Academic Warfare

One thing that I have never understood is why members of certain academic fields view other fields with outright hostility.

Understand, I’m not talking about the friendly rivalry that is shared between related fields, such as Physics and Engineering. In that case, antipathy is fairly obviously a result of the fact that physicists feel that engineers are not showing the equations that they use the proper respect, and engineers feel that physicists are fanciful, pie-in-the-sky idealists too concerned with things that happen orders of magnitude beyond day to day experience*. Ditto the rivalry between mathematics and physics, only with the roles largely reversed this time (how dare we clutter-up their beautifully abstract concepts with the messy bulk of the real world!). No; the truth is that, while we may make occasional jokes at the others expense, we are, in general, only too happy to work together, and we would all, without hesitation say that each other’s disciplines are necessary**.

Rather, I am talking about antipathy that exists between completely unrelated academic fields, most prominently between the sciencess and the Humanities. I have noted in the past the way that many of my colleagues in undergraduate physics were completely dismissive of the Humanities in general, and would happily have agreed that such disciplines were both useless and entirely unneccessary. Less charitable commentators may have even suggested that the only reason that anyone ever took them at all was because they were too stupid to take any “real” subjects. My own secondary field, history, was considered to be the furthest outpost of academic “seriousness;” beyond this, presumably, there was only a wasteland populated exclusively by heavy-set, multiply-pierced, hippy lesbians who’s fields consisted of writing horrible beat-poetry about their genitals and self-pitying essays in the passive voice*** about the need for a very nebulous revolution.

Quite frankly, I (who consider myself to be a creature of both cultures) saw much less prejudice against the sciences coming from the Humanities than the other way around, but what I did see issued mainly from the older generation–the professors, rather than the students themselves. I had a professor of philosophy, for example, who described calculus as being “hell,” (which is a bit ironic if you consider the fact that mathematics, really, is basically a branch of logical philosophy)****.

So what motivates this antipathy? On the surface, I would say the main motivator is the culture. Thus, the older generation of scholars in the Humanities tend to be more anti-scientific as they got their degrees at a time (the 1960s and 1970s) when the entire institution of science was being ‘deconstructed’ as something of a handmaiden of western, patriarchal imperialism. By this point in history, however, a very utilitarian era during which the dominant ideology assumes that everything of worth can be ascribed monetary worth, the tide has turned in favour of the Sciences (or at least a MBA’s idea of the sciences) and so our attitudes reflect this.

That said, I think that there is more to it than merely this. The real reason for the antipathy is the simple fact that most people are afraid of those who are different from them and want to feel superior. But from now on, whenever I hear someone casually dismiss an entire field of which they have no personal knowledge, I will learn to dismiss them as being a willfully ignorant buffoon.


*Tragically, both views are correct.

**Although, I once met a mathematician who claimed that biology, as a science, was “useless.” Somehow though, I doubt that he would turn to a combinatorics expert in the event of a broken bone.

***It’s funny I should say this, actually, because as physicists we are taught that proper academic writing should always be in passive voice, and never make any reference whatsoever to the author. Thankfully, professors do not strictly enforce this rule, or I would certainly have gone mad.

****He also screwed-up and got insinuated that John Locke, rather than Gottfried Liebniz, was involved with the development of calculus. Good god man, dismissing someone else’s field is one thing, but not even knowing your own?


About thevenerablecorvex

I have the heart of a poet, the brain of a theoretical physicist, and the wingspan of an albatross. I am also notable for my humility.
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5 Responses to Academic Warfare

  1. I also have observed the tension between the Humanities and the Science people at the universities where I have worked. The reason for this tension at these universities is that the people in the Sciences tend to be very conservative politically. Maybe it’s just these specific schools, I don’t know, but the issue is definitely there. Whenever we have a university-wide discussion on politics, academic freedom, the introduction of the business-model into academia, the science folks are always on the side of the most conservative opinions possible.

    In terms of feminism, science profs are extremely anti-feminist. Even the female scholars in the sciences seem to have interiorized the anti-women position profoundly. I read the Female Science Prof’s blog and it’s like she is from a different planet. I have not met a single female prof in the Humanities who is even remotely capable of such self-effacement and self-degradation for the sake of pleasing men as this successful academic and a scientist.

  2. Pingback: Why Do the Humanities and the Science People Hate Each Other? « Clarissa's Blog

  3. Lindsay says:

    This is a lot like my experience … other Science People tended to dismiss the humanities as lacking rigor, while other Humanities People tended either to fear the sciences as being too difficult, abstruse and math-heavy (some people seem to be genuinely allergic to math, which I don’t quite get) or to disparage them as being reductionist or lacking … something. Soul? Nuance? Emotion? Outlets for creativity? I’m not sure how to name it, but it’s not something I’ve ever experienced any field of science as lacking. The sense of wonder I feel when I am suddenly struck by something beautiful, something I want to capture in a picture or a poem, is a very close relative of the sense of wonder I feel when I have solved an equation, or come up with a mechanism for a certain chemical reaction, or drawn something’s molecular structure, etc. It’s all a kind of mystical experience, a sudden insight.

    The only big difference is that I never ran into the lesbian-feminist beat poetry about vaginas stereotype. Maybe it’s because my school is in a fairly conservative state, and the English department more geared toward the reading and analyzing of Very Old Books than the more postmodern stuff (a fact for which I am grateful … I break out in hives if things start getting too postmodern!), but the English-major stereotype I am most familiar with is of a clueless underachiever, sometimes with a grammar fetish.

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  5. Pingback: Humanities vs. Natural sciences | zinemin's random thoughts

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