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.