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Moving beyond Sokal?
January 4, 2014 5:27 PM   Subscribe

I am interested in articles that try to analyze and explain the conflict between the hard and soft sciences. In my casual web surfing I have come across e.g. highly-trained scientists who yet express a deep disdain for fields as open-ended and far-ranging as sociology, feminism, queer theory, postmodernism, and so on, sometimes even economics, psychology. I find such attitudes hard to comprehend, and even disturbing since my educational background is in the applied sciences. Which are the important works that have been done to better understand this ongoing social/intellectual gap, and that are presented in a readable manner for a non-expert?
posted by polymodus to Society & Culture (10 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
 
C.P. Snow's The Two Cultures provides the classic take on this divide.
posted by Bardolph at 5:58 PM on January 4 [1 favorite]


A couple of bookmarks I collected in response to Stephen Pinker's idiotic recent article. And William Deresiewicz has been banging this drum recently too.
posted by caek at 6:50 PM on January 4 [1 favorite]


Amy Freitag writes about this very thing at Southern Fried Science.
posted by cephalopodcast at 9:12 PM on January 4 [1 favorite]


Have a look at Paul Boghossian's Fear of Knowledge.
posted by professor plum with a rope at 2:46 AM on January 5


This article from the New Republic.
posted by Obscure Reference at 4:43 AM on January 5


As mentioned above "The Two Cultures" section of Snow's Rede Lecture is the now-classic statement here. You really must obtain the Cambridge University Press (Canto) edition of the lectures for Stefan Collini's very informative introduction and analysis.

You do want to "mov[e] beyond Sokal" but his NYU page lists monographs and anthologies on the general subject as well as numerous links to material more directly related to his famous exploits.
posted by yz at 7:20 AM on January 5


"The Two Cultures" and some of these other recommendations are not what the OP is after. For instance, "The Two Cultures" has to do with the divide between the sciences and the humanities, and if anything, is a defense for the sciences. Scientists although not perfect, do tend to have tastes of a literary person. For instance, most have read Shakespeare. On the other side, very few literary persons could answer what the Second Law of Thermodynamics was, even though this is just as much of an equivalent question. Snow asks why it is that when one asks for a list of intellectuals of their age, they get answers like Sartre and Heidegger, rather than answers like David Hilbert and Andrew Wiles.

This doesn't have to do with OP's question of the disdain some hard scientists have for the soft sciences. (I'm going to exclude queer theory, feminism, and postmodernism because these seem like red herrings. These are humanities related fields, and even then, acquire the disdain from some other fields in the humanities.)

Honestly, I'm not aware and don't think there is any equivalent classic as to what "The Two Cultures" represents, as the contrast between the hard and the soft sciences is much less and I think there's much more understanding on what the two sides of the sciences do, than there is between the sciences and the humanities. Sure, there's still some disagreement, and of course the playful or not disdain, but it's quite a different ball game.

I mean, here are some articles to take a look at, but these aren't in any way illuminating. But I don't think you'll find much out there, as the conflict is a rather bland, un-interesting, straightforward one. The conflict doesn't represent any larger, underlying "cultural divide" that, say, the conflict between the sciences and the humanities might represent.

The hard sciences in virtue of the fact that they are interrogating nature rather than persons, are able to be a lot more exact and precise and reduce outside variables than the soft sciences are. Scientists on both sides agree on this. And I think a lot of the disdain is a bit playful. Most will recognize that though the soft sciences aren't exact, they may have their uses. For instance, it was the biases of congress that led to the NSF defunding political science projects and not the lobbying of hard scientists. But even still, the matter of whether the soft sciences have had their successes is an empirical one, and again, a not very interesting question because there's a fact of the matter to it, and so not a lot of interesting reading material as you would get with other conflicts. Some hard scientists might disagree with the usefulness of the soft sciences, but then they'd just be ignorant of the facts (if the facts say so), rather than being on the opposite side of some uncrossable cultural divide.
posted by SollosQ at 8:50 AM on January 5 [1 favorite]


SollosQ: This doesn't have to do with OP's question of the disdain some hard scientists have for the soft sciences. (I'm going to exclude queer theory, feminism, and postmodernism because these seem like red herrings. These are humanities related fields, and even then, acquire the disdain from some other fields in the humanities.)
The OP, however, appears to be including the topics you mention within the realm of "soft sciences" (despite the fact that such a categorization might not be standard) and so addressing them is arguably within scope.
posted by yz at 9:37 AM on January 5


I do not recommend that article by Kitcher in the New Republic. It's treatment of ecology and genetics is highly problematic, and it is (I think) not altogether honest by implicitly relying on quite strong restatements of Kuhn and Latour without referencing them by name, and therefore without recognising their shortcomings (and their strengths).
posted by cromagnon at 9:51 AM on January 5


The OP, however, appears to be including the topics you mention within the realm of "soft sciences" (despite the fact that such a categorization might not be standard) and so addressing them is arguably within scope.

Sorry I hadn't thought about these distinctions. Although there are commonly accepted (and debated) sub-categorizations, I'd say my question is more simply about attitudes towards any and all of the various fields that hard scientists might view as an "other". That does lump together lots of disparate areas, but on the other hand, I think it also reflect the arbitrariness of what one thinks of as not-scientific in the first place.
posted by polymodus at 1:52 PM on January 5


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