Science and the humanities should be allies


Photo Credit: Channing Miller | Daily Texan Staff

The primary subject of the Humanities is conspicuous in its name. Humanists study the foibles and pluck of us humans, in all our manifold sizes and shapes. The primary concern of the Sciences is also evident in its name, even though it is obscured by Latin. Science is what we know and how we know it. Its immodest subject is the entire universe independent of us humans, even when Science regards our inner workings and minds.

The division between these two areas is precise but complementary, like two countries sharing a border. And like some neighboring countries, the disciplines mount defenses against invasions from the other side. If money is a surrogate for power, then Science has more of both, so it will not be overrun. But the more powerful side, in this case, is not the only one erecting a wall (even if you count most courses in math and science as barriers).

The Sciences deride the Humanities, but the Humanities fortify their territory and snipe at the Sciences, too. The Humanists do this because they have to. Their way of life is under attack and their resources are being stripped. To compete, they are told to become digital and to plot big data rather than old books. They are told to mimic the Sciences.

It is no accident that scientists often refer to themselves as pure. They simplify before they generalize, even in the social sciences. To physicists, all electrons are identical. To economists, all humans are rational actors who make selfish calculations. Scientists get pretty far with abstractions, otherwise they would
be ridiculous.

Humanists complicate received ideas and expose our biases and assumptions. They believe that human behavior eludes generalities, no matter how much rigor we impose. They don’t deny truths, they deny Science’s privilege to them.

Not every truth resides in numbers. Racism is as evident in microaggressions as it is in arrest statistics. And as with any credo or shade of skin, no discipline is ever pure. We are all just humans struggling to glean more about our universe and ourselves. Common to all is the aspiration for wisdom, derived from particulars of the world.

The methods of Science and the Humanities are different because their subjects are. Humans are willful and messy. Electrons are dutiful and neat. Neither side is any better than the other, even when science is at its best.

Few people doubt the importance of Science, however, even those who deny it. Science spins off so much that we monetize that we continue to invest. Even rarefied discoveries still make front-page news.

Yet the Humanities also provide much that we should value, at least as much as the affluent do their art. The Humanities don’t often make the news, but they do confront it.

History erodes the platitudes behind our statues and monuments. Journalism pursues the truth behind despotic lies. Gender studies reveals the misogyny behind power. Religious studies identifies the epiphanies of various faiths. African American studies exposes the racism of our institutions. Literature deposits us in the lives of other people.

These are public goods that we must invest in, too.

It is easy to fight against a university when its members are pitted against themselves. To fortify, the disciplines should ally.

So let’s hear it for Science and the Liberal Arts, which are more vital than ever. They can help us confront the injustices that divide us, and they can unite us against the forces that imperil our globe. They can show us how to be critical, not merely to critique.

We need émigrés and travelers between our disciplines, as much as we need them between our countries. Academia is a haven, sheltering both the Humanities and the Sciences, but within its walls, faculty members are incentivized to narrow their focus. They must renounce their mélange of interests in exchange for tenure. We need their mastery, but we don’t0
need conformity.

I am a writer, not a professor, although I have taught courses at UT, most recently a seminar on literature and science. I have an advanced degree in theoretical physics, but I also studied linguistics and Spanish literature. I have taught college mathematics and basic writing, but I am now an affiliate of the Institute for Historical Studies. I do have to
publish so as not to perish, but I am able to pursue my interests wherever they lead.

I am finishing my first book, a cultural history of modern physics. My research, however, crosses the borders of disciplines because it has to. Physics is congruent with all humanity. It has had a reciprocal influence on modern art, civil rights, computing, cinema, free speech, business, spiritualism and much else. I did not plan to write a book that traversed so many subjects. My subject broadened me.

Universities create quaint centers for interdisciplinary studies, but they are already places with a greater diversity of ideas, people, and cultures than students will likely experience ever again. Only a university is spacious enough to afford me a place to do research with an expansive view of physics, even though its budgets are too constrained to afford much of a salary.

But our universities should be refuges for more generalists than me, a place where people do not circumscribe ideas for tenure or a degree. There is an easy way to start.

Students should be encouraged to travel the disciplines, before their interests are curtailed by careers. They should engage with new ideas, become activists and strive to be polymaths. The administration, faculty and interlopers like me should nurture their whims.

So, be interdisciplinary. Go to concerts, art shows, and readings. Take a class that piques your interest. Attend talks in every department (and departments, host talks for everyone). You may be poor, as I was in college, but you are surrounded by a wealth of opportunity (and most of the events are free).

See what all the fuss is about on the other side. If you inhabit the Humanities, learn some math or programming. If you reside in the Sciences, pick up a novel or foreign language. There is no left brain and there is no right brain. We need both sides to survive.

Roebke is an author, instructor and research affiliate at the Institute for Historical Studies. He is currently finishing his first book, The Invisible World, which won an inaugural Whiting Foundation Creative
Nonfiction Grant.