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?