Academic and professional schisms?
January 1, 2014 11:31 AM   Subscribe

The comment by Miko has informed me of a growing split in the architecture and urban planning fields. I love reading about and learning from professional and academic splits, and the internecine fights that result. Can you think of more?

Examples would be the whale-dolphine-porpoise split and the counter-terrorism vs. counter-insurgency debate.
posted by the man of twists and turns to Grab Bag (18 answers total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
Forgot to specify: current OR historical.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 11:34 AM on January 1

Don't know a lot about it myself, but there seems to be quite a schism between the "helium balloons" and the "meat-and-potatoes" people in the field of software engineering and software engineering management. See this MeFi thread.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 11:53 AM on January 1 [1 favorite]

In biology, one of the biggest ongoing divisions is the adaptation versus neutral theory of biodiversity. In my subdivision of biology, ecology, the divisions are legion. This blog post and comments nicely stroll through many of them.
posted by hydropsyche at 12:01 PM on January 1 [1 favorite]

It's only relatively recently (<100 years ago) that electrical engineering became separate from mechanical engineering.
posted by Confess, Fletch at 12:02 PM on January 1

Well, in my field (Biology) there's a bit of a split between the molecular/genetics people and the ecology/behavior people. This is a bit inevitable since we tend to deal with very different questions, though nobody is really happy about it. There's always a lot of talk about trying to integrate the two branches better, but without constant work the two camps tend to drift apart somewhat.

There are a lot of splits like that in science. Another one I can think of just in Biology is the split between people who work on human biology and people who work on non-human biology. It comes from the hyperspecialization that people so often have to go through as they become experts in their little corners of what is a very large swath of human knowledge.

There's also a big split between the "natural science" folks (Biology/Chemistry/Physics) and the "social science" folks (Sociology/Anthropology/Psychology). Again, most people who have their heads on straight see this as a sort of missed opportunity, but the groups come from somewhat different scientific traditions and usually are interested in different questions. There's a lot of potential for overlap, but it doesn't get exploited as well as it probably could be because the two groups don't really know how to talk to each other very well.

There's also the problem that some people feel a bit elitist about their fields (some people in the "harder" fields sometimes think that their science is somehow more pure than that of people in "softer" fields). This is improving -- science in general is becoming more integrative, which is all to the good if you ask me -- but it's slow work.

None of the splits I mentioned are 100% black-and-white, of course. There are a lot of people whose work straddles the gaps, and there are a lot of people from different camps who collaborate with each other in order to research questions that none of them have comprehensive expertise about. There are still barriers though, even if the walls have a lot of holes and low spots and people chipping away at them to try to bring them down.
posted by Scientist at 12:09 PM on January 1

Ironically, given Scientist's comment, there is a tremendous amount of enmity within anthropology, particularly between the scientific-leaning sub disciplines (archaeology and physical/biological anthropology, which includes molecular and skeletal studies) and the more ethnographic sub disciplines (cultural and linguistic anthropology). The degree of strife of course varies by department, but as a national indicator there really is no universal academic society for anthropology: AAA for cultural/linguistic, SAA and others for archaeology, and AAPA for physical folks. A few high-profile departments, including Duke and Stanford, actually split, but at least Stanford has since recombined.
posted by The Michael The at 12:43 PM on January 1 [3 favorites]

Human origins: Out of Africa vs Multiregional?
posted by Leon at 12:45 PM on January 1

This was the subject of a recent MeFi post.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 1:22 PM on January 1

There are some deep theoretical divides within linguistics. These are not likely to be settled soon, because the brain is still too much of a black box, and the data is messy.

One of the biggest is between "generative" approaches, especially in the tradition of Chomsky, and various "functionalist" approaches. I use the plural because within these broad categories, there are many different theoretical frameworks--some of which are more compatible with the other side of the aisle than others. For an example of this divide, you can look at the controversy over Daniel Everett and his work with the Pirahã, which in some cases got quite nasty. In my own department, we sometimes joke that "functionalist" is the f-word, although there are some functionalist faculty and students and it's more a friendly ribbing going both ways than actual enmity. In some cases, though, it's turned rough.

Another, more specific example of a theoretical divide can be found in creole studies. There is still debate over the meaning of the term "creole," with some believing that there are unique linguistic or sociohistorical properties of creoles, and some believing that the term is circular (creole languages are languages that linguists call creoles). So far, there have been no successful "universals" proposed that capture all creole languages, but at the same time, there seem to be--or at least some linguists argue--that there are some properties very common to creoles that must be due to how the languages were created. Among creolists who propose the latter, there are again, different theoretical frameworks, some of which are opposed to each other.

An example is Bickterton's bioprogram hypothesis, which proposes that children create creoles by regularizing chaotic pidgin-like input according to linguistic universals (more or less). This is contrasted with second-language acquisition theories of creole creation, which propose that many of the features of creoles are due to adults' "imperfect" learning of a target lanuage (e.g. Haitian slaves learning French words but not learning French grammar). You can go further down the rabbithole here too--there are competing theories of what this second language acquisition process was actually like. Bickerton's view is pretty much dead, but the universalist vs. non-universalist question is still very open.

Bringing it back to more broad issues. Even when approaches are not in opposition to each other, they may not be very integrated with each other either. Many departments are trying to increase communication, but really, "language" isn't even a coherent object of study so it's hard. Experimental phonetics research does not tend to inform formalist syntax, or vice versa, for example. (Even though one might suspect that they cannot be entirely separate modules.)
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 1:30 PM on January 1 [1 favorite]

In philosophy: the the linguistic turn, and more generally the analytic/continental divide.
posted by ageispolis at 1:33 PM on January 1

In statistics: Bayesian versus frequentist. Bayesians were a tiny minority until computational power caught up with the methods.
posted by supercres at 1:41 PM on January 1

In literacy and reading instruction, we have the Whole Language versus Phonics approaches.

Often referred to as a "war," there are strong arguments on both sides.[pdf]

There are advocates for what is called "a balanced approach.[PDF, both links]"
posted by oflinkey at 2:07 PM on January 1

In the foundations of mathematics there are:

Platonists/realists, who say we are studying things that actually exist, in either this world or some world where ideal objects exist


Formalists, who say we are just manipulating symbols that follow certain rules.

This conflict took off in the early part of the 20th Century. There are other schools (lots of them), but these are the two big schools. Most working mathematicians don't worry much about it once they get out of grad school. The common joke is that in day-to-day work they act like Platonists, but if challenged they say that they're just formalists, so they don't have to spend time arguing whether or not the square root of -1 "really exists".
posted by benito.strauss at 3:03 PM on January 1

In the 1920s and '30s there was a mass movement of out of work physicists who, having suddenly run out of things to do when we figured out to much of classical physics, came to biology. They brought with them a mechanistic view of how the universe works that they used to cause massive transformations in how we understand and interact with biology, and incidentally most used phages. One of the most influential of these scientific interlopers was a charismatic guy named Max Delbrück who quickly reasoned that, if we were ever going to understand how life works, we would need to start with the simplest organism possible and work our way up. He isolated seven bacteriophages against E. coli B, originally just his lab strain, and named them in a series T1 (previously) through T7. The central idea was that he and his growing number of colleagues1 would focus on truly understanding how these phages worked and use that knowledge to generalize to Escherichia coli, then the mouse, and then us. An essential component of this was the "Phage Treaty" among researchers in the field, which Delbrück organized in order to limit the number of model phage and hosts so that folks could meaningfully compare results. What came out of their original focus on these phages, in many respects encapsulated in Erwin Schrödinger's What is life?, has shed light on so much as to truly redefine our self-understanding as a species, much less medicine:
Delbrück turned out to be absolutely right to start simple, and his branch of Biophysics turned into molecular genetics and then split off into the molecular biology, protein biology, molecular physiology, bioengineering, as well as genomics and the various other –omics that we know today. It did however immediately bump into and conflict with the then already well established field of classical genetics. Where for fifty years people has already been studying genetics in a way much more analogous to stamp collecting than physics. These classical geneticists had no idea how what they studied worked, and many couldn't care less. They were mostly concerned with building complex mathematical models that demanded the simplistic unit of inheritance we still call a gene and using those models to map traits to what we now understand to be loci on chromosomes using linked inheritance. While they built what we now know to be astonishingly accurate maps in mice and fruit flies, and did do a significant amount of important theoretical work - the study of biology never really took off until the physicists came in to start looking at how things actually worked and why by tinkering with the parts.

Quite a few Evolutionary Biologists very much comes from the remnants of the classical genetics perspective, building models that require simplistic understandings of the underlying biology rather than trying to reduce the mechanisms to their simplest parts, that has been constantly cut off at the knees over the last 70 years with newer models based on deeper empirical understandings of the mechanics of biology. For example, the gene centric understanding of evolution was already outdated as a genuinely useful concept since the 70s, where the only meaningful definition that 'gene' has ever had has been as a unit of inheritance and we have discovered that inheritance of traits does not have meaningful units on a molecular, meaning real, level that make any sense. Heritable traits do not even usually exist as distinct coding sequences with clear start and end sites that turn into proteins that always have the same function. They exist as regulatory elements that expand or contract the expression of functional elements either entirely or in response to specific stimuli, those functional elements are not always proteins, they exist as elements that have both regulatory and functional effects, they exist as a function of the location elements are found in relation to others, and there are even important traits that are difficult to describe as heritable at all when the molecular basis is properly understood. The reality is a hell of a lot more wibbly wobbly than a gene centric model can support.

The fights continue to occasionally get bitter when more molecular or microbiologically focused researchers show up more classically focused researchers with gorgeous papers like these and classically focused researchers ignore them, and as they try occasionally to use molecular/micro model systems without knowing how to use them to test their theories.

1Frank Stahl famously wrote: "The Phage Church, as we were sometimes called, was led by the Trinity of Delbrück, Luria, and Hershey. Delbrück's status as founder and his ex-cathedra manner made him the pope, of course, and Luria was the hard-working, socially sensitive priest-confessor. And Al (Hershey) was the saint."
posted by Blasdelb at 4:32 PM on January 1 [9 favorites]

Saltwater and freshwater economics.
posted by alms at 5:46 PM on January 1

This question reminded me of Thomas Kuhn and the Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Which of course itself has been hotly debated, see here for a rundown.
posted by nat at 7:16 PM on January 1

There is an absolutely marvelous book, The Linguistics Wars by Randy Allen Harris, about this exact subject. It's about how Chomskyan linguistics (i.e. Generative Grammar) split off from traditional American Structural Linguistics, and then -- in much greater and funnier detail -- how a minor variant called Generative Semantics split off from that, all the while insisting that there was no conflict. (Then both sides fought for the support of the remaining Structuralists...) The good ship Generative Semantics has been dead in the water for decades, but it's provided the grounds for a ton of modern approaches; meanwhile, Chomskyan approaches have taken on all sorts of salvage loot from their wrecked enemy.

The Linguistics Wars is my favorite book on how academic Linguistics is actually done -- its off-the-wall writing style, "Amerindian imperative," and Chinese restaurant dinners after conferences -- as well as on how scholarly rhetoric serves as quiet intellectual warfare.

The end result of the Linguistics Wars is that there are now two fields calling themselves Cognitive Linguistics, and the West Coasters have nothing to say to the East Coasters and vice versa, because their very concepts of what it is they're doing are so incompatible.
posted by Harvey Kilobit at 9:16 PM on January 1 [1 favorite]

I was skimming the New Books shelf at the library and happened to see What's Math Got to Do With It? How Parents and Teachers Can Help Children to Love Their Least Favorite Subject. The book described newer approaches to teaching math that - according to the author - produce much better understanding and much better test results, and described a faction in the US that's vehemently fighting these approaches.

The gist of the approach as I understood it from the book is that helping kids reason through mathematical ideas for themselves works much better than having the teacher stand at the front of the classroom and walk through a set of problems while the students sit watching silently. The author says that talking through our mathematical reasoning helps deepen and solidify it, so the new approach asks students lots of questions in class ("What's the next step? Why would we do that?") and encourages students to talk problems through with other students.

There's a post about the math wars at Inside Higher Ed and a search for math wars turns up millions of results.
posted by kristi at 1:46 PM on January 4

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