Friends, I’ve been saddened recently by a resurgence in debates around the idea that “Science” is somehow better than the “Humanities” (including the Arts I suppose).
Listening to these highly educated, scientific thinkers talking about perceived flaws in the Humanities has reminded me of a sad truth:
The world will always contain a large population of highly intelligent stupid people.
I feel comfortable defining these people as “stupid” because they are part of a group that chooses to ignore the obvious flaws in their point of view in order to stroke their egos, and the “science vs humanities” “debate” is a perfect example.
Is it really that strange to say that both of them are valuable? That both of them contain important learning about the world? Or that both of them enrich our lives?
If so many of the “scientists” mentioned above aren’t aware of that then it means their science “education” has left them completely uninformed about what the value of the humanities actually is. I was loving Stephen Hawking’s book ‘The Grand Design’ until half way through the introduction when he said “Philosophy has failed”.
The fact that this great man of science feels confident in saying something so incredibly stupid actually causes me physical pain. And it’s not because I disagree with him mind you; it’s because the statement is itself completely meaningless.
The reason why Hawking made it is because he doesn’t understand what philosophy is. He is picturing a discipline of philosophy that doesn’t exist, and then saying that it’s bad.
And it isn’t Hawking’s fault. He’s been lied to. At some point someone gave him a strawman understanding of philosophy and that is what he is attacking.
Sadly he isn’t alone. If one spends any time on scientific discussion boards one is bound to come across many people who don’t know what philosophy is, but somehow know exactly what is wrong with it.
These people are ignorant, plain and simple. They don’t know what they are talking about and shouldn’t be taken seriously in this debate.
We don’t let religious fundamentalists tell us about science, because they are ignorant of it. We shouldn’t let people who don’t understand the humanities tell us about them.
So let me lay it out in brief: Philosophy is the study of ways of thinking. ‘Epistemology’ consists of the ways of thinking about knowledge. ‘Ethics’ consists of the ways of thinking about morality. ‘Aesthetics’ is about beauty and so on.
Saying “Science is better than Humanities” is like saying “blue is better than bananas”. Or to put it another way it’s like saying that paleontology is better than history. They aren’t “better” than one another, they are simply different. They do different things and provide different benefits.
And if anyone reading this thinks that I am somehow “anti-science” then read a few of my other posts. In fact start with this one. And you’ll see how wrong you are.
The most common argument for why “science is better lol” is the argument that Science offers an objective view of the world whereas the Humanities are basically just made up bullshit.
Firstly, fiction is made up bullshit, but that doesn’t mean it’s bad.
Secondly, while there is a lot of bullshit in the Humanities (oh god, so much) there is bullshit in the Sciences too. Or haven’t you heard of The Cato Institute, and the other right-wing think tanks that have been preventing action on climate change?
And if you’re unsure about whether the ‘hard’ sciences generate bullshit then what about Retraction Watch? It’s a great little site that covers retractions from research journals, and the majority of posts are about the ‘hard’ sciences.
The fact is that there are lots of ‘hard’ scientists who screw up and there has never been a shortage of scientists who were willing to sell their souls or stand in the way of progress to further their own careers.
Scientists are only human.
Science (at its best) is objective.
Scientists are not.
And speaking of careers the popular meme that arts students can’t get jobs is contradicted by the fact that right now no one can get a job, and having a science degree is not regarded as more useful than any other degree, unless you’re in a field that specifically requires it.
So please tell me more about how your chemistry degree has you just sailing into the sweetest cubicle in the 45th floor of the massive insurance company you now work for.
These arguments are just little people stroking their own egos, nothing more.
One can of course invoke a ‘No True Scotsman’ fallacy, and claim that anyone who lets greed or pride influence their decisions isn’t a “real” scientist but this is very hard to justify.
Lord Kelvin let his ego blind him to the emerging consensus on the age of the Earth, and you won’t get very far claiming that he wasn’t a “real” scientist!
Einstein refused to accept quantum physics because he just didn’t like it very much.
And if science is so laudably free of bias then why are scientists who are part of historically disadvantaged groups (women, black people etc.) so often discriminated against within science itself?
You guys in the basic sciences can pretend to be objective as much as you like. Over here in the social sciences we have repeatedly shown that research journals and academic institutions of all kinds are influenced by race, gender, class and perceived prestige.
A second argument that is (supposedly) in support of science is to claim that science has given us everything and the humanities only give us things that have no real value.
Let me head this argument off by listing a few things that the humanities have given us: Poetry, Art, Literature, Movies, Music.
Try and get through a month without one of these having a positive impact on your life.
No good? Ok how about: Democracy, human rights, journalism and free speech, the acknowledgement that all people are fundamentally equal, or the creation of a legal system that tries to make decisions based on evidence?
Still no good?
Alrighty then what about: SCIENCE?
That’s right bros: the humanities invented science.
You may not like this truth, but it’s still true.
Or did you think that the scientific method just appeared, fully-formed out of thin air?
The fact is that it took millennia of work before the scientific method became the sophisticated, systematic process that it is today.
And the people who were doing all of that work, who were kicking out the bullshit and explaining why our methods needed to be better, were they scientists?
Of course not, science didn’t exist yet.
They were philosophers.
Philosophy invented Science.
The western scientific paradigm is a subdivision of Philosophy. To be specific it is a type of epistemology.
It is, without a doubt, the best epistemology we humans have ever devised, and although it does have some flaws those flaws are minor compared to its benefits and successes. And best of all it’s self-correcting, so its flaws grow smaller over time.
Philosophy invented Science.
So when Hawking says “philosophy has failed” one has to wonder what the hell he even thinks that means, given that he uses a certain philosophy every day.
Without the humanities we wouldn’t even have science.
And when one looks back on the great thinkers who lead the rise of science during the Enlightenment one can see that they understood the value of all sides of the academic coin. They didn’t consider someone a real scientist unless they could classify plants, write poetry and argue philosophy all in the same afternoon. They understood that all of these are vital parts of human knowledge.
Science is not ‘better’ than the humanities any more than physics is ‘better’ than music.
They do different things, that’s all.
And almost all of the arguments ‘against’ the humanities are espoused by people who replace information and understanding with ignorance and ego, and that has nothing to do with science.
Because the elephant in the humanities commons is the fact that far too many humanities students say things about science that are just as bad as the nonsense espoused by the ‘scientists’ who make up crap about the humanities.
Both groups are irrational and wrong.
There is no “science vs. humanities”, there is only “open-minded people vs. dicks”, and those open-minded people come from all fields.
[Standard Disclaimer: this post was entirely my own opinion and was not paid for in any way, directly or otherwise, by anyone or anything that stands to gain in any way from the ideas expressed herein.]