Thursday, October 24, 2013

Science and Humanities

David Hollinger, a historian, wrote a recent Chronicle Review article The Wedge Driving Academe's Two Families Apart: Can STEM and the human sciences get along?, one of a number of articles I see talking about the connections between science and humanities and the future of humanities at universities.

Most scientists do find great value in the humanities and I would hope vice-versa. But when funds get tight, different fields talk about their relative importance--it happens between science and humanities broadly, it happens between theory and systems in CS departments with limited slots to hire.

I feel badly for humanities these days. In a tight job market, students and parents think hard about doing a humanities major while universities are trying to find ways to cut costs. I don't have a solution--right now the job market calls for more computer scientists than English majors, but I would hate to see an intellectual core of our academic world shrink away.

Humanities are cheap. A provost once said to me it costs the same to hire five philosophers as one physicist once start-up costs and salary are considered. We should find a way to keep funding the humanities while maintaining the strengths across all fields.

Pushing the bounds of human wisdom is important, whether it be in chemistry or classics. Only when we push in all directions does the ball of knowledge truly expand.


  1. pretty offensive to say that STEM can't be the "intellectual core of our academic world"

  2. yeah crushing economics seems to be playing a role here.
    my favorite figure who, in some ways, helps span/integrate the two fields: Kuhn

  3. Every few years I see an article about how industry rediscovers the value of hiring a SMART person in the humanities and TRAIN them, rather than a not-so-smart person in (say) computer science. Then they forget again.

    However, if the humanities were to sell themselves a good-for-a-job, or
    better-than-you-think-for-a-job or good-for-law-school, business school,
    that might be a mistake since that is giving in to the material world rather than
    challenging it. On the other hand, we all need a job.

    1. I actually do work for a big software company that hires bright people from any background and trains them for several months to do what's needed. It might be that some parts of industry are always doing that, and occasionally someone decides to write about it.

    2. When you say "to do what's needed" do you mean programming or non-programming things that the company needs done?

  4. Don't confuse valuing the arts, i.e., seeing the value in books/plays/paintings, and believing there is a worthwhile academic subject in studying them (in a humanities fashion rather than say as a sub field of empirical psychology research).

    There is nothing about enjoying a good book or even a sophisticated one means that society derives value from people writing papers about the meaning of that book. Frankly, I think academic studies in the humanities is just an exercisce in funding people to signal they are sophisticated and argue about what is popular in their in group. Of course the people in the humanities have insulated themselves very effectively from this criticism since any genuine skeptic of their value will be less versed in both their theory and works deemed ( as opposed to simply enjoyed) worthwhile and thus easily dismissed as uncultured.

    As far as training goes smart people with a different degree may be superior but I've seen no reason to believe (and substantial evidence against) that a degree in the humanities or similar subject does more to develop general reasoning than say a degree in math or similar subject.

  5. A world in which two billion young people seek family-supporting jobs, and 2% of these young people become STEM professionals, and 2% of STEM professionals become computer scientists, and each computer scientist publishes two articles per year, is a world in which 5,000 new computer science articles appear every day.

    Conclusion To fill the global requirement for family-supporting jobs, STEM careers in general — and computer science-and-engineering careers in particular — must evolve substantially (even radically) beyond traditional academic boundaries.

    Fortunately, computer science is protean!

    1. Israelis and Austrians have been soul-searching since this year's (computational) Nobel in Chemistry went to Israeli emigrants Arieh Warshel and Michael Levitt and Austrian emigrant Martin Karplus.

      So what's up STEM brain-drains? Doesn't the world's *real* brain-drain originate, not in any one nation or culture or educational system, but in a global STEM job market that is evolving to be so adverse that millions of talented young people just give up?

      And why is this happening?

      These are natural questions that need good answers.

    2. As a vigorous companion to [historian] David A. Hollinger's essay, please allow me to commend [historian of science] Thomas Broman's thoughtful essay (which is much cited) "The Habermasian public sphere and "Science in the Enlightenment" (1998; Google finds it). My BibTeX file includes vinegary Broman assertions such as these:

      "Science is a form of discourse that structures and regulates much of what anyone else can claim to know."

      "In principle, they [the early scientific journals] excluded no one, even if in practice they excluded nearly everyone."

      "The authority that scientific experts possess today derives from the quality of scientific knowledge being open and public in principle but recondite in practice."

      "Medicine's only advantage over a calling such as philosophy is that it more often makes one wealthy. But this advantage it shares with swindling and usury."

      "Truth and power generate each other, and wherever one sees truth being manufactured, one may be sure that power will be found at no great distance."

      "His [Foucalt's] work has always made historians uncomfortbale because of his insistence that we dig so deeply into the consciouness of our actors. Yet if we want to get at what has happened to make science so authoritative in modern culture, we can only provide a satisfactory explanation by following his prescriptions to the greatest extent possible."

      "At what point does society cease looking to its intellectual élite for knowledge? When are the reins to be handed over to each person as an enlightened member of society? The answer, of course [for Kant], is ``never."

      "The elevation of scholars to a privileged position in public discourse raises an obvious question: who exactly is entitled to speak as a scholar? In the great census of enlightened society, who should be included?"
      Broman's claims are provocative and his questions are tough (please do not think that because have I quoted these passages I necessarily endorse them). Still these remarks provide an informed historical perspective that (as it seems to me) STEM professionals are well-advised to ponder.

      Summary of the Hollinger/Broman/Habermas narrative  To the degree that the language of STEM professionals ceases to be publicly understood — and even ceases to be understood across across discipline boundaries — the STEM community's historical claim to the privileges of scholarship becomes delegitimized and (eventually) is lost.

  6. re the economics angle. there are record levels of wealth inequality in the US and possibly worldwide. wild and crazy conjecture: a society with less extreme income inequality has less humanities/STEM imbalance? it sounds implausible but remarkably, economic inequality has been correlated with social cohesion and social, cultural, and civic participation which are both at least somewhat related to what is referred to as "humanities"....

  7. Between vzn and John Sidles, this blog post seems to be attracting entirely crackpots and trolls.

    1. Your contribution to the public sphere is appreciated, "anonymous"! ;)

  8. "A provost once said to me it costs the same to hire five philosophers as one physicist once start-up costs and salary are considered"

    Wow. Does this also include the cost of dining and wining the philosophers?

    :-) Sorry - couldn't resist the tongue-in-cheek reference to the dining philosophers problem.

  9. "A provost once said to me it costs the same to hire five philosophers as one physicist once start-up costs and salary are considered"

    What about after they are hired? What is the ROI for hiring a philosopher versus hiring a physicist? The first year or two might cost 5x as much, but what about years 3 through 30?

  10. OK. i think, i can speak not only on behalf of myself but also others when i say,
    -from now on people should stay focused.
    -useless comments censored.
    -same applies to comments that turn out to be entire weblog entries in themselves (this is a recurring theme for some)


  11. I'm almost certain that the provost is wrong. Science and Engineering faculty on average cost the university less because of overheads charged to their grants.
    Every student, every postdoc in the lab brings additional money to the university.