Some thoughts on the sciences and the humanities

I’m going to a workshop next week. It’s called ‘HumSci’, and it’s about the connections between the sciences and the humanities. But we’re not going to look at how people in the humanities can study science, or how scientists can communicate to non-scientists, or have another endless conversation about two cultures. HumSci aims to go deeper, asking what academics across all disciplines actually do, and whether they can learn from each other. People are going to talk about creativity and methodology while I nod earnestly, trying to think of something to contribute. I am very much looking forward to it. With all that in mind, this blog post is about me and science. It might not make much sense. It also might sound like I hate science and I think scientists are idiots. I don’t. I don’t even hate 20% of the people on Reddit. I just want us all to get along. Here we go.

My attitude towards science has changed a lot over the years. At university (the first time round) I studied maths and history and philosophy of science. I was awarded a BSc, but I never set foot in a lab. I divided my time between struggling to understand abstract mathematical proofs, and writing essays about dead scientists. Throughout this time I was drawn to a particular ideal of science, as simple and objective and straightforward. I avoided statistics and applied mathematics, essentially doing a degree in abstract number puzzles. I didn’t take any history of technology modules, because technology isn’t ‘pure’ enough. I chose a module that included the word ‘scientific texts’ in the title, imagining it would be a close reading of a scientist’s work, unencumbered by external factors – an ‘internalist’ history of science. Thankfully it wasn’t.

The problem was I always just assumed I was into science. It seemed like my sort of thing. This was despite the fact that I’d chosen to not take any science A-levels for the very simple reason that I didn’t like science (except maths, which doesn’t count). But I thought I did, because I’m sort of a logical person, and I thought science was logical. I also thought it was clear-cut and neat and tidy and pure. Ironically, this misguided belief led me to study history of science, a discipline where you quickly learn that science is actually very subjective and messy and really a lot like everything else. But it took me quite a long time to realise this, and all the while I was still forcing myself to watch science documentaries and buy the New Scientist. When I finally decided to stop this nonsense, I was already doing a history of science PhD, which I did like. But I worried, because while I was fond of my olden-times scientists, I didn’t like reading the details of their work. I’d picked the wrong discipline.

No I hadn’t! Because science isn’t the thing I thought it was long ago, and neither is the history of science. It helps if I think of myself as a historian of scientists instead. And then it’s just people. And I’m down with that. So at the end of it all, I’m trying to reframe myself as a regular historian. Why didn’t I just do that from the start? If I’m perfectly honest, a large motivation for doing a maths degree was to make people think I’m clever (and it worked). In the long run I didn’t really learn anything from it – I might as well have spent three years doing sudokus (and memorising proofs explaining how sudokus work). The ‘humanities’ part of my education was much more important. And while there are lots of people pushing for greater influence for science, and ‘science communicators’ desperately explode things in front of children to make sure a new generation of scientists will keep their discipline going, it’s the humanities that are really suffering.

The problem with the humanities is they don’t build robots or cure cancer or . . . I left this for half an hour and still couldn’t think of a third equivalent example, so I’m just going to let this sentence trail off . . . They just ask and answer questions. But this is exactly what science does as well, and there have always been scientists promoting their work as primarily about answering the fundamental questions. Guys, we’re the same! Except that, when it suits them, scientists can also point at their massive industrial applications (ignoring the fact that the journey from ‘pure science’ to ‘big robot’ is nowhere near as simple and unidirectional as they think). But it’s not just the applications that are used to differentiate science from the humanities, it’s also the idea that scientists have superior powers of logic to other thinkers.

Science has a reputation for being cleverer than other things, when it’s really just a different kind of clever. Scientists are supposed to be critical and objective, but they learn a very different kind of criticism and objectivity from those in the humanities. Last Christmas, during the big Cox/Ince kerfuffle, Brian Cox’s wife got very angry when somebody tried to teach her husband about the practice of physics. Who could have the temerity to tell Brian Cox what physics is? He’s a physicist! But as all good anthropologists know, you need to be an outsider to study communities and practices (Right? Everything I know about anthropology comes from Latour, so there may be enormous gaps in my knowledge). If you’re trying to examine a system that you’re a part of, using the rules dictated within that system, you’re not necessarily going to get anywhere. I’m pretty sure this is all covered by Gödel (thanks maths degree) and thus proven using the language of mathematics, the foundation of all science. So we should all be on the same page. (Correct me if I’m wrong – I’m almost certainly wrong. But I love the interdisciplinarity of this paragraph, so it would be great if I’m right.)

For most disciplines, we generally accept that historians of a subject can bring in additional knowledge that practitioners cannot. Art historians, political historians, literature scholars. I use my brain almost every day, but I’d never suggest that I know more about it than a psychologist. But when you try to explore science from a different perspective, people aren’t so immediately accepting. When I’m asked what my PhD was about, I always carefully pause between the words “history” and “of science”, in order to give people time to digest the former before getting distracted by the latter. I know this sounds really patronising, like nobody’s capable of listening to a simple phrase, but the word science does weird things to many people. Despite this I’m often still asked if that means I’m a scientist, suggesting that for many the subject matter is far more important than the precious methodology.

But for supporters of the Geek Manifesto, and most Reddit users, it is the method that defines science. It’s also the ethos. There is an idea that science is independent and free, and this was the idea that drew me to science, led to me studying the history of science, and subsequently learning that science is in no way independent and free. Science is of course influenced by social and economic factors, at the mercy of funding bodies. And this isn’t the only factor that determines what gets researched and what doesn’t. Scientists have beliefs, just like everybody else, about things they think are important. (As any good feminist will tell you, this is why we know relatively little about the clitoris, but loads about male genitalia. Although anybody who’s sick of feminist sociologists of science will respond that this is because we only study things that are functional. And the feminist will reply, why do we only study the functional, and how do we define function anyway, and the rules of science were invented by the patriarchy so we really need to question them. And hey, what about the appendix? And I will butt in and say that I haven’t done my research on this at all, I just skimread an article about it once, because genitalia looked a lot more interesting than the history of physics I was supposed to be reading. How much do we know about the appendix anyway? It seems like they’re always finding out new stuff, so maybe my fictional feminist has a point.)

And scientists have big philosophical commitments – just as astronomers used to assume that planets move in circles for the sole reason that they just should, physicists are searching for a unified theory, because things just should all follow the same rules. This belief also, conveniently, can work as an analogy for physics itself, as the unified theory underlying all other knowledge (I don’t buy it). And it was going to serve as the perfect opportunity for a nice historical meander into early-twentieth-century conversations about materialism. But I seem to have written too many words. It’s a shame, it was good stuff, I promise. Oliver Lodge was of course involved. And some guys talking about telepathy. I’ll have to write another blog post I suppose.

TO BE CONTINUED . . .

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8 thoughts on “Some thoughts on the sciences and the humanities

  1. I really enjoyed this, and it resonated far more than I like to admit (especially the bit about choosing ‘difficult’ subjects to prove cleverness). Would anything be solved do you think by redefining history of science as the history of cleverness? It seems to me it might help with those ‘but we use evidence too’ outbursts and in dealing with polymaths and overcoming the tricky issue of history of science education which I find seems to be a ongoing case of subject boundary queries.

    • I don’t think we could redefine it for good, but it would be an interesting angle. I’d love to research the history of what it means to be clever – I suppose education would be a good place to start? I wonder if there’s been much discussion of this by people who look at lab technicians and everyday science? (I don’t remember seeing any)

  2. Very interesting thoughts, Imogen. I think that these attitudes have extremely strong resonances with scholars in both the humanities and the sciences. Perhaps the biggest problem attached to these complex enmeshed ideas about the critical methodologies of the humanities and the sciences is that they do not translate very well outside academia, so the “public” perception of these disciplines/approaches are still governed by a kind of crude scientism. Lots of fascinating things to explore next week, for sure!

  3. Imogen, you always manage to explain what my degree is far more intelligently than I ever could. I’m still not entirely sure what I studied for four years, but it was really interesting whatever it was.

  4. only the ‘functional’ – ? hm. spermatozoahave been known since 1677 — the ovum not discovered until the early 19th century. because it was so hard to find? not so much. as i understand it, no one ever thought to look. (um. ovaries?) because it was assumed that the woman’s function was as ‘vessel’.

    i love this blog post SO MUCH. please tell us more when you can!

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