A volcanic conflict echoing across the ages.
Godzilla versus Mothra. Romans versus barbarians. Athenians versus Spartans. All era-defining rivalries, but none quite so titanic, so bloody and violent as that between science and humanities.
Of course, we’re exaggerating (a little bit) but it is the classic academic conflict – the hard, shiny, well-defined lines of STEM versus the passionately beating heart of the humanities. These two have been considered polar opposites for more time than we could count, but as the pace of technology continues to increase, infiltrating every level of academia, are the humanities beginning to look a little bit more like the sciences than you might realise?
We’ll take a look at the history of the ‘great war’, before asking that big question.
What are the Humanities?
The humanities are all of those academic disciplines that focus on the truly human elements of life – our unique ability to express our innermost thoughts, feelings and desires through words and actions. In the strictest sense, the humanities are literature and language, history, philosophy and the arts (painting, poetry, theatre, sculpture, etc.) Law, religion and mythology are often considered amongst them, while debate continues over whether subjects like archaeology, anthropology and geography are humanities or sciences.
The ‘big four’ – literature and language, history, philosophy and the arts – have been on quite a journey through time, from the ancient Greek and Roman ages to the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. In the fifteenth century, the Latin phrase studia humanitatis began to be used by Italian humanists to refer to any course of studies that was fundamentally human (as opposed to divine).
In the five centuries since then, the scientific has become a greater opposing force than the divine, and the studia humanitatis have become the familiar humanities, standing in stark counterpoint to the ongoing development of the sciences. Whereas one set of subjects looks for the human meaning of things, the other focuses more precisely on the provable mechanisms of life.
What are the Sciences?
The sciences are typically divided into three groups: natural sciences, where you’ll find biology, physics and chemistry, as well as geology and a few others; formal sciences – including mathematics, statistics, and data-based subjects like computing and AI; and finally social sciences, including the often-disputed archaeology, anthropology and geography. Take note that intense debate smoulders over whether maths is in fact a science or not (psst, let us know the answer in the comments). Another, less controversial way at looking at all of these subjects together (including maths) is through the acronym STEM, standing for Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths.
The sciences, like the humanities, have been with us since ancient times. Throughout history, the scientific drive to understand the world through strict observation and experimentation has often clashed with religion, as in the famous conflict between Galileo Galilei and the Catholic Church over his views on the motion of the sun. In fact, you might even call that incident one of Europe’s greatest ever bouts of Science vs. Humanities ™.
When you consider that religion is still often thought of as a humanity, you can see how the trouble between these two groups of subjects has continued to develop over the past 500 years. As scientific techniques and technology have accelerated in complexity, science has armed itself with ever more means of bashing the humanities over the head (often making itself look more clever in the process). But why exactly is this?
Why Do Science and Humanities Fight?
The disagreement lies in two fundamentally different ways of looking at the world. Science is always looking for indisputable proof of things. If a question is posed, for example ‘how does a plant produce pollen?’, then the one correct answer – that the anther inside the male part of the plant contains pollen-producing sacs – can be arrived at through rigorous observation and testing. Of course, some scientific questions might have more than one correct answer, but the point is that any answers outside that set become irrelevant. Science wants the correct, and it wants proof of the correct.
Humanities, on the other hand, have a slightly different approach. There is no correct. Nor, often, is there technically any right or wrong. The humanities pose questions of deep human significance which bring into play thoughts, feelings, ideologies, prejudices, and many other delightfully abstract concepts which don’t quite work in science.
Consider, for example, a beautiful piece of literature – a poem. Three readers might have three completely different interpretations of the meaning of it. Each could then use thousands of words explaining their interpretation. None of the three would necessarily be wrong (although you might judge the quality of each response). This is the beauty of humanities, but also the key to its conflict with science. One seeks certainties, while the other delights in the untouchable.
This is not the only issue, of course. In the modern academic world, science generally has far more use for technology than the humanities. After all, how can a philosopher’s quality of thought be ‘improved’ with technology? Science draws power from technological advances, which allow it to accelerate further and examine more deeply the mysteries of the world. Take the examples of the invention of the microscope, or the development of AI or genetics. Each of these discoveries has unlocked countless new avenues of exploration for science, and given it many more questions to answer.
It’s this constant generation of novelty that appears to give STEM subjects a certain shiny edge in the academic world. As Dr Hilary Wynne, Oxford psycholinguist, ably explained to us:
“There is no arguing that humanities as an area of focus is kind of bleak at the moment. The employment prospects of those graduating with degrees in humanities are nowhere near as strong as STEM heavy subjects.
I think that one of the biggest problems that we’re facing now is that we corral ourselves into this tiny area in which we’re just expected to sit in libraries and read books.
We’re constantly trying to prove that we’re still useful, that we’re still applicable.”
Is the Battlefield Changing Shape?
Hilary’s words embody the traditional view of the humanities – that ultimately it comes down to a lot of ‘reading books’ – but is the picture changing? Hilary gave us the outlook from her department:
“People I speak to who are in STEM are very shocked that I know what coding, is that I use Python, that I work with R. And you can get training in all of these things – you can learn all of these things in humanities. There’s nothing stopping you.
We still love our libraries, but there’s a lot of work going on with digital humanities, with looking for solid evidence of the things that we have seen happen in art, in culture, in history, in literature, in languages. We have amazing things.”
And it isn’t happening only in languages. In the arts, art historians use complex imaging technology to look underneath visible layers of paint, searching for the truth about paintings’ origins. In literature, AI programs make it possible to count and categorise thousands of words in an instant, leading to new, more scientific methods of analysis. The change is ongoing, and we here at Research Unwrapped will be here to follow it every step of the way.
So, dear researchers, what do you think? What’s your view on the continuing scuffle between these two age-old rivals? And if you work in the humanities, is your field beginning to change underneath the steely gaze of technology?
Whichever side of the field you stand on, you can count on us to keep a fair and watchful eye on things.
Keep striving, researchers! ✨