Friday, August 8, 2014

STEM v. Humanities?

"A writer should have the precision of a poet and the imagination of a scientist"
--Vladimir Nabokov

I am not a supremacist.

(This is one of those posts where I stumble around an idea space, trying to get my thoughts clearer on a subject where it is easy to let others' words sway you from your own true conclusions.)

Last week, I had a conversation with my sister about girls in STEM and STEM v. humanities. Last Friday I posted about the first of those topics; this is me grappling with the second.


As I began the post saying, I am not a supremacist. Some people say that science and technology are destroying the world and that the we'd be better off without any of it. Some others say that poetry is useless and that humanities majors are less than STEM majors.

Because of who I am, I generally have more acquaintance with people who fall into the latter category. And I do plan on pursuing engineering. But I disagree with both viewpoints.

First, let me admit my prejudices. Anyone who disses on science automatically loses face in front of me. Same goes for people who point to Frankenstein to "prove" that science is bad. People who say that technology is lifeless and refuse to listen to arguments to the contrary. People who hate math and won't even acknowledge that yes, there are people who find it beautiful. A special brand of disdain is reserved in my heart for people who refuse to accept the evidence for evolution.

With apologies to my humanities friends, I cannot generate the same amount of vitriol for the other side. Feynman was anti-culture for a while, and I only got over my bad attitude last year. So I understand where people are coming from who think little of the humanities.

But I don't think that way anymore. Idea-meandering below.

Let me offer an evolution-based defense of the humanities: Language is one of the most important human inventions. Without storytelling, without history, without art, human communication within and between generations/time periods would be severely stunted, and we would never have been able to achieve the centralized states and concentration of resources that have led to larger and larger-scale technologies.

Write a poem or a story that makes the reader feel happier and calmer, and you've created something that can ease human suffering long after you die, over and over, without fear of depletion. How's that for scaling?

Stanford people sometimes talk about the techie/fuzzy divide, which I think is ridiculous. What, I ask, is so fuzzy about studying international relations? And what is with the implication that STEM people use no people skills? We're called civil engineers for a reason.*

*Okay, it's not that reason.

I used to put a lot more credence into the divide between STEM and the humanities. But math is a language, physics has a history, essays evolve, and verb conjugations follow functions. The same human urges--to create, to explore, to discover--drive equally the scientist and the historian.

Is there some fundamental difference between STEM and the humanities? One could argue that STEM looks outward || forward--how does the universe work? How can I make these materials do what I want?--while the humanities look inward || backward--how did people in the past relate to one another? How can I make these people think what I think?

Counterexamples: science builds on the past. Writers and artists come up with ceaseless interpretations of the future. Help me think of more.

STEM is easier to do objectively, while the humanities, by virtue of being about humans, have subjectivity built in. This is not a value judgment. An experiment will tell you that the acceleration due to gravity at the Earth's surface is 9.8 m/s/s, but with our present understanding of the universe we will never know exactly what happened in history on the day (pick something random) Catherine the Great came to power. Memory is fallible. The universe is not.

What does STEM give us? Intellectual and emotional fulfillment. Better understanding of the universe. Ways to alleviate or increase human suffering.

What do the humanities give us? Intellectual and emotional fulfillment. Better understanding of ourselves and others. Ways to alleviate or increase human suffering.

I can see someone looking askance at me putting "emotional fulfillment" under one of the benefits of STEM. The plural of anecdote is not data, but I am only a beginner in STEM and I have found incredible happiness and satisfaction in the solving of a tricky problem.

I should have some profound, pithy way to summarize my thoughts. But that would be premature optimization, and this post is a sketch, a preliminary working-out of ideas. Feel free to argue with any part of it.


  1. I can't argue with any point because i agree with you completely.

    I think that only people who *love* STEM get to really understand the poetry behind it, and those who understand that there is also a need for something more 'primal' than pure science to get in touch with your inner self, those who love science but know that there is poetry and beauty even somewhere else...those are the blessed ones.

    **Only slightly off topic: yesterday i saw the trailer of the movie 'the theory of everything', it's coming out in November and reading this post made me think about it. Check it out on youtube if you can :)

  2. -spider scuttles underneath refrigerator never to be seen again-