Field of Science

Does "convergent intersectionality" bridge the gulf between science and the humanities?

“When I graduate from Duke University with a liberal-arts degree…, I will never have taken a physics class..., I won’t have studied organic chemistry or … biology.”  “My excuse for my lack of background knowledge is that I am a humanities person. ….It’s actually the design of the intellectual environment of contemporary higher education that makes it difficult for a humanities major to take physics”[.., chemistry, or biology].  Or “vice versa”.

So writes Leslie Niro, a humanties major at Duke, in a column published in the CHE. Ah gee, another humanities major who laments never having had to take a science course (so perhaps her self-designed curriculum, of which she seems proud, leaves something to be desired) but basically what Leslie is really saying is that she isn’t taking science because it’s sounds like science, it's taught like science, and ideally you should learn at least some of it by doing science. It rather sounds like she wants to understand science, if only it weren't science.
Ms. Niro says, “The compartmentalized humanities and sciences have become divorced from each other.”

And when were they married? Not recently, and the divorce occurred because as science developed its methodology for learning it became quite impossible for science to remain in any way similar to the humanities. So unlike Ms. Niro’s contention, compartmentalization did not force a separation between the sciences and the humanities, but the very success of science is because of the difference in its way of learning. First, understand the differences in emphasis. While discussing something with a friend in the classics, TPP dismissed a story about something botanical as “that's only anecdotal”. And he said, what’s wrong with anecdotal? Well, it isn’t very good evidence. And he replied, “It’s the best evidence I have.”  A historian of some note sagely counseled TPP early in his career to come up with a new "theory" and then go find the data to support it, not realizing that doesn't work so well in biology. The sciences and the humanities also are separated because of the scope of study. The humanities study human artifacts, the art, literature, thoughts, and history of ourselves.  The sciences study life, the universe and everything else. And yet the humanities dominate the core curricula of universities.

Ms. Niro says, they are “compartmentalized because the nature of the undergraduate major means that most students in either division of the university don’t often delve into upper-level courses outside their majors.”

Yes, so very true.  It takes a considerable effort to learn enough of the basics to “delve into” the more sophisticated, upper-level courses. And we have pre-requisites to keep unprepared students out of such courses least they drag the courses back down to an intro level.

Ms. Niro says it “feels like I’m missing out on an entirely different perspective. The science [scientific] one.

But here’s the rub, her solution seems to be if only science more like the humanities she wouldn't miss out on this perspective. Ms. Niro doesn’t seem to appreciate that science is hierarchical; certain knowledge is needed to learn the next level. And science is operationally different from the humanities for the most part.  

 “What a college environment should offer is an increased emphasis on convergent intersectionality.”  [Emphasis mine]

Ah, TPP misunderstood her solution.Oh, boy! Convergent intersectionality. Now such things are done between disciplines in biology, and thus are called "interdisciplinary", as she herself illustrates in one of the -ologies, and many biological studies display a convergence between, say, systematics, evolution, and genetics. And some of my colleagues do this with colleagues in math and computer sciences, and even with colleagues in geography. But those are all the kind of sciency stuff avoided by most humanities majors. 

"Imagine an environment where the arts, humanities, and sciences converged. Perhaps an entirely different species of learning would rise." 

Do you think? No. Actually science and the humanities do converge, culturally, historically, philosophically. Generally this hasn’t turned out well for the scientists of those times as the predominate convergence seems to be one of castigating scientists and suppressing scientific study, even though the science was accurate for the time. This is because science attempts to discover the truths of life and the universe without regard for the prevailing cultural view. This still drives some humanities people crazy, and they, knowledge denialists, wish to diminish science to just one more narrative. But the entirely different species of learning that did arise is called science. Melding humanities and science into some sort of hybrid may well yield sterility, as it sometimes does in nature, the inability to do either properly.   

Mr. Niro observes that, "Taking two classes carrying a “natural sciences” code doesn’t mean that by the end of those two classes, I’ll have a deep understanding of anything related to those topics. It’s like being an academic butterfly, fluttering in and out of cognitive psychology or environmental science. ….Breadth does not equate with depth."

Ms. Niro is quite right. Two courses won’t provide a deep understanding of anything particularly in science. But if you think an “intersectional convergence” will provide a deeper understanding, then you really don’t understand what a deep understanding is.  TPP has socialized and worked with smart people his whole life, and most of them, smart as they are, have only a very superficial and mostly wrongish concept of evolution. She is also correct that “breadth does not equate with depth”, and here TPP is quite critical of the modern approach to core curricula that provides only the former and almost never the latter. It took considerable effort and wrangling for TPP to minor in the fine arts while majoring in the sciences. TPP will further contend that MOOCs are not the way to develop any depth either.  In the sciences, that depth only comes from actually getting into the lab or out into the field and doing biology because science isn't just a body of knowledge, it's a process. This seems to be at the crux of what Ms. Niro fails to understand. Without the process it isn't science, and that process, while working well with the natural world, doesn't seem to work at all for the humanities unless you wish to count the use of certain words in Paradise Lost and use the data to challenge Milton's authorship of this poem. 

TPP must disagree with Ms. Niro on another point. In spite of the differences, in spite of the methodological gulf, the sciences and humanities are not pitted against each other except as competitors for limited resources often in a zero-sum game. They are just different intellectual endeavors.  TPP spends some time discussing the humanities component of their education with our biology majors in a senior seminar. Their most common reaction is one of not really caring all that much about the humanities although they often had a particular favorite course – philosophy is the most common. Most of them feel that the humanities wasted their time and they wanted more control over how much or how little of a subject to take [like Ms. Niro], many opting for more depth, less breadth. Most certainly the non-majors taking biology feel much the same way; they simply don’t care very much about the subject. Some part of this is the language of science, the jargon, poses a learning barrier, as do concepts for the 70% of beginning college students who remain concrete thinkers, memorizers rather than conceptualizers. 

Ms. Niro contends that she and her cohorts “are coaxing intersectionality into our compartmentalized intellectual environment.”

Now of course this takes place within the sciences, and between the disciplines within a broad field such as biology. The interfaces with chemistry, geology, and physics are many and sharp boundaries don’t exist, but between biology and history, or biology and literature, or whatever not so much except what you learn by studying the history of science. And yes, they each know different things, and they learn from each other.  Hey, that's being educated! 

Ms. Niro suggests “we must create more opportunities for students from the humanities and the sciences to work together.”
OK, in general TPP agrees with Ms. Niro, but here TPP observes, and this is a massive generalization with notable exceptions, but people in the sciences generally know way more about the humanities and the arts than the humanities or arts people know about science. This is probably because people can and do pursue their interests in history, or art, or literature, on their own. This can be done with science, but not as easily. In science's early days, "amateurs" made many important contributions to various fields, but that hardly happens at all any more. TPP loves art and was good enough at it to minor in art, and the Phactors collect art and support artists, but nothing in all of that has improved my science or taught me a “new way” to do or approach biology, although well-versed biologists do coin concepts using ideas from the humanities, like the "red queen" [reference to Alice in Wonderland] hypothesis in evolution, and the like.

 Here’s Ms. Niro’s thought of the day. “Intersectionality … is the place where English and physics intimately tango and constructively duel simultaneously.

Well, it is hard to express many concepts in science in spoken language, and sometimes ideas are presented by using analogies, but really Ms. Niro? Seriously?  Mutualistic? Good thing you’re in the humanities where such notions can get your blog published.  Notice what’s missing? Examples!  Your data! You did not provide one single example of where some creative people in the humanities and sciences produced an inclusive, collaborative intellectual intersectionality of value.  Conclusion: TPP thinks Ms. Niro knows not enough to envision the reality other than it’s a good sounding bit of jargon. TPP has a colleague who delved deeply enough into poetry to earn a master’s degree in literature.  And then she became a biologist. And when asked why, the thoughtful reply was that compared to studying biology, studying literature, while enjoyable, was really quite a trivial pursuit.  Teasing ideas out of poetry was not as intellectually challenging as finding out how nature works.  And mostly Ms. Niro’s quest for convergent intersectionality is not much of an intellectual pursuit either.


William Connolley said...

> antidotal


The Phytophactor said...

Wow, where was my brain? Thanks catching such a mistook.

Anonymous said...

Just discovered your blog whilst searching the net for slime mold pics, and have to say, I love it! Reading this post reminded me of a paper I had to write for my Masters of Arts in Teaching course on Content Area Literacy (yawning yet?). I had to review a book called "Why Read?" by the (ahem) distinguished Mark Edmundson who actually had the nerve to write:

“People die every day for lack of what is found in despised poems—in literary artwork, in other words, that society at large denigrates” (Edmundson, 2004, p. 1).

Needless to say, my professor, steeped in the groupthink of the humanities did not appreciate my refutation of Edmundson's brand of willful ignorance but gave me the grade just the same. Anyway, it's just this sort of rot that led me to attempting a B.S. in biology (first B.S. is in history/anthropology) concurrent with my M.A.T. and I only wish I had not been deterred from my first love, science, in the first place, but that's another story. -Christopher McLaughlin