May 3rd, 2003

breaking bad

The two cultures (1)

A debate on the supposed worthlessness of non-scientific academic subjects can be found here.

It basically boils down to an economist saying 'we economists are scientists, not like humanities graduates' with the ensuing discussion elaborating on 'sciences require intelligence, other subjects do not' and 'scientists and engineers are hard-headed right-wing pragmatists, while arts and humanities graduates are woolly minded left wing idiots' (the word 'idiot' is used fairly frequently). There is also a perplexing reference to people with PhDs in non-scientific subjects as 'sluts' (oh, all right then, 'intellectual sluts'). Not sure where this kind of venom comes from to be honest.

Heaven knows, I am often frustrated enough by what passes for academic discourse in the humanities. However, I think the furious scientists and engineers posting to the debate have missed the point of many of the academic subjects that they vilify. That is, I think there can be valid intellectual activity which does no have as its goal the development and testing of falsifiable theories.

For example one can refine and expand the conceptual framework that underpins speech and writing (and to some extent thought). One could, for example, investigate the concept 'proof' and see what it means, how it relates to such concepts as social status and reliable testimony. Or you could look at the ways in which hostility can be made manifest in overt and covert ways, and how the objects of hostility can react.

Anyway, you get the picture. There is stuff that is worth doing, from the point of view of culture and mind, which isn't developing and testing true-or-false assertions. It's more about setting out previously overlooked possibilities or unpacking complex ideas into their constituent parts, or forging new terms with new meanings. And questioning authority and social convention of course.

I don't think the people who teach these courses always take this responsibility on board though. There is a danger, not found to the same degree in disciplines with easily testable outcomes, of laziness and complacency. Of giving out degrees too easily. Of favouritism and smugness. All this stuff might explain the venom of the scientists in the debate I referenced above.

Gosh, this is a long post isn't it? I had a sharp comment to make about 'the two cultures' but I think I'll save it for a second post, as this one is a bit verbose.
breaking bad

The two cultures (2)

The point I was leading up to in the last post was that one of the contributors says:

"CP Snow was concerned, as I recall (it's been a long time since I read his book) that we were graduating students who knew *either* Shakespeare's plays, *or* the Second Law of Thermodynamics--and that these were two entirely separate groups of people with little or no overlap.

"But, today, we've solved that problem. A high proportion of today's graduates know *neither* Shakespeare's plays *nor* the Second Law of Thermodynamics. What they do know is some postmodernist metatheory which convinces them that they have no need to learn anything substantive--either in the sciences or in the humanities."

The interesting thing about this is that Snow's thesis is blatantly wrong, let alone the modern commentator's. And my assertion in the previous sentence is testable too (yay! science points!)

Test it yourself. Do you know anyone (children and people who for some reason haven't received much education excepting) who can't provide each of these two questions with a pretty fair answer:

'What is entropy?'

'Who said "To Be or Not To Be" and what was he on about?'

I picked these two to match CP Snow's claim, but you can substitute your own questions. Another good one for humanities graduates would be 'what do the letters in the equation "E=MC squared" stand for?'; and for scientists 'What is Dante's Inferno?'. Remember I'm only asking for fair-to-middling answers.

I don't mean that this proves humanities graduates are expert scientists, or that science graduates are all super-sensitive poets. But it does show that human beings are a lot bigger than the categories that other people want to slot them into. We aren't 'two entirely opposed groups of people with no overlap', and we can talk to each other with a modicum of mutual respect.

I agree that post-modernism is rubbish though.