Division of Labor Is a Good Thing for Science and Skepticism

Noted grouchy person John Horgan has found a new way to get people mad at him on the Internet, via a speech-turned-blog-post taking organized Skeptic groups to task for mostly going after “soft targets”. This has generated lots of angry blog posts in response, and a far greater number of people sighing heavily and saying “There Horgan goes again…”

If you want to read only one counter to Horgan’s piece to get caught up, you could do a lot worse than reading Daniel Loxton’s calm and measured response. Loxton correctly notes that Horgan’s comments are nothing especially unique, just a variant of an argument that you find everywhere:

I’ve spent much of my career confronting the common argument that skeptics should not perform the service skeptics do best, but instead tackle other subjects we may not be qualified to address. It’s a head scratcher, honestly. “You have specialized expertise in X, but I think X is trivial. Why don’t you specialize in Y, because I think Y is important?” Nobody ever says this to Shakespeare scholars or doctors or plumbers. (“Dear ‘fire fighters,’ fight fires less and solve more murders”?) Seemingly everyone says it to skeptics.

There are only two minor points where I disagree with Loxton. One is the claim that this is primarily deployed only against skeptics, because the general tactic is everywhere. I get occasional comments and emails of the form “Why are you wasting time writing about arcane quantum physics when climate change is so much more important?” The endless arguments defending “the humanities” in academia are another version of the same basic thing– “Why should students study English lit when computer coding is so much more important?” And there’s even a sense in which much of the Democratic primary campaign has been dominated by this sort of thing– the arguments between Bernie Sanders supporters and Black Lives Matter activists, for example, basically boil down to each side thinking that the other is too focused on an issue that is not as important as their own primary concern.

So, skeptics have a lot of company in fending off “Your issue is trivial, you should spend more time on what I find most important.”

The other tiny disagreement I have is that I would slightly expand the qualifications justifying a decision to work on X rather than Y. That is, I don’t think it’s just a matter of specialized knowledge, but also a question of temperament. I don’t spend a whole lot of time battling quantum kookery– a rich source of targets both hard and soft– not because I lack specialized knowledge, but because I don’t have the right sort of personality to be good at it.

It’s not that I’m not bothered by charlatans trying to profit from misrepresentations of physics– on the contrary, I’m a little too bothered by it. I do occasionally write about this sort of thing, but it’s very difficult for me to do it without becoming snide. It’s sort of cathartic to vent about on occasion, but mostly not particularly productive– when I go back to stuff that I write in that mode, I generally don’t like the way I sound.

And it’s absolutely not in any way sustainable for me. One of the most notable thing about the skeptical fight is that it’s neverending. No debunking of Bigfoot, or Ancient Aliens, or quantum crackpottery is ever definitive– the folks on the other side always come back for more. There are two ways to deal with this: you either draw from a bottomless well of righteous indignation, a la Orac, or have a similarly deep reservoir of patience, as Loxton seems to.

I can’t really do either of those. I can be patient long enough to give a reasonably gracious reply to the nutty questions I get after public lectures, but that’s exhausted pretty quickly. And while I can get angry about this stuff at times, I can’t keep it up long enough to sustain me through the fifteenth round of the same stupid shit. I burn out, and that leads nowhere good.

Don’t get me wrong– I’m not saying this to disparage Loxton or Orac or any of the other folks out there fighting the good fight. What they do is good and valuable, and I’m glad they’re doing it. I’m also glad that I don’t have to do it, because I just don’t have the temperament.

But in the end, that’s the fundamental problem with Horgan’s provocation, and the similar arguments deployed by advocates of every Cause Y confronted with people who work on Issue X. It’s not necessarily the case that someone who does good work on X will be well suited to help with Y. There’s specialized knowledge involved in any of these issues, but also questions of personality and inclination. I’d do a lousy job of fighting kooks even within my field of expertise, let alone some other kind of “more important” political activism, because I don’t have the personality for it.

At bottom, this is just the classic problem of specialization and division of labor in economics. Different people are good at different things, and making people do things they’re not suited to will get you sub-optimal results. The best course is to have everyone work on the things they’re good at: Orac does rage, Loxton does patience, I do “Hey, isn’t quantum physics cool?” And Horgan pokes anthills with sticks.

This can be really hard to remember, especially when you’re passionately attached to a particular thing. God knows, I do my share of grumbling about the overemphasis on particle physics and lack of attention for atomic and condensed-matter physics. But it’s important to try to maintain perspective and recognize that just because you think Y is the most important thing in the world doesn’t mean that the world would be improved by making people who are good at X work on Y instead.

Physics Blogging Round-Up: Jocks, Lasers, LIGO, Admissions, Nano-Movies, and Philosophy

It’s been a few weeks since my last summary of physics posts I’ve been doing at Forbes, so here’s the latest eclectic collection:

Football Physics And the Myth Of The Dumb Jock: In honor of the Super Bowl, repeating the argument from Eureka that athletes are not, in fact, dumb jocks, but excellent scientific thinkers. Of course, the actual game tat night was horribly ugly, not a compelling display of anything in particular…

How Can A Laser Make A Plane Turn Around?: A quick post on the optics of lasers, spinning off a news of the weird story about a flight that had to return after a “laser strike.”

How Gravitational Waves Connect To Quantum Optics: The big news of the month is LIGO’s announcement that they detected gravitational waves; this talks about how LIGO helped inspire the field of cavity optomechanics.

Four Important Things To Consider When Choosing A College: Some unsolicited advice for high-school seniors who are entering the stressful college decision season.

How To Make Movies Showing Nanoscale Molecules In Action: The editors changed the title of this one (you can see the original in the URL); it’s about how a new microscopy technique is built out of previous results.

Why Is Relativity True?: A Twitter exchange with Kevin Drum about his foray into explaining General Relativity stumbled into the really big and probably unresolvable question in the philosophy of physics.

As usual, the reception of these is a mix of about what I expect and “Huh?” I figured the college advice thing would do well (and I’m glad to see it being well received by admissions counselors on social media), but I thought the LIGO/optomechanics post was too technical to get much traffic, and it turned into a smash hit. On the other hand, I thought the relativity post had a lot of potential, and it’s been nothing but crickets and tumbleweeds. Go figure.

I’ll also note that I’ve been getting some complaints via various channels about Forbes’s ad-blocker policy. And, yeah, I find it kind of annoying, too, but that decision is made above my pay grade and I can’t do anything about it. I will pass complaints on as I get them, but it’s not like they’re not aware that (some) people dislike the policy, so…

March Appearances

I’ve been really, really bad about using this blog to promote stuff I have coming up, but I’ll be doing two public-ish appearances in the month of March, and I probably ought to announce those here:

1) Next week, on Wednesday, March 2, I’ll be giving the Physics Colloquium at the University of Illinois, on public communication stuff:

“Talking Dogs and Galileian Blogs: Social Media for Communicating Science”

Modern social media technologies provide an unprecedented opportunity to engage and inform a broad audience about the practice and products of science. Such outreach efforts are critically important in an era of funding cuts and global crises that demand scientific solutions. In this talk I’ll offer examples and advice on the use of social media for science communication, drawn from more than a dozen years of communicating science online.

(This is basically the same talk I gave at Vanderbilt last year, updated a little. I tend to re-use titles a zillion times…)

2) A couple of weeks after that, on Wednesday the 16th, I’ll be speaking at the APS March Meeting, reporting on last summer’s workshop for SF writers:

Abstract: P47.00003 : The Schrödinger Sessions: Science for Science Fiction

In July 2015, we held a workshop for 17 science fiction writers working in a variety of media at the Joint Quantum Institute at the University of Maryland, College Park. “The Schrödinger Sessions,” funded by an outreach grant from APS, provided a three-day “crash course” on quantum physics and technology, including lectures from JQI scientists and tours of JQI labs. The goal was to better inform and inspire stories making use of quantum physics, as a means of outreach to inspire a broad audience of future scientists. We will report on the contents of the workshop, reactions from the attendees and presenters, and future plans.

This is a contributed talk, so it’ll be super short, but it’s a good excuse to go to the March Meeting, which was a good time the only other time I went. The program is massively intimidating, but I’m sure there’ll be tons of good stuff. If you have suggestions, even if they’re just “Hey, I’m going, too, we should get a beer!” you know where to find me.

Also, stay tuned for an announcement regarding our “future plans” (hint: we’re going to do another workshop…).

And here, I’ll send you on your way with some thematically appropriate music:

On Faculty Mentoring

One of the evergreen topics for academic magazines like Inside Higher Ed and The Chronicle of Higher Education is faculty “mentoring.” It’s rare for a week to go by without at least one lengthy essay on the topic, many of which recirculate multiple times through my various social media channels. The latest batch of these (no links, because this isn’t about the specific articles in question) prompted me to comment over in Twitter-land that:

This didn’t generate much response on Twitter (probably because it was early in the morning), but did get some discussion on Facebook. Which led directly to the thinking-things-out-by-typing-on-the-blog post you’re currently reading. Or possibly about to stop reading in favor of something less noodle-y.

Anyway, my comment was prompted by the fact that I have an immediate and visceral negative reaction to the whole idea of formal systems of faculty mentoring, a reaction that I don’t think is all that widely shared. At least, the sheer number of opinion articles and faculty-meeting comments calling for such systems suggest I’m in the minority when I think of this as something I actively Do Not Want.

The kind of thing I’m talking about is a system where new professors are paired up in some way with a more senior faculty mentor, who helps guide them through the adjustment process and ideally up through tenure. I’ve even seen occasional calls for mentoring systems that would guide newly tenured associate professors through to full professor.

And while there are some obvious positive features to that kind of relationship, the whole idea of doing this in a formal way just gives me hives. And always has, both when I was a relatively new assistant professor, and now that I’m a well-established senior member of the faculty. I don’t mean any of this to disparage people who do want this sort of system– this is very much my own idiosyncratic reaction, which is why the original tweet references personality– but having been asked about it, I’m interested in trying to articulate why I have such a negative reaction. Which turns out to be tricky.

It’s not that I was or am especially confident in my ability to navigate academia. I feel like I have a pretty normal level of insecurity and impostor syndrome going on. And it’s not that I’m opposed to getting or giving advice– for the former, I’ve pestered any number of colleagues with questions about this and that over the years, and as to the latter, even a cursory glance over my various academic blog posts will show that I’m not hesitant about offering unsolicited advice to total strangers over the Internet.

I think the reason for my reaction is that the formal, one-to-one nature of “mentoring” as it’s usually described suggests a level of obligation that I’m really uncomfortable with, from both sides. I’m all in favor of getting and giving advice, but I’m not happy about having that advice be binding.

As a junior faculty member, I got advice from a lot of senior colleagues about teaching and research, and a lot of it was really bad, for me. I don’t mean that my colleagues were actively trying to do me harm– what they suggested was all stuff that works well for them— but it just didn’t fit with my interests and personality. To give a fairly innocuous example, one colleague told me that when lecturing, he made an effort to “break the fourth wall,” by moving out away from the chalkboard into the room, among the students. I’m a whole lot larger and louder than he is, though, so when I tried to do that, it was really uncomfortable– students were basically cowering in fear when I got close to their seats. Since then, I’ve mostly stayed back closer to the board, and we’re all happier for it.

(More recently, I’ve started doing much more wandering among desks, but that’s because I’ve gone to more of an “active learning” format where I pose questions and students discuss them and work them out on whiteboards. Which I adopted in part due to interaction with someone very much my junior, who wasn’t even a tenure-track faculty member…)

In an informal advice sort of arrangement, I’m perfectly comfortable mixing and matching advice from lots of different people, taking what works for me and discarding what doesn’t. A more formal one-to-one mentoring system, though, seems like it would carry much more of an obligation to follow the specific advice from your mentor. It would be weird and awkward to explicitly reject advice from a formal mentor, or to go seeking different advice from elsewhere.

From the other side of the tenure divide, I have the same discomfort with the obligation that a formal mentoring system would seem to imply. There’s undoubtedly a bit of impostor syndrome-ing here, in that from inside my head it looks like I’ve just been phenomenally lucky and don’t deserve to be giving anybody advice, but it’s also a reflection of my junior-faculty experience. A lot of what I do in the course of my teaching and research with students is a reflection of my personality, and anybody I’d be mentoring is by definition not me. And I wouldn’t want to feel like I was imposing an obligation on someone else to try to behave like me. I’m happy to offer advice to anyone who asks for it, but always with the caveat “this is what worked for me, do with it what you will.”

Of course, to some degree, this molding of behavior already happens in other educational contexts. At DAMOP a few years back, I was struck by the degree to which the students of someone I knew in grad school sounded exactly like their advisor when giving talks, and on another occasion I noticed that I share a lot of mannerisms and even body language with my former advisors. And I’m fairly certain that at least a couple of my former research students come off sounding a whole lot like me when they give talks about their work. Some of this is self-selection– students are most comfortable with faculty who share some personality traits with them– and some is subtle indoctrination. (Or even not-so-subtle– I’m pretty ruthless about advising students to give research talks in a style I find congenial…) It’s all part of the process.

But I feel uncomfortable extending that process into a faculty appointment, with people who are supposed to be colleagues. To paraphrase a bit from Ethan Zuckerman’s post about mentoring, that feels to me like the appropriate point to start being a peer.

There are a bunch of other things wrapped up in this, as well, some of which I can’t really discuss. But I think my negative reaction is mostly due to the obligation that seems to be implied by a formal mentor relationship. That implied obligation is something that would chafe, for me, from both sides of the relationship.

But, again, I think that’s largely a matter of personality, and I can understand (in an academic sort of way) why others might feel that the benefits of a more formal mentoring relationship trump the aspects that make me uncomfortable. So I’d be reasonably okay with a formal system on an opt-in basis, for those who feel they’d benefit from such a thing. Of course, then you get into the issue of how to avoid stigmatizing people who choose to use a mentor system, which can be a kind of backdoor argument for making it mandatory. But that’s a whole other discussion, and I’ve already wibbled on for long enough.

Back-of-the-Envelope Calculation: Reaching Gender Equality in Physics Faculty

In yesterday’s post about the lack of money in academia, I mentioned in passing that lack of funding is part of the reason for the slow pace of progress on improving faculty diversity. That is, we could make more rapid progress if we suddenly found shitloads of money and could go on a massive hiring binge, but in the absence of flipping great wodges of cash, change comes more slowly.

This, naturally, sparked a sort of morbid curiosity about whether the scale of this problem would be quantifiable, and of course, there’s the AIP Statistical Research Center offering numbers on all sorts of features of the physics landscape. So, here are some numbers about what it would take to achieve equal representation for women within physics departments. These are grabbed from reports spread over a few years, so I’m going to aggressively round numbers, usually up, because the goal here is just to give a sense of the scale, not a precise prediction of anything.

So, according to a recent-ish report on the number of faculty jobs (pdf) there were about 9,400 physics faculty in the US, and 80% of those are on the tenure track. From the report on women in physics (pdf), about 14% of those are women.

Aggressively rounding these, that’s 7600 tenure-track faculty, 6500 men and 1100 women. Which means we’d either need to replace 3700 men with women to achieve the goal of equal gender representation, or create 5400 new faculty positions to be filled exclusively with women.

Assuming this replacement were to take place via the normal retirement/replacement process, how long would that take? Well, the AIP has a report on faculty turnover (pdf), which suggests we could ballpark the number of jobs on offer in a given year as about 600. Which means it would take a bit more than six years of exclusively hiring women into physics faculty lines to get to equal representation.

Leaving aside the massive legal issues with such a program, is that even feasible? Well, the report on graduate degrees (pdf) says that in recent years there were about 1900 Ph.D.’s in physics awarded per year, and around 20% of those went to women. Which we can aggressively round to about 400 women per year, so the “hire only women” plan would require hiring half again as many women per year as graduate with a Ph.D. in physics. If you just hired every woman who got a Ph.D. directly into a faculty job, it’d take a bit more than nine years to get to equal representation.

(Of course, this isn’t a really accurate representation of the job market, as there are a large number of recent-ish graduates in post-doc jobs, so there’s a larger reservoir of talent available right off. I don’t know how to quantify that, though, and again: I’m just trying to get a sense of scale, here…)

And just for giggles, what would the “shitloads of money” option require? Well, a few years back I recall the administration saying that they needed a donation of about $2 million to endow a faculty line. That’s a few years out of date, but then we pay a bit better than the median for faculty, and full professors in endowed chairs make more than new hires. So it’s probably not completely ridiculous to use as a number for sense-of-scale purposes.

So, if you wanted to just make the gender-equity problem disappear overnight by creating a huge number of new faculty lines exclusively for women, you’re talking about 5400 jobs at $2 million apiece, or just shy of eleven billion dollars. (Leaving aside the logistical question of who would fill all those jobs…)

So there’s some back-of-the-envelope math for you. This was undertaken mostly to satisfy my morbid curiosity from yesterday, and has basically confirmed said curiosity as morbid. You could do something similar for astronomy departments, but I don’t care enough to repeat it; you could also try to do a similar calculation for getting to proportional representation of racial diversity, but the numbers there are really depressing, so I’m not even going to look.

Again, the point here, as with all back-of-the-envelope calculations, is just to get a sense of scale. I’m not making a specific policy recommendation, or anything like that. Though if you do happen to have $11 billion burning a hole in your offshore bank account, drop me a line, and I’ll be happy to make some suggestions…

Everything Would Be Better With Shitloads of Money

Over in Twitter-land, somebody linked to this piece promoting open-access publishing, excerpting this bit:

One suggestion: Ban the CV from the grant review process. Rank the projects based on the ideas and ability to carry out the research rather than whether someone has published in Nature, Cell or Science. This could in turn remove the pressure to publish in big journals. I’ve often wondered how much of this could actually be drilled down to sheer laziness on the part of scientists perusing the literature and reviewing grants – “Which journals should I scan for recent papers? Just the big ones surely…” or “This candidate has published in Nature already, they’ll probably do it again, no need to read the proposal too closely.”

And, you know, I sympathize, at least to a point. Paper-counting is dumb, and impact-factor-weighting is even sillier. But then, there are a lot of problems with this idea, most of them tracing back to the fundamental fact that there isn’t enough money to go around.

That is, yes, in an ideal world, you would give out grants on the basis of “the ideas” in some abstract sense. But there are lots of people with cool ideas out there, and a pretty large fraction of them even have “the ability to carry out the research” (we’ll assume for the moment that there’s some sensible way to establish that ability without a CV). But we’re in a world where grant approval rates dip toward single-digit percentages, so a bunch of those people aren’t going to get funded. So we end up accreting stupid criteria for approval, just because you need to do something to cut the pool down.

And this happens in all sorts of places in academia. There are all sorts of factors that get used in academic hiring that are problematic to various degrees, the classic example being the nebulous catch-all of “fit,” but that happens because there isn’t enough money to hire everyone who deserves a job. When you’ve got 200 people applying for a single tenure-track job, good people are going to get left out through no real fault of their own. And the sloooow progress on faculty diversity has similar roots– I’m sure that if you gave the administration of the University of Missouri the money to hire 400 new faculty and staff they would be thrilled to make their racial diversity problem go away. But nobody in academia has the money to do that.

Absent a sudden influx of astronomical amounts of cash, I don’t know what realistic options there are to do a better job with allocating the limited resources we do have. At some level, it would probably be just as fair and effective to distribute grant funding by filtering out the small number of totally unqualified people and then rolling dice to determine the lucky folks who actually get funding. I doubt that’d make people any happier, though. For faculty positions you’d probably need to combine random number generation with massively illegal collusion, to make sure that the same handful of superstars don’t get offered all the jobs.

I’m sympathetic to the concerns of the open science community, and more generally to concerns about the absurd pressures placed on junior faculty. But most of the things people propose as solutions would need the sudden appearance of shitloads of money to work out as intended, and that’s just not happening.

And on that depressing note, I’m going to go edit some photo-of-the-day pictures.

Advice to the Past

Over at Scientific American, Amanda Baker has a story about what scientists say they would tell their younger selves.

I reached out to eight of my colleagues who are currently in STEM fields and asked them a series of questions about their childhood interests in science, school experiences, and roadblocks that they faced on their path from elementary school to their current positions. […]

Their feedback covered not only what drew them to science, but also what had almost pushed them away. Below I have consolidated the feedback into five main points, including the advice they would give their middle school selves if they could do it all again.

It’s sort of interesting, and a lot of what they talk about resonates with my own experience– like her colleagues, I always wanted to do something science-y, which included a paleontology phase, and I had my own issues with dry and abstract math classes. And, of course, this naturally leads to idly musing about what I’d tell myself back in middle school.

Unfortunately, I’m not very interesting in this regard. I’m basically happy with my place in life (the occasional period of work-related depression aside), and there’s not a lot I feel I missed out on, in terms of career preparation. A lot of the advice suggested by Baker’s colleagues is stuff I did already– I was never a grade-grubber, I went to a liberal arts college, and I got really into basketball starting in middle school so I’ve remained physically active, more or less.

And lots of the things I didn’t do were not-done more or less consciously as trade-offs for something else. I probably should’ve taken some chem or bio classes in college, to understand those fields better. But then, I probably should’ve taken art history in college, and I didn’t do that either, for the same reason: I was avoiding time-consuming classes outside my major to allow time for playing rugby and socializing. And I don’t think I’d trade those experiences for a slightly wider knowledge of science. There are some other gaps that would require much larger changes– my knowledge of field theory and general relativity is pretty sketchy, mostly because they didn’t regularly teach those subjects at Williams. I could’ve learned more about that stuff, but I would’ve needed to go to an entirely different college, and I wouldn’t make that trade, either.

Though that’s also a kind of funny way to talk about things. Because I don’t doubt that I could’ve made any of those trade-offs and still ended up basically happy with my place in life. I’d just be a very different person, being happy in a very different place.

Really, if I were going to go back and give advice to my middle-school self, it wouldn’t be about career preparation. I had a few unhappy years in the middle-school sort of time frame, but that was a matter of social things, not anything educational. I got a handle on that stuff a little later, but if I were going to try to get seventh-grade-me to do something different, it would be to try to speed that process up a bit. Specifically, to recognize that a big part of the problems I had getting along with other kids was self-inflicted.

But, you know, sorting out that sort of thing is part of what middle school is about, and I’m not convinced that seventh-grade-me would believe 2016-me, anyway. Seventh-grade-me could be an insufferable little shit. Which was a major source of his problems.

So, like I said: boring.

I will, however, endorse the general advice given in that post. And, in fact, I’ve said that at much greater length, here and here. So, if you’re in middle school now, take that stuff to heart. Learn some programming, chill out about grades, study a broad range of subjects, and find some physical activity you enjoy. You’ll be glad you did.

Also: work on not being an insufferable little shit, okay?

Union Jobs

Two positions of possible interest to academic job seekers:

— First, we’re hiring again in the Union college Department of Physics and Astronomy:

We invite applications for a tenure-track Assistant Professor position starting in September 2016, with a preference for an experimental physicist working in either biophysics or soft condensed matter. We encourage applications from interdisciplinary scientists and those who could make use of the College’s shared instrumentation resources (including AFM, SEM, micro- Raman and micro-FTIR instruments and IBM cluster computer; see http://www.union.edu/academic/learning-resources/campus-for-learning/instrumentation/ for more). Applicants should have strong research credentials, evidence of teaching or mentoring a diverse student body, and a strong commitment to undergraduate education including research with undergraduate students.

— If that’s not prestigious enough, you could always apply to be my boss, as Union is looking for a new VP of Academic Affairs. It’s probably not all that likely that any great candidates for that position are reading this, but hey, you never know…

I’m on sabbatical and thus not directly participating in either search. I can, however, answer fairly general questions about either position if you shoot me an email.

College Science Advice Tetralogy

I got off on a bit of a rant the other day about bad defenses of “the humanities,” but there’s a bright side. It finally got me to write my own, over at Forbes, which is basically the last piece of a tetralogy of advice for students:

Why small colleges are a great place for students majoring in STEM subjects

What students planning to major in STEM subjects should make sure to do in college

Why non-STEM majors should nevertheless take science classes in college

Why STEM majors should take “humanities” classes, and take them seriously

That last one, posted yesterday, is my attempt to mount a defense of “the humanities” while avoiding the failure modes that make most such essays incredibly irritating to me. I tried to keep it as concrete as possible without going into citing specific works (which would inevitably become a giant distraction from the actual point), and talk about ways the skills developed in studying art, literature, history, philosophy, and the rest will help students be more successful in their chosen field.

Kate’s half-seriously suggested that my next book should be an academic manifesto; that’s not going to happen, but at least you have these four posts.

————

Also, I’ll tack in a reminder that if you’re reading this blog, Paige Jarreau would like to know some more about how and why you got here for her postdoctoral research on science communication online. There’s a short survey, for SCIENCE!, and she’s offering some giveaways and stuff if you’re into consumerism.

Another Terrible Defense of “The Humanities”

Somebody in my social media feeds passed along a link to this interview with Berkeley professor Daniel Boyarin about “the humanities,” at NPR’s science-y blog. This is, of course, relevant to my interests, but sadly, but while it’s a short piece, it contains a lot to hate.

For one thing, after the dismissive one-two of “so-called ‘scientific methods'” (Scare quotes! “So-called”! Two great tastes that taste great together!) in the process of trying to re-brand “the humanities” as “the human sciences,” Boyarin offers the following on methodology:

The primary method for the study of humans through the investigation of their cultural products is interpretation. Any discipline, including, obviously, anthropology and history (frequently, as at Berkeley, listed as social sciences) may have significant truck with interpretation as well, and then form part of this formation of “the sciences of the human” that we propose. I would say that the greatest difference, as far as I understand scientific method, is that for us hypotheses emerge from the data as we study and interpret, and are constantly being modified and corrected, while the natural sciences seem to begin with hypotheses that they test.

That’s a misunderstanding of scientific practice that ought to embarrass an undergraduate, let alone a distinguished professor claiming to offer a useful perspective on the grand sweep of human knowledge. Science is all about hypotheses that emerge from the data, and going where the data lead. Nobody just sat down and said “Hey, wouldn’t it be cool if electrons had wave nature?” They were led to that idea because it emerged from a long chain of odd experiments. Nobody said “Wouldn’t it be cool if the universe were full of stuff we can’t detect?” The notion of dark matter emerged from careful observations of galaxies.

If I were to spout equivalent nonsense about “the humanities”– “Literary scholarship is about reading dusty old books and identifying the symbolism in them,”– I’d get ripped apart, and deservedly so. There’s no excuse for a scholar of the “human sciences” to be working off the model of science you would use for a fifth-grade science fair.

The other infuriating thing about this is the last three questions, which are really different angles on the same question, which Boyarin dances away from each time, closing with another cheap shot at science:

So what would you say to persuade someone who is skeptical of the value of basic research in the humanities?

Simply that the understanding of humans by humans is as important an endeavor as understanding the physics of distant star systems.

Again, this is exactly the kind of grandly dismissive arrogance that scholars in “the humanities” bristle at when it’s directed their way. If I wrote “Understanding the fundamental laws governing our universe is more important than learning to read poetry in dead languages,” my colleagues on the other side of campus would jump all over me. And rightly so, because I’d be a condescending dick. It’s no less offensive coming the other way.

I wouldn’t be where I am and doing what I do if I didn’t find value in the study of art and literature. But it absolutely drives me nuts when people who do this stuff for a living offer defenses of their field that are just smugly elitist platitudes and soaring vagueness. Again and again, I read these supposedly stirring defenses of “the humanities” and come away with the impression that their principal virtue is teaching you how to sound smart while avoiding answering a direct question. And that’s a skill set we could stand to have a lot less of.