Friday, June 29, 2012

Science, Humanities: Can't We All Get Along?

See image credits below*
The image at right has been wandering around the interwebz lately, and I must admit, on first glance, I kinda liked it.  Many of us humanities types are feeling a bit beleaguered lately, what with stagnant salaries; and an increasing tendency to equate "contributing to the mission of the university" with bringing in outside grants, and rumors that Teresa Sullivan was fired (before she was rehired) for not eliminating "obscure programs such as Classics and German" (these rumors may or may not be true, just as it may or may not be true that such programs, even if lightly enrolled, cost the university any substantial amount of money, since they're cheap to teach, and, what's more, at least in the case of UVA, include some endowed chairs; the main point here is that the rumors sounded all too plausible to many humanists).  From that point of view, anything that points out that the humanities can have value, even for those who major in science, is welcome.

But I also realize that there are major problems with the assumptions underlying the image's message, starting with the implications that scientists could not  figure out by themselves whether a particular project would be a good idea, and would not, left to themselves, be inclined to do so.  It seems to me that many scientists do very good modeling/predictive work, and have pretty well-functioning ethical/moral compasses to boot, with or without formal training in ethics, philosophy, or the like.  At the same time, I'm pretty sure that formal ethical/philosophical thinking can inform decisions about what scientific research is and isn't appropriate, and why, and that a knowledge of history (Nazi Germany, Tuskegee, the (literal) fallout from early atomic experiments, etc.), literature (a wonderful playground for tossing around "what if"s,, and understanding the vagaries of human nature), psychology, sociology, etc., etc. can be useful for scientists of various sorts.  Besides, as Luke Maciak (from whom I borrowed this copy of the image, and who provides some useful additional critique of it) points out, cloning a dinosaur might not even be a bad, or at least not a disastrous, idea, under the right conditions. 

Honestly, I don't think the sciences and humanities are at war.  In fact, the competition between the two disciplines (broadly defined)  that this image reflects, and helps to perpetuate, may be a sign that we're fighting with each other while our aspiring corporate overlords (who have no more respect for science that has no immediate profit-making purpose than they have for humanists who are not currently engaged in writing press releases, ad copy, and/or incomprehensible legal disclaimers) rub their hands in glee.

So, I dunno. Maybe this is sort of a late thirsty, or maybe it's just a reflection.  At least where I am, it's way too hot to fight, and, as I point out above, I think we'd be stupid to do so anyway.  But further reflections, comments, etc., are welcome below.

*Original image created by Rachel Leiker for the University of Utah College of Humanities. Color shift for CM courtesy of Leslie K.


  1. What the image found at the link really shows us is that we are long overdue for cloning dinosaurs. This is the 21st fucking century, after all. It would help me answer all kinds of important questions, such as, "Will DARPA fund this?"

    1. Have at it, Ben. Personally, I'm intrigued by the idea of a live woolly mammoth. I just hope someone is also preparing a large, properly climate controlled, habitat. Elephants (who are apparently considered the closest living relative, and will serve as foster-mothers) are a lot more heat-tolerant.

    2. Woolly Mammoths are not dinosaurs.

      It would be cool to have them wandering Siberia, however....

    3. And there's plenty of room, and still plenty of ice, there. Of course, Siberia was also one of the places where the Soviets conducted various sorts of experiments, so one might end up with some sort of demonstration of the combined effects of nuclear radiation and cloning.

      Or you could just release them in the area around Chernobyl, which apparently, like the North/South Korean DMZ, is a thriving wildlife habitat (with fewer odd creatures than you'd think).

      Another downside to cloning dinosaurs: the creationists would presumably make hay out of it.

    4. Please excuse me if I’m not up to date, but as far as I know, science -can’t- tell you how to clone a T-Rex. Have you ever seen it done? Isn’t the essence of science that, as Feynman observed, “If it doesn’t agree with experiment, it’s wrong?” If you can show me a live T-Rex you’ve cloned, I’ll change my mind, preferably from a safe distance, such as from a plane flying higher than a T-Rex can jump.

      As far as cloning a Wooly Mammoth goes, I wouldn't. These were social animals: you'd probably be creating a sad, little misfit. And if it got too lonely, it could rip your lungs out. Say, that sounds like a good plot for a sci-fi story.

      The June 2007 issue of Scientific American had an article about restocking North America with megafauna species, such as lions, elephants, and camels, that became locally extinct in the Pleistocene, in order to restore balance among the plant species. Subsequent letters to the editor complained this was a "fantasy": I can't imagine that too many Wyoming ranchers would be enthusiastic.

    5. I happened to be thinking about this video yesterday and seems appropriate.

      The first part talks about looking for dino DNA. You can skip to 9 minutes to see the second part of the talk. It's about chickens.

      He addresses why this is a worthwhile endeavor, though it's not a very satisfying answer.

      Regardless, it's a good presentation.

    6. @Frod, wasn't it Eddington, another physicist, who famously said that no experimental result should be accepted until it is confirmed by theory?

      Experiments fail all the time, and sometimes failed experiments don't tell us Jack Shit. Students get all excited when they find that mass is gained or lost by dissolving sugar in water...

    7. So where's your live T-Rex? Don't worry, I don't want to get too close.

    8. I think Eddington said that in much the same spirit as, when he was being given a hard time about his ideas about how stars cook up heavy elements in their cores with nuclear energy, he said, "Try finding a hotter place."

    9. Right, but Eddington was on to something. We know that something is not right when an experiment does not agree with a well-confirmed theory. As I said, students get excited (but should not) when their experiments show that sugar and water gain or lose mass on mixing.

  2. We've replaced the original graphic with an edited version of it since it was a direct link to someone else's site. Simply linking an image on CM from its originating site is always a problem, as every hit it receives on our page ends up as data on someone else's, infringing on their bandwidth.

    The relevant misery rule is: Do not post graphics and images if they don't belong to you. This blog and its predecessor have always allowed "edited" images, but we reserve the right to delete and/or modify any posted image that violates fair use.

    It's not a huge deal, but we do try to be cognizant of the use of images from other sources, and especially try to avoid burning someone else's servers.

    Not a problem, Cassandra; we do this occasionally to help out.

    As we've noted sometimes, we like to use to edit or alter images. Some readers have taken to it.

    Of course anyone with Photoshop can do the same, but BeFunky is a nice, free, online site that allows a good amount of options.

    Leslie K.

    PS: Nobody can blur shit like Cal, of course, but in this case we just added some color filters.

    1. Apologies, Leslie. I should have blurred/altered before I posted. To give credit where credit is due, it appears after a google image search that the image was originally created by a woman named Rachel Leiker for her then-employer, the University of Utah. The second link includes a slideshow with more of the campaign, including posters with the taglines "Physics can show you how to split the atom. . .Humanities can help you explore the implications" and "Business can show you how to make money. . .Humanities can show you how to do it ethically." Whatever my quibbles with pitting disciplines against each other, she's a very talented artist/designer.

  3. Cassandra, when I saw this, I was reminded of many discussions that I (a humanities type) have with my significant other (a scientist type), and I confess I did not see it as representing any sort of warfare but rather a very short discourse on the interests, methods, and materials of various disciplines. But I suspect that I brought a lot of my own personal narrative to the interpretation of this image, the content of which said partner and I joke about often to one another and which, ironically, is something (i.e., how to use images as source materials while recognizing your own biases) I teach about in one of my humanities-focused courses. Perhaps I need a remedial course?! :-)

  4. Humanities can tell you why this might be a bad idea? Heck, doesn’t common sense tell you why this might be a bad idea?

    Since Lord Snow's discourse on "The Two Cultures" in 1959, the conflict between the sciences and the humanities has ended in decisive victory for the sciences. If you have any doubts, the next time F&T asks me to fix her computer, the answer is "No."

    If I wanted to be really spiteful, I'd say, "Yes, if you explain to me how the Doppler effect was used to convince most astronomers today that the Universe had a definite beginning in time." The really funny part here is this has no dollar value whatsoever to our aspiring corporate overlords.

    As Alan Sokal mentioned in his “Reply to the Social Text editorial” (reprinted in “Fashionable Nonsense”), “My goal isn't to defend science from the barbarian hordes of lit crit (we'll survive just fine, thank you)…” As Allan Bloom (who was fond of citing Plato and Rousseau, apparently endlessly) observed in “The Closing of the American Mind,” “Natural science is doing just fine. Living alone, but happily, running along like a well-wound clock, successful and useful as ever. There have been great things lately, physicists with their black holes and biologists with their genetic code. Its objects and methods are agreed upon…Our way of life is utterly dependent on the natural scientists…But where natural science ends, trouble begins.”

    Isn’t the real conflict in academia today between the humanities and the social sciences? That’s what those business-school types who almost deposed Teresa Sullivan major in: economics, also known as the dismal science. They certainly don’t major in physics: the mathematics we use would floor them! (When I took intro economics as an undergraduate, I was struck by how much the econ majors complained about the difficulty of the mathematics, how easy it was for me, and how much more money than me they would be making for using it, after graduation.)

    1. OK everyone, in case you haven’t guessed, everything I’ve written above in this thread is a JOKE. Also, the image above was only ever supposed to be a joke too, you know?

      Of course I don’t think that the science and the humanities need to be in conflict with each other. I don’t like to put the power one might get with a science or engineering education into the hands of fools, which is why I’ve always insisted they should have a solid background in the humanities.

      I like to think I have a privileged perspective in this topic. As an astronomer, what I do has, again, no dollar value whatsoever to our aspiring corporate overlords.

      But then, I work in a physics department. One course I teach is third-semester-calculus-based-physics-for-engineers, the title of the course being “Light and Modern Physics.” We cover optics, useful since it’s hard to get far in science and engineering without ever having to make use of light. We also cover introductory modern physics, which as I tell students can’t honestly be criticized for lack of applications, three big ones being digital electronics, medical imaging, and nuclear energy, for good or for ill.

      I do tell students that jobs are scarce in astronomy, and that becoming a professional astronomer is more like making a living as an artist or musician. Some of them do go into immediately practical fields: two of my recent students have gone into nuclear engineering. Most of them don’t listen to me, and probably never will.

      Every time I try to redirect my astronomy research program into something more practical, my department chair and dean hate it. They like my research to be abstruse. I involve lots of students, I keep the funding coming in, and anytime there’s a transit of Venus, my university gets on the news.

      If the humanities are suffering, might I suggest they find a champion who looks good on TV, to advocate their value to the general public? It’s been a while since they had a good one: Kenneth Clark and Jacob Bronowski come to mind. We’ve long benefited from this in astronomy: Carl Sagan is about to be eclipsed by Neil Tyson. You do still find professors of astronomy who turn up their nose at astronomy popularization, but to quote Feynman again, “I think they’re completely wrong!”

      Furthermore, the image does make a point. More than once, scientists have been surprised by the implications of their own work, and in a way that strikes people outside the sciences as naive, befitting people who have spent too much of their lives in the lab.

      One example was, soon after the introduction of Norplant, a judge ordered a woman to get them, since she'd had too many children she couldn't support. The inventor immediately made a public statement to the effect of, "No, that was never what I intended them for." Well, that's what they're being used for now, fool.

      A much more famous example was the development of nuclear weapons. There's no shortage of others.

    2. Advocates for an academic discipline do not need to be pleasant. Breaking bad makes chemists look like bad some bad ass mo-fos. It's at least better than nothing.

    3. Oh! Do you really think that there's no such thing as bad publicity? I never could feel any sympathy for that guy, no more than I could for Alex in "A Clockwork Orange."

    4. We don't expect or want people to think of chemists as meth cooks but chemists have such a bad reputation that I think this helps.

  5. I can fix my own computer, thanks.

    1. Ah, welcome to the Dark Side, we have lots of fun here!


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