Must we study history to understand science?

I am a big fan of the history of science—not because it’s helped me do better science (though some of my research, including that on “Haldane’s Rule,” derived from papers that were largely forgotten).  I think that it’s interesting to understand the history of one’s discipline, but not essential for practicing good science.

Alejandra Dubcovsky, an assistant professor of history at Yale, thinks that it’s essential for scientists to study history (she doesn’t specify what kind of history, or if she means the history of science), for another reason: because it gives us scientists “a sensitivity that only the humanities can teach.”

Or so she maintains in a new piece at The Chronicle of Higher Education, “To Understand Science, Study History.”

Like the reader who sent me the link, Dubcovsky seems not only defensive about her discipline, but stretching a bit to make her point.  To show how history informs our scientific sensitivities, she uses the examples of Rosalind Franklin, which will teach us that science is not gender-blind (she says Franklin is “largely forgotten,” which is simply untrue); of Rebecca Skloot’s wonderful book about Henrietta Lacks (donor of the HeLa cells), which should teach us that science and race have an “uneasy history;” and about Oppenheimer and the atomic bomb, which should teach us that “we find deep, sometimes unforeseen, and often devastating consequences, even from the most theoretical of projects.”

Well, you learn this not from history (what history course outside of science even covers these topics) but from history of science courses. Indeed, most of us know these things without even having taken a course in the history of science. (I didn’t.) The correspondent who sent me the link (a woman) also made the following comments:

Man, the humanities sure are on the defensive these days, eh?

Well, yeah–all that context is interesting and important–but where are the data showing any scientists are ignorant of it?  SO sick of these strawman arguments…Dunno about you, but I learned all this stuff in science courses–and plenty more! (Of history, science-related politics, etc.)

Why do these people have to be so loftily condescending?

Indeed. And as for this statement in Dobcovsky’s piece:

Teaching history to students who plan to be doctors, scientists, or engineers forces them to lift their heads beyond the lab bench or the clipboard and realize the greater social, economic, and racial contexts in which their training plays out. It gives them a sensitivity that only the humanities can teach.

Well, I find that even more condescending.  It assumes that all of us are totally ignorant of anything beyond our immediate research.  Try to find a Ph.D. in genetics who can’t talk about Rosalind Franklin, or a Ph.D. in physics who doesn’t know about Oppenheimer’s statement, “I am become death, the destroyer of worlds,” when he watched the Trinity explosion.

But even if that were true, it’s simply false to claim that only humanities can teach sensitivity. What about interacting with other people outside academic courses? Do people who don’t go to college, and lack those history courses, also lack sensitivity or awareness of racial and gender inequalities? I don’t think so.  You don’t need history courses to see the dangers of technology or the marginalization of women in science. And if you’re a working scientist, you’re almost surely well aware of these things.

No, Dobcovsky is simply trying to defend her discipline by saying that scientists need it. Well, I see great value in the humanities, for it enriches our lives, but her examples of the importance of history don’t buttress her argument.


  1. Posted February 27, 2014 at 10:44 am | Permalink

    The humanities do help that stuff. But courses there are far from the only path to it.

    The most important thing to learn is that humans are completely full of it. Since science is done by humans, having this brought home to one may well prove useful ;-)

  2. Thomas
    Posted February 27, 2014 at 10:50 am | Permalink

    Maybe it’s not true anymore, but when I was in grad school for history in the 1980s, I knew lots of scientists and engineers and computer programmers who knew nothing whatsoever about the history of their disciplines (of course, I knew many who did). I’ve known many people in all fields who knew no history of anything. As I said, maybe it’s true now that biologists know who Rosalind Franklin was or what Oppenheimer said. I hope so. Part of the reason why people in the humanities are defensive is that we’re being attacked all the time. Maybe not specifically by scientists and engineers, but after a long period of being attacked it can be difficult to distinguish or even care where the attacks are coming from. I think everyone should know some history – just like I think everyone should know some science and math (and forgive me for using a fuzzy term like “some” – this isn’t an essay for the New York Review of Books!)

    • eric
      Posted February 27, 2014 at 10:55 am | Permalink

      Maybe not specifically by scientists and engineers, but after a long period of being attacked it can be difficult to distinguish or even care where the attacks are coming from.

      Don’t you find that ironic when you’re talking about history majors and profsessors? They should be best prepared of anyone to go “hey, we know from history that lashing out at random targets isn’t going to solve our problem. We need to figure out where the attacks are coming from before we act…”

    • Posted February 28, 2014 at 10:46 am | Permalink

      And there’s a case to be made that history istelf (or rather historiography) can be practiced as a science. Evan Fales, IIRC, is one good source from within the profession on this.

      As knowing the history of your field in addition to the field, I encountered a lot of that in philosophy, where I found it often stulifying but still interesting sometimes. If the questions are still live, sometimes it makes sense to do that. If one thinks that (for example) idealism is dead, and has been since at the latest the 19th century, it isn’t so fun.

      That said, a lot of natural scientists (chemists, physicists, biologists) do repeat myths about their great figures which do deserve to be corrected. Mendeleev’s life, for example, and even his views on the periodic law, is one example I find interesting. And the historians, if they do their job right, can also correct misinformation about the non-scientific views of the great scientists – but of course one can do that by reading them oneself. That said, having something to look out for is interesting. The 2010 biography of Galileo I read was worth it in that respect. It was a *useful* use of the analysis of rhetorical language, in some parts: Galileo says things like “Oh, but that would be heretical.” – not “Don’t attribute that to me, that would be heretical and I wouldn’t say it.” Very sneaky. :)

  3. Gary Allan
    Posted February 27, 2014 at 10:51 am | Permalink

    My background is in physics and mathematics. Through my university and working career, I have always had an interest in the world around me, reading widely. Is that not generally typical of scientists, especially those at higher levels? To do science is to have a deep interest in the world and life, to be eclectic in one’s interests, to be a Renaissance person, so to speak. Formal study of the humanities is not necessary though it cannot hurt, rather intense interest characteristic of scientists, is. I think, actually, that in fact those who concentrate on humanities are likely weaker at science and understanding its influence than the reverse.

  4. Posted February 27, 2014 at 10:54 am | Permalink

    I may be missing something, but I don’t get anything from Dubcovsky’s arguments about why history is necessary to understand science. She makes a good case for why it’s important to be a good citizen, but not what history contributes to science.

    If the argument is that it is incumbent upon all people to be good citizens and that a good understanding of history is essential to being a good citizen, I’ll heartily agree with her.

    But the great thing about science is that it’s open and accessible to anybody anywhere anywhen without any context. It remains the fact that uranium goes <boom /> in a critical mass, and you don’t need to know anything at all about Siva or Manhattan to learn about atomic theory. You need to understand history to know what you should and shouldn’t do with that theory, but you don’t need history to actually learn the theory.



    • Latverian Diplomat
      Posted February 27, 2014 at 11:24 am | Permalink

      If by science you mean “bag of facts” then yes, history doesn’t inform that, though ironically often such facts are presented in a streamlined or hagiographical way that is not good history, though it might be reasonable pedagogy. I suspect that this is where many science enthusiasts learn their history of science, and that is troubling.

      Genuine histories can inform how one’s understanding of the practice of science and demythologize it. Understanding who was whose student, how missed opportunities delayed progress, how much work on the cutting edge plays out in a haze of confusion about what exactly is going on is important for understanding scientific research as a demanding and short term fallible process, a very human thing, that can nevertheless find truth.

      I think successful scientist develop this understanding with respect to their own fields, but don’t necessarily recognize its broader implications (e.g., the effect of mentorship on participation of women in science).

      But much of this understanding of the practice of science is not well understood by the general reader.

      The Day We Found the Universe by Marcia Bartusiak

      Radioactivity: A History of a Mysterious Science by Marjorie C. Malley

      The Infinity Puzzle by Frank Close

      are all examples of recent popular histories I’ve read that by digging into the details of specific discoveries tell the story of how science is actually done very well, IMHO.

    • Posted February 27, 2014 at 11:58 am | Permalink

      The scientific method has more to offer historians than the study of history – freighted as can be with cultural bias, projection and presumption (for example, one might read in a history a statement like “Churchill believed that …” which is presumptuous; one can say “Churchill seemed to believe,” or “Churchill wrote,” or “Churchill chose,” but no one can truly read another’s mind based on their actions and statements – but scientific writing can have similar limitations of language: Dawkins I have found is very good at pointing out when he is speculating or using certain turns of phrase that don’t mean what they literally mean (“arms races” for example are not “strategies” in the sense that evolution is a force that plans anything in any sense of the term).

      Having said that, I agree that Ms Dubcovsky is not so far off the mark as I might have expected based on the intro – no one here is suggesting that liberal arts are anything other than expansive for people including scientists and engineers. Were she saying studying history informs rationality and hones the skeptical mind – not science but the mental approach of science – I think she might be closer to the mark.

      And were she to further nod that the scientific method, skepticism and rationality are critical to doing history right, she would have a new fan in me!

      Still waiting for a historian or philosophy scholar to make that point.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted February 27, 2014 at 1:01 pm | Permalink

        I think Richard Carrier advocates what you say. Indeed, it was what many of my professors said but perhaps not directly — evidence based work was paramount and that evidence was based on logic and reason.

  5. Posted February 27, 2014 at 10:54 am | Permalink

    I think the humanities will be more likely than not to make a scientist who takes courses there a better-rounded person.

    The implied claim, of course, is that this will make them a better – more effective – scientist. Prof Dubcovsky’s essay contains no evidence to this effect.

  6. Diana MacPherson
    Posted February 27, 2014 at 11:00 am | Permalink

    Crap. I guess my humanities background has failed on the sensitivity part since I don’t get all that rankled when people get annoyed.

    Of course, everyone should have training in Classics history. That way, I don’t have to deal with people believing that Christianity gave is science! :) Also you get to learn the Greek name of Alexander the Great’s general, “One Eye” and imagine him as a pirate.

  7. Posted February 27, 2014 at 11:01 am | Permalink

    It would be interesting to survey a large sample of recent history graduates and a large sample of recent biology graduates to see how many could tell you who Rosalind Franklin was and her significance. My money is on the biology students.

    As an aside, is the lesser prominence of Rosalind Franklin really owing to gender inequality, or is it more to do with Franklin not having a good working relationship with Wilkins, not being nearly as good at self-promotion as Crick/Watson, and her dying only a few years later, before any of this work attained wide recognition? (Not to deny that there was plenty of gender inequality in science at that time.)

    • Gordon
      Posted February 27, 2014 at 1:25 pm | Permalink

      One way of making life amusing (outside science and in my case law) is to use names such as Rosalind Franklin for one of the parties in a legal problem in tests and at the feedback session to offer chocolate fish to anyone who can identify who the person was in reality – not usually a good hit rate.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted February 27, 2014 at 2:27 pm | Permalink

        I’d dazzle you at your parties because I’m dazzling and I’d get all your chocolate fish!

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted February 27, 2014 at 5:21 pm | Permalink

      I’m sure the shockingly misogynistic work environment she endured didn’t help get her into textbooks and the resulting ignorance kept her out until more recent times.

  8. Jeff Fiddler
    Posted February 27, 2014 at 11:07 am | Permalink

    On the other hand, maybe historians need more sophistication. I had a passing interest in the history of science as an undergraduate, and quite a bit in the history of medicine as an adult. But in both instances you have to peel back layers of retrospective quotes (quotes made much after the original act) to find out what happened.
    So it is with Oppenheimer. No one who was present at Trinity remembers/testifies Oppenheimer saying that. From Wiki:

    “Physicist Isidor Rabi noticed Oppenheimer’s disconcerting triumphalism: “I’ll never forget his walk; I’ll never forget the way he stepped out of the car … his walk was like High Noon … this kind of strut. He had done it.”[113] At an assembly at Los Alamos on August 6 (the evening of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima), Oppenheimer took to the stage and clasped his hands together “like a prize-winning boxer” while the crowd cheered. He noted his regret the weapon had not been available in time to use against Nazi Germany.[114] However, he and many of the project staff were very upset about the bombing of Nagasaki, as they did not feel the second bomb was necessary from a military point of view.[115] He traveled to Washington on August 17 to hand-deliver a letter to Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson expressing his revulsion and his wish to see nuclear weapons banned.[116]”

    As for myself, I view the use of two bombs from the perspective of Harry Truman, who as a veteran of WW I was the only man out of perhaps 50 or so military advisors to have actually seen combat. As a captain, he was proud to have not lost a man; his division suffered one of the highest casualty rates of any American Division.

    This lady is right in one respect, many people, including historians, don’t know their history.

    • Latverian Diplomat
      Posted February 28, 2014 at 8:53 am | Permalink

      Not to take anything away from Truman, but he was an artillery captain. Difficult and dangerous work and his no casualty record is laudable. But his division was the 35th Infantry, so the casualties were understandably concentrated in the other parts of the division that were deployed further forward.

      Truman was a commendable officer, but he was not a miracle worker.

    • Darkwhite
      Posted February 27, 2014 at 11:40 am | Permalink

      There is no war crime or act of terrorism which cannot be justified by Truman’s line of reasoning.

      • Kevin Alexander
        Posted February 27, 2014 at 12:23 pm | Permalink

        Ugh! It is perfectly reasonable to say that the use of the bombs shortened the war by avoiding a military invasion of Japan, an event that would certainly have caused many times more suffering on both sides.
        War crimes and acts of terrorism have no positive effect.

        • Darkwhite
          Posted February 27, 2014 at 1:14 pm | Permalink

          Very few terrorists are comic book villains. I’m sure the German bombing of London was motivated by bringing the war to an end, not sheer vandalism.

          I suppose, had the Germans developed a nuclear bomb and dropped it on London to reduce German casualties, that would have been perfectly reasonable too?

          • Posted February 27, 2014 at 7:20 pm | Permalink

            I suppose it is. If German bombed London and win WW2 European theater, the next step will be bombing Washington (or at least threatened to), and shortened the Atlantic theater as well. :D

            Then we have a nice -cold war- between German and Japan …

            Oppenheimer – assuming he worked for the right side – will lament the bombing of San Fransisco as unnecessary … to the dismay of herr fuhrer.

            This blog than will be run by some herr Mueller or Schmidt … :D

            One good bit, I think Raquel Welch will still be a bomb …


            • Posted February 27, 2014 at 7:23 pm | Permalink

              Sorry for my History, Atlantic should be read Pacific theater …
              apologies ..

        • Latverian Diplomat
          Posted February 28, 2014 at 8:37 am | Permalink

          That presumes that the invasion was otherwise unavoidable, which many if not most historians dispute (Japan was very close to surrender anyway, and the entry of the USSR into the Pacific war ended their last hope of a negotiated peace that did not require surrender).

          Further, there is little evidence that the detailed casualty estimates that Truman kept citing (always with higher numbers) were ever rigorously done.

          There is also some evidence that Truman, LeMay, and others were influenced by postwar considerations — demonstrating to the USSR that the USA was now a nuclear power not to be trifled with.

  9. eric
    Posted February 27, 2014 at 11:09 am | Permalink

    and about Oppenheimer and the atomic bomb, which should teach us that “we find deep, sometimes unforeseen, and often devastating consequences, even from the most theoretical of projects.”

    Um, if this is what history professors know about the atomic program, then I’d rather learn my history from scientists. To call the Manhattan Project “the most theoretical of projects” is not even wrong. It was applied science all the way. They set out to build a new widget that would perform a specific function, and they did.

    Secondly, the power of the bomb was not unforseen. It was, in fact, one of the primay motivations for the research. Einstein* highlighted it in his 1939 letter to Roosevelt asking him to fund the program.

    Lastly, as that letter shows, scientists weren’t the people who needed to be informed about the “deep, sometimes unforeseen, and often devastating consequences” of the science they were doing – the scientists were the people who informed everyone else. Including the history majors, I might add, who (through no fault of their own but still its true) at the time had not even a concept of what nuclear chain reactions were or what their political and military ramifications would be.

    *I’ll throw a bone out to the history buffs here – my understanding is that Einstein basically got cajoled into signing his name to this letter by a whole group of physicists – because they thought the President would pay more attention to a letter coming from the great man – but he didn’t come up with it or write it. But I could be wrong about that.

    • colnago80
      Posted February 27, 2014 at 11:42 am | Permalink

      The letter was written by fellow physicist and refugee from Frankenberger, Leo Szilard.

      • lkr
        Posted February 28, 2014 at 10:12 am | Permalink

        Will someone please explain why this internet meme of refusing to write Hitler when you mean Hitler has taken root. It seems to be an affectation, and it surely does nothing to advance the argument.

        • Jesper Both Pedersen
          Posted February 28, 2014 at 12:52 pm | Permalink


    • Kevin
      Posted February 27, 2014 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

      Here here. No one who has ever worked even remotely near a weapon’s project would call it theoretical. Nothing could be further from the truth.

      • Posted February 27, 2014 at 2:09 pm | Permalink

        Although… there’s an interview with Feynman where he states that he and others became so caught up with the science that they lost sight of the consequences of what they were doing. (iirc)


    • Posted February 28, 2014 at 10:53 am | Permalink

      A fair number of historians (and others in the humanities and social sciences of science), unfortunately, do not understand the science-technology distinction, or worse, deny it.

      For example, I’ve read and heard things like “the airpump was technology so Boyle shows the dicotomy to be false” Well, it is a false dicotomy (I think one needs basic science/applied science/technology), but there’s still a difference between the search for truth (etc.) and the search for effciency (etc.) It depends on what the goal is. Some of what Boyle did was applied science by my criteria – a search for potentially useful truths based on basic science. Unfortunately the latter was very underdeveloped and he could not find what he was looking for (he’d have needed a nuclear reactor sometimes!)

  10. gbjames
    Posted February 27, 2014 at 11:19 am | Permalink

    I agree with her in this limited sense… I don’t think you can be a well-rounded biologist, for example, if you don’t know about the history of the development of science. If you don’t know what the names Lamarck, Cuvier, Bishop Usher and Joseph Priestly refer to then I don’t think you’re going to be that great a scientist. Maybe you’re a good technician.

    • aspidoscelis
      Posted February 27, 2014 at 11:24 pm | Permalink

      To me, the question is whether taking courses from historians would provide you with that kind of knowledge. I tend to think the answer is “No.” but I could be wrong. The examples Jerry quotes from Dubcovsky in this post tend to reinforce that opinion–in these examples, Dubcovsky is not arguing that studying history will provide a better understanding of science, but that studying history will provide a better understanding of gender & race issues, morality, and the like. These are, of course, not bad things to study… but they won’t further one’s understanding of science itself.

      Lamarck, Cuvier, Ussher, and Priestley were all white guys. They don’t fit the narrative. They would be interesting to the modern socially-conscious historian if they were either members of underprivileged minorities or had sufficiently notorious roles in oppressing members of such groups. Simply advancing science (or retarding it) isn’t enough.

    • Harbo
      Posted February 27, 2014 at 10:47 pm | Permalink

      Alas we can no longer aspire to being polymaths, but we should all attempt to have a working interest in most disciplines.
      I personally think that the ignorance problem is much more in the humanities court than the knowledge court.
      “If a mathematician bragged about never having read a lick of poetry, she or he would be branded (rightly) as an ignorant lout. Yet the poet who admits to being mathematically illiterate often wears this illiteracy as a badge of pride. Somehow this seems unfair”.
      P 165 “The Mathematical Universe” William Dunham

    • gbjames
      Posted February 27, 2014 at 11:20 am | Permalink

      and sub

  11. Gareth Price
    Posted February 27, 2014 at 11:24 am | Permalink

    During my time as a PhD student and postdoc, I worked alongside other students/ postdocs from at least 13 different countries. I am not suggesting that working with a Chinese postdoc is the same as living in China but it was all interesting and broadened my experiences in a small way.

    I wonder whether academic historians interact on a daily basis with people from so many different countries or cultures? Perhaps they do. I don’t know.

    • Posted February 27, 2014 at 7:34 pm | Permalink

      My PhD experience as the equivalent of your “chinese postdoc”, the sensitivities you wogs gave is just learning a few chopstick tricks and try to flirt with the girls …

      Go on then …
      The divide is not just science vs humanities, but between chinks, poms and wogs too .. (not to mention kiwis and abos)

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted February 27, 2014 at 8:13 pm | Permalink

        Wow, so many racial slurs in such a small paragraph.

        • Posted February 28, 2014 at 12:15 am | Permalink

          Please look at the smilies ….
          I just clarify a previously hidden sentiment.

          • Jonathan Wallace
            Posted February 28, 2014 at 3:37 am | Permalink

            Not really clear what you have clarified.
            Are you saying that in your experience people working in science from different national and racial backgrounds only made superficial attempts at understanding one another?

    • eric
      Posted February 27, 2014 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

      Oh no, now you’ve gone and compounded the problem. Working with scientists from 13 different countries now means you need to learn the history of all 13 countries before you can master the sentitivities that only the humanities can teach!

      • Gareth Price
        Posted February 27, 2014 at 12:51 pm | Permalink

        I hadn’t thought of that ! Would I need to learn all the languages first, in order to properly study the history?!

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted February 27, 2014 at 1:04 pm | Permalink

          Yes, because then you can read all the prime sources. :)

          • Gordon
            Posted February 27, 2014 at 1:30 pm | Permalink

            In classics I believe it takes considerably longer to learn Greek than to read all the sources in it!

  12. moarscienceplz
    Posted February 27, 2014 at 11:27 am | Permalink

    “my understanding is that Einstein basically got cajoled into signing his name to this letter by a whole group of physicists – because they thought the President would pay more attention to a letter coming from the great man – but he didn’t come up with it or write it.”

    That is my understanding as well.

  13. Greg Esres
    Posted February 27, 2014 at 11:37 am | Permalink

    “but her examples of the importance of history don’t buttress her argument.”

    There’s nothing but anecdotes on either side of the question. What do the data show? I would bet that statistically, scientists are probably relatively ignorant of the humanities. How could it be otherwise? There are only so many hours in the day, and if you choose to be expert in one or two subjects, you’re going to be relatively ignorant in most others.

    • Posted February 27, 2014 at 11:55 am | Permalink

      I would bet that statistically, scientists are probably relatively ignorant of the humanities.

      “Relatively ignorant” compared to whom?

      Humanities professors? Of course.

      People with college degrees in the humanities? Very likely.

      People with college degrees not in the humanities? I doubt it.

      People without college degrees at all? Almost certainly not.

      Remember, being professionally employed as a scientist requires no small amount of formal education at accredited institutions, and you’re simply not going to get your “union card” unless you’ve taken and passed a certain number of classes in the humanities. One can certainly argue about whether that “certain number” is enough, or if it covers enough diversity or the like, but there’s simply no reasonable way I can imagine to suggest that somebody with advanced degrees is “relatively ignorant” of the humanities. Indeed, I’d suggest that professional scientists, in relation to the population as an whole, are certainly in the top 10% of awareness of the humanities, very likely in the top 5%, and quite possibly in the top 1%.



      • Greg Esres
        Posted February 27, 2014 at 12:34 pm | Permalink

        “and you’re simply not going to get your “union card” unless you’ve taken and passed a certain number of classes in the humanities. ”

        I’m skeptical of that. I’m an engineer and I got out of the university with probably less than 10 hours of humanities. Got that taken care of with two French courses and Philosophy 101.

        • Posted February 27, 2014 at 12:48 pm | Permalink

          …and, meagre as those ten credits might well have been, it’s still ten credits more than somebody with no college degree at all has.

          I also suspect you’re ignoring the nearly-universally-required English classes you took at university, classes which would almost certainly have had you studying a lot of literature.

          Plus, you had humanities classes in high school, no? Lots of English plus at least a couple history classes and likely something in the arts? Maybe even more French? It’s unlikely you would have been admitted to the university unless you had done reasonably well in those classes, most likely much better than your classmates who didn’t get a college degree.

          Again, I’m not suggesting that scientists (or others) get enough formal education in the humanities. I’m just pointing out that, whatever scientists do have is almost assuredly more than what the overwhelming majority of the rest of the populace has. Not more than professionals in the humanities, of course, but certainly more than the general public. And, as been pointed out repeatedly in this thread already, any shortcomings of the humanities scientists may have, ignorance of the sciences by professionals in the humanities is generally at least comparable, if not worse.



          • Greg Esres
            Posted February 27, 2014 at 1:10 pm | Permalink

            “I also suspect you’re ignoring the nearly-universally-required English classes you took at university”

            Nope. No English for me. Private university; state schools probably require it.

        • Gordon
          Posted February 27, 2014 at 1:33 pm | Permalink

          You learn a lot in Philosophy 101. I learned, after several lectures on why you can’t prove you or anything else exists or happened , that lecturers get very shitty when you apply that logic to whether or not your essay was handed in late.

      • Greg Esres
        Posted February 27, 2014 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

        “People with college degrees not in the humanities? I doubt it.”


        Your point does highlight the oddity for this person to single out scientists for this criticism.

      • Damien
        Posted February 27, 2014 at 1:56 pm | Permalink

        I beg to differ. It completely possible to get a degree in science, as well as a Ph. D. and a position without taking one class in the humanities post high school.

        • Posted February 27, 2014 at 2:26 pm | Permalink

          It seems you may be right…but, at least in my personal experience, I at least know of no undergraduate institution that would admit somebody significantly deficient in the humanities nor which would graduate somebody without at least a minimal number of credit hours demonstrating competence in them.

          If I were on an accreditation board, I wouldn’t agree certify any institution that failed to do so.

          At the very least, all public higher education institutions in this backwards state of Arizona have extensive “general studies” requirements, including a non-trivial number of credits in various humanities, sciences, math, and other subjects. You’re given a good amount of discretion in which courses to take to fulfill those requirements, but you will, if you want a degree, take at least a few science classes, at least a couple classes in the arts, some sort of somewhat advanced math, some pretty serious writing, more than one history / sociology type of class, and so on. Plus, your degree-specific classes generally don’t count; if you’re a physics major, you still have science class requirements that your physics classes don’t satisfy, so you should expect to take a few chemistry or astronomy classes before you get the degree.

          I could see variation in how much broad-education coursework to require, but not requiring any at all to me means that the degree is not worthy of recognition. Frankly, you can’t be considered educated if you don’t have an education. You might well be a specialist of some note, but you’re certainly not educated unless there’s some breadth to accompany the depth.



          • Damien
            Posted February 27, 2014 at 2:41 pm | Permalink

            You write “At the very least, all public higher education institutions in this backwards state of Arizona have extensive “general studies” requirements, including a non-trivial number of credits in various humanities, sciences, math, and other subjects.”

            Dos it mean that students in the humanities are required to take some science?

            • Posted February 27, 2014 at 7:25 pm | Permalink

              Absolutely. My own degree was in orchestral trumpet performance, and I took physics, astronomy (both with labs), an introduction to psychology class, an an human sexuality class. And some moderately advanced algebra (we shall not mention calculus), a couple semesters of some pretty heavy-duty English literature, an Art of Asia class (sadly, quite the waste), an Introduction to the Theatre class, and more that I’m sure I’m not remembering.

              …and all that was in addition to a course of music classes comparable to what you’d get at a conservatory: several semesters each of music theory, music history, and ear training; some composition; a year of conducting; a couple years of piano; many more performing ensembles, large and small, than I could possibly count…and, oh-by-the-way at least four credits per semester in private instruction on the trumpet, including a few solo recitals of advanced literature.

              One thing’s for sure: I certainly got my money’s worth. That piece of paper might not be the most impressive in the world, but, damnit, I earned it.



              • Harbo
                Posted February 27, 2014 at 10:54 pm | Permalink

                I’d like to see a “play-off” with maths majors taking a history test an history majors taking a maths test.(blinded and unannounced of course)
                London to a brick, on the winners.

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted February 28, 2014 at 6:26 am | Permalink

                Math ability and history are two very different things.

                I suck at math because I have dyscalculia. So if I did poorly would you get a good laugh out of the Humanities graduate not being able to do the math? And what math exactly? Calculus or regular every day math of calculating sales percentages or converting between volumes/lengths?

                You wouldn’t know I was bad in math because I always got B range marks but I had no one to help me and bad early teachers but somehow I made it through the advanced classes and scored high in my province for general ability. However, I studied to pass not to learn because I couldn’t learn.

                So, would you enjoy the opportunity to laugh at me struggling so you could brag about how stupid the Humanities grad is?

      • Posted February 28, 2014 at 10:56 am | Permalink

        That’s only true in some places – from what I understand in the UK, undergraduate degrees are still hyperfocused relative to the US or Canada.

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted February 28, 2014 at 11:06 am | Permalink

          You mean the teaching is more deep than broad? If so, that’s my experience with Australia and New Zealand as well. When I was contemplating doing grad work in New Zealand, I met with the professor at a Classics department because I was worried that my Canadian education would give me problems since it was broad.

          • Posted February 28, 2014 at 11:39 am | Permalink

            Personally, I think at least baccalaureate degrees should focus more on breadth than depth, including in the major area of study. For one, it gives you a broader picture of what you might be interested in; for another, even later on, it lets you know where to look should you randomly discover you need to. For example, bizarrely enough, I’m likely to soon find it very useful to have precision data on the solar spectrum, especially including Fraunhofer lines, for the purposes of accurate color reproduction in photography. And I may well not have realized the potential utility of that were it not for the astronomy class I took as a general studies requirement for a trumpet performance undergraduate degree.

            For a master’s degree, you should be a broad expert in your chosen field with a demonstration of the skills necessary to investigate a particular area in depth — but, even there, the point is learning how to do the investigation, not so much what you actually learn as a result.

            And then, for the doctorate, you need to become the world’s foremost authority on some part of your field that nobody else has yet investigated; you need to demonstrate that you can produce the goods and contribute something new to the civilization’s body of knowledge. Presumably, with such a degree in hand, you will then continue to do more research throughout your career, with your doctorate only the first of many such projects.

            …at least, if I were king….



            • Diana MacPherson
              Posted February 28, 2014 at 11:45 am | Permalink

              Yes, I agree and my Classics department at my alma mater actually taught courses in a way that would leave us with useable skills in the world as well as giving us a good, broad Classics education. Hey it worked with Darwin (though he sucked at Greek). :)

            • Posted March 3, 2014 at 10:27 am | Permalink

              I certainly agree in favour of breadth over depth; I did philosophy and computing throughout, with a few courses in other things. Quebec’s unique version of education also allowed me to do approximately the equivalent of first year in a lot more subjects than otherwise would have happened, too.

    • eric
      Posted February 27, 2014 at 12:50 pm | Permalink

      Statistics schmatistics! You’re getting all scientismy on us again. How dare you propose that someone collect empirical data on the correlation (or lack thereof) between an understanding of history and ability to do science. That sounds like a scientific test of a humanities theory, there, buster! I call intrusion! Intruuuuuuusion!

  14. Posted February 27, 2014 at 11:38 am | Permalink

    Why is it necessarily the humanities that take us out of our so-called blinkered scientific focus and not, oh say, the other way around? Surely it is just as important for a history major studying the narrow-minded problems of people to get a broader picture of the origin of the cosmos, the long and often ruthless path of life’s existence and the aeons of climatic variation.

  15. Gordon
    Posted February 27, 2014 at 11:46 am | Permalink

    As a non-scientist I would have thought it was considerably more important for humanities types to know a lot more about science, stats etc.

  16. Posted February 27, 2014 at 12:18 pm | Permalink

    Attacks against the humanities? I must have missed that what with the war against science being waged in the US by the religious, climate-deniers, et. al.

    I suspect Dubcovsky knows little about science, so she assumes scientists know little about her field. Certainly, many I know in the humanities are surprised to find that I know anything outside of my field.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted February 27, 2014 at 1:24 pm | Permalink

      I think it is more about holding The Humanities in disdain. Believe me, if I had a nickel for everytime someone called me stupid and sneered when they learned what I was studying or had studied, I wouldn’t be working now but would have had enough money to annoy them further with advanced degrees in the Humanities.

      • Diane G.
        Posted February 27, 2014 at 9:09 pm | Permalink

        And of course the obverse of that is scientists being dismissed as merely technicians/reductionists/robotic by the lib arts side. You don’t have to read very far in the comments at the Dubcovsky article to run into those views. One commenter even uses the word ‘autistic.’

        Unfortunately I think the new corporate university is not above playing both sides against each other; my kids’ science professors were nearly as likely to be “adjuncts” (= temps, essentially!) as their humanities ones were. Every department fighting to get a share of a smaller & smaller pie. When it’s all about profit, there’s not much investment in intellectual capital.

        (BTW, Diana, you continuously make the best case for the value of a humanities degree, day-in and day-out here, no matter what the subject. I learn so much from you. And when the discussion actually involves the conflict between the two, as in this thread, I’m always impressed with how even-keeled you stay in the face of some of the broad disparagements that spring from our(science related) experiences.)

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted February 27, 2014 at 9:14 pm | Permalink

          Thanks Diane – I’m even keeled because I’m a secret Arts & Sci wannabe. I so would have done that if I had the math ability.

      • JohnnieCanuck
        Posted February 27, 2014 at 11:51 pm | Permalink

        I’m going to guess you are using one of those literary conventions like hyperbole or something. If anyone had been insulted 1,000,000 times just with this one cliché, I’d expect them to be beyond ballistic, likely exceeding 11.2 km/s. :)

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted February 28, 2014 at 6:42 am | Permalink

          Yes, I’m using the rhetorical device of hyperbole (though at 44 that is over 20 years of accumulated insults just starting at the university age), but I have been insulted so much I usually don’t mention my degrees. It’s like how I don’t always mention my gender online if I’m in a forum for cars or I don’t mention I’m an atheist among bible thumping co-workers.

  17. Damien
    Posted February 27, 2014 at 12:22 pm | Permalink

    I agree with Eric, here.

    The fact that the atomic bomb exploded violently did not come up exactly a as surprise. So unforeseen!

    I overall agree with Pr Coyne’s post, but I’d like to throw in a few things.

    Yes, that Dubcovsky article is condescending, and it comes, unsurprisingly, from somebody in a field that has nothing to condescend about.

    I’m not saying that the field of history is worthless, although I did not study it I am sure it is worth something, and that some of its actors do it very well.

    However science is an incredible success and its contribution to society and to many other academic fields like history are amazing.

    I am not saying that because I studied science and am a fan of science. Rather, I studied science and am a fan of it because of that.

    The success of science is to the point that it can make non scientific fields pale in comparison, which may be unfortunate but is nobody’s fault, and that can breed jealousy.

    One ego rescuing strategy can then be to drape oneself in one’s dignity and claim that science lacks a certain je-ne-sais-quoi that only the humanities can provide. That je-ne-sais-quoi, humanitites professors can stoop selling to you, of course.

    In other words, I have something that I can’t describe, but it is of great value, it is essential, and you lack it, you lack it to the point you do not see how great it is nor that it exists, but worry not, the troubles you didn’t know you had are over, because I can sell it to you. On that logic we might as well study theology or become scientologists.

    I might as well flip her thesis upside down (only with arguments). Studying a little bit of science is important to historians. I met a university professor of history who didn’t know whow an atomic bomb works. It seems to me it would help, if only a little, understanding WWII. An understanting beyond the textbook definition of what a logarithm is and how it works, or of some basic maths might also help.

    There is one thing I disagree with Pr Coyne about, I am sure I can find score of physics Ph. D’s who do not know the Oppenheimer quote “I am become death, the destroyer of worlds”. However I think he is right on the overall idea. The physicists I know do read books about history, or biology, or litterature, they know about arts and speak two ore more languages.

    All my life long I have consistently seen the best and broghtest students, the ones who were good at everything, including history, going into science, either because they thought that there they could have a job, of because they thought that with science they could be useful and make a contribution to society.

    On the othber hand I have recently met a person who has studied the classics for five years, knows them all, fluent in latin and greek, who probably reads Martial in bed, but was unable to name even one of the two main gases in the air. That’s right, when asked about the main gases in the air, that man was unable to say “oxygen”. Furter conversation showed me he had no clue of anything scientific or technical.

    A woman with the same training told me we had not invented much since the Romans. She was sincere. I was appalled.

    I am convinced they are not atypical. I have hung out with Ph. D’s in ancient classics or people with similar background, and though I can not give you any quote (it was a littel while ago) I took away the idea that they are clueless and that technology could as well be magic to them. Not to mention their belief that whatever science shows one day, it might as well be shown wrong in the future.

    To sum it up: as far as I can tell, people in the humanities are by no means well rounded.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted February 28, 2014 at 3:55 am | Permalink

      Great, well rounded comment!

      “The physicists I know do read books about history, or biology, or litterature [sic] they know about arts and speak two ore more languages. … as far as I can tell, people in the humanities are by no means well rounded.” Indeed, most of the latter lack (science) literacy.

      In other words, I have something that I can’t describe, but it is of great value, it is essential, and you lack it, you lack it to the point you do not see how great it is nor that it exists, but worry not, the troubles you didn’t know you had are over, because I can sell it to you. On that logic we might as well study theology or become scientologists.

      Ha! That applies well to to philosophy, homeopathy and all other kinds of pseudosciences.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted February 27, 2014 at 1:11 pm | Permalink

      That is an odd experience you had with Classics folks as the reason I felt so happy studying Classics is I found them to be esoterically geeky and this esoteric love of things translated into interests outside their field quite well. Many liked science and were well versed in technology and computers. In fact, working in a high tech field I’ve come across a few other Classics grads (which are rare in the world as it is) and one of my school mates, after graduating with an MA in Classics, became a VP at Microsoft.

      • Damien
        Posted February 27, 2014 at 1:49 pm | Permalink

        I believe you, but I insist that what I wrote is true.

        And I can find as many of that type of people as you want, one of my ex girlfriends is one of them, and I know where the supply is.

        Literally people unable to guess that “oxygen” is one of the two main gases in the air. Literally people telling you we have not invented much since the Romans.

        Sorry for writing litterature instead of literature, by the way.

        • Posted February 27, 2014 at 2:10 pm | Permalink

          I could believe that there’re significant numbers of people who don’t know the composition of the atmosphere, just as surveys repeatedly show that there’re significant people who think the Sun revolves around the Earth and who don’t think humans share a common ancestor with all other life on Earth.

          But no significant inventions since the Romans? That really strains credulity. What, they think the Romans had TV and smartphones and the Internet and satellites and atomic bombs and 747s and digital wristwatches? Or do they not think of minor things such as indoor plumbing and refrigeration and antibiotics as significant?

          Or maybe they’re confusing the Roman Empire with Mussolini’s Fascist Italy?

          I simply can’t fathom how anybody could possibly suggest, with a straight face, that there hasn’t been much invention since the Roman Empire. That would require a degree of ignorance I would simply think impossible for anybody educated enough to, for example, write today’s date.


          • Diana MacPherson
            Posted February 27, 2014 at 2:37 pm | Permalink

            Or they are being wise asses. I might say something like that if someone challenged me for studying what I did.

            • Damien
              Posted February 27, 2014 at 2:54 pm | Permalink

              For the record, nobody what challenging her field. And she is not of the smart ass type at all. She is a very nice lady. In fact, from the way she was talking to me, she was revealing a truth to me. She was teaching me, you see.

          • Damien
            Posted February 27, 2014 at 2:53 pm | Permalink

            It may be the product of a few things.

            It may be a way to protect oneself. Afer all, it is not pleasant to think that there is a lot of important stuff happening out there and that not only are you not part of it but you are completely disconnected from it.

            It may be also the fact that she does not value any of the modern stuff like modern science. She might value the great ancient philosophers as unsurpassable thinkers. Why reading a modern think when you have Augustine?

            A third reason may be that she is so immersed in what she does all day long that it takes all the available space in her mind.

            • Diana MacPherson
              Posted February 27, 2014 at 4:09 pm | Permalink

              I think a lot of it is down to personality. I want to know everything & am always upset that 1) I don’t have enough time 2) I have my own limitations. However, I think this is a minority personality type. Many people are content in skimming by and knowing what they have to know or being deeply involved in one thing (I’m actually a bit envious of those people because they always know exactly what they want to do). I still remember wanting to study plate tectonics as an elective then kicked myself because it looked like I’d have to devote a lot of time to it that could take away from my main courses (I think English at the time) & possibly affect those grades.

          • Diana MacPherson
            Posted February 27, 2014 at 4:13 pm | Permalink

            I suspect there are a lot of science grads that don’t know the composition of the atmosphere either. You’d be surprised how knowledge falls out of people’s heads, especially if they are just memorizing enough information to get a grade and don’t care about really learning something. I have a couple of friends who have frustrated me because they fall for BS pseudo science stuff. They both have science degrees and worked in science jobs post graduation. I have turned to them on at least one occasion & said point blank, “you have a science degree right? Here, the liberal arts grad is about to school you in science”. Oddly, one of them is still my friend.

            • Damien
              Posted February 27, 2014 at 5:16 pm | Permalink

              I hope science grads are able to name the two major gases of teh atmosphere. At least one of them! At least oxygen!

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted February 27, 2014 at 8:08 pm | Permalink

                You’d hope but seriously there are some that don’t know what ionizing radiation is and that worries me.

              • Posted February 27, 2014 at 8:16 pm | Permalink

                Let me guess: they think that WiFi causes cancer?


              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted February 27, 2014 at 8:35 pm | Permalink

                Bingo! Oh and also that it had a particular wave length that made it extra bad!

              • JohnnieCanuck
                Posted February 28, 2014 at 12:23 am | Permalink

                Ben, we have just had smart meters installed here which have raised no end of paranoia. I’m sure a good number of the opt-outs have wifi, cordless phones and cellphones that they use for many minutes or hours at a time with no concern. The meters may be on for only a few seconds, average.

                My daughter tells of her friend who was with her parents when they stopped to buy some organic carrots from a small farm here. Their white Suzuki looked enough like the ones driven by the Hydro staff that they were greeted with a baseball bat and vehemently ordered off the property.

                You can’t be too careful around electromagnetic radiation. That’s what gives you a sunburn.

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted February 28, 2014 at 6:48 am | Permalink

                What I always mention is that RF devices have been around longer and in higher doses than now…they just weren’t popular and therefore not seen. For example, just about every apartement building has equipment in it with antennas on a roof. Some even have signs that warn you not to step in between two areas or you’ll get an RF burn. That is the wattage up there. This has been common for decades. Then of course there is the military, aircraft pilots, etc.

                But what drives me crazy is if I for one second thought that RF was ionizing, I’d never go near it! I try limiting exposure to X-rays so why would people even except the use of such devices?

                I’ve even heard people refer to microwave ovens as “nuclear technology”! It’s not x-rays! It’s microwaves! Hence the name! 2.4ghz!!

                It drives me nuts! I blame the word “radiation”.

              • Posted February 28, 2014 at 7:53 am | Permalink

                In Dutch, a microwave oven is a magnetron”, which sounds quite scary.


              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted February 28, 2014 at 8:45 am | Permalink

                It sounds like a sci-fi weapon — You can see a villain saying, “Unless you give me 3 billion dollars, I shall use the magnetron to sterilize your country!”

              • Posted February 28, 2014 at 9:51 am | Permalink

                “3 million guilders!”

                “But. Dr Evil: The Dutch guilder has been replaced by the euro.”


              • Posted February 28, 2014 at 11:18 am | Permalink

                Actually, here in the States, “magnetron” refers to the main radio-producing “light bulb” inside the microwave oven. It’s basically just a large vacuum tube, like the old-style CRT TVs and computer monitors.

                You could probably sterilize a country with it, but only by aiming it individually at each person’s privates for long enough to cook the flesh. This, of course, would result in fatal internal burns, thus ensuring that said person never did anything, including procreate, ever again.

                Might be a bit of a challenge to get people to stand still for it, though….


    • Gordon
      Posted February 27, 2014 at 1:20 pm | Permalink

      At my university where I tend to associate with some classicists (they tend to like a beer) I occasionally ask why their offerings do not include courses on the developments of the Greeks in areas such as maths, science, scientific reasoning and that sort of thing. I have yet to receive a satisfactory answer other than we don’t have anyone who could teach it.

      One point I would accept is that most professionals be they scientists, lawyers or doctors can do a good job without knowing the history of their subject – but they will always, I think, be considerably more skilled and competent if they do

      Expanding on a point I made above that rather than worry about scientists not studying history I am more concerned with the lack of scientific knowledge among humanities types: many humanities graduates end up in governments as advisers and similar jobs probably (in New Zealand) having done little or no science since their penultimate year at school. In my final year of school at a large boys’ school-some time ago I concede- I was if I recall about one of five people taking a largely humanities course but also a moderate dollop of science. I would much prefer to have a scientist who is not fully aware of the expansion of the Mogul empire advising on most things than history graduates who have no decent understanding of science (including social science), its methodology and probably none of statistics.

      On the other hand things could be worse and you might have economists providing advice! Uh yes….

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted February 27, 2014 at 2:23 pm | Permalink

        Any Humanities grad who wasn’t required to take a social science probably went to a rather crappy university.

        • Kevin
          Posted February 27, 2014 at 11:31 pm | Permalink

          I did not know that was possible.

          • Diana MacPherson
            Posted February 28, 2014 at 6:36 am | Permalink

            To take social sciences? I had to take a full year of social sciences as part of my degree. I took anthropology. Many humanities grads take more social sciences after the requirement because you have to fill your electives and there are only so many courses in the humanities that you’d want to take. I took 2.5 years of anthropology.

            I also took a science course that was aimed at learning basic physics (but it wasn’t required). It was awesome! They need more of those courses. I’ve mentioned here before that I’ve recommended to my alma mater (they sent a questionnaire out for ideas about Humanities and its future) that they design courses that expose humanities to science students and science to humanities students. This means taking out the math from the science and the writing in the humanities. I think it would be very successful and would produce a more well rounded graduate. They wrote back and said they liked my idea and are looking into implementing it.

            • Diane G.
              Posted February 28, 2014 at 3:31 pm | Permalink

              I’ve said something similar for years about the usual “biology for non-majors” courses. (And so many arts students fill their science elective requirement with biology!)

              It pained me so much to watch humanities-major friends learning to hate bio by having to memorize physiological reactions, etc., when I thought it should be one of the most inspiring and world-opening disciplines they’d ever encounter. Seems painfully obvious to me that science faculties should seize on these opportunities to structure courses from the standpoint of what they want student to remember 30 years from now; what the average voter should be conversant in; etc. As opposed to, say, the exact details of the Krebs cycle. (And it goes without saying, I hope, that evolutionary theory be a unifying theme throughout. Too many of those non-major courses will just tack on an evolution segment near the end, like many a high school course.)

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted February 28, 2014 at 3:39 pm | Permalink

                Oh yes & I would’ve been all over those courses! I also thought it was not very productive to have a one size fits all English requirement for Engineers. They really shouldn’t be taking the same first year English course as all English majors take. It isn’t going to help them later on. Let them take a science writing course or something that will help the communicate complex ideas.

                I do remember an engineer in one of my Classics courses. The prof was always surprised he was taking the course and I remember his discussion of the Fibonacci Sequence for theatres and being delighted there was an engineer in the class who already knew about all this.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted February 27, 2014 at 2:26 pm | Permalink

        I learned all about the Greek and Roman contributions to science in my Classics courses. They were part of just about every Classics course I took. I think a lot of universities are more specialized in Australia and New Zealand; at least this is what I learned when a professor from Australia came to my university. Their the students had a deeper education while we, in Canada had a broader one.

        • Gordon
          Posted February 28, 2014 at 1:14 pm | Permalink

          At least at my NZ university there are few mandatory requirements for BAs outside those of the specific major/minor and no requirement to do anything scientific. Science doesn’t require humanities but probably of necessity requires a wider range of subjects.
          We lawyers do require a few non-law papers in first year: and in practice about 70% of law students do two degrees (laws is undergrad down here). However we do offer all sorts of conjoint degrees etc. Student choice is the big thing cos the customer knows best- at least until the current government bans any subject not useful to business.

  18. Kevin
    Posted February 27, 2014 at 12:45 pm | Permalink

    As a Philosophy and History of Physics major who now does science every day: NO.

    The evidence I have for this conclusion is so vast it is remarkable there that anyone would believe that the history of science will help science as it is done on a daily basis.

    • eric
      Posted February 27, 2014 at 9:08 pm | Permalink

      I was a philosophy and chemistry major, and I tend to agree. I greatly appreciate my philosophy education (as Ben said, because it makes me a better citizen). But did it help me be a better chemist? Not in the slightest.

      I think Ben hit a second nail on the head too. Given that most professional scientists have PhD.s, which mean they went through undergrad programs, and most undergrad programs have general education requirements that require a broad-based education, it is pretty likely that any given professional scientist you meet is already in the top 10-20% of the general population who have a broad-based education in the humanities. We are certainly poorly educated in history compared to history majors or professors. Compared to person-on-the-street? I’m betting they compare fairly well.

      • Kevin
        Posted February 27, 2014 at 11:30 pm | Permalink

        I sincerely appreciate my background in the humanities. I wish more scientists had a background that was in the humanities. Nevertheless, it is difficult to quantify the benefit one gets from knowing very specific details about the history of science.

    • Posted February 27, 2014 at 1:04 pm | Permalink

      On that subject, I think it’s important to point out that the history of science is almost entirely that of discredited theories, what with that being the whole point. Once upon a time, epicycles and calorific and the luminiferous aether and even astrology and alchemy really were cutting-edge science. And while it’s interesting and important from the perspective of what makes a well-rounded citizen to know about all of that…well, being able to calculate an epicycle is of absolutely no practical use whatsoever to a modern scientist, unless it’s to impress somebody with obscure arcana.



  19. Kevin
    Posted February 27, 2014 at 12:50 pm | Permalink

    A minor digression, but important point about teaching history: I am wholly unconvinced that if we were to teach children today about the Holocaust that that would guarantee it not happening again.

    • Jesper Both Pedersen
      Posted February 27, 2014 at 1:03 pm | Permalink


      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted February 27, 2014 at 1:14 pm | Permalink

        Yeah weird. I remember being hauled out of class on Remembrance Day and forced to watch grizzly holocaust pictures. What were they thinking?! Was that not traumatizing for kids to see those images? Meh, maybe not….they made us watch Old Yeller too.

        • Jesper Both Pedersen
          Posted February 27, 2014 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

          I think it’s one of those things where a small trauma might be a sign of a healthy relationship to your fellow primates.

          I vaguely remember asking my dad why everyone was so mad at this Hitler-guy and he laid it out for me….from then on I was mad at him too.

    • Damien
      Posted February 27, 2014 at 1:51 pm | Permalink

      Is it not required where you live to teach children about the Holocaust?

      • Kevin
        Posted February 27, 2014 at 11:23 pm | Permalink

        I am not sure. I do know my kids would actively try to prevent another Holocaust even if they never learned about the original. But I never thought about how possibly disturbing it could be to teach a kid; tricky question…how and when to breech such subjects with children.

        • Posted February 28, 2014 at 10:22 am | Permalink

          Actually, the lesson of the rise of the Nazi Party is that ordinary people can and do perpetrate great horrors. And Stanley Milgram very famously confirmed it.

          Eternal vigilance is always called for.


  20. Jim Thomerson
    Posted February 27, 2014 at 1:04 pm | Permalink

    I was fortunate, in my PhD studies, to have an excellent history of biology course. I am one of those people who wants to understand the process, rather than just the outcome. So in teaching biology I have gone at it from a fairly historical aspect. I think it is important to understand how we came to know what we know, and why we thought it important to do the work.

    Someone commented that when we teach science from a historical point of view, we are teaching humanities.

    I have encountered a few scientists who have had no interest in philosophy or history of science. How many scientists are monkey see, monkey do?

    From some things I have seen on forums about teaching genetics, I think there are, or soon will be, practicing molecular geneticists who have never heard of Mendel, and probably know nothing of the tetranucleotide theory.

    There are a number of scientists who are accomplished amature musicians, but few musicians who are accomplished amature scientists.

    • Posted February 27, 2014 at 1:23 pm | Permalink

      I think it is important to understand how we came to know what we know, and why we thought it important to do the work.

      Thank you! I’ve long thought that yours is likely the most effective pedagogical technique — at the very least, for non-specialists. It’s much of the reason why I’m so enamored with Sagan’s Cosmos.

      However, as I just commented in another response, there is no need to, for example, be able to calculate an epicycle (or even know what it is) in order to do cutting-edge cosmology.

      As a citizen, I would suggest that everybody should know (at least vaguely) what an epicycle is, why it was once quite significant, and why it’s hopelessly useless today. But, again, that’s because we live in a society in which epicycles are part of our history, not because it has any actual bearing on the real science.

      There are a number of scientists who are accomplished amature musicians, but few musicians who are accomplished amature scientists.

      Hmmm…I think you might be biasing the situation in both directions. As a (quasi-)professional musician, I can tell you that scientists are, if anything, under-represented in the community orchestra scene. There’re lots and lots of public school teachers, a surprising number of lawyers, a fair number of doctors and dentists and veterinarians, a good number of engineers, not many tradespeople, and very few scientists. I actually can’t think of any off the top of my head, though I do know scientists who played in band or orchestra through their undergraduate programs…but never in first-chair positions.

      In the other direction, I would suggest that professional musicians who dabble in science are probably generally doing science at the same level as professional scientists who play in community orchestras: quite respectable for a non-specialist, but in an entirely different class from the “big boys.” I doubt very many scientists would even make it past the first round of an audition for a major symphony, just as I doubt very many amateur scientist musicians would make it past the first cut for an NSF grant. There will be some significant exceptions, of course, but damned few and likely equal proportions in both directions.

      …Brians Cox and May notwithstanding….



      • Posted February 27, 2014 at 2:25 pm | Permalink

        Both physicists of course … *ahem*


        • Posted February 27, 2014 at 2:37 pm | Permalink

          Yes, there should be a standard caveat in these sorts of discussions: if you’re a physicist and your name is, “Brian,” and you’re a rock star, you’re…um…a…er…genius physicist rockstar named, “Brian”?


          • Kevin
            Posted February 27, 2014 at 11:16 pm | Permalink

            May was fortunate to have done work in an area (Zodiacal dust) that he could step away from a thesis and return to it many years later. On a personal level, I feel a small connection to him as I randomly fell upon some work that considered solar wind interactions with dust in our solar system.

            • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
              Posted February 28, 2014 at 3:31 am | Permalink

              You mean the area collected dust? [/ducks, laughing maniacally like a stereotypical movie scientist]

            • Posted February 28, 2014 at 10:20 am | Permalink

              I thought Dust in the Wind was Kansas, not Queen…?


              • Posted February 28, 2014 at 10:46 am | Permalink

                “Another One Bites the Zodiacal Dust? “Ride the Wild Solar Wind”?


  21. Posted February 27, 2014 at 1:25 pm | Permalink

    Here the false dichotomy between art and science (broadly interpreted) is expanded to include history. My geological education included the history of the science as well as quite a bit of state and local history; the chairman of my undergrad department was as much historian as geologist, and published as both.

    There are chemists who are potters and poets, biologists who make movies or design clothing patterns, engineers who write novels, and physicists who compose music for the violin. I suspect it is more common to find scientists with a wide range of interests in the humanities than it is to find humanities professors who are amateur astronomers or mineral collectors, or who spend their weekends inventing solar powered shop tools.

  22. Posted February 27, 2014 at 1:53 pm | Permalink

    There are two biographies of Rosalind Franklin and a university named after her.

    Wishing I could be so forgotten…

  23. Posted February 27, 2014 at 4:06 pm | Permalink

    I took an upper level cell biology course as an undergrad where the professor took us through the history of discoveries in cell biology. We were assigned the foundational papers, and it was structured like a historical journal club.

    I have to say it was a lot more fun than it sounds. It was a small class, and we were encouraged to essentially do the experimental design on a thought experiment to, say, prove that DNA was the genetic material of bacteria. We struggled with it a bit before the TA revealed the work of Hershey-Chase and Griffin. We appreciated the elegance all the more for having tried to solve the same problem.

    The lab portion required us to reconstruct old experiments. I recall transposon mapping of auxotrophs of Salmonella… using phage techniques that went out of vogue decades ago.

    Looking back, I got more excited about that course than any of the dozens of upper level classes more related to my major and research. I never missed a lecture.

    If I ever switch over to teaching, I’d love to replicate the content.

  24. Barbara
    Posted February 27, 2014 at 4:34 pm | Permalink

    Quite independent of this annoyingly condescending historian, I (a biologist) think that all people should learn about history. We need context for our lives and the social and environmental processes we observe. We also need more targeted historical knowledge about the sciences we scientists work in.

    Sadly, the essay reported here would make it easy to turn away from learning about our past.

    • Posted February 27, 2014 at 7:07 pm | Permalink

      Barbara, I read the article before I read this discussion. I am a historian, sometimes work on history of science but am mostly a cultural historian. When I read the article, I saw it as another example of someone in the humanities trying to justify our existence, and was depressed by it, because it reflects what I have experienced. I do not know the author, but I am certain that she was not suggesting that history is superior – rather that there is good reason for people in charge of financing departments to not eliminate humanities and social science departments.
      I understand the interpretation you have here, having read other comments – but I was initially floored at that interpretation. Was the article flawed? Certainly. But let us think about the message: someone at a top-tier institution believes that scientists do not value her field. That is troubling on a very major scale.

  25. Rod
    Posted February 27, 2014 at 5:02 pm | Permalink

    Didn’t someone post a list a while back regarding about 10 basic science topics all aspiring politicians ought to know?

    I remember seeing it and got most of the answers, but judging from the 2012 elections, not too many successful or unsuccessful candidates would have been able to answer even a few of them.

  26. Posted February 27, 2014 at 5:36 pm | Permalink

    When I was doing undergrad science, I read Isaac Asimov’s Biographical Encyclopedia of Science and Technology cover to cover. It was a fantastic way of contextualising my studies in not only the flow of history, but also in other sciences.

  27. Jim Thomerson
    Posted February 27, 2014 at 5:54 pm | Permalink

    I have a copy of Asimov’s Biographical History of Science, second Ed, and highly recommend it. It is 1500 short biographies arranged more or less chronologically. It is extensively cross referenced. I look up someone, and am still reading a couple of hours later. I recently did the read from cover to cover, and felt fairly enlightened. I highly recommend it.

  28. Posted February 27, 2014 at 6:58 pm | Permalink

    I am an historian. I disagree with the interpretation that the historian is being condescending. I would suggest reframing the question here – what is it that makes humanities scholars so worried (scared out of their/our minds) that they must defend their field? (Spoiler alert: in the US and Europe, areas I have expertise in, humanities are fighting for survival at the university level and are often compared unfavorably to STEM-related departments by administrators and policy makers.)
    Also – she pleads for a dialogue between sciences and humanities. I am married to a biologist. I am usually the only non-scientist at parties and receptions, just as my spouse is usually the only scientist at humanities functions.
    Perhaps we should focus on the question of dialogue? There is a good reason to defend a liberal arts education – and humanities are not the disciplines that are at this point in time in a strong position to plea for history.
    My history majors need science and math classes just as much as the science majors (broadly defined) need history classes… or foreign language classes, or English, or etc.
    As an administrator once told several of us in humanities, funding at the university level has to be justified – and it harder to justify funding some disciplines than others. Unfortunately I have heard this very same comment at multiple universities and from multiple sectors of societies. We need support from our STEM colleagues. Desperate pleas suggest that we all need to work together to think about how that dialogue can be improved.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted February 27, 2014 at 8:27 pm | Permalink

      To give an idea of how the arts are viewed, I heard a radio program recently that reported that people should only go into STEM courses because that is where the high paying jobs are. I disagree. You can do quite nicely with a liberal arts degree. Moreover, not everyone wants to be an MD and there shouldn’t be this societal push to go into one career path (for lots of reasons beside it not being sustainable). Further, my dad told me about a documentary he watched on CBC (I think I know the one but don’t want to post in case it isn’t correct) where Engineering students were interviewed. Their attitude toward science and arts degrees were as follows: science grads only got jobs as academics and those weren’t professional jobs like engineers. Arts grads were really glorified grade 13 so just bring back grade 13.

      Nice, huh?

      I think the Humanities really need to get the message out there in the way that STEM has over the years. It isn’t always immediately clear what advantages a Humanities education brings or perhaps those advantages aren’t appreciated.

      Of course, none of this will really help with funding. The Humanities just doesn’t bring in the $$ that STEM does.

    • Posted February 27, 2014 at 8:14 pm | Permalink

      The most rational and logical explanation so far.

      There is a real-life reason for the resentment, only that some people air those resentments personally (and badly) and in doing so mucked the whole water.

      Fact of life, that education fundings are becoming rarer.

  29. Posted February 27, 2014 at 8:25 pm | Permalink

    I’d say you’d be severely hobbled if you tried to do evolutionary psychology without knowing its history. That’s actually a problem, because you won’t find anything useful about its history in the EP textbooks, and most definitely not in Pinker’s “The Blank Slate.” You really need to dig through the historical source material yourself. After all, for about half a century the behavioral “sciences” were really controlled by a false orthodoxy so absurd that any 10 year old could see through it. Unless you understand how something like that can happen in particular, and the interplay of science and ideology in general, doing EP is going to pose some problems.

    • Larry Gay
      Posted February 28, 2014 at 5:59 am | Permalink

      Surely a major lesson from the history of behavioral science is that a false orthodoxy can take hold, and infect many highly intelligent people well over ten years old. A false orthodoxy may pop up in the political world (Nazism), science (Lysenko), economics(trickle-down), philosophy (religion in general). The basic innoculant is: show me the data.

      • Diane G.
        Posted February 28, 2014 at 3:22 pm | Permalink

        …the humanities (deconstructionism, postmodernism)…

        Trouble is with the definition of “data,” therein…

  30. Posted February 27, 2014 at 9:38 pm | Permalink

    This discussion isn’t complete without at least a tip of the hat to James Burke. Thank you for joining the ranks of Carl Sagan, Isaac Asimov, Sir Richard Attenborough, and Richard Dawkins in popularizing science without compromising on integrity.

    His series “Connections” and “The Day the Universe Changed” ought to be an argument in favor of teaching at least a little history of science to budding scientists.

    • Diane G.
      Posted February 28, 2014 at 12:03 am | Permalink

      Oh, I loved the “Connections” series!

      Hmmm–still have VCR tapes of them–but no VCR player of course. Time to upgrade the media…

    • Posted February 28, 2014 at 12:02 am | Permalink



  31. HI
    Posted February 27, 2014 at 10:21 pm | Permalink

    Yes, we can all learn a little sensitivity from historians such as the Laurence A. Tisch Professor of History at Harvard (and cough, husband of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, cough) Niall Ferguson, who commented something to the effect that if you are gay or childless like Keynes, who “was married to a ballerina, with whom he likely talked of “poetry” rather than procreated”, you cannot care about future generations nor society.

    • Diane G.
      Posted February 27, 2014 at 10:37 pm | Permalink

      Well, that’s disappointing.

    • exsumper
      Posted February 28, 2014 at 10:59 am | Permalink

      What a “pig ignorant” turd Ferguson is!

      My wife and I don’t have children because of a medical condition. It doesn’t mean that we care nothing for future generations or society.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted February 28, 2014 at 11:08 am | Permalink

      Wow, interesting. I’d love him to say that to my face.

      • Tim Harris
        Posted February 28, 2014 at 7:41 pm | Permalink

        Ferguson is a thoroughly unpleasant individual. One might remember James Watson’s attitudes on race, though. Or Stravinsky’s attitude towards Benjamin Britten. Or Konrad Lorenz’s less than attractive views on race at one time of his life at least.

  32. madscientist
    Posted February 27, 2014 at 10:46 pm | Permalink

    For me, looking into the history of scientific discoveries and inventions was interesting because you can see how hard people have had to work at things and you appreciate how they developed their ideas. Sometimes that helps to understand a topic better, since the typical method of teaching is to say “X follows from Y” as if everyone should know that because it’s so obvious. At times knowing how people approached the problem makes the ideas more obvious. Then there are the times when looking at the history can mire you in archaic texts; one example of that was Feynman working through Newton’s Principia and eventually realizing that Newton used proofs based on Euclidian proofs which were no longer generally taught. Fascinating to know perhaps, but in that particular case not really essential to know since anyone familiar with Descartes’ analytic geometry could convey the same proofs in a different (and for people not familiar with the more ancient proofs, easier) way. But as for needing to know the history of science to understand it – that’s a rather obviously failed hypothesis.

  33. Thanny
    Posted February 27, 2014 at 11:04 pm | Permalink

    However much professional adversity Franklin actually endured during her too-short scientific life, there’s no question that she’s received far more attention than any man would have who did the same work. She was good at what she did, but didn’t correctly interpret the results, and absolutely did not have anything stolen (she had already published the famous X-ray photo – it just wasn’t her who brought to Watson’s attention).

    Beyond that, am I the only one who thinks that history done right is not part of the humanities?

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted February 28, 2014 at 6:28 am | Permalink

      What do you mean, “history done right”?

      • Thanny
        Posted February 28, 2014 at 2:49 pm | Permalink

        I mean following the evidence, rather than spinning yarns that are pleasing to one’s existing views.

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted February 28, 2014 at 3:12 pm | Permalink

          Then I think you are not understanding what distinguishes the roles of Science and Humanities. Science seeks to understand the universe; Humanities seek to understand human culture. Both use tools to do this and both tools occasionally overlap. Humanities use empirical evidence in the form of archaeological evidence, linguistic evidence, evidence found in primary literary sources and statistical analyses to understand human culture. In addition, depending on the discipline, Humanities must use reason, especially in literary analysis.

          Broadly construed, some would argue that these techniques are the same as doing science, however I see this as a rational toolset and science also uses a rational toolset though the steps of the scientific method is more dominant in the sciences.

          So, working in the Humanities at all levels requires a lot more than, as you say, “spinning yarns that are pleasing to one’s existing views” and Humanities disciplines do follow the evidence. If they did not, we’d have a hard time refuting BS like the holocaust did not happen, Christianity gave rise to science, Jesus was a real man, Pyramids were built by aliens or the fall of Rome ushered in not the Dark Ages in Western Europe, but a new golden age.

          • Thanny
            Posted February 28, 2014 at 10:49 pm | Permalink

            I cannot disagree more with your classification of the border between science and the humanities. Humans, after all, are part of the universe. If you’re using reason and evidence to discover how something actually works, or how something actually happened, you are doing science.

            • Diana MacPherson
              Posted March 1, 2014 at 6:47 am | Permalink

              It isn’t my classification, it’s the definition used by universities the world over and the understood purview of Humanities and Science. If you don’t like the word “universe” you can change it up for “natural world” but note that physicists go beyond the world. Disagree if you would like, but it will only lead you to make inaccurate statements like the one you made originally.

          • gbjames
            Posted February 28, 2014 at 3:18 pm | Permalink

            As an American (recovered) archaeologist, I cannot agree on placement of the discipline within the Humanities. I know you guys way up north do things different, but what I got for training was very heavy on scientific method. Almost completely absent were things like literary analysis.

            And all academic disciplines are (or should be) pretty heavy on the use of reason and evidence-based analysis. If they aren’t they don’t belong at universities, IMO. Which is why theology has no place at “the U”.

            • Diana MacPherson
              Posted February 28, 2014 at 3:32 pm | Permalink

              Whether you agree that archaeology belongs in the Humanities or not, if a person doing Classics (my degree is in the Archaeology stream of Classics) wants to know the truth about the Classical world, they need to draw upon archaeological evidence. They also collaborate with seismologists and vulcanologists to understand historical events in the Classical world.

              So my point is, regardless of departmental designations, doing work in the Humanities requires using and understanding how to use the tools best to get information.

              • Diane G.
                Posted February 28, 2014 at 3:46 pm | Permalink

                Sadly, ‘interdisciplinary’ is a term that continuously arises only to sink again.

          • Posted February 28, 2014 at 3:22 pm | Permalink

            You do, however, point to a very real problem evident too often (but by no means always!) in the humanities: in the quest for certainty in the face of doubt, there’s a natural tendency to be overly certain of what is merely your best guess.

            Of necessity. there is considerably more uncertainty in the humanities (in general) than there are in the “harder” sciences. That’s okay, generally, because often much less precision is called for in the humanities. Still, it can get a bit disconcerting when reads, for example, absolute declarations on a particular person’s motivation for a certain action. Much better to establish the evidence that the action happened, and then analyze any evidence assigning motive and weigh likelihoods that the evidence is supportive of various motives.

            Again, not at all to accuse all historians (in this particular example) of committing that sin; just an observation that too many of them have done so in the past.



            • Diana MacPherson
              Posted February 28, 2014 at 3:35 pm | Permalink

              Of course there are bad humanities scholars that have gotten away with sloppy work, just as there are bad scientists who do sloppy work (cough, creationist junk, cough). Yes, there is less certainty in the Humanities but there is also ample evidence to show how much certainty there is and respected scholars do so.

            • Diane G.
              Posted February 28, 2014 at 3:40 pm | Permalink

              Much of that analysis would also apply to evo psych.


              • Tim Harris
                Posted February 28, 2014 at 7:27 pm | Permalink

                ‘spinning yarns’ – why READ a historian like Martin Gilbert, Richard Evans, Christopher Hill or Wallace-Hadrill instead of relying on lazy generalisations about whole disciplines.

              • Tim Harris
                Posted February 28, 2014 at 7:28 pm | Permalink

                That should read ‘why not READ’.

              • Tim Harris
                Posted February 28, 2014 at 7:34 pm | Permalink

                That should be’why not READ’

              • Thanny
                Posted February 28, 2014 at 10:44 pm | Permalink

                This is in reply to Tim Harris, which I can’t do properly due to WordPress comment limitations.

                I did not make any generalizations about any disciplines, much less lazy ones, as any halfway literate reading of my very short comment would make clear.

                If I tell you that an example of the wrong way to fix an automobile engine is to repeatedly bang it with a hammer, would you then suggest I should spend time in a garage watching mechanics work before making lazy generalizations about them?

              • Tim Harris
                Posted March 1, 2014 at 5:45 pm | Permalink

                Perhaps then you should have banged away at rather greater length about who is spinning yarns and why you don’t like them doing it.

  34. Posted February 28, 2014 at 12:10 am | Permalink

    Well, history; it’s not exactly brain surgery, is it?


    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted February 28, 2014 at 6:43 am | Permalink

      I love that skit!

  35. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted February 28, 2014 at 2:56 am | Permalink

    I can only agree.

    There is a tendency to make small pieces of science ahistorical, since most papers lift out dead ends. (Which makes a bias and is unhelpful for other scientists to learn the problems, so it has been criticized.) But the overall history is always taught to get a feel for the area.

    This may need editing:

    Like the reader who sent me the link, Dubcovsky seems not only defensive about her discipline, but stretching a bit to make her point.

    “Well, yeah–all that context is interesting and important–but where are the data showing any scientists are ignorant of it?”

    Maybe you meant to write “Like the reader who sent me the link, Dubcovsky seems to me/b>< not only …"?

  36. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted February 28, 2014 at 3:06 am | Permalink

    This is arguable:

    Try to find a Ph.D. in genetics who can’t talk about Rosalind Franklin, or a Ph.D. in physics who doesn’t know about Oppenheimer’s statement, “I am become death, the destroyer of worlds,” when he watched the Trinity explosion.

    ” Oppenheimer later recalled that, while witnessing the explosion, he thought of a verse from the Hindu holy book, the Bhagavad Gita (XI,12):
    If the radiance of a thousand suns were to burst at once into the sky, that would be like the splendor of the mighty one …[7][110]
    Years later he would explain that another verse had also entered his head at that time: namely, the famous verse: “kālo’smi lokakṣayakṛtpravṛddho lokānsamāhartumiha pravṛttaḥ” (XI,32),[111] which he translated as “I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”[note 2]”

    “2, Oppenheimer spoke these words in the television documentary The Decision to Drop the Bomb (1965).[5] Oppenheimer read the original text in sanskrit, and the translation is his own.[4] In the literature, the quote usually appears in the form shatterer of worlds, because this was the form in which it first appeared in print, in Time magazine on November 8, 1948.[6] It later appeared in Robert Jungk’s Brighter than a Thousand Suns: A Personal History of the Atomic Scientists (1958),[7] which was based on an interview with Oppenheimer.[8]”

    [ ]

    FWIW, my PhD is in physics (at least formally, and indeed I did work more on the physics of material production for electronics than its technology), and I couldn’t place that quote. Nuclear physics is cool, but that history is more US trivia than the Russell – Einstein- Oppenheimer politicization of it.

  37. Jonathan Wallace
    Posted February 28, 2014 at 4:07 am | Permalink

    I agree with the various comments made to the effect that some study of history is important in anyone’s development to become a good citizen. The same of course applies to knowledge of science. In the UK most of our politicians have had a humanities education and very few (practically none) have any scientific background. Our Secretary of State for Education, no less, recently insisted to a Parliamentary Committee that he required all state schools to achieve “good” pupil performance standards where “good” is defined as above average! This is a man who loudly bemoans that fact that modern schoolchildren do not know the dates of various events in British history.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted February 28, 2014 at 6:58 am | Permalink

      I think that if you don’t have a good general knowledge of the world through a basic understanding of areas in both the Humanities and Science, you can’t really call yourself literate in the modern world. Sadly, many regular folk are illiterate in this sense.

  38. Posted February 28, 2014 at 4:47 am | Permalink

    I think this remembered me one discussion Lawrence Krauss had in Stockholm with some philosophers. One of these philosophers said that scientists don’t knowing nothing about philosophy of science “is deeply problematic”.
    I think the philosopher and this historian were trying to defend their field with bad arguments

    • chris moffatt
      Posted February 28, 2014 at 7:15 am | Permalink

      Seems to me philosophers knowing nothing about science is more problematic. But why not be in both camps? I have degrees in both Computer Science (lots of post-bac in C/Sci) and History, both of which subjects I found fascinating. History of science is also fascinating in its own right. But I think I had a good secondary school education where much of history of science was taught in science classes and much history in the history classes so I was well prepared to go either way in college. Is this kind of thing no longer the case?

      I think this history prof, is creating (yet another) false dichotomy. But I would like to know the state of her knowledge of science and the history of science. Little to non-existent would be my guess.

      As for philosophy of science I’m with Feynman on that one!

  39. Joey
    Posted February 28, 2014 at 5:18 am | Permalink

    This is completely tangential to the rest of the conversation, but I want to thank you for publicizing Haldane’s Rule. The reduced fertility of hybrid males (in mammals) appears to be far more common than outright sterility of both genders.

    It annoys me that so many students are still being taught myths like “all mules are sterile”

  40. uglicoyote
    Posted February 28, 2014 at 8:48 am | Permalink

    Reblogged this on The Road.

  41. exsumper
    Posted February 28, 2014 at 11:19 am | Permalink

    I agree! I see a lot of lightweight books/articles/comment on the latest scientific discoveries written by scholars of the humanities; mainly philosophers. Some of whom are famous for it.

    The one thing they have in common is a lack of what Fynman called really knowing something.

    As a qualified electrical engineer I’d pay good money to see even one of them demonstrate a knowledge of Maxwell’s equations; The science of the 19th century, let alone get started on whether or not we have free will!

    Not so much running before they can walk, more running before they realise they have to breathe!

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted February 28, 2014 at 11:40 am | Permalink

      So are you saying that Humanities grads are forbidden from writing about the sciences? I agree that science journalism is often bad and sensationalizes discovers, reports about things as if they are widely accepted when they are not, etc. but your comment suggests that this is because the writers are Humanities grads. I think Carl Zimmer would be a good example of a Humanities grad that is a very good reporter, educator and author for science topics.

    • Posted March 3, 2014 at 10:40 am | Permalink

      There’s a lot of recent discussion amongst some philosophers of physics about classical electrodynamics, because of the question of “inconsistent theories” and how we use them.

  42. exsumper
    Posted February 28, 2014 at 11:25 am | Permalink

    Just a thought, but why don’t Humanities students stick to their own discipline? Why do they feel the need to pontificate about science?

    I wouldn’t presume to tell someone working in a field I wasn’t trained in or had a deep understanding of, where they were going wrong?

    Why do Humanities majors they think they can?

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted February 28, 2014 at 11:41 am | Permalink

      I think Carl Zimmer may object to your statement.

      • Posted February 28, 2014 at 12:18 pm | Permalink

        Or Jennifer Ouellette.


        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted February 28, 2014 at 12:36 pm | Permalink

          Yes! Definitely!

    • Posted February 28, 2014 at 12:05 pm | Permalink

      “why don’t Humanities students stick to their own discipline?” v. “I wouldn’t presume to tell someone … where they were going wrong”



  43. W.Benson
    Posted February 28, 2014 at 12:44 pm | Permalink

    Darwin observed (1872, Origin, 6th edition, p. 421) that “Great is the power of steady misrepresentation; but the history of science shows that fortunately this power does not long endure.” Much of the history of science indeed consists of “steady misrepresentation,” but Darwin erred in his belief that the “power does not long endure.” We are in the 154th year of misrepresentation of the theory of biological evolution with no sign of abating. The most insidious misrepresentations come from respected scientists and science writers who devise narrations to advance their own interests. The best way to find historical accuracy is through original accounts and not rehashings muddled by ego, ideology or agendas.

    • Gordon
      Posted February 28, 2014 at 1:27 pm | Permalink

      Cue headline:DARWIN WAS WRONG!

  44. Samir Kumar Saha
    Posted April 12, 2014 at 8:21 am | Permalink

    I think it is important to study history as history teaches us reasons for rise & fall of civilisations.But behind every civilisation’s rise or fall empiricism played a stronger role.
    Science highlights empiricism. Not that humanities are devoid of experiments-but history of science gives us a deeper insight into man-society interaction.
    By the way, I teach engineering and I teach the historical background at the start of a course,say Thermodynamics

2 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. […] Must we study history to understand science? […]

  2. […] own profession. Such defenses are, according to Coyne, “defensive” — check out Coyne’s reaction to a historian who proposed that scientists might benefit from studying history. To paraphrase his […]


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