/01/two_cultures_in_the_philosophy.html#c015284

  7. #7 Jennifer Ouellette
    March 31, 2008

    An important distinction re: Kavalovski: He didn’t just wake up one day in his 30s and decide to become a principal horn player. He’d been playing the French horn for years, probably for as long as he’d been studying physics. The fact that he excelled in two areas, and was passionately devoted to both, really has nothing to do with the point Chad is trying to make here about the arrogance of scientists, especially physicists. A professional musician COULD decide to become a particle physicist in his 30s if he’d been studying particle physics all along, while developing his French horn career.

    As a science writer who specializes in physics topics, despite having a degree in English lit, I frequently encounter the arrogant notion that what I do is trivial and simple, and that the answer to poor science coverage in the media is for only scientists to actually write about science, etc. There is little respect among such people — who, mercifully, are not as numerous as they once were (or maybe they’re just not saying anything to my face) — for the practical skills and experience I’ve developed over a lifetime of writing/honing my craft.

    Here’s a sample anecdote: years ago, I was sitting at a table with several physicists when someone made a reference to KING LEAR and misquoted Lear’s line when he is mourning the death of Cordelia. The individual, while a physicist, dabbled in amateur theater and considered himself something of an “expert” on Shakespeare, so when I corrected him — “Actually, the line is ‘Howl, howl, howl…'” he became quite indignant: “Do you think YOU know more about Shakespeare than ME?!?” I refrained from pointing out that I DID have a degree in the subject, and had been reading Shakespeare since age 12. Instead, I mildly responded that I knew this. He challenged me to a small bet, and called another PHYSICIST to get the answer (because someone with an actual degree or expertise in literature couldn’t be trusted?).

    I was, of course, correct and won our bet. Unlike him, I’d read the actual (“canonical”) text, not just participated in performances, where liberties are often taken (and rightly so — live theater is much more dynamic than static literature).

    This is exactly Chad’s point about the arrogance of physicists/scientists. I agree that people in the humanities in particular should be more interested and conversant in various aspects of science, rather than avoiding it altogether as they often do. But they don’t sneer at or dismiss entire fields as somehow being “beneath” them. It’s a crucial difference.

  8. #8 Monte Davis
    March 31, 2008

    Undergraduate p-chem here, then a reboot to a Comp Lit BA, then a career writing mostly about science, technology and engineering. Ditto to Philip’s “I can’t imagine my life without either set of disciplines.”

    Most natural scientists have a good feeling for the progressive layering in complexity from fundamental physics to (e.g.) condensed-matter physics to chemistry to organic chemistry to biochemistry to biology. Whether you want to philosophize about “emergent properties” or treat them as high-level generalizations and rules of thumb, nobody finds it very useful to study the Krebs cycle or mRNA activity at the level of QCD. Nobody is surprised that precise measurement, quantitative prediction, and their golden child — powerful, mathematically simple law — are harder to come by as you move along that axis. By the time you get to biology, the entities of interest are so complex, their interactions so path-dependent, the constraints and boundary conditions so numerous, that it can take a hell of a lot of rigorous work to get to reasonable confidence in a “usually” or “by and large” generalization — but nobody thinks of, say, protein folding studies as unscientific or squishy (or, pace Rutherford, “stamp collecting”) because they’re still at that stage, and will probably remain there until an awful lot more computational power can be thrown at them.

    Some of the two-cultures misunderstanding dissolves if you think of the cognitive sciences — and a fortiori the social and historical sciences, and a fortiori the humanities — as a looooong extension of that axis. They concern themselves with the interactions of large numbers horrifically complex systems that are not only path-dependent but “know it”: i.e., they maintain and consult and modify internal representations of their histories, and even talk about them on blogs, and in novels, and in therapy, and on the campaign trail.

    Of course those representations — and the principles we struggle to extract from them — are provisional and embarrassingly low-dimensional. Of course we’ve barely begun the qualitative task of figuring out which variables are truly independent/orthogonal, let alone making quantitative headway. What else would you expect?

  9. #9 John Novak
    March 31, 2008

    Well, this doesn’t destroy Harry’s point from #5…

    Some of the arrogance from people from the “hard” sciences towards those from the “softer” ones comes from the “I could do your job” mentality. There are many physicists, chemists, and engineers who, in their spare time, are rather obsessive about literature, history, language, music, etc. So on some level they can be as much as an expert on some small “softer” subject as people in that field. They may not have the same breadth of knowledge, but they can have a fair amount of depth. The same can rarely be said for the reverse case.

    …but I think it weakens it: There is a distinction between knowing a lot about something, and actually doing it. For instance, I know a lot of math and physics. Even by comparison with other engineers, I know a lot of math and physics. That doesn’t make me either a mathematician or a physicist. By the same token, knowing a fair amount about literature doesn’t really make one equal to a lit professor, or even necessarily equal to a good lit critic with a degree or two and a bunch of good articles, good research, and half a score of professional reviews.

    Now, that said, the disparity is still there: It’s damn rare to find a lit professor as adept at math or science as an engineer is, or even to the same degree that an engineer or scientist would proficient at literary commentary and analysis. If anything, I often see evidence that they’re grasping at the fundamental results of 19th, 20th, and 21st century math and science in order to import those insights to their own fields… and, annoyingly, getting it wrong.

    (And admittedly, Chad is talking about social sciences, rather than literature, but I think it’s just a point a little further along the axis. Besides, it’s on my mind since I’ve been reading a book on schools of lit crit, recently, anyway.)

  10. #10 John Novak
    March 31, 2008

    Well, this doesn’t destroy Harry’s point from #5…

    Some of the arrogance from people from the “hard” sciences towards those from the “softer” ones comes from the “I could do your job” mentality. There are many physicists, chemists, and engineers who, in their spare time, are rather obsessive about literature, history, language, music, etc. So on some level they can be as much as an expert on some small “softer” subject as people in that field. They may not have the same breadth of knowledge, but they can have a fair amount of depth. The same can rarely be said for the reverse case.

    …but I think it weakens it: There is a distinction between knowing a lot about something, and actually doing it. For instance, I know a lot of math and physics. Even by comparison with other engineers, I know a lot of math and physics. That doesn’t make me either a mathematician or a physicist. By the same token, knowing a fair amount about literature doesn’t really make one equal to a lit professor, or even necessarily equal to a good lit critic with a degree or two and a bunch of good articles, good research, and half a score of professional reviews.

    Now, that said, the disparity is still there: It’s damn rare to find a lit professor as adept at math or science as an engineer is, or even to the same degree that an engineer or scientist would proficient at literary commentary and analysis. If anything, I often see evidence that they’re grasping at the fundamental results of 19th, 20th, and 21st century math and science in order to import those insights to their own fields… and, annoyingly, getting it wrong.

    (And admittedly, Chad is talking about social sciences, rather than literature, but I think it’s just a point a little further along the axis. Besides, it’s on my mind since I’ve been reading a book on schools of lit crit, recently, anyway.)

  11. #11 bwv
    March 31, 2008

    Many other disciplines suffer from “physics envy”, particularly finance and economics. Many economists want to believe (although they are becoming fewer) that sophisticated mathematical models along the lines of what works in physics can adequately describe the economy. The truth is that the fundamental physical laws of the universe are vastly more simple than, say the human body or the global economy

  12. #12 Natalie
    March 31, 2008

    I think part of the issue is the perception that the humanities people aren’t *doing* anything. They’re just reading a book or looking at some historical papers. And the thought, in the mind of the hard scientist, is “How hard is that really?” when compared to designing an experiment to test a hypothesis.

  13. #13 Christian Casper
    March 31, 2008

    This topic is close to my heart because I made the transition during grad school from chemistry to English (and hence, at 31, am still in grad school). Although this may sound like anyone can just start a graduate degree in English without an undergraduate degree in the area (I did take Shakespeare, at least), I should point out that my field is rhetoric and composition, with emphasis on scientific communication, and that I spent time in industry as a technical writer. I can say I had a lot of catching up to do relative to my classmates. I’m in good shape now, but it wasn’t easy.

    Michael Shermer had a great column in Scientific American a few months ago that I think is relevant here:

    http://www.sciam.com/article.cfm?id=the-really-hard-science

    By the way, what we mean when we say that science is “socially constructed” doesn’t mean, for most scholars, “Oh, it’s just socially constructed, so it’s all a bunch of B.S.” It simply means that the practice and progress of science depends, at least to a non-negligible degree, on social factors. Anyone who has to apply for grants has firsthand knowledge of this. In fact, one of the seminal books in the sociology of science, by Bruno Latour and Steve Woolgar, was published originally in 1979 as Laboratory Life: The Social Construction of Scientific Facts but was reprinted in 1986 as just Laboratory Life: The Construction of Scientific Facts because the phrase “social construction” was being misread as dismissing science.

    Great post. I’ll look forward to following the discussion.

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