Collections: The Practical Case on Why We Need the Humanities

I have been holding off writing something like this, because it is often such a well-worn topic and I hardly wanted to preach to the converted. But at the same time, the humanities need all of the defenses they can get and I’ve found, looking at the genre, that my answers for why we need the humanities are rather different from the typical answer.

But first, the shameless plug that if you, yes you! want to support the humanities, you can support this humanist by sharing my writing, subscribing with the button below or by supporting me on Patreon. Your support enables me to continue telling you and other people to continue supporting me, a giant self-devouring ouroboros of support that will grow to become so large it will crush the world (I look forward to regretting this joke in the future).

Edit: A friendly reminder to those in the comments: you will be civil. This thread has prompted some spirited discussion. That’s fine. But it will remain polite.

What Humanities?

First, just to define my terms, what are the humanities? Broadly, they are the disciplines that study human society (that is, that are concerned with humanity): language study, literature, philosophy, history, art history, archaeology, anthropology, and so on. It is necessarily a bit of a fuzzy set. But what I think defines the humanities more than subject matter is method; the humanities study things which (we argue) cannot be subjected to the rigors of the scientific method or strictly mathematical approaches. You cannot perform a controlled trial in beauty, mathematical certainty in history is almost always impossible, and there is no way to know much stress a society can bear except to see it fail. Some things cannot be reduced to numbers, at least not by the powers of the technology-aided human mind.

By way of example, that methodological difference is why there’s a division between political science and history, despite the two disciplines historically being concerned with many of the same subjects and the same questions (to the point that Thucydides is sometimes produced as the founder of both): they use different methods. History is a humanities discipline through and through, whereas political science attempts to hybridize humanities and STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) approaches; that’s not to say historians never use statistical approaches (I do, actually, quite a lot) but that there are very real differences in methodology. As you might imagine, that difference leads to some competition and conflict between the disciplines as to whose methodology best answers those key questions or equips students to think about them. Given that I have a doctorate in history and self-identify as a historian, you will have no trouble guessing which side of this I come down on, although that might be a bit self-interested on my part.

Via Wikipedia, a 17th century illustration from the 14th century Japanese epic the Heike Monogatari, which I read (in translation) as a college Freshman in a Japanese literature class. I was struck reading this (and the Genji Monogatari; the two works were paired in the course) by how radically different the culture was from any of the ones I knew. It was one of the first moments I ‘got’ the ‘past is a foreign country’ thing. At the same time, when I later dug deeper into Roman martial culture, the commonalities between Roman elite military virtue and the values of the Tale of the Heike were striking. The human part of ‘the human experience’ is common, even if the experience part is not.
Since this isn’t a topic where visual illustration is strictly on-point, I am going to use the images here to share some of the works outside of Greek and Roman history, which I encountered in my education in the humanities which influenced me and my thinking.

So if the STEM fields are, at some level, fundamentally about numbers, the humanities are fundamentally about language. The universe may be made of numbers, but the human mind and human societies are constructed out of language. Unlike computers, we do not think in numbers, but in words and consequently, the study of humans as thinking creatures is mostly about those words (yes, yes, I see you there, economics and psychology; there are edge cases, of course). Our laws are written in words because our thoughts form in our heads as words; we naturally reason with words and we even feel with words. Humans are linguistic creations in a mathematical universe; consequently, while the study of the universe is mediated through math, the study of humans and human minds is fundamentally linguistic in nature.

Thus, the humanities.

Oh, the Humanities!

Now I want to note here the standard defense of the humanities, which is that the study of human culture, literature and art enriches the soul and the experience of life. This is, to be clear, undoubtedly true. There is joy and richness in the incredible kaleidoscope of human expression and a deep wisdom in the realization of both how that expression joins us, and how radically different it can be. There is also the enjoyment of developing a ‘palette’ for art and literature which is enhanced by knowing more of it, in being able to see the innovations and cross-connections (the ‘intertext’ to use the unnecessarily fancy academic term). This is all very much the case. There is a reason that rich people with abundant free time have consistently gravitated to the study of the humanities, or supported it.

But this is a weak defense of the humanities as they are currently constructed. The fact is that the academic humanities exist because people who do not study the humanities fund them. The modern study of the humanities, in its infancy, was paid for by wealthy elites who wanted either that joyful richness or at least the status that came from funding it. I should note here also that the humanities were never for the teachers of the humanities, but for its students. The rich funders of the humanities were rarely the authors of the great treatises or studies; rather they wished to be the readers of them (and likewise, the modern academic humanities are not for professors, but the students we teach; more on this next time). Down until really quite recently, education in the humanities was largely reserved for that elite and their academic clients. As public support for the humanities continues to decline, many humanities fields seem in real danger of reverting back to that status: a prestigious toy for the already-rich and already-elite.

Via Wikipedia, a Hurrian-Hittite relief showing parts of the pantheon, including Tessub, the storm-god, which I really first encountered in earnest during my M.A., but which I now include in my basic ancient history survey. In high school, I had largely been taught Greek mythology as a stand-alone idea, something the Greeks came up with all on their own – indeed, I was taught all of ancient Greek culture that was, as if it just sprang out of the ground. Reading Kingship in Heaven – the myth of Teshub’s origin – was revelatory, because here was a forerunner to Hesiod’s Theogony, the foundation-stone for teaching Greek mythology. Hesiod had been borrowing, he had been influenced and Greek mythology no longer stood on its own but slowly wrapped itself into an older, richer edifice of literature stretching back to the haziest beginnings of our knowledge.

Avoiding that retreat of the humanities back into the wealthy elite means defending the humanities on different grounds. Of course, the traditional humanities will always survive at Harvard or Cambridge or Yale. But for the humanities to actually be generally available, they need to survive, to thrive, outside of those spaces. And yet, no good that is tethered to colleges can be justified solely through the benefit it gives the holder. Colleges, after all, are publicly funded, but while everyone pays taxes, not everyone goes to college. The OECD average rate for tertiary-education-completion among adults is around 37% and not all of those are four-year university degrees. To break down the United States’ data, while 44% of Americans have completed some kind of tertiary education, putting the USA towards the top of the scale (and around two-thirds have at least some college, though they may not have completed it), only 35% of Americans have a four-year degree. And of course, only a subset of those degree-holders will have taken very much in the way of the humanities. Which means the taxes that pay to fund the public universities that make up the great bulk of the study of the humanities are going to mostly come from people who have not, or could not, avail themselves of a humanistic education.

Even if we made the humanities available to all – a goal I robustly support (it is one reason I am spending all this time working on this open, free web platform, after all) – that effort would likely have to be publicly funded through a great many tax-payers who did not care to consume much of the academic products of the humanities (even if they consume many of its pop-cultural byproducts without knowing it). We must be able to justify the expense to them. And alas, while I love crowd-funding (did I mention, you can support me on Patreon?), it is simply not an alternative for the research and teaching environment of the university (though I think it is and ought to be an important parallel model, for reasons I’ll get into in a moment). The fact is that while ‘short’ essays, blog posts and public-facing books can be popularly funded, the slow, painstaking work that forms the foundation for those efforts has no ready popular market; but without the latter, the former withers (as a note: my next Collections post will be on the process by which knowledge filters from the latter to the former).

We must be prepared to explain the value of the humanities to people for whom the humanities hold no interest, or appear out of reach (though I feel the need to again reiterate that I think it behooves society to put the humanities within reach for everyone).

The cover of Anne Applebaum’s Gulag: A History (2003). I read this as part of research for a paper in my sophomore year of undergrad. I was actually recommended this volume as an antidote against Solzhenitsyn’s well known The Gulag Archipelago (1974/5), which I also read, by a Gulag survivor who happened to be a friend of the family. We also had to read Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1963) for the class itself.
That research project ended up informing a fair bit of my sharp skepticism about state power but it also forced me to shift from thinking in vague terms of ‘national achievement’ to my current ‘but what about the farmers?’ emphasis on the impacts to the great majority of common folks – what good was ‘greatness’ if it was built on the back of a massive system of repression and slave labor?

The Pragmatic Case for the Humanities

So rather than asking – as many of these sorts of ‘defenses of the humanities’ do – “why study the humanities” the question we ought to ask is “why would you put down money so that other people can study the humanities?” The STEM fields have long understood that this is the basis on which they need to defend their funding; not that science is personally enriching, but that it produces things of value to people who are not scientists, engineers, mathematicians or doctors. And they have ready answers in the form of inventions, medicines, soundly constructed machines and so on.

I firmly believe that the humanities can be defended on these terms and will now endeavor to do so.

The great rush of STEM funding that has slowly marginalized the humanities within our education system (it was, for instance, not hard to notice growing up that my school district had a special high school for students gifted in “science and technology” but no such program for students gifted in writing, art, history, and so on) has long been justified on national defense grounds. We needed science to ‘beat the Russians’ and now we need it to ‘beat the Chinese.’ I don’t want to get lost in the weeds of if ‘beating the Chinese’ (which I think, would be better phrased as ‘deterring the leaders of the PRC from mutually destructive conflict’) is a worthwhile goal. But I want to assess the humanities on that strict, materialistic basis (even though I believe there is rather more to our lives and world than a strict materialist outlook), because if the disciplines of the humanities may be justified on these grounds, they may be justified to anyone.

The core of teaching in the humanities is the expression of the grand breadth of human experience. As I hope the images I’ve been using throughout this essay have conveyed, when I say the humanities, I do not just mean a study of the traditional Western canon (by which I mean Greece, Rome, the Renaissance (but rarely the Middle Ages), all in Europe), but of the humanities spread widely over time and space. A ‘humanities’ which covers only elite European men is a narrow field indeed, to its detriment (the same could be said of a field that excluded them, but there is little chance of that). On the one hand, this provides a data set of sorts – a wide range of information about places, cultures and people. But more importantly than that, it is meant to teach students how to go about learning about a place or a people not their own, to inspire a degree of ‘epistemic humility’ (that is the knowledge that you do not know everything) and also what I call an ’empathy of diversity’ – the appreciation that the human experience and the things humans do and value varies quite a bit place to place and person to person and that what seems strange to us seems normal to others.

(That is, by the by, not an invitation to endless crass moral relativism – some strange foreign customs are bad, some comfortable domestic customs are bad too. Accepting that I, and my society, do not have a monopoly on virtue is not the same thing as declaring virtue itself an impossibility, or even that it is undiscoverable in an absolute sense.)

Via Wikipedia, Frederick Douglas, in his early 30s, when he would have written Narrative of the life of Frederick Douglas, An American Slave (1845) which I read as part of a literature course (‘Spiritual Autobiographies’), which I took in my freshman year of undergrad. I sparred a fair bit in that class with our TA – who was more than patient with me and pushed me to think harder – as we brought rather different worldviews to the works we read.
As a ‘patriotic’ youngster who ‘believed in America’ (to be fair, I still do, merely with clearer eyes), the course – which consisted of autobiographies by Native Americans and African-American victims of slavery – forced me to think more deeply about my country, what it meant and what it had done. Actually reading Douglas – rather than having him mediated to me through teachers and textbooks who might soften his words – challenged me in very positive ways.

These experiences, bottled up in artwork, literature, languages, histories and laws, forms the evidence base of any given humanities discipline. But that breadth of evidence, properly delivered, teaches through experience to a depth that merely saying the maxim cannot, two core things: that in the human experience, the human component is constant, even while the experience is not. That is, on the one hand, “the past is a foreign country, they do things differently there” (and foreign countries are foreign countries too!) but at the same time – homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto (I am human, and I think nothing human to be alien to me). Put another way: people are people, no matter where and no matter when, but the where and when still matter quite a lot!

(Now you might argue that there are certain trends within the humanities which present this or that maxim as a transcendent, nearly theological proof and thus fundamentally undermine this message by undermining both epistemic humility and the empathy of diversity with the promise of One True Revelation. And I agree! I am very troubled by this. But the problem is hardly solved by dumping the entire study altogether; if anything, the shrinking of the humanities has made this problem worse as smaller and more poorly funded departments are easier for political interests with ‘one true revelation’ to colonize and dominate.)

The other thing we ask students to do, beyond merely encountering these things is to use them to practice argumentation, to reason soundly, to write well, to argue persuasively about them. That may sound strange to some of you. I find that folks who have not studied in the humanities often assume that each discipline in the humanities consists of effectively memorizing a set of ‘data’ (historical events, laws, philosophies, great books, etc) and being able to effectively regurgitate that information on demand. Students often come into my class thus impatient to be ‘told the answer’ – what is the data I need to memorize? But the humanities are far more about developing a method – a method that can be applied to new evidence – than memorizing the evidence itself. Indeed, the raw data is often far less important – I am much more interested to know if my students can think deeply about Tiberius Gracchus’ aims and means than if they can recall the exact year of his tribunate (133, for the curious).

What a student in these classes is – or at least, ought to be – doing is practicing a form of considered decision-making: assessing the evidence in a way that banishes emotion and relies on reason (which is why we encourage students to write plainly and clearly, without too much rhetorical flourish), and then explaining that reasoning and evidence to a third partly clearly and convincingly. Assertions are followed by evidence and capped off by conclusions in a three-beat-waltz with a minimum of fuss and a maximum of clarity. Different disciplines in the humanities have different kinds of evidence and methods of argument they use – legal argument isn’t quite the same as historical or philosophical argument – but they share the core component of argumentation. I tell my students that even if they never use any fact or idea they encounter in a history course ever again in life – unlikely, I think, but still – they will still use these skills, practiced in formal writing but applicable in all sorts of circumstances, for the rest of their lives in almost anything they end up doing.

What is being taught here is thus a detached, careful form of analysis and decision-making and then a set of communication skills to present that information. Phrased another way: a student is being trained – whatever branch of specialist knowledge they may develop in the future – on how to serve as an advisor (who analyzes information and presents recommendations) or as a leader (who makes and then explains decisions to others).

And it should come thus as little surprise that these skills – a sense of empathy, of epistemic humility, sound reasoning and effective communication – are the skills we generally look for in effective leaders. Because, fundamentally, the purpose of formal education in the humanities, since the classical period, was as training in leadership.

As I’ve already noted, in much of the past, this sort of education was quite clearly limited to a hereditary (or effectively hereditary wealth-defined) class of leaders. Elite Roman education began with basic grammar, but extended to the analysis of poetry, the reading of literature and from there into the study of rhetoric, history and philosophy. Particularly for history, the ancient Greeks, with whom the discipline of history began, left little mystery as to its purpose: history as a field existed to inform decision-making and leadership. As Thucydides puts it, “but if it be judged useful by those inquirers who desire an exact knowledge of the past as an aid to the understanding of the future, which in the course of human things must resemble if it does not reflect it, I shall be content” (Thuc. 1.22.4). Plutarch (Alexander 1.1-3) and Polybius (1.1.1-4) are similarly direct. Polybius goes so far as to say “men have no more ready corrective of conduct than knowledge of the past” (Plb. 1.1.1). But the same was true for the reading of literature, the development of knowledge in law, oratory and philosophy. These were leadership skills, taught to aristocrats who were assumed to be future leaders. This was true not merely in Greece and Rome (where I just happen to have the easy textual references) but in every sophisticated agrarian society I am aware of, from the universities of medieval Europe to Chinese aristocrats training for Imperial examinations.

(As an aside – note that the use of history in particular in this way is not merely because ‘history repeats.’ In the first case, history does not repeat; if it did, we should surely be around to the second (or third) Akkadian Empire by now. Rather, as Thucydides says, human affairs resemble themselves, because they contain in them the same one dominant ingredient, the one thing the humanities study: humans. The best guide to future human behavior is past human behavior, and history is the best way to sample a lot of that behavior, especially in circumstances that are relatively uncommon.)

Does anyone look at the present moment and conclude that we have an over-abundance of humble, empathetic, well-trained and effectively communicating leaders?

Soft Skills in Soft Power

That is, of course, not the only thing the humanities offer to a society. As I noted above, the steady marginalization – as a matter of education and funding – of the humanities in favor of STEM in the United States has been motivated by the need to ‘win’ geopolitical contests. And perhaps the most obvious benefit of the humanities, particularly in the geopolitical sphere, is the soft-power aspect of a robust culture ‘industry.’ No rocket, no weapon-system of any kind was as instrumental in the collapse of Soviet Communism as Hollywood and Rock’n’Roll – or more correctly the vast culture edifice that those two ideas are used to represent. The Soviet Union wasn’t defeated with missiles, after all, it collapsed from a failure of ideological legitimacy; a crisis of words not numbers. What we’ve seen again and again over the last century (and even longer, if one cares to look) is that the vast soft power of cultural cachet is often far more cost-effective than new weapons (in part because new weapons are just so expensive). Athens lost the Peloponnesian War, but remained an important place for centuries, while Sparta – which won – sank into irrelevance. It is hard not to conclude that Athens lost the war but decisively won the peace and that it was the latter victory that actually mattered.

Via Wikipedia, the interior of the Duomo di Siena, built 1196-1348. I admit that I’ve never been nearly as drawn to artwork as to literature, though both are an important part of the humanities. I can analyze art just fine, but it doesn’t strike me with quite the same rapturous awe as it does others, at least not very often. I first saw pictures of the Duomo di Siena from my archaeology professor in my undergrad (his dig, at Poggio Civitate, was not far from Siena), but I got to visit it myself a couple of years ago. The effect of standing there in person cannot be quite replicated by a picture.

The response to this is typically the glib assumption that this cultural ‘effectiveness’ is simply the product of chance, or individual genius or just a product of markets. But the fact is no one is born a great producer of culture; all of the skills are trained. And they are refined against a backdrop of deep complexity, of interleaved references and homages to older and older works. Those rich traditions are kept alive in the humanities to provide so much of the raw material for new artists and writers to hammer into new ideas, new mixtures of old themes and motifs. And while academic cultural criticism can often be self-indulgent and jargonistic, it serves an important role of examining the motifs we would otherwise use unthinkingly, which in turn can lead to the production of yet better (or just new) art. It also trains us to be critical of our art, in a way that makes the public harder to beguile and the art itself better.

At the same time, the study of the humanities, properly done, broadens the range of reference points beyond a single culture. As I hope the images that go with this essay show, when I say the humanities, I do not simply mean the study of the same few dozen European ‘great books.’ By no means am I throwing the western ‘canon’ out, but it is not the whole of the humanities. That in turn can provide a means of training the ability, however dimly, to ‘see’ through the eyes of other cultures (and in other languages, of course); the geopolitical benefits of having people trained this way, prepared with a wide range of cultural reference points from many times and places, should be obvious.

I think the impact that the academic humanities have on that process is often obscured by the intermediate layers that this knowledge passes through. Of course a great many cultural creators do not immerse themselves in four-year humanities degrees (although quite a number do, and it certainly seems to me that most writers, artists and musicians are quite open that the quality of their own art is dependent on sampling the art of other great creators, past and present, which would not exist in accessible form without the academic humanities or their public siblings). Rather, the study of the humanities creates a certain level of diffused knowledge in the society that is available to everyone. It is sufficiently diffused that it is often supposed that we might do as well without its source, but that is a mistake of understanding. I do not stand next to my A/C to get cool (because it cools my whole apartment, albeit less evenly than I might like), but if I turn it off, things will surely get warmer! Likewise, if you disassemble the academic and public humanities, you will quickly find that their beneficial influence on even the art produced beyond their borders wanes, to the detriment of the final product and the culture at large. And yet that diffusion makes the case for the humanities more difficult because it takes training in the humanities, sometimes, to see the influence of the humanities in the broader culture.

In the meantime, it seems to me no accident that as the funding for the humanities, and the social importance placed on a broad humanistic education, has dwindled, it has produced a matching decline in the richness of our cultural products that at this point has been broadly noticed: more and more sequels or remakes of things that aren’t even very old yet; the same handful of properties and themes flogged to death with precious little in the way of innovation. The reference pool has grown small and stagnant, even as every library in the country has an unplumbably deep well of rich ideas, just waiting to be discovered, if we only got back to teaching ourselves how to fathom those depths.

Conclusion

The frustration I most often encounter – particularly from students coming from high schools that too often ‘teach to the test’ instead of teaching skills – is in the apparently round-about way that the humanities teaches these things. Why not shovel money directly into Hollywood and a handful of ‘leadership institutes’? But – and I apologize, because I am going to adapt a phrasing I saw from someone else but can no longer find – that is the equivalent of the student arriving to class asking to “just be told the answers.” The point was never the answers, but the skills you gained finding them.

Leadership courses can reduce some of these ideas to basic maxims – good for what it is; maxims can be very helpful – but they cannot teach you how to discover new maxims. They cannot prepare you for a situation where you find that all of your old maxims are useless because the culture you are in or the people you are now leading do not value a ‘firm handshake’ or ‘strong eye-contact,’ to use one example. Maxims are rigid; the world demands flexibility. And there is no short-cut but to practice reasoning and argumentation, over and over again, in one unfamiliar discipline, one unfamiliar cultural sphere after another (which, of course, in turn necessitates teaching by individuals who are hyper-specialized in those disciplines and cultural spheres, not because humanist academics are the best leaders – note how the skills to teach are not the same skills as to practice. One of these days, we will discuss the art of teaching a bit; suffice to say the old canard ‘those that cannot do, teach’ is rubbish. Few who do can teach, but most who teach can do; they are different skills, only infrequently found together).

The cover of my copy of The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson. I didn’t actually take a course in Dickinson – or any English poetry, for that matter. But the Dickinson house-and-museum was all of one mile on foot from my dorm (although it did require walking past that other college) and I ended up developing a taste for Dickinson effectively by proximity (and some degree of evangelism from my sister). The best part about Dickinson’s generally short poems is that a great many of them are open to multiple, often wildly divergent interpretations, frequently deeply at odds with each other. If pressed for my favorite, it is (1455), “Opinion is a flitting thing,” which is uncharacteristically straightforward, unless you read the last line as a tongue-and-cheek comment on human’s preference to continue believing what they already believed, despite changing evidence.

And at the moment, particularly, it seems to me that those sort of leadership skills – calm, sound reasoning, careful explanations, epistemic humility and compassion – are in short supply. As I write this – future readers, note the date – we are still in the grip of a global pandemic. What we see is not a failure of our science – by no means! We have clearly gotten our money’s worth from our doctors and scientists who continue to do heroic work. Researchers are breaking one vaccine speed record after another. The speed with which new medical methods and data are brought to bear on the viral enemy is astoundingly fast. But so far, that work hasn’t had the impact it could have had because of leadership failures – failures to buy the scientists the time they need to do their work, to get the public to follow best practices.

Our knowledge of science hasn’t failed – our knowledge of humanity has. And can it be any surprise? Since the 1950s, the humanities – particularly the academic humanities that teach the skills I have been talking about – have faced cuts not only in the United States but around the globe, over and over again. What is happening as a result is that the humanities are collapsing back into what they were in the ancient world: a marker or elite status and privilege, available to those born to wealth.

Which is a real problem, because it isn’t enough for this to be a skill-set held only by a tiny class of designated, hereditary ‘leaders.’ Rather, it behooves us for the humanistic skills to be broadly distributed in society, so that they are widely available. In the same way that I discussed above, where an artist might benefit from the broad array of influences in the humanities without having done a four-year-degree themselves – through their proximity to others who have – society benefits broadly by having skills in the humanities widely diffused. After all, you need someone in the lab to ask if we should, not merely if we can (it is striking, in that scene, that this observation is given to Ian Malcolm, a mathematician, rather than an ethicist or a historian or someone else whose knowledge actually bears on the question of should; this is Hollywood’s fetishism of scientific knowledge at work. For exhibit B, notice how even the officers in Star Trek: The Next Generation have their training in science rather than in leadership, like real officers do (the Kirk era knew better!) – the only actual knowledge treated as such in TNG is generally scientific knowledge). You need people at every level of business and government who can ask larger questions and seek greater answers in places where science is unable to shed light. It does no good to silo those skills away to a select, elite few.

The most pressing problems that we face are not scientific problems. That is not because science has failed, but rather because it has succeeded – it has given us the answers. It has told us about the climate, given us the power of the atom, the ability to create vaccines and vast, vast productive potential. It has taken us beyond the bounds of our tiny, vast planet. What is left is the human component, which we continue to neglect, underfund, and undervalue. We look for scientific solutions to humanistic problems (where our forebears, it must be confessed, often looked for humanistic solutions to scientific problems) and wonder why our wizards fail us. We have all of the knowledge in the world and yet no wisdom.

We would do well to go back to the humanities.

255 thoughts on “Collections: The Practical Case on Why We Need the Humanities

  1. These skills should not be limited to the ruling class, because We the People are supposed to be in charge. We need to recognize which policies are wise and which are foolish, and which campaign promises are actually possible. And we need to recognize which candidates are actually up to the job.

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      1. No, the People is not the ruling class in a democracy. Just as God is not the ruling class in a theocracy. The People is the source of authority in a democracy, but a source of authority is not the same thing as a ruling class.

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        1. Not according to Eurupides

          One moment, stranger
          Your start was wrong – seeking a master here.
          This city is free, and ruled by no one man.
          The people reign, in annual succession.
          They do not yield to the power of the rich.
          The poor man has an equal share in it.

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          1. This was true of an ancient city-state like Athens because the population was small and dense enough that the people could meet to discuss policy. In a larger state like the United States or Britain, that simply isn’t practical (except maybe through modern communications technology, but then much would depend on the implementation, and anyway that option is irrelevant to this discussion); political decisions have to be made by a smaller group of people. In modern representative democracies, such political power comes from the people, since politicians have to be elected, but that doesn’t make the people as a whole the rulers any more than the fact that the early Roman emperors needed the support of the Praetorian Guard made the Praetorian Guard the rulers of Rome.

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          2. In modern representative democracies, such political power comes from the people, since politicians have to be elected, but that doesn’t make the people as a whole the rulers any more than the fact that the early Roman emperors needed the support of the Praetorian Guard made the Praetorian Guard the rulers of Rome.

            I don’t think that’s a very good analogy. Emperors might have needed the Guard’s support for practical reaons, but nobody ever suggested that the Praetorians held sovereignty over the Roman Empire. Conversely, under modern democratic theory the people are sovereign, even if, for reasons of convenience and practicality, they choose to delegate the day-to-day tasks of government to a small subset of the population.

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  2. This was a great post! As a scientist, I admit in the past I have been a bit flippant at times about the value of the humanities, but when it comes down to the wire, many of the things I love the most about life are products of the humanities, not products of science. We need to remember as a society that science is a tool to further humanity, not to subsume it.

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  3. Wonderful as always Bret. Now I am questioning myself if I choosed the wrong path with natural sciences and instead should study humanities to change the world. I am agree with your point that we already have the answers from science, and we need to implement those answers, which is the hardest part, because you have to convince people and change people is harder than look for natural knowledge. Thanks to you I have come back strongly to humanities and now I will try to spread the word, we need more humanities and science, more education in general.

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  4. This entire article sums up why I’m glad my Biology degree required me to take some humanities classes. Specifically, I took some first year history classes at the suggestion of my older brother (who’s a history major; does that count as a conflict of interest?), and two first-year anthropology classes because they seemed interesting. Taking those classes demonstrated pretty clearly to me the value of the humanities in general, and helped disabuse me of the notion that the humanities aren’t as useful as the sciences.

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  5. Thank you for another post that is interesting and thought provoking. I always thought all of tertiary education was about trying to teach a person to learn as a life skill, stem or humanities. This post has allowed me to reexamine that and make it more nuanced.
    A thought to add, speaking from a stem background on one hand and a life lived with a martial ART on the the other is that the skills gained are needed by everyone to successfully navigate the present and the future. Another way to look at it is as as the past is a foreign country so is the future and that we need to prepare ourselves as we are definitely going there

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  6. You wrote that “…even the officers in Star Trek: The Next Generation have their training in science rather than in leadership, like real officers do.” It’s worth pointing out that there is considerable history in the United States of pressing for much of its military officer cadre to have a deep knowledge of science and engineering e.g., all graduates of the US Naval Academy receive a BS because of the many science courses that are required, the US Military Academy has had many critical roles in the development of engineering as a discipline both in how it’s practiced and how it’s taught.

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    1. True, but army officer training has always had a strong historical component. It’s felt that rather then teach theory – hard to apply when humans are in conflict – it’s better to give commanders are repertoire of possible actions and a sense of the many possibilities in the interplay of morale, logistics, technologies and stratagems.

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      1. If you take a look at the recommended reading list for officers, you don’t see much in the way of STEM, but a ton of history, politics, and pop-culture management books (the latter I am not terribly fond of, but there they are).

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        1. Out of curiosity, what is it about the pop-culture management books that you’re not fond of? Are they poorly written, or is it some other issue with those books?

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          1. They are sometimes poorly written, but more it’s the vagueness of their suggestions and the fact that they are not useful, as evidenced by having a new one, saying something different, every couple of years.

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      1. That’s because the difference between a Bachelor of Science and a Bachelor of Arts is that the latter requires ability to read a foreign language. I know two sisters where one has a BA in chemistry and the other a BS in English.

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        1. “The” difference? There’s only one difference, common to all schools everywhere?

          I always assumed it was more that given the core curriculum at Caltech, you’d earned a BS. Can’t be many other Literature majors who’ve learned differential equations and thermodynamics as a prerequisite to graduation.

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          1. Nope, that’s THE difference. Everything else about them can be identical, and this is true across the board.

            It surprised me too.

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        2. I was about to say this is false because I got a BA without learning to read another language. Then I checked my school’s website and apparently the time I spent not actually learning Japanese was a requirement, rather than an elective like I remembered (yes I was watching anime immediately before coming here how did you guess). On the other hand it would be a stretch to say that someone who perfectly retained everything from that course gained the ability to read Japanese and I was able to pass based on class participation, homework, and pity while only learning like half of the written stuff (which I then forgot well before graduation).

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          1. Hmm at my university a BA was rather putting in for an extra semester or two. Language requirement or music or some other art and a whole extra minor beyond what your BA requirement was (if the minor was not one the ones I mentioned). And a final paper linking up you various bits of the BA into a some coherent plan and reasoning.

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    2. Naval officer training has always been a bit more STEM-heavy than the corresponding army training, because the balance of “how many of your problems are human problems” versus “how many are technical problems” shifts.

      In the early modern period, naval officers had to learn from a young age how to navigate using trigonometry, how to understand the forces acting on their ships, and many of the design principles that would permit repair, jury-rigging, and duplication of those ships. Army officers seldom needed anything like the same level of technical sophistication, outside of specialist applications like calculating angles of fire for an artillery battery.

      Similarly, today, it is probably effectively impossible to command a warship at sea or to plan an airstrike against a competently defended target without understanding the physics of how (for instance) radar works on a basic level. If you don’t know what the radar can and cannot do, and why, you’re more vulnerable. On land, there are a lot more command track jobs that let you safely delegate ‘know how radar works.’

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  7. This is an amazing post – I had never considered Global Warning a problem that can be solved by the humanities, but you’re right, it fundamentally is; we know exactly what we need to do and we have the technology to do it, the only problem is a complete inability to make the right decision. It’s increasingly clear to me that specific formulation applies to just about all the major existential problems facing humanity right now; we know what we need to do, but we can’t bring ourselves to do it.

    On a much more personal note, your description of how learning how to argue and defend a position will benefit a person going forward in their lives gives me new appreciation for the dozens of DBQs my APUSH teacher made me write more than a decade ago. Thank Mrs. Hodges!

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  8. ‘…The most pressing problems that we face are not scientific problems. That is not because science has failed, but rather because it has succeeded – it has given us the answers. It has told us about the climate, given us the power of the atom, the ability to create vaccines and vast, vast productive potential. It has taken us beyond the bounds of our tiny, vast planet. What is left is the human component, which we continue to neglect, underfund, and undervalue. We look for scientific solutions to humanistic problems (where our forebears, it must be confessed, often looked for humanistic solutions to scientific problems) and wonder why our wizards fail us. We have all of the knowledge in the world and yet no wisdom.

    We would do well to go back to the humanities…’
    Science has told us that quarantine and isolation are futile useless things, in the context of COVID19, at least insofar as the actions of leading scientist such as Professor Neil Ferguson of Imperial College, London, have shown in terms of his utter contempt for such measures.
    I’m unsure if this contradicts or supports whatever it is which you’re trying to say, mind you.

    On the topic of leaders (at least in ‘The West’), as far as I understand it, they are usually picked and given power on the basis of their *ability to win popularity contests* (such contests being often known as ‘elections’.) If leaders are picked and given power on the basis, primarily, of being able to win popularity contests, it seems to me irrational to expect anything other than those whose strongest suit is to look good in front of a camera or when being quoted (and/or who have friends in the right places in the media), to end up in high office. Calmness, wisdom, etc, etc, etc are not prerequisites for the job; being able to skillfully slag off an opponent or to persuade a voter that the moon is, in fact, made entirely out of green cheese are prerequisites (and also the kind of ego and personality which *wants* to put itself through (and indeed relishes) the whole election process in the first place.)

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    1. 1. Regarding the contempt of scientists like Neil Ferguson for quarantine measures that have actually worked when implemented properly – well, have you heard of the ‘Nobel Prize disease’? It’s a recurrent phenomenon when Nobel Prize winners land up supporting dubious, crazy or outright unethical ideas. All the intelligence and scientific training in the world doesn’t stop scientists from following their emotions and using their training to buttress utter nonsense if they believe in it.

      2. From your last paragraph, it seems to me that you’re suggesting the return to Plato’s ideal of the philosopher-king chosen by merit and long years of training, one who does not covet the job. While discussing the merits and demerits of that idea would take a long time, suffice to say that creating an elite class of humanities students to stay in charge of nations may not be such a good idea, because that particular elite runs the risk of being corrupted over time. Plato’s suggestion to prevent family ties from being dominant, by removing children from their families and training them according to their abilities, is clearly too inhuman and impracticable to be used in any society, at any time in history.

      Right now, the problem is not so much politicians appealing to the mob, but rather the nature of polarization within political parties and processes across the world, with parties appealing more and more to one demographic at the expense of all others. To use the American example that I’m familiar with, the current Democratic and Republican parties are more homogeneous and polarized than they were in the past, therefore appealing to the Lowest Common Denominator in the mob is more important than the exercise in carefully bridging conflict and building cohesion among diverse interests that was previously necessary.

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      1. It’s been a while since I read ‘The Republic’ but as far as I recall, didn’t Plato also advise training in mathematics and in military matters for his ‘philosopher-rulers’? I’m fairly certain that it wasn’t an entirely humanities orientated curriculum which he had in mind.

        Regarding corruption, those who arrive in power thanks to a system of popularity contests are most definitely susceptible to it, as occasional media stories about elected leaders accepting cash or other favours in exchange for using their influence make clear. There’s been a recent scandal in the UK about a political party member and a property developer…

        I’m out of time here, but will come back to have another look at your post, later.

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        1. Mathematics was a branch of philosophy, in Greece. As was what we’d call science (most historians of science get jumpy if you call anything before the actual Scientific Revolution, “science”, except in the sense that boxing and theology are also “sciences”).

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      2. Elected politicians ‘appealing to the mob’ seems to me to be a *design feature* and natural consequence of holding popularity contests to see who gets into office and is awarded power. You cannot hold power without winning popularity contests (elections) and elected politicians, if they are not skilled rhetoricians able to sway and persuade or just outright charm, may well feel that they have to promise to do things that the voters want, simply to get into (or to retain) office and government. Of course once a group of elected politicians have power to dictate policy, laws, and budgets they will at times desperately hang onto it for as long as they think that they plausibly can and/or need to do so, to attain their goals – see the way in the UK in the latter part of 2019 that the elected politicians at Westminster, who in the majority wanted to *remain* in the European Union, despite the results of the 2016 referendum result blocked and delayed and extended (and in one case passed a law specifically to force a prime minister to write a letter) to attain their ends, doing everything except voting to bring the show to an end and to have a general election. The situation looked absolutely farcical to some of us here in the UK with the opposition voting to keep the government in power, because the opposition had the numbers to keep on forcing the ‘remain in the EU’ result that it wanted and thanks to the ‘Fixed Term Parliaments Act’ they could keep the government in office but out of power (at least on the EU question) for years – but they weren’t sure that the country would be behind them if the went to the polls. (As it turned out, the country was NOT behind them; in this latter matter at least their judgement and hesitancy turned out to have been sound.)

        On the EU thing, my own feeling is that it’s been a matter and source of some discontent in the UK for decades. As long as the UK remained prosperous, enough people were prepared to hold their noses and put up with it… but then came the global financial crash of 2008 and the money which the UK kept sending to Brussels, and the lack of influence (for whatever reasons) that the UK was perceived, at least in the country, to have in exchange for being a substantial net contributor to the budget, became more and more of an issue. (Oh yes: and then there was the ‘jobs are short, but the EU says that people from across the Channel or North Sea can come in and take jobs here’ business, although as COVID19 has demonstrated amply, apparently some of those jobs were jobs which British people simply didn’t have the skills or qualities necessary to do, anyway.)

        And now we’re going to have the 2008 global depression (which I am certain never actually went away) augmented by the 2020 COVID19 global economic crash.
        Oh well: at least we’ve built a couple of new aircraft carriers recently in the UK, even if (shades of the 1930’s) it’s doubtful we actually are spending enough to properly outfit and equip them. And, uh, best not to ask about the size of the UK army, if and when something kicks off…

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      3. ‘Thematus’
        I made a response to you about polarization and elected politicians jumping on passing band-wagons (plus the economic crisis since 2008 and the UK leaving the EU), but it seems to have disappeared. Too long and/or too off-topic I guess (or I hit the wrong button somewhere, maybe?)

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      4. >On the topic of leaders (at least in ‘The West’), as far as I understand it, they are usually picked and given power on the basis of their *ability to win popularity contests* (such contests being often known as ‘elections’.)

        Elections are not, and have never been, “popularity contests”. Both candidates in the U.S. 2016 Presidential election (for example) were deeply unpopular and even the winner has never had a plurality of people who approve of his actions. Democracy is about different groups of people with different interests trying to work their interests out through their elected representatives. People don’t always have to be well liked (or “popular”) as long as they demonstrate they can do a good job of representing the interests of the people who voted for them.

        The problem is really that the interests of the people who control those parties (especially of those with vast amounts of money) are in conflict with the interests of the people who do the actual voting, so in order to keep in power, the people running those parties are pushing tribalism, nationalism, and out right racism to explain why the lives of most ordinary people are getting (relatively) worse despite the fact that the world is richer than it ever has been.

        I will agree that having more ordinary people trained in the humanities out there would help, but the problem isn’t that Democracy is bad, it’s that vast inequality and unchecked wealth and power will corrupt any system out there. You can see the same results in Russia (which is no longer anything like a democracy), in the People’s Republic, of China, and even in a monarchy like Saudi Arabia.

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        1. The problem is really that the interests of the people who control those parties (especially of those with vast amounts of money) are in conflict with the interests of the people who do the actual voting, so in order to keep in power, the people running those parties are pushing tribalism, nationalism, and out right racism to explain why the lives of most ordinary people are getting (relatively) worse despite the fact that the world is richer than it ever has been.

          No really. The Republican establishment was against Trump from the beginning, and it’s obvious that they can still hardly stand the man. As for the Democrats, their party leadership have been happy to hop aboard the identity politics bandwagon, but they’re not the ones driving it. Insofar as tribalism, nationalism, etc., are on the rise, it’s in spite of the political establishment’s efforts.

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        2. “Least unpopular” is still a popularity contest.

          Systems are corruptible but some systems are a priori better than others, at least against reasonable goals. The US constitution actively avoids “one person, one vote”, and dilutes and diffuses responsibility for obstructionism. Popular input is extremely limited. The House is poorly representative and the Senate even worse. The presidency accretes too much respect and doesn’t even reliably elect the most popular candidate running. There’s no way to recall/reboot Congress ahead of schedule, and apart from impeachment no way to recall the president.

          Compare to Switzerland. The lower house, like much of Europe, uses party-list elections, so is far more representative and multi-party than anything in the US. The executive isn’t just parliamentary but collegiate, so a lot harder for a charismatic leader to hijack. If the legislature passes a law or treaty that the people dislike, they can repeal it by referendum in a few months; they can also force through initiatives on issues the legislature refuses to touch, again within a few months. End result, a government that’s both more representative and responsive.

          With the benefit of historical hindsight, I think separating power between executive and legislature was a bad idea, especially to the extent where they end up opposed. You get gridlock, and low information voters not knowing who to blame for stuff not getting done. Having a proliferation of veto points and supermajorities is also bad; to get back on topic, we can look at historical examples like the Golden Liberty (veto) in Poland.

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          1. With the benefit of historical hindsight, I think separating power between executive and legislature was a bad idea, especially to the extent where they end up opposed. You get gridlock, and low information voters not knowing who to blame for stuff not getting done. Having a proliferation of veto points and supermajorities is also bad; to get back on topic, we can look at historical examples like the Golden Liberty (veto) in Poland.

            To be fair, that would be much less of a problem if the federal government had a restricted remit, like the founders intended. With almost all the laws and agencies that affect people’s day-to-day lives being dealt with at the state level, gridlock in Washington would be less of an issue, and culture-war-related polarisation would be less likely occur.

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        3. “Russia (which is no longer anything like a democracy)”

          That is debatable and debated (some prefer to classify us as a hybrid regime, and there are some vestigial democratic systems that may still influence political decision-making), but in any case, I’d say that inequality and unchecked et cetera came here under our greatest ever democracy, before the autocratic turn. And certainly Putin was picked in the first place to win a popularity contest; his ability to win popularity contests even without rigging (which even the opposition generally acknowledges) is a large part of why the elite does not turn against him. So this seems like a flawed example.

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    2. “Science has told us that quarantine and isolation are futile useless things, in the context of COVID19, at least insofar as the actions of leading scientist such as Professor Neil Ferguson of Imperial College, London, have shown in terms of his utter contempt for such measures.”

      Doesn’t this contradict most of the current research? I also cannot find where this professor mentioned that quarantine and isolation were ineffective. I can find this Guardian article mentions Professor Neil Ferguson to be behind most of the UK’s preventive measures against COVID19 (including quarantine and isolation).
      https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/mar/16/new-data-new-policy-why-uks-coronavirus-strategy-has-changed

      Any papers I can find on the subject (and some by Neil Ferguson himself, although published in 2006) mention the effectiveness of quarantine and isolation as long as they are properly followed. The most comprehensive paper that I’ve found did a rapid review of the published papers, finding the same benefits from quarantine and isolation: https://www.cochranelibrary.com/cdsr/doi/10.1002/14651858.CD013574/full

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      1. Professor Ferguson disregarded the lockdown not for concern about the state of a building (as one Scottish advisor reportedly did) nor due to concern about having carers on hand for a child (as one Downing Street political advisor reportedly did) but for his own pure personal pleasure. (If you are unaware of the story you can start with a search for ‘Neil Ferguson Antonia Staats’.) The professor knows the science inside out, and regardless of what words he sells to put cash in his bank account, he clearly considered the lockdown sufficiently meaningless a measure as to be insufficient reason to put off enjoying himself.
        And the people of the UK saw this in the media – that one of the chief scientific experts in the UK on viruses, who knows and understands all about COVID19 and what actual dangers it may or may not actually possess considered the lockdown of so little importance – and drew their own conclusions, and flocked to parks to sunbathe and marched together to protest about the deeds of the United States police and historic UK figures who engaged in business horrible by the standards of today. After all, if one of the leading scientists himself considered it safe to disregard the lockdown for a matter of such little urgency as pleasure, why should not everyone else disregard it for similar or more socially & politically important causes?

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        1. But that is not necessarily true. Even at the highest height of the epidemic, here in Germany, going into a Football Stadium would have been very likely fine for an individual (i.e. probability of you yourself being in close enough contact with an infectious person being small, let’s say much lower than 5%), Nevertheless the chance of _anyone_ coming into contact with an infectious person would be guaranteed to be 100%!
          _That_ is the fundamental reason why we have such a hard time to deal with that thing. For a single person the change of behaviour does not significantly reduce the exposure for a single person. Or formulating it the other way around: Having your fun does not incur a significant risk for you personally.

          So even if you had the mind to actually understand the behaviour of this decease and the societal effects and spread of it you could still, reasonably, reach the conclusion: “It’s fine for _me_ to do this”.

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    3. Science has told us that quarantine and isolation are futile useless things, in the context of COVID19, at least insofar as the actions of leading scientist such as Professor Neil Ferguson of Imperial College, London, have shown in terms of his utter contempt for such measures.

      That shows that Prof. Ferguson is a hypocrite, not that the quarantine was futile. (It might still be futile, of course, but if it is, that will have nothing to do with Ferguson bonking his mistress.)

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      1. As Bret says in his article: ‘…The most pressing problems that we face are not scientific problems. That is not because science has failed, but rather because it has succeeded – it has given us the answers….’
        And the scientist, Professor Ferguson, showed to the people of the UK that the lockdown was meaningless and unnecessary, by his own actions.
        We live in an era where science has not just given us the answers – it has given us all the answers, and knows (or soon will) everything. Films and TV series sell this. Other media sell this (including in adverts.) Scientists are living gods who put men on the moon, send rovers to Mars and satellites to Pluto, and who build vast engines beneath the Alps to count and measure the very fabric of the universe. they can cure baldness, defeat HIV, and reverse (at least according to some adverts) the very ageing process. Conventional deities are dead, but the new deity of science is crowned and in its temple and scientists are its chief and high priests.
        And if Professor Ferguson by his actions demonstrates the pointlessness of the lockdown imposed by the politicians, then clearly the High Priest of Virusology in His Infinite Wisdom has spoken and revealed the divine will of Science to the Peoples of the UK, and shown that the politicians are WRONG. (And of course those in the media who just want to get back to all-expenses paid lunches at the Savoy hotel, with their cronies, will hurry to point out that the Peoples of Sweden, in Their Wisdom and Advised By Their Own High Priest of Virusology, Have Never Gone into Lockdown At All, and that Professor Ferguson is thus doing No Less Than Showing That Truth Unto The Peoples of The United Kingdom.) People *believe* in scientists and what they do, in the same way it seems to me as they might have looked to Rome and the Pope (in Europe) for guidance. And if Professor Ferguson is a Hypocrite, then they either do not see that, or they see that he is a liar and an untrustworthy heathen – an abomination – and why should they trust or believe *anything* which he says? Either Professor Ferguson Knows What He Is Doing when he ignores the rules of lockdown laid down by the politicians, or he knows nothing and he acted wrongly and the politicians who acted on his advice acted wrongly. In an age of economic turmoil and terrorism and sudden deaths, absolutes are *comforting*, and grey areas with ‘well maybe he’s part right’ are inconvenient and uncomfortable.

        Personally I think it would be healthy to have a bit less of the ‘science has given us the answers’. I studied Geology for a while, and regarding questions of Earth history there was a heck of a lot of borderline-mysticism of ‘a rock or piece of ice hitting something else Did It’ to try and explain something beyond current laboratory or mathematical abilities to meaningfully analyse or answer (how did the Earth form? where did the Moon come from? how did life arise on Earth? where did all the water on Earth come from? etc, etc, etc.)

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        1. Empirical Science of how things work (in the present or in general) that can be checked in repeated experiments, are somewhat distinct from the retrospective research (cosmology, evolutionary biology, Earth history) that uses the rules induced by the former to backtrack in time and study the evolution of this actual and unique Universe. And understandably this retrospective research is usually much more uncertain.

          But seeing things like young earth creationism, nuclear phobia, anti-vaxerism, global warming denial, HIV denial, coronavirus denial, etc…, I do not think that a blind cult of science would in general permeate our culture.

          I also think that Professor Ferguson failed in a “humanities way”, not as a scientist. A story about how a roman general donated his estate to the state, so that not even a shade of suspicion could be cast on him by the enemy sparing it from destruction would have served him better than another peer reviewed study on how social distancing is in fact effective.

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    4. Yes, democracies pick leaders who can win popularity contests. But what makes a leader popular? In your role as a voter, what tells you who to support in such a contest, and why?

      This is why humanities-style thinking, of the type Bret is advocating, needs to be widespread. Voters thinking like this is helpful.

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  9. We may need the Humanities. We do not need Humanity Professors who blatantly hate the culture and people who are paying their salaries.

    To wit: The King needs an advisor.

    The King does not need Grima Wormtongue as an advisor.

    And it was rampant failure of Hama to stop Grima’s rise which was and should be his greatest shame.

    Because it isn’t STEM professors teaching sedition to students and rioting next to them.

    These faculty are not the calm, humble, reflective types you pine for.

    So skepticism of the ideologues who are tearing down statues is not out of order. These students were not taught by their parents to be rioters.

    The way the hiring board is locked up by political types, more money means more of their Fellow Travelers getting positions.

    Use some of that humility to rip Saruman out of that Ivory Tower before defending how Isengard is currently being used to make Urak Hai.

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    1. I’m really unsure where to start with this.

      I think it’s rather ludicrous to say that university professors are “teaching kids to riot” and even more far-fetched to claim that the fault of the riots can be laid at the feet of these professors. I understand the less extreme version of this view, which is that liberal professors are filling our kid’s heads with the idea that America is bad, and thus they are motivated to tear it down, but I think the belief that college teaches kids to hate their parents and America is a kneejerk conservative one that we should reject.

      Ethics of rioting aside, you don’t seem to comprehend that the United States might actually have bad qualities that people – not just students, all sorts of people, many of them working-class people – are rebelling against. The riots in Minneapolis, in a working-class neighborhood, were provoked by the brutal killing of a black man by police, not by liberal college students being egged on by their liberal professors.

      In such a situation, wouldn’t it be reasonable to assume that when faced with such callous disregard for human life, these people might be motivated to lash out against the system?

      As for tearing down statues – they’re statues. They can be restored, or not if they are truly offensive to the values that people hold, which is the case in many places.

      I have no doubt that many college-educated people of all races are participating in these protests, perhaps some of them in riots. But are they truly being taught to “hate America” or are they are merely, as the article points out, being taught methods that they have used to look at the American government and its institutions with a more critical eye.

      Finally, comparing these rioters to “orcs” is pretty gross given the racial connotations.

      In short, this is the usual conservative screed against higher education, one that lacks connection to reality. Why do these things always feel like they were written by someone who never set foot inside an institute of higher education? I went to college and I never read Marx (although I did go to a technical college; in retrospect I wish I’d studied history).

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      1. Given the human cultures that orcs take (mostly superficial) influences from are Turks and Mongols, what racial connotations? If you see black people in orcs, that’s more a commentary on your subconscious associations than on anyone else. (Actually other than some superficial material culture the biggest model for Tolkien’s orcs, at least—less so the later forms—is the British underclass nowadays known as chavs.)

        Unless you meant comparing any human group to any fictional nonhuman group is dehumanizing, which is technically true but not very meaningful. Fictional nonhumans are stand-ins for aspects of humanity (which is not the same thing as being stand-ins for specific human groups); if a real human movement or group displays those aspects it’s not actually dehumanizing to make the comparison. If I say the Taliban are like the D&D drow but patriarchal instead of matriarchal, I have not dehumanized them in any but the most technical sense.

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        1. Given the human cultures that orcs take (mostly superficial) influences from are Turks and Mongols, what racial connotations? If you see black people in orcs, that’s more a commentary on your subconscious associations than on anyone else.

          I remember an article on whether Tolkien’s orcs were racist or not. One of the points against was that nobody seemed able to agree which race they were supposed to represent.

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          1. My favorite Tolkien quote for the current political situation:

            “Forbear thy anger now, my lord!
            nor do the work of Orcs abhorred;
            for foes there be of Elfinesse
            unnumbered, and they grow not less,
            while here we war by ancient curse
            distraught, and all the world to worse
            decays and crumbles. Make thy peace!”

            (Luthien to Beren, Canto X Lay of Leithian)

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          2. Here in Russia they are frequently assumed to be a vile caricature on Russians. Some of our nationalists have even reclaimed the perceived identification of Russians as orcs (see the non-fiction book “Wrath of the Orc”, about how we need to gear up to fight fascist American globalism).

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        2. I’ve seen plenty of reactionaries – fascists, to put it less politely – use “orcs” as slang or shorthand for black people or other people of color, and given that from my perspective the protests are not led by college students but black people, the connection seemed obvious. If I read that into his argument, then it’s on me, but I won’t stand for “by pointing out racism, you’re the real racist!” arguments. It’s hardly the greatest leap of logic.

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          1. Sorry, but you weren’t pointing out racism. You were claiming that comparing people who are in fact acting monstrously—the riots have killed more black people in a few weeks than all police violence has since January 1, 2019—to monsters, is racist, and explicitly claimed there is a racial parallel between “people of color” and those monsters. Which is not something anyone else said. You brought in that association. Sorry if you don’t like people pointing out it’s pretty questionable to say “clearly these monsters resemble this human group”, and it’s not anyone else’s fault but yours that you asserted the existence of this resemblance.

            As for fascists, the only fascists in modern politics call themselves anti-fascist. Because we have a word for “dress in black and assault people you don’t agree with”, like Antifa does. It’s “squadrismo”. I’ll let you figure out why it’s Italian.

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          2. “Sorry, but you weren’t pointing out racism. You were claiming that comparing people who are in fact acting monstrously—the riots have killed more black people in a few weeks than all police violence has since January 1, 2019”
            -Tom, the presumed Arizonan.

            Aside from my profound uncertainty as to the accuracy of this claim… I find it interesting that “the riots” are being treated as a single monolithic institution, as if there was some single figure who had said “UNLEASH A RIOT!” and pulled a lever and caused all the consequences to happen. This is, in fact, not the case. The so-called “riots” are in fact a simultaneous combination of protestors, small numbers of angry wannabe-revolutionaries, and small numbers of opportunistic criminals who could hardly care less about the politics at stake.

            It seems to me that in a free society, if you want to avoid the violence associated with massive nationwide protests that threaten to grow riotous, the solution is simple. Avoid the kind of blatant abuse of power that inspires such riots, because they do not occur randomly or for no reason.

            History (there it is again, those pesky humanities) teaches us that large scale popular uprisings don’t just happen because some chunk of the population are debased violent “orcs” who hate civilization. They happen because of grievances, because of an unsustainable economic situation, or both.

            History also teaches us that in every large scale popular uprising, those sympathetic to the ruling class being rebelled against will come up with some variation on the same old theme: “The protestors, excuse me rioters, excuse me anarchist rebel terrorists, are being whipped up into a pointless and senseless frenzy against the righteous and benevolent institutions of our civilization. This is all the fault of those rotten liberal commie anarchist agitators, who possess a pure, motiveless hatred of civilization and seek to destroy it. We the powerful, or we who identify with the powerful even if lacking power ourselves, have done no wrong and are innocent in this matter. We are being persecuted for no reason!”

            I am sure that when the Paris ‘mob’ stormed the Bastille, and subsequently marched on Versailles, that sympathizers of the French ancien regime would have said something like:

            “Those liberal bourgeois are teaching the masses (we’d call them ‘orcs’ but the term hasn’t been invented yet) to rise up against their betters! But their riots are killing far more people than we noblemen and our system of government by taxing the peasantry does. If only those snooty academics in their so-called ‘Enlightenment’ network of salons would stop teaching the educated upper class to hate France, things would get better! The educated class would go back to loyally serving France (that is to say, us) as our mid-level management and inflict abuses on our behalf instead of pushing back against them!”

            More cynically, there will always be people who identify “civilization” and their own country with “the nobles get unquestioned title and rulership, and no one’s really counting the dead peasants as long as they serve in the cause of the nobles.”

            Like

          3. What a dehumanizing comment.

            The people who are responsible for the riots having murdered more blacks with impunity in the last few weeks than the police have killed in years are the rioters. They do not get to blame their “inspiration” for the obvious fact that they are far worse.

            Liked by 1 person

          4. You notice that CHOP/CHAZ got shut down as soon as it marched on the mayor’s home? You get to compare them to the marchers on Versailles when they stop doing things like burning down low-income housing and the shops that low-income people shop at and do something equivalent to marching on Versailles for actual effect.

            Like

          5. @ Simon_Jester:

            I am sure that when the Paris ‘mob’ stormed the Bastille, and subsequently marched on Versailles, that sympathizers of the French ancien regime would have said something like:

            Well, they’d have a point. The French revolutionaries killed tens of thousands in their Reign of Terror, and hundreds of thousands in the Vendeean genocide, only to get overthrown by a military dictator, who in turn unleashed decades of extremely-destructive war across Europe, resulting in the deaths of millions more, and eventually got driven out and replaced by a member of the same royal family the revolutionaries had originally overthrown. France and Europe would have been better off had the French Revolution never happened.

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      2. I have no doubt that many college-educated people of all races are participating in these protests, perhaps some of them in riots. But are they truly being taught to “hate America” or are they are merely, as the article points out, being taught methods that they have used to look at the American government and its institutions with a more critical eye.

        At least if my own circle of acquaintances is any guide (anecdote alert), most of the middle-class student or graduate types who support the riots do so because they think that supporting any anti-racism initiative is a sine qua non of being a good person. It has nothing to do with their critically examining the situation and coming to the conclusion that rioting is likely to produce a net improvement.

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        1. I have not heard anyone supporting riots.

          I have heard lots of people supporting protests, and pointing out that isolated instances of violence should not be used to dismiss the real grievances to which the protests are responding (i.e., that the police are able to, and do, murder black people with impunity). That is a position that I find it quite easy to arrive at by critically examining the situation.

          Like

          1. Those riots, however, were largely confined to one metropolitan area. Destruction and looting that erupted after Floyd’s death was reported in at least 25 cities, and spread into many suburbs as well. The extent of damage was unknown as of late Monday, but a sample of local news reports suggests that it is widespread:
            In Pittsburgh, the Public Safety department reported 50 businesses and properties in downtown area were damaged.
            The Downtown Seattle Association reported that 50 businesses had damaged downtown and in the neighboring Chinatown-International District.
            The Chicago Loop Alliance said at least 45 property were damaged in the downtown area by rioting that also spread into the cities suburbs.
            In Madison, Wisconsin, 75 businesses were damaged and some were looted.

            Quite a lot of “isolated instances”…

            https://www.claimsjournal.com/news/national/2020/06/02/297361.htm

            Liked by 1 person

          2. When you incite riots that murder more black people with impunity than your “real grievance” and then dismiss the riots — you have done a better job distracting from your protests than anyone else could.

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          3. I have heard the idea that rioting is justified under a paradigm where people abide by the laws because they think it’s better than the alternative — if they disobey the laws, then the state will try to punish them for it, and even if they get away with it, that creates anarchy that reduces the protection everyone gains from the laws; cases of civil disobedience, etc., happen when people think they’ll be able to change laws they consider much more harmful than the negative side effects of disobeying the law. However, if people think that they’re at risk of being arrested, assaulted, or killed by the police even if they don’t break the law (which is what the protests are protesting), then the threat of arrest or police violence won’t disincentivize them from actually breaking the law (especially during large and sometimes violent protests, when the police will be busy anyway). Thus opportunistic criminals are more likely to commit crimes. Moreover, if you think of the system of laws as a social contract that only holds while both the government and (most of) the people respect it, even a protester who is sufficiently concerned about police brutality and sufficiently pessimistic about the possibility of improving it will have no reason not to use violence against those they see as enemies — aside from their need to get public opinion on their side, which is one reason why most protesters aren’t violent.
            I don’t think this idea is especially common — I’ve heard it from exactly one source (a video by Trevor Noah) which presented it without endorsing it, and I think most of the violence that occurs is motivated by anger combined with police violence against the protestors themselves — but it does exist.

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      3. Well, Mr. Devereaux did not wake up one morning and say ‘you know what? Let me defend the Humanities just because I am bored.’ Clearly he felt that Humanities spending needed a defense.

        Because, looking at his numbers, 30% of his income is coming from Conservative money. If those Conservatives feel that they are not getting value for money, that is a huge blow to the Academy.

        Conservative parents are not going to be waved off with a dismissive ‘Conservative Screed’ sneer.

        So to avoid arguing, I will instead go full Socratic and ask questions that a Conservative Parent might ask in the Age of Rights Revocations and Riots.

        -Why have almost all our riots and protests in the last 3 years happened on campus?

        -Why are colleges and universities not strongly standing up for Free Speech and Diversity of Opinion?
        (Not the faux diversity of Liberals of all Colors, but one which allows Conservatives?)

        -Why are the vast majority of Antifa college students who supposedly know these ‘wise ways of looking at the world’?

        – Why has the Academy not pushed back on silly ahistorical ‘liberal screeds’ like the NYT ‘1619 Project’?

        -Why are Conservatives no longer welcome on campus? Why are riots against Conservatives left unpunished on campus? What is the Academy afraid of?

        -Why is it in the Academy, and no where else, that things like Cancel Culture and calls for ending Patriarchy (Western Culture) or ‘White People’ (Western Culture) not only entertained but seriously considered and disseminated and, most problematic, NOT pushed back against by supposedly serious scholars like Professor Devereaux?

        -Defend Evergreen. Defend Berkley.

        – If the Humanities is so full of wise, thoughtful and well informed people, why is their answer to complex political and cultural issues joining a riot?

        -Follow up to the above: Why aren’t College boards condemning and removing teachers engaging in criminal activity?

        -Is our culture so incredibly bad or is this a hypercritical eye by the Academy? Why is the Perfect the Enemy of the Good? Point out a better culture.

        -Why is tuition going up at multiple times the rate of inflation while the number of teachers remaining static?

        Professor Devereaux is defending the Humanities because it needs it. Intersectionality has poisoned the Humanities in ways it will be difficult to recover from because people are losing TRUST in the Academy for not dismissible reasons.

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        1. Will give you a point by point reply later (have to cook now) but you seem to be lumping together college students, college teachers and college administrators. They’re all quite different and come at things from different ways.

          Never saw any teachers (much less administrators) egging students on in my college activist days. The students radicals I knew either came to college already radical (often because of parents with similar beliefs) or radicalized each other, never heard of anyone changing from apolitical or conservative to a radical because of a professor.

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          1. Well, I for one certainly do remember a professor from my college experience who was out to “convert the masses.” This was the early 70s, and I was too naive to be able to recognize exactly what was happening at the time, but looking back I can see that he was using a sort of personality cult approach in which favored students and favored views would be given voice, while those who were not part of his “in group” were left ignored or shot down. He didn’t quite exactly “egg anyone on” but we could sense who and what was approved. He had gathered around him vocal students with liberal views, leaving those of us who were emotionally needy (i.e., young people fresh out of a conservative home and still in the throws of adolescent rebellion) were ripe for manipulation. I was uncomfortable without understanding “why” and so I was not involved by the time the first sit in protest was staged.

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          2. In my experience with humanities majors – and I know a quite a few of them, I think – they get radicalized after graduating and finding themselves with little in the way of prospects, and growing disillusioned with the system that put them there. Frustrated or downwardly mobile academics have, historically, been a pretty big source of political radicals!

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          3. Ed8r: I can’t reply to your comment so I guess I have to reply again to mine.

            I’m sure those kind of professors exist and I ran into a lot of bad teachers in college but I didn’t personally experience anything like that. The only cases I can remember of my professors being open about their political opinions were:

            1. A conservative economic professor ranting about food stamps.

            2. A liberal Arab history professor right at the start of the invasion of Iraq setting aside his normal teaching style for just one class to give his personal opinion of how he thought Iraq would end up and why he thought the war was a bad idea (he thought Iraq would end up like Lebanon during its Civil War).

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        2. “Free Speech and Diversity of Opinion”? – you might want to ask the Freedom Riders that question.

          “tuition going up at multiple times the rate of inflation” – like CxOs’ salaries now being multiple their employees’ wages? Like housing, etc, going up etc?

          As far as I know, that’s because of the highly conservative CxOs, upper management, etc, being given the keys to the chicken coop – you should read more US history. Or have you forgotten the last forty years and the man they call The Gipper aka the Third Ronnie? Something called “deregulation”, the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act, the Citizens United decision, etc, none of which anyone left-wing was involved with, and all of which have caused immense harm – remember the day in 2008 when the banks stopped trading with each other because they could no longer believe what the others were telling them about their liquidity? Nothing to do with any left winger. Plenty to do with banking deregulation, which was a purely Conservative matter – just ask your local friendly Republican Reagan-worshipper.

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          1. Openly trying to distract from the tuition increases by talking about something else only underscores how unjustifiable they are.

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          2. “Free Speech and Diversity of Opinion”? – you might want to ask the Freedom Riders that question.

            Half a century ago? Perhaps you could cite something more applicable to the current day?

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          3. @Mary
            This was not an attempt to distract from the tuition increases. The core thesis here is that the “something else” and the tuition increases both have the same underlying root cause: namely, profiteering that concentrates wealth in the hands of rich individuals and institutions dominated by same, while stripping wealth from the rest of the population.

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        3. I think this post is a good example of why the humanities are important. In a few cases here you’re just not understanding how left-of-center people think. Even if your own ideas are 100% spot on if you don’t understand how people who disagree with you think you’re not going to be able to convince them of anything even if your ideas are right.

          This reminds me a bit of a phenomenon among the left a few years back (before Trump made it obsolete). Somebody would post a story about a back bench Republican state lawmaker proposing some kind of horrible new law and a bunch of people would freak out about how evil Republicans were and how they were about the bring in a reign of darkness upon the land and blah blah blah. Nobody seemed to realize that most of these proposed laws were just stupid publicity stunts by some fringe wackjobs that had no chance of ever becoming law.

          A lot of the right does a similar thing. They find something really dumb a fringe wackjob college professor said and share it all around and have a bunch of people freak out about how evil liberals are how they are about to bring in a reign of darkness upon the land and blah blah blah.

          I’ve seen this phenomenon called “nut picking.” And all kinds of people do it pretty extensively. They comb through all kinds of stuff that People They Don’t Like said and pick out the craziest 1% of it and then share that around for everyone they agree with to get outraged about. If you do enough of that then a lot of people start thinking that that crazy 1% is representative of stuff that People They Don’t Like think which gives them a distorted view. It’s important to go to the source and read typical stuff, not curated and filtered outrage bait.

          “-Why have almost all our riots and protests in the last 3 years happened on campus?”

          They have? Citation needed.

          “-Why are colleges and universities not strongly standing up for Free Speech and Diversity of Opinion?
          (Not the faux diversity of Liberals of all Colors, but one which allows Conservatives?)”

          What specific measures do you think that colleges and universities should do to stand up for Free Speech and Diversity of Opinion?

          “-Why are the vast majority of Antifa college students who supposedly know these ‘wise ways of looking at the world’?”

          They are? Again, citation needed. I’ve been living in Korea for a long time now (own a small business here) so I’m pretty out of the loop but back in my student activist days the bulk of the Black Bloc (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_bloc_ members I ran into were not college students.

          “– Why has the Academy not pushed back on silly ahistorical ‘liberal screeds’ like the NYT ‘1619 Project’?”

          What is ahistorical about the 1619 project? I have have little use for trash like the NYT, they turned up any credibility they have with me during the Judith Miller clusterfuck.

          “-Why are Conservatives no longer welcome on campus? Why are riots against Conservatives left unpunished on campus? What is the Academy afraid of?”

          Be more specific. What events are you referring to?

          “-Why is it in the Academy, and no where else, that things like Cancel Culture and calls for ending Patriarchy (Western Culture) or ‘White People’ (Western Culture) not only entertained but seriously considered and disseminated and, most problematic, NOT pushed back against by supposedly serious scholars like Professor Devereaux?”

          Only academic doesn’t like patriarchy? Bwuh?

          “-Defend Evergreen. Defend Berkley.”

          Against what charges?

          “– If the Humanities is so full of wise, thoughtful and well informed people, why is their answer to complex political and cultural issues joining a riot?”

          It is? Show me that it is. Just because some random adjunct did something dumb doesn’t mean that is a mainstream reaction. Sounds like nut picking to me.

          “-Follow up to the above: Why aren’t College boards condemning and removing teachers engaging in criminal activity?”

          Which teachers have been engaging in criminal activity? Be specific.

          “-Is our culture so incredibly bad or is this a hypercritical eye by the Academy? Why is the Perfect the Enemy of the Good? Point out a better culture.”

          It’s always important to try to make you culture better. You should never settle for what you have. Of course you should have realistic expectations and tactics to do that but you should certainly try.

          “-Why is tuition going up at multiple times the rate of inflation while the number of teachers remaining static?”

          Now this is where I can tell you don’t know how academia works at all. Professors are screaming bloody murder about this left and right. Tuition is going up quickly but it’s NOT going up because professors are being paid more (quite the opposite, the proliferation of adjuncts and other non-tenure track professors means that professors have been steadily had their average pay CUT) but because:
          1. Budget cuts at some state universities means that tuition has to be raised to make up the difference.
          2. More amenities for students, especially sports facilities.
          3. More IT etc. staff.
          4. A massive proliferation of administrative staff with often insane numbers of overpaid assistant provosts/deans/etc. who are largely a bunch of useless parasites who suck up all of the money that should be going to teaching.

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          1. You are laboring under a grave misunderstanding of the situation.

            Professor Devereaux is trying to sell a good. HE needs to make the case that the Humanities has value and that a Republican isn’t wasting his money on his good. That is has value for the money paid.

            In 2015, a Pew Poll showed Republicans thought higher education was a positive for society at 54% vs. 37% negative (those looney liberals…) (Democrats were 70 vs 20. Preaching to the choir is just so easy…)

            In ONE YEAR, the Republican numbers reversed. That is a twenty percent shift in both directions

            Why?

            Middlebury
            Missouri
            Evergreen
            Berkley (but isn’t it ALWAYS Berkley?)

            A Rape on Campus by Susan Erdely with the ridiculous and horrible overreaction at UVA.

            “Mouthy” Adjuncts

            The attack on Western Culture, thoughts and rights.

            Conservative People using their free speech rights being literally attacked on campus. Some rando liberal felt safe enough to just haul off and PUNCH a stranger. Why would they feel that way if they weren’t sent a message from the top?

            And now we have rioting and looting excused by some very loud voices in the Academy.

            This is a Branding and PR Nightmare.

            Men in particular are bailing out of higher education and I can probably Title IX reasons why. Emily Yoffe has covered some of the most egregious cases.

            So the onus of ‘proof’ is not actually on me. The Pew Poll indicates that quite a few Republicans feel exactly this way whether it is true or not. It isn’t on you either unless you are an academic who needs a paycheck.

            But Professor Devereaux, if he doesn’t want to see a drop in academic spending, DOES need to make a far better case than he has above. It is a great case if you love the Humanities (I do) and you believe that all Humanity teachers will give the value added he is. Republicans do NOT believe even a majority of Humanity teachers feel this way.

            “Give me more money so Feminists and Marxists can criticize our nation on your dime and your kids can learn everything BUT Western Values” isn’t a great selling point to reach the people he needs to reach.

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          2. JCD: for some reason the comment software won’t let me reply to your comment but I guess I’ll have to reply again to mine. I hope you see this.

            “A Rape on Campus by Susan Erdely with the ridiculous and horrible overreaction at UVA.”

            I remember that. False allegations of rape are very bad things.

            “Some rando liberal felt safe enough to just haul off and PUNCH a stranger.”

            Which liberal are you referring to? The anarchist who punched the Nazi? Which didn’t happen on a campus? Anarchist aren’t liberals. Anarchists are farther from liberals than Romney is from QAnon.

            “This is a Branding and PR Nightmare.”

            Conservatives often have a very skewed view of what college campuses are often like. At the end of the day they have no one to blame but themselves if they’re wrong about things. People have a responsibility to inform themselves. If they do a shit job of that they should fix that, not blame “branding and PR.”

            “The Pew Poll indicates that quite a few Republicans feel exactly this way whether it is true or not.”

            I remember my favorite bit of famous essay the Paranoid Style of American Politics being the bit where it talks about how the American hard right often copies the forms of its enemies. The KKK aped Masons, the John Birch Society was organized a bit like a set of communist cells, etc. This sort of thinking seems like another example of that, conservatives aping the worst aspects of liberal Post-Modernism “nothing real matters, only what people think matters.” The truth fucking matters.

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        4. I’m glad other people are able to answer these in good faith because I don’t really consider this worth my time. Universities are not dens of crime, rioting and “ending white people” (???), nor is there a monolithic “the Academy” which promotes and defends all these things. This only seems to exist in the fevered imaginings of anti-academic conservatives.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. Universities are also not dens of rape—women of college age are at more risk if they do not attend university (which is just “poor people suffer more crime”)—yet the idea they are is conventional wisdom, and most certainly not among “anti-academic conservatives”.

            As for “ending white people”, so you haven’t seen the many, many academics gloating at the prospect of white genocide? Like when Drexel University poli-sci professor George Ciccariello-Maher tweeted that it was “all I want for Christmas”? Maybe, indeed, he was joking; maybe, indeed, you can tell me what everyone would say, and correctly, about someone who tweeted that about anyone other than white people, joking or not. (He resigned…but he was not forced to resign. Anyone tweeting that about non-whites would not have had a chance to resign on their own.)

            Like

        5. Oooh! I’ll give it a go!

          -Why have almost all our riots and protests in the last 3 years happened on campus?

          They have not. The vast majority of protests and riots happen in city centers.

          -Why are colleges and universities not strongly standing up for Free Speech and Diversity of Opinion?
          (Not the faux diversity of Liberals of all Colors, but one which allows Conservatives?)

          Must colleges and universities provide a platform for anyone who wants to speak there? What about those universities that, for example, refuse to hire instructors who will not sign a statement of faith? Do they also count in your assessment? What would such ‘standing up for Free Speech’ look like to you?

          -Why are the vast majority of Antifa college students who supposedly know these ‘wise ways of looking at the world’?

          This is not a coherent sentence. You basically ask, “Why are the students?” Please rephrase as a complete question.

          – Why has the Academy not pushed back on silly ahistorical ‘liberal screeds’ like the NYT ‘1619 Project’?

          A number of historians _have_ stated disagreements: Gordon Wood, Sean Wilentz, Richard Carwardine, James McPherson, James Oakes, Victoria Bynum, and Leslie M. Harris are all mentioned in the Wikipedia article. Also – disagreeing is not the same as agreeing with you that it is ‘ahistorical’. What about it is ‘ahistorical’?

          -Why are Conservatives no longer welcome on campus? Why are riots against Conservatives left unpunished on campus? What is the Academy afraid of?

          What ‘riots against conservatives’? Nearly every campus has a chapter of the College Republicans, certainly the two schools I went to do. Why do you say that conservatives are ‘no longer welcome on campus’? You raise questions, but they require we agree with you in advance to even address them.

          -Why is it in the Academy, and no where else, that things like Cancel Culture and calls for ending Patriarchy (Western Culture) or ‘White People’ (Western Culture) not only entertained but seriously considered and disseminated and, most problematic, NOT pushed back against by supposedly serious scholars like Professor Devereaux?

          “Cancel Culture” isn’t really a thing. Western Culture is not the same thing as Patriarchy. Western Culture is not the same thing as “White People”. Calls to ‘end western culture’ are not disseminated through the academy. Out of curiosity – why is ‘not pushing back’ _more_ problematic than _disseminating_?

          -Defend Evergreen. Defend Berkley.

          This isn’t a question, but a call for some kind of action – presumably against an imagined ‘cancel culture’ slight.

          – If the Humanities is so full of wise, thoughtful and well informed people, why is their answer to complex political and cultural issues joining a riot?

          Well – it isn’t. So…

          -Follow up to the above: Why aren’t College boards condemning and removing teachers engaging in criminal activity?

          What criminal activity would that be?

          -Is our culture so incredibly bad or is this a hypercritical eye by the Academy? Why is the Perfect the Enemy of the Good? Point out a better culture.

          Are you trying to argue that our culture is without fault?

          -Why is tuition going up at multiple times the rate of inflation while the number of teachers remaining static?

          Because a lot of MBAs have been put in charge of schools, and their goal is to enrich themselves and their friends, so a lot of money going to schools is going to pay for administration. With a shift towards adjunct instructors, the pay of those teaching the classes has been drifting downwards.

          In general, if you are going to ask questions that involve me accepting something in advance, you are also going to need to provide some citations showing that what you are asking about is actually happening.

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          1. Annoying that this comment cannot be ‘replied’ to, I suppose because there is a limit to how deep the indentation will go – so I have copied it in its entirety:

            >You are laboring under a grave misunderstanding of the situation.

            >Professor Devereaux is trying to sell a good. HE needs to make the case that the
            >Humanities has value and that a Republican isn’t wasting his money on his good.
            >That is has value for the money paid.

            Which he has done, or did you not read the post?

            >In 2015, a Pew Poll showed Republicans thought higher education was a positive
            >for society at 54% vs. 37% negative (those looney liberals…) (Democrats were 70
            >vs 20. Preaching to the choir is just so easy…)

            And preaching to those who make up their own reality so difficult…

            >In ONE YEAR, the Republican numbers reversed. That is a twenty percent shift
            >in both directions
            >
            >Why?
            >
            >Middlebury
            >Missouri
            >Evergreen
            >Berkley (but isn’t it ALWAYS Berkley?)
            >
            >A Rape on Campus by Susan Erdely with the ridiculous and horrible overreaction at UVA.
            >
            >“Mouthy” Adjuncts

            Wow – that’s a lot of words that don’t actually provide a reason. And really, “mouthy”? So- the right is all about free speech except for adjuncts, who, I suppose, should just shut up and stop being so mouthy?

            >The attack on Western Culture, thoughts and rights.

            What ‘attack’?

            >Conservative People using their free speech rights

            like to pretend that they are

            >being literally attacked on campus.

            >Some rando liberal felt safe enough to just haul off and PUNCH a stranger. Why would
            >they feel that way if they weren’t sent a message from the top?

            Some rando conservatives felt safe enough to point their guns at a peaceful crowd. Should we judge all conservatives by their actions?

            >And now we have rioting and looting excused by some very loud voices in the Academy.

            Still waiting on a citation for this

            >This is a Branding and PR Nightmare.

            Well – conservatives are certainly doing their best to make it that way.

            >Men in particular are bailing out of higher education and I can probably
            >Title IX reasons why. Emily Yoffe has covered some of the most egregious
            >cases.

            Citation needed – I am not going on a scavenger hunt to find out what Emily Yoffe has to say – go ahead and put the cases here. And I like the nice touch of blaming a law that is specifically to ensure equality for women in education as your reason why men are bailing out of education. In fact – are men bailing out of higher education? A larger fraction of men received 4-year degrees in 2019 than in any year previous, and the overall fraction has been growing since 1940. Title IX was enacted in 1972 – in 1977, 19.2% of men had a 4-year degree. in 2019 it was 35.4%. Just exactly how has Title IX reduced the number of men seeking 4-year degrees?

            >So the onus of ‘proof’ is not actually on me.

            So nya nya nya – you seem to think that means you can just present anything and we have to accept your word as holy writ?

            >The Pew Poll indicates that quite a few Republicans feel exactly this way
            >whether it is true or not.

            Citation needed…

            >It isn’t on you either unless you are an academic who needs a paycheck.

            The onus to defend a statement is on the person making the statement.

            >But Professor Devereaux, if he doesn’t want to see a drop in academic
            >spending,

            You are eliding his argument to a case for higher academic spending…

            >DOES need to make a far better case than he has above. It is a great
            >case if you love the Humanities (I do) and you believe that all Humanity
            >teachers will give the value added he is. Republicans do NOT believe
            >even a majority of Humanity teachers feel this way.

            Perhaps because Republicans have been consistently lied to about what humanities instructors think?

            >“Give me more money so Feminists and Marxists can criticize our nation
            >on your dime and your kids can learn everything BUT Western Values”
            >isn’t a great selling point to reach the people he needs to reach.

            Fortunately, that isn’t the point he made

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          2. >Conservative People using their free speech rights

            like to pretend that they are

            >being literally attacked on campus.

            So you say that when people are literally taken to the hospital for literal injuries inflicted on them by literal students — that’s pretending .they were attacked.

            We have the attacks on tape, BTW.

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          3. No doubt you are perfectly correct, there is no problem with the Academy, they are simply amazing and they enjoy the trust, respect and dare I say adulation of the masses. There will be no readjustment in school funding or enrollment. There will be no political backlash. We have, in fact, always been at war with Eastasia.

            You have single handedly set me straight.

            “Smile More. Speak Less” Aaron Burr “Hamilton”

            Liked by 1 person

          4. >No doubt you are perfectly correct,

            You aren’t really very good at sarcasm.

            >there is no problem with the Academy,

            Not what I claimed, nor what any of this discussion is about. You don’t add any reasonable thoughts after this.

            Like

          1. I also observe that houses have been burned. And in one famous incident, a man tweeted “burn baby burn” about some low-income housing being burned and then called the cops and was very indignant online when they came near his gated community.

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    2. This is hyperbolic, but there is a core of truth to it. The way Bret describes humanities thinking holds great appeal to me, but (at least in my social circles) the STEM majors are usually better at it than the humanities majors. That’s a really disconcerting state of affairs for the discipline.

      Humanities have suffered badly from ideological lock-in, fairly obviously. This isn’t inherent – note that conservatives have done a pretty good job of reconquering legal education, because the need was obvious and they put real work into it. But it’s bad for both the ability to see all angles of the important questions, and for the ability to maintain public support.

      (That said, I think we should do to history, geography, psychology, and the like what the Federalist Society did to law. Show up, get involved, and care about the field over a period of decades. We’ll likely never take over Grievance Studies, but it’s a small loss tbh.)

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      1. If ideological lock-in is in and of itself bad, then an organization like the Federalist Society is bad. The Federalist Society’s goal is to induce ideological lock-in in federal jurisprudence, *for a certain ideology,* is bad too.

        It sounds to me like under your reasoning, the problem with ‘ideological lock-in’ isn’t so much “an ideology has a strong foothold in academia.”

        It’s “the team I root for has lost a lot of arguments in academia lately.”

        Sometimes, the reason your team keeps losing matches isn’t because the umpires were biased. It’s because they’re, well… losers.

        Perhaps the reason that ideas promoted by Team Elephant Party in the United States keep losing in academia isn’t because academia is the victim of ideological lock-in. Perhaps it is because there are systematic flaws in the ways those ideas were developed, flaws that academia keeps picking up on now that it bothers to look.

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    3. In short, this is the usual conservative screed against higher education, one that lacks connection to reality. Why do these things always feel like they were written by someone who never set foot inside an institute of higher education?

      I have three degrees (classics, ancient history, and theology), all within the last decade, so I like to think my view of academia has at least some connection to reality. And I think that JCD’s post, while phrased in a rather rhetorical way, does have a defensible point.

      To illustrate, let me take the example of a course on post-Nicene Church history I took for my master’s. The degree itself was in history, and perhaps because of this, question such as “Is Arianism true? Is Trinitarianism?” or even “Why did Arius and Athanasius think that their respective beliefs were true?” were almost entirely neglected, in favour of questions like “How did the people defending this belief stand to benefit? How does such-and-such and author portray himself in his works? How did this or that theological community construct its identity? What narrative does this belief support?” Although nobody ever explicitly said, “Of course, questions of the truth or falsehood of these beliefs are entirely irrelevant; everybody just chose sides based on what would help them get the most power and influence,” that was very much the impression that was given by this approach. Add to this the fact that academics need to find something new to say to justify their publications, and that the easiest way to do this is by trying to debunk some previously-accepted narrative (“I know that Athanasius portrays himself as the victim of persecution, but what if he’s lying?”), and the overall result is that the entire period comes to resemble a theological Game Of Thrones, full of self-interested manipulators who care only about their own power.

      Now, obviously I don’t have first-hand experience with every humanities department in every country, but I can very well see how this sort of approach might lead to a corrosive, destructive cynicism which eventually leads to riots on the streets. After all, if you’ve been conditioned by your education to see appeals to high ideals like religion or truth as simply masks for self-interest, you’re likely to take that same approach to contemporary politics as well. This, however, makes reasoned discussion not just pointless (since you already “know” that your interlocutor’s professed beliefs are just a mask for his own self-interest), but impossible (since you can no longer appeal to transcendent ideals and make arguments like “Yes, segregation might benefit you personally, but it’s unjust, so you should stop supporting it anyway”). Instead, you’re left to rely on emotional manipulation (Alasdair MacIntyre made a similar point in After Virtue) or threats. Using riots instead of peaceful argument to get your way is entirely logical, given this sort of worldview.

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      1. I think it’s more than just cynicism, it’s a distrust in institutions instilled by a sense that those institutions truly do not care for the needs of the people, nor do they have the wherewithal to respond. Appeals to reason work when you expect one side to engage in a good-faith debate and then respond to your needs. Some people don’t expect that, because their experiences don’t support it.

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        1. Virtually every major institution in every English-speaking country is tripping over itself to make statements supporting Black Lives Matter, and universities in particular have been making active efforts to diversify their intake and faculty for decades. The idea that the big institutions in society just don’t care about racism and rioting is the only way to make them do something just doesn’t pass muster.

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          1. “Virtually every major institution in every English-speaking country is tripping over itself to make statements supporting Black Lives Matter”

            Exactly, they’re tripping over themselves to make statements. Few, or none, are putting substantive effort into pursuing material change.

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          2. Exactly, they’re tripping over themselves to make statements. Few, or none, are putting substantive effort into pursuing material change.

            Minneapolis and NY have already voted to defund their police forces (partially, in NY’s case), which is a substantive (albeit deeply foolish) change.

            Many universities in the US have affirmative action programmes designed to get more black people through the doors; many also actively conduct outreach work to get more students from underrepresented backgrounds to apply.

            Every, or almost every, major company has a diversity and inclusion policy to try and hire more ethnic minorities, and treats racist language or behaviour as a sackable offence. (Of course, they’re also doing business in China, whose government is engaged in literal genocide as we speak, but none of the protestors seem to care about that.)

            These are all substantive efforts, and except for the defunding the police stuff, they were all ongoing well before the riots started.

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      2. Bret Devereaux had in this blog affirmed countless times that “generally it is safe to assume that people in the past believed their own religion”. If anyone he pushes back against this kind of cynicism.

        As myself somewhat conservative I do understand some of the grievances listed here. But the argument for humanities presented is much more general. It is not confined to the US and to the present decades. It is possible to think “Humanities should be valued more, and yet in these days american higher education in humanities is camped by people whose political ideas are unacceptable to me and who damage the humanities”. People from all over the word read this blog, and fortunately not all of them suffer from this issue.

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        1. Bret Devereaux had in this blog affirmed countless times that “generally it is safe to assume that people in the past believed their own religion”. If anyone he pushes back against this kind of cynicism.

          Bret does, and it’s one of the things I like about his blog. But he’s only one person, and at least in my experience, most of the literature affirms (by implication, not explicitly) the cynical view.

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          1. To be fair a lot of the academics are at least implicitly Marxist, and one of Marxism’s central tenets is “false consciousness”: whatever people claim their motive is, they’re really motivated by economic concerns or class interest. It’s why people claim that Islamic terrorists, who are actually of almost identical background to 1960s college radicals (“bored upper- or upper middle-class kids seeking purpose to their fairly secure, stable lives”), are motivated by poverty.

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          2. (Let me amend that. Rather than “at least implicitly Marxist” I should say that academics often have imbibed Marxist assumptions at second- or thirdhand—ignore the image of second- or thirdhand “imbibing”, please—and so often apply the “false consciousness” paradigm without knowing its provenance.)

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          3. “To be fair a lot of the academics are at least implicitly Marxist, and one of Marxism’s central tenets is “false consciousness”: whatever people claim their motive is, they’re really motivated by economic concerns or class interest. ”
            -Tom in AZ

            Now, I may not be a world-class expert on Marxism (or in this case, Engelism). But a brief check of Wikipedia suggests otherwise. “False consciousness” is there described not as “whatever people believe, they’re really motivated by class interest.” It is described as “situations where a group of people unite and strongly promote an idea that is contrary to their class interest.”

            So indeed, “false consciousness” would seem to mean almost the opposite of what you said. It doesn’t describe scenarios where people claim to be motivated by X, when in fact they are motivated by class. It describes scenarios where people were never motivated by class in the first place! And, indeed, are presumably scoring some kind of own-goal and actively going against whatever their class interests would be!

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  10. Be veery quiet, I’m hunting typos….

    “rather they wished to be the reads of them” -> “rather they wished to be the readers of them”

    “recommended this volume as an antedote against Solzhenitsyn’s” -> “recommended this volume as an antidote against Solzhenitsyn’s”

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  11. > Unlike computers, we do not think in numbers, but in words and consequently, the study of humans as thinking creatures is mostly about those words (yes, yes, I see you there, economics and psychology; there are edge cases, of course). Our laws are written in words because our thoughts form in our heads as words; we naturally reason with words and we even feel with words.

    This may not be as universal as you imply, see for instance
    https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=20268991 “Most of my internal “dialog” is without words.”
    https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=19621551 “I do not usually think in language, unless it is some basic thing I am repeating to myself.”

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    1. This is one of the major things that bugged me about this article. I’d also suggest this article about a Psychology study showing that internal speech is actually the exception https://www.psychologytoday.com/intl/blog/pristine-inner-experience/201110/not-everyone-conducts-inner-speech Unfortunately with SSC down the best roundup of anecdotal experiences is gone, but at one point there was a fairly massive comment thread showing that people have massive variation in how they internally experience thought.

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  12. Great post, as usual. I only have one question. I saw in the captions that you went to the Duomo a couple of years back. Did you get a chance to climb up on the roof? The experience, in my humble (ha!) opinion, just isn’t the same if you don’t go there. You can actually see the hills around the city from an elevation that is more or less even with them, and it’s breathtaking.

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  13. I think it’s pretty easy to surmise why humanities has been declining: there is no easy to find job at the end of an education! An engineering degree opens up to you all positions with the name X engineer (where X is your specialization), a degree in medicine opens up doctor’s position of your chosen specialty, etc. You can essentially trace the funding of specific degrees with their job prospects.

    I’m not sure this will change until the current capitalistic system changes in some drastic manner.

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    1. Every alternative to capitalism currently on offer doesn’t just devalue the humanities, but actively distorts them in service to ideology. (And still has a hefty element of “what’s the payoff?”. Democratic socialism is basically just state-owned capitalism, and communism is just state-owned slavery.)

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    2. I think that a lot of this is because we have decided that our personal budget for gadgets (especially ones with phones attached) is much larger than our personal budget for art. This is less a feature of the system than another consequence of our society valuing STEM over humanities.

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      1. A new phone is what, a thousand bucks every two years? That’s not much more expensive than basic cable TV. Or Netflix, Spotify, movie tickets, video games…

        Most people’s cultural spending budget is vastly higher than their gadget budget. It’s merely so mundane that we don’t think of it as “arts”.

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    3. Here in Australia the government has just proposed to make degrees in the humanities much more expensive. This in the name of directing funding to future job opportunities (it’s more likely that this move is directed by animus against the humanities – the conservatives here have been fighting a culture war for decades). Yet humanities graduates have better job prospects than STEM graduates – surveys show them more likely to be employed, at higher average salaries.

      There are a lot of jobs where the ability to synthesise diverse evidence, take lessons from the past and appreciate foreign viewpoints are valuable. I certainly found it so in my career (intelligence).

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    4. I think this mindset would be a good antidote to that problem, if it was taken seriously by all involved. A lot of employers would pay dearly for someone with a Bachelor’s of Common Sense, or a Master’s of Not Screwing Up.

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  14. I’m not sure the ‘humans think in words’ generalization holds? Plausibly it’s universal or near-universal that any given human will think in words sometimes—although I’ve never encountered any actual research on that, so for all I know it might be like the famous past case where people with aphantasia and people without aphantasia mostly failed to realize one another existed until someone finally conducted a study which established both groups’ existence pretty clearly—but we think in other, non-word, formats, too. I would be very surprised if it turned out that people consistently used words as a primary means of thought.

    Notably, I consistently find thinking in terms of spatial relations much easier and less mentally taxing than thinking in words. Meanwhile, when I speak in words, I tend to first need to run a mental translation process, because my thoughts don’t come pre-packaged in that format; it takes deliberate effort to render them thus.

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  15. Disclaimer: I love the blog, and as an amateur fantasy writer who takes a lot of inspiration from history books I really don’t want to abolish study of the humanities. That said, you specify the humanities “when properly taught.” How does one determine whether the humanities are being properly taught? It’s relatively straightforward with STEM: are bridges and buildings collapsing? Are airplanes flying? Does medicine work? Admittedly the answer to that last one can be lost in the statistical haze sometimes, but with the humanities we don’t have any such handy yardsticks.

    The humanities are, if not intrinsically political, at least much more vulnerable to politicization than STEM, and it seems to me that much opposition to them is rooted in that. Because the field is occupied with questions that have no clear answers but are closely tied to our moral sensibilities, and to matters that touch on social/political/economic power, it is very easy for them to degrade into a propaganda tool for the ruling classes. And, in some circles at least, they have.

    A lot of conservatives view the modern study of the humanities–not totally without justice–as a way for their political enemies to teach their children to despise their parents (using tax money), and want nothing to do with them. I have a broad sense of how we came to these straits, which I don’t want to get into because this comment is long enough already. I should allow that the enemies of academia were far from blameless, there’s plenty of legitimate criticism to be made of conservatism, and there are some truly toxic feedback loops at work here. And yet people don’t like the humanities because the arm of the humanities that gets the most play in the broader culture is that represented by Robin DiAngelo.

    You could argue that the answer to rot in the humanities is robust criticism from those well-versed in the humanities. Very well. But how do we get there from here?

    (I totally understand if you don’t want to publish this, but it was on my mind as I read your post)

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    1. The most dominant 19th and 20th century approaches to the humanities, from “scientific racism” and romantic nationalism at the beginning to the “strong” form of postmodernism at the end (cultural relativism has some value as a methodology but social constructionism is dangerous nonsense), might almost have been deliberately constructed as a list of things not to do, in the humanities.

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    2. This seems like a good place to point out the open dishonesty involved in the creation of the term “STEM.” The point about bridges falling down, medicine working, and so on is true for engineering, but not really for anything involving science and mathematics.

      You really can’t point at those two for anything that would match this argument. (You could say “from the perspective of how science is done this is good/bad science”, but then that’s the exact same point being made about the disciplines in the humanities.)

      Also, obviously, there is no such discipline as “technology” in the first place, especially if you’re including engineering in the list. As far as I can tell it’s there purely to stop sarcastic people like me from referring to people who study science, engineering, or mathematics as “SEMens”.

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      1. It seems to me that the development of medicines quite directly uses “science” (or at least much more directly than mechanical or electrical engineering). The human body and its processes and the ways pathogens attack it are studied (in observation and experiment, that is, science ), and then the solution is searched (that is kind of engineering)

        And also engineering is greatly based on (physical, chemical and computer) science. The time which is needed from a cool academic idea to a working product varies (~1 year for laser, ~10 years for fission or lambda calculus or semiconductors, ~100 for fusion and genetic engineering), but since the second Industrial Revolution at least usually research goes first and application follows.

        And mathematics needs no external tests whatsoever. It build from itself and stands. (as long as proofs are checked rigorously)
        (The inclusion of “Technology” is nonsense in my opinion, too)

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        1. I don’t know that that’s true. Medieval European medicine was better than 19th century medicine despite still being based on humor theory and the miasma model of disease. They knew, without knowing why, that you should disinfect your surgical tools and wash your hands before poking around inside people, especially between patients. (They probably did know why using something like laudanum to lessen the pain of a surgery patient was a good idea; you don’t need a super advanced model of medicine to know the stress of extreme pain is bad for one’s health. I don’t know why later medicine seems to have forgotten that for a while.)

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          1. Surely there are other methods for doing medicine than what is “western modern mainstream”. In this case some forms of informal “experimental science” (observations when not treated with the scientific method are still useful observations) could make up for the failings of theory. But can hardly be doubted, that medicine after roughly 1860 advanced swiftly relying on the findings of biological science: Disinfection and anesthesia were (re)discovered, the germs responsible for certain diseases (TBC, Cholera, Plague, etc…) were identified, serums and vaccines were manufactured (previously only variola had a vaccine, by sweet natural coincidence being a similar weaker virus being available). Then viruses were discovered, then phage therapy, blood types enabled transfusions, X-ray began to be used.

            On came effective surgery and radiotherapy against cancer, then antibiotics… I am not going to list further, but it is true that we became great at treating disease that has a single, well-identifiable cause.

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      2. Medicine is closely based on science: The human body, its processes and the pathogens way of attacking it are studied in observation and experiment. Then a kind of engineering is done to find the right molecule, but it is still closely based on chemistry and physics.

        And engineering also. Sometimes it takes 100 years (genetic engineering, nuclear fusion), sometimes 10 years (lambda calculus/Turing machine, nuclear fission, semiconductors), sometimes just one, but most of the great and transformative inventions since 1850 are in fact applications of physical, chemical or computer science.

        Mathematics needs no external justifications. It build on itself using pure logic, and holds as long as the proofs are properly checked,

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        1. Sure, medicine is halfway between biology and engineering for the most part, so it would fit into that general area.

          Mathematics has lots of questions about external justification and internal checking though, a lot of which happens at the overlapping ground with Philosophy. It’s not just calculating proofs, and even if it was that puts it in the same space as the sciences and humanities, since it’s an internal criteria developed by the discipline. It’s not like we have proofs because someone woke up one morning and stubbed their toe on Mathematical Proof.

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    3. You could argue that the answer to rot in the humanities is robust criticism from those well-versed in the humanities. Very well. But how do we get there from here?

      Treating political beliefs as a protected characteristic under anti-discrimination law might be a good start. It wouldn’t entirely solve the problem, and there’d still be the potential for covert discrimination against people who don’t toe the ideological line, but it would at least make it easier for people who disagree with the Robin DiAngelo wing of the humanities to speak up without having to worry about losing their jobs.

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  16. “The Soviet Union wasn’t defeated with missiles, after all, it collapsed from a failure of ideological legitimacy;”

    I am under the Impression that the collapse of the Soviet Union has been caused mainly by economical problems, instead of cultural ones. They even had serious food shortages! See for example : https://web.archive.org/web/20171103232618/https://www.nytimes.com/1987/10/21/world/gorbachev-is-striving-to-end-food-shortages.html

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    1. The USSR had much worse economic problems in the 1930s than it did in the 1980s, yet it didn’t collapse. In the 1930s, its leadership believed in what they were doing (no matter how awful) to a much greater degree than it did in the 80s. So while economic failure was a root cause of the decline of legitimacy, it wasn’t the cause of regime collapse.

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      1. Very true, but one might apply the same argument to the claim regarding Hollywood and Rock’n’Roll. Why didn’t the cultural accomplishments of the West (such as, say, Jazz) destroy the Soviet Union when it was getting started? Rock’n’Roll – both western and domestic – was a part of the Soviet Union’s ideological decay, but I would argue it was more of a symptom than a cause. I’d say the causes of that process were the changing generations, the relative normalisation of life (thus, the loss of fanaticism) after Stalin and the increasingly obvious economic lag. As a result, most people didn’t believe in the system.

        I don’t think that is why the Soviet Union fell, though. I think it could very easily have been preserved if its rulers were of a mind to preserve it, regardless of ideological and economic damage. But a significant part of the elite chose not to fight for it, or not to fight for it with such means as may have an effect, or to actively work for its destruction. Ideological decay certainly played its part there – among the elites. Then again, so did purely selfish considerations: do I win more from a “revolution” or from the status quo? Carving up the Union in spite of the expressed wishes of most of its populace was an obviously profitable course of action for those in position to inherit its power and property.

        I will grant you that Hollywood and Rock’n’Roll may have had more to do with all this than weapons systems… but then again, maybe not. The arms race helped damage the economic system further, thus indirectly contributing to the loss of legitimacy. I rather suspect that the perception and the reality of economic mismanagement had more to do with the loss of legitimacy among both the elites and the broader masses than Rock’n’Roll. Western culture mainly did it for some of the Soviet middle-to-lower-class youths, not the most powerful political force in the country no matter how you look at it.

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  17. In addition to cptbutton‘s 2 typos, I will mention offer the following corrections:

    rather different than the typical -> rather different from the typical
    Humans are linguistic creates -> Humans are linguistic creations (note: I am unsure if this is what was intended)
    average rate for of tertiary-education-completion -> (delete either of or for)
    In the mean time, it seems -> In the meantime, it seems
    has a unplumbably -> has an unplumbably
    Caption for Dickinson poems: uncharacteristically straight-forward -> uncharacteristically straightforward

    May I also ask Bret about the reference to Gulag: A History being an antidote to Gulag Archipelego? I don’t “get it.”

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    1. Both Applebaum and Solzhenitsyn are sharply critical of the camp regime and the Soviet government of course, so in that sense they both point the same way. But Solzhenitsyn didn’t have access to the archives and was writing with a clear political purpose, so he sometimes distorts (intentionally or unintentionally) to that purpose.

      The Gulag Archipelago is fundamentally a political/literary, not historical work; Solzhenitsyn estimates high for things like the size of the system or the rates of deaths. Applebaum, by contrast, wrote during the brief period when the archives were open – before Putin closed them down again – and so had access to records, firmer numbers and a sometimes clearer and probably more correct sense of how the camp system developed.

      Fortunately, Applebaum does not spare the reader the horror of the system either. The book is cut in half by a series of chapters on life in the camps which use personal testimony and are heartbreaking; it closes with a long appendix titled, “How Many” which rends the soul for the reading, despite being a very clear and clinical accounting.

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      1. Thank you for explaining. I had read one, and not the other, but it seems as if their conclusions are not at odds with each other.

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  18. Medium time reader, first time commenter.

    I agree with everything that you’ve said on the value of the humanities. A point that I want to emphasize is that, when people choose their leaders, all of them need these skills. You end up with leaders without these skills, because a significant proportion of the population have decided that, they want leaders without those skills.

    Looking at public discourse, especially vox pops, there are times where I have a hard time telling if people are lying or if they just lack the skills to understand what they’re talking about. Do people say obviously ridiculous things because they don’t core if you know they’re lying, or do they say obviously ridiculous things because they don’t know enough to know that they’re obviously ridiculous? I’m trying not to sound like I’m bragging here. I am well aware that I know basically nothing.

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  19. The thing about STEM fetishisation – the thing is, it often doesn’t seem to involve STEM? Rather, it is an over-valuation of those who *market* themselves as scientists and engineers, by those who are *also* not themselves scientists and engineers (though that may mean both ‘science fans,’ and political or business leaders who just want results). I say this because you say: “[…] it isn’t enough for this to be a skill-set held only by a tiny class of designated, hereditary ‘leaders.’ Rather, it behooves us for the humanistic skills to be broadly distributed in society, so that they are widely available.” And the exact same is true, I think, of STEM-skills. They not only teach a valuable skillset; different to and yet analogous with the structure of critical thinking you describe, but also – and this has been in my opinion horribly neglected – are in their own right deeply beautiful (if there were but an explanation of Noether’s theorem as accessible to the ordinary person as this blog!). And when taught properly, should engender a profound humility with respect to the nature of all things and the place of humans within them – though I don’t know at all what “taught properly” should look like here.

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  20. I wonder to what degree the current assault on the humanities is conducted by a leadership class that wants to (re-)monopolize the education that produces good leaders?

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    1. I think it’s more that a leadership class see themselves as a bunch of disinterested technocrats using science and data to manipulate society in desirable ways. If your approach to governing is primarily number-driven rather than human-driven, of course studying the humanities is going to seem frivolous and unnecessary.

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  21. “Literary intellectuals at one pole—at the other scientists, and as the most
    representative, the physical scientists. Between the two a gulf of mutual
    incomprehension—sometimes (particularly among tthe young) hostility and
    dislike, but most of all lack of understanding. They have a curious distorted
    image of each other. Their attitudes are so different that, even on the level of
    emotion, they can’t find much common ground. Non-scientists tend to think of
    scientists as brash and boastful.” — CP Snow; “THE REDE LECTURE, 1959”

    One of the reasons for the split between STEM and the humanities are the behaviors parodied in the Sokal paper (Sokal, Alan D., “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity,” 1994. https://web.stanford.edu/dept/HPST/critstudies/transgress_v2_noafterword.pdf).

    One thing to remember when comparing STEM and humanities educations: STEM majors must get six of the seven liberal arts in their formal coursework (I know of few who take many music classes), and do not get defanged “humanities for STEM majors,” i.e., ones which could not be used for credit by history or English majors. While humanities majors may get six of the seven liberal arts (many do not), the STEM classes they take are frequently, if not near-universally, special ones stripped of much of their content and nearly all of their rigor.

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    1. Uh. There are absolutely courses in the humanities that – while not explicitly tagged as ‘humanities for stem majors’ – are exactly that, complete with unwritten (but often verbally communicated) expectations that non-majors aren’t to be graded too harshly in them.

      Edit: I wonder if the fact that this is effectively ‘hidden’ contributes to the mistaken assumption by many that history or literature don’t involve any particular ‘skills’ and that ‘anyone’ can do them.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I can kinda see it for literature—you don’t need any formal training, beyond literacy itself, to engage with a text, though there are certain kinds of engagement where the training undoubtedly helps—but does anybody really say it about history? Yeah nonspecialists totally pore over 12th century French bookshop receipts to see who was buying what, because just any Joe Schmoe off the street can read Old French written largely in extinct forms of shorthand. (The fact a lot of legit historical research is done by amateurs might muddy the waters a bit, but most of the amateurs have at least the autodidact equivalent of the formal training, if not the actual degrees; you’re not seeing people who don’t know anything about the historian’s “craft” doing it.)

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      2. Well, then, at least the STEM departments are honest about it.

        I don’t know what exposure to undergraduate STEM classes you may have had, but unless they were explicitly tagged as “for non-STEM majors,” there wouldn’t be any difference in grading.

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  22. We have all of the knowledge in the world and yet no wisdom.

    Do we?

    Do we still go about gabbling about “disparate impact” because we are so unwise as to neglect the basic statistics that make it nonsense, or because most people don’t know it?

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  23. I have great sympathy for the humanities and agree that an understanding of philosophy, history, etc. is essential to be a good citizen. However, as time passes I’ve had less and less faith in the universities and academia as a vehicle for conveying such understanding, and they seem to be losing their integrity rather than improving. In fact, I increasingly suspect that much of humanities “education” serves to degrade one’s ability to reason rather than improve it.

    Aside from a specific subset of STEM people, I don’t think that there are many who think the humanities aren’t useful in some way. It’s specifically the institutions which claim to teach the humanities which they believe to be corrupt; a general defense of the utility of the humanities is not going to convince such people.

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  24. I’m a scientist, but I’ve always found humanities topics interesting. I think it’s fascinating to hear something of the worlds of very different people whom I’d probably never get to meet or talk to in depth. Also it seemed to me that humanities subjects are about how human societies used to be and how people inside and outside reacted to them, and that might provide insight into why society is the way it is now.

    That said, I’m not sure I totally buy the “materialistic” argument given, that the humanities are necessary because they promote empathy, epistemic humility, sound reasoning and effective communication. I think it would be nearly impossible to become a good scientist without acquiring those same skills. In my experience, as a science student you quickly find that:

    1) other people are working on topics similar to yours, and though they may have very different backgrounds and use very different language to discuss many of the relevant ideas, it is in your interest to try to understand what they did/are doing and relate it to your own work;

    2) you are sometimes (often?) wrong, and especially at the beginning you seem to know much less than everyone else (in fact, I think science students (including myself) tend to be a bit too easily embarrassed about how little they know — it prevents them from asking clarifying questions and actually slows their learning);

    3) constructing solid chains of reasoning, and testing/poking holes in/thinking of ways to test those chains of reasoning, yours and others’, without prejudice and ideally with civility, is the meaning of your professional life;

    4) if no one understood what you said in your talk (even if that was because they all dozed off…), or what your journal paper was trying to demonstrate, you might as well have not bothered with the work, no matter how brilliant it was.

    To be clear, I’m not at all saying that studying the humanities doesn’t teach these skills — only that I don’t think teaching those skills is unique to the humanities.

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    1. I think the biggest difference is that in the sciences there tends to be a very straightforward supreme arbiter of all decisions: the facts, as mediated through the lens of experiments and testing of concrete objects under known, repeatable physical conditions.

      In the humanities, the truth can rarely be established by performing a single experiment. There are simply too many variables and too many ways to explain any given single data point. Instead, one *has* to assimilate a tremendous mass of impressions and pieces of partial inferential evidence, then form a gestalt version of the truth. And then somehow communicate this process of gestalt-forming, without being able to just draw a graph and say “see, I predicted X and all the experimental data was within the error bars, so I’m almost certainly right!”

      Also, science-adjacent disciplines such as engineering, computer programming, and medicine often focus *less* (which isn’t to say ‘not at all’) on the process of inquiry than the sciences themselves do. That experience of frequently being wrong and having to explore unknown territory is not present, or present differently; most engineers, programmers, doctors, and so on have more grounding in specified best practices and principles discovered by others.

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  25. Let me just say that I’m a big fan of the blog and of history generally, and I think it’s great that you are putting this out there.

    With that being said, I have to disagree with the framing here. Asking if we need the humanities is like asking if we need “stuff.” We surely need “stuff,” but not all kinds of stuff. And some stuff might be quite harmful indeed.

    In the same way, we need and want history, but I don’t think we need or want fields that exist only to push a particular political agenda at taxpayer expense, like all the “studies” programs, or “seat filler” degrees like communications.

    If you told me that you wanted to pass a bill to fund an art school, and oh, also a neo-Nazi training camp, I would veto that bill if I could. No matter how nice art is, it’s not nice enough to outweigh the dangers of neo-Nazis.

    Now I’m sure at this point you are saying, it’s not that bad! And we could have a long debate about that. But look at the hard data. Ideological diversity is falling on college campuses all across the US. And left-wing radicalism, including of the violent kind, is growing.

    The reality is that the university system as it stands is unsustainable. There is a lot to talk about here, much more than I could possibly cover in a short comment, but the quick summary is that it treats everyone badly. Students get saddled with life-wrecking amounts of debt. Graduate students find that they’ve been engaged in a half-decade unpaid internship with no jobs waiting at the end. Professors live in fear of getting cancelled if they talk about politics. And administrators have multiplied like rodents in a grain silo.

    We need something different. And I hope that COVID-19 will start concentrating minds on what it will be.

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    1. I must point out that some of these problems may have different underlying causes.

      Ballooning administrative overhead is going to make things inefficient no matter how you slice it.

      But “declining intellectual diversity” has multiple explanations.

      One possibility is that somehow a clique of ideologues has taken over academia and used it to enforce their worldview, despite academia being poorly designed* as an instrument of enforcing ideological uniformity and control.

      The other possibility is that the academics have legitimately and honestly thought about something, and come to a conclusion, and that this conclusion is persuasive enough that the field is in the process of achieving consensus on the subject outside of a handful of cranks.

      “Intellectual diversity” goes down when proponents of geocentric astronomy somehow take over the astronomy department by force and expel all their heliocentric rivals.

      But it also goes down when proponents of heliocentric astronomy state their case persuasively enough that very few highly qualified astronomy students believe in geocentrism anymore. Once that happens, the handful of remaining proponents of geocentrism are slowly pressured into changing their minds, isolated from opportunities to ‘teach the controversy’ to the next generation,’ or hounded out of the astronomy department to take up private practice marketing astrology to rubes.

      Sometimes, I lose an argument not because the umpires were biased, but because I’m… well, *wrong.*
      ________________________

      *(Truly suppressing a dissenting viewpoint among academia is certainly *possible.* But it is harder than in almost any other human institution, because most human institutions have far more powerful tools that can be used to directly silence the dissidents. It requires a very high level of internal cooperation among a very, very large conspiracy to perform the suppression, whereas in most other institutions a handful of elites can easily exert control over the institution’s internal conversations)

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      1. *(Truly suppressing a dissenting viewpoint among academia is certainly *possible.* But it is harder than in almost any other human institution, because most human institutions have far more powerful tools that can be used to directly silence the dissidents. It requires a very high level of internal cooperation among a very, very large conspiracy to perform the suppression, whereas in most other institutions a handful of elites can easily exert control over the institution’s internal conversations)

        Sorry, but this is just dumb. You don’t need an organised conspiracy to enforce ideological conformity, just a sufficient number of individuals in hiring/promotion/publication/grant/etc. committees who are prejudiced against people with disfavoured political views. And what do you know:

        “In decisions ranging from paper reviews to hiring, many social and personality psychologists said that they would discriminate against openly conservative colleagues. The more liberal respondents were, the more they said they would discriminate.” https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2002636

        Sometimes, I lose an argument not because the umpires were biased, but because I’m… well, *wrong.*

        As the study I linked to indicate, significant minorities of the umpires are quite happy to admit to bias. For a practical example of how this can play out, compare how Cambridge University treated Noah Carl and Jordan Peterson to how it treated Priyamvada Gopal.

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  26. Well, the picture of Frederick Douglas reminded me of the anomaly which the US Deep South has yet to reconcile with its history – that slave women were often used by the slave-owners – raped, to put it more bluntly – and the resulting children were also slaves and frequently onsold into slavery elsewhere.

    And as the child of an individual of European descent, they were 50% European … now if the slave-owners had been told there existed a place where the children of Europeans could be sold with impunity, they would’ve been up in arms, frothing with fury at the thought of Europeans being enslaved. Which place happened to be the US South.

    This forms a test case for slave-owners’ allegations about the moral characteristics of slaves and slave-owners, does it not?

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    1. Another place where the children of Europeans could be sold with impunity, and that into a slavery primarily about rape rather than menial labor with rape as a side thing, was Ottoman Turkey. Which enslaved something like 15 million European Christians, primarily from the Balkans, Ukraine, and even Poland; the Ottomans and other Islamic states enslaved, total, roughly as many European Christians—blonde girls were particularly prized as sex-slaves—as both sides of Africa exported to the New World or Mughal India.

      The reason Crimea is ethnically Russian is all the region’s Ukrainians were sold into Ottoman sexual slavery by the Tatars, except the old people and the adult men, who were just murdered; when the Russian Empire freed Ukraine from the Turks they had to settle Russians in Crimea if they wanted there to be anyone around to man the seaports.

      And the entire Western world responded to this not by getting up in arms or frothing with fury, but by going to war on behalf of the Ottomans, in the Crimean War.

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        1. Well when your entire educational system completely ignores massive atrocities, it is legitimate for those you have ignored to ask “What about…?”

          I learned about the Slave Triangle in school. You didn’t learn about the Harvesting of the Steppe—nor about the Tribute in Blood, which was where Eastern Christian children were kidnapped, brainwashed (often by sexual abuse) into becoming Muslim, and turned into death-squads for the oppression of their own people. So your understanding of the history of slavery—the word “slave” is the very name of my grandmother’s race!—is completely worthless.

          The point of my bringing up the Harvesting of the Steppe is that the post I was responding to claimed Southern slave-owners would have responded with absolute fury at the idea of the children of Europeans being enslaved, except where those children were half-black. I pointed out that millions upon millions of the children of Europeans—with no black ancestry at all, even—were enslaved, and the response of Westerners just like the Southern slave-owners was to go to war to protect the people enslaving those Europeans. Or to write comic operas about their enslavement, like The Abduction from the Seraglio.

          Shall we discuss how the silence or massive underplaying of the Holodomor in Western schools is quite literal Holocaust denial? Except the Holodomor killed, at the low estimate, 1 million more Ukrainians than the Nazis killed Jews, and at the high estimate, half again as many as the Nazi death-camps killed anyone? So it’s actually worse than Holocaust denial. You of course learned about the Holodomor in school; it’s not like one-third of Westerners under thirty believe Stalin killed fewer people than George W. Bush. Or anything.

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          1. We learn about the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade because it is relevant to American history, being a key building block in America’s early economic growth and the method by which a substantial portion of its population got here.

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          2. Which would be fine if recent surveys for not show a majority of at least black Americans, very possibly all Americans, believe only blacks were ever enslaved.

            There’s more to history than American history, you know that right?

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          3. Within the context of American history, it is fairly close to true to say “only blacks were enslaved.” World history is more complicated, of course! Go back far enough and you find Briton and Gallic and Germanic ‘primitives’ (see commentary on the Fremen myth, though) being enslaved by ‘civilized’ Romans (likewise), even.

            But believing that there was no such thing as white slaves in history is not a consequence of some modern conspiracy to cover up historical slavery outside the antebellum South.

            It is, instead, an error much like believing that America was the first ‘real’ democracy in history. Or that America is a uniquely ‘free’ country compared to others. Or believing that American participation in the European Theater of World War Two began on D-Day.

            Such errors are a natural consequence of learning an over-compressed and over-simplified version of history. One that strongly emphasizes American history, while neglecting the history of the world at large, especially the parts of it not directly relevant to America. And one that emphasizes a handful of key dates and concepts that are easily remembered by a disinterested student.

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      1. Where are you getting your numbers?

        My uneducated perspective is that the Atlantic and Indian Ocean slave trades were broadly comparable in terms of numbers of slaves transported and that they were both significantly larger than the Black Sea trade, so if you can point me to some sources (secondary surveys are fine) to help me get a better handle on the issue I would be grateful.

        Having said all that, I don’t think you can point at the Crimean War as the western world’s response to the Russian expansion southwards – given that it happened about eighty years after the Russian empire moved in to the Crimea.

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        1. The Crimean War was the Western world fighting on behalf of the Turks against Russia. It doesn’t matter what their motive was, they were fighting to protect a state that enslaved Europeans, which the post I was responding to claimed could never happen. It did happen.

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          1. Russian “serfs”, who actually were as you say slaves, were slaves on the Byzantine model, not the Islamic one. Notably, they could not be raped (it was easy to get away with raping them, of course, but you still had to get away with it, because it was illegal). Whereas being raped was the main purpose of the Ottoman slave; the Ottomans had the only slave-system in human history mostly about sexual exploitation. (Though sexual exploitation figured more prominently in all Islamic slave-systems than most others; there is a reason the Moorish ruling class were mostly blond by a few generations after their invasion of Iberia.) The slaves of Byzantium or Armenia were almost as likely to kill themselves rather than fall into the hands of the Turks, as free Byzantines or Armenians were.

            Besides, being a slave in a society where there are stable enslaved communities is not as bad as being captured by slavers. There’s a reason the slave-trade was banned long before slavery was abolished.

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          2. Besides, the Southern plantation-owners were not rabid with fury against Russia, either. Despite its having enslaved Europeans.

            Almost like the claim Southerners would have been furious at the mere idea of enslaving Europeans does not hold any water whatsoever, and is merely evidence of the laughable assumption that Europeans have never been enslaved.

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        2. Where are you not getting those numbers? That the Ottomans enslaved 10–15 million Christians is as commonplace a figure as the Nazis having gassed 6 million Jews. The only reason it’s not as loathsome to dispute the first figure as the second is nobody in the West learns anything at all about Ottoman atrocities.

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          1. OK, it’s a shame that you don’t have sources but I did some light googling for my own interest and your commonplace looks like it is off by a factor of two at least.

            Per the footnotes on the wikipedia page for White Slavery – Robert Davis estimates (in his book “Christian Slaves, Muslim Masters: White Slavery in the Mediterranean, The Barbary Coast, and Italy, 1500-1800”) that as many as 1.25 million Europeans were taken as slaves by the Barbary Corsairs; while Mikhail Kizilov, in “Slaves, Money Lenders, and Prisoner Guards:The Jews and the Trade in Slaves and Captives in the Crimean Khanate” (a paper for the Journal of Jewish Studies), cites an estimate of 2 million captives taken from Poland-Lithuania and Russia between 1500 and 1700.

            The Crimean number stops at 1700 – if I pro rate the figure up to 1800 to match the Davis time range then that gives an extra million, for a final total of 4.25 million, Note however that this pro rating is a generous over estimate, given that the Russian Empire had expanded all the way to the Black Sea by the 1780s (and I don’t think that Catherine the Great or her descendants would have approved of selling slaves to the Turks), but that overage allows for the continuing trade in the Ottoman Empire beyond 1800 and also slaves that were taken from the Caucasus. All in all, my Fermi estimate based on these sources ballparks the trade in European Slaves to the Muslim Levant at somewhere between 4 and 5 million slaves over four centuries.

            For comparison the Atlantic trade sold a little under 12 million slaves in the New World across the same four century span according to Paul Lovejoy (in his paper “The Impact of the Atlantic Slave Trade on Africa: A Review of the Literature” in the Journal of African Studies). The Indian Ocean/Trans-Saharan routes were probably bigger still in terms of number of slaves moved given that they were active for around a thousand years, but I couldn’t find any solid numbers in the sources quoted on the relevant wikipedia page.

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          2. I might have been misremembering a higher number that was actually all Christians enslaved by any Muslims, rather than just Ottoman ones, but I don’t think so. The Ottomans also enslaved Greeks, Armenians, etc., plus Hungarians and Romanians for part of their history, plus tens or hundreds of thousands taken during every single war they ever waged against a European power—I think the 10–15 million comes from all the inhabitants of the Empire, not just the Crimean and Barbary-pirate sources.

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          3. Re-examining some things, no it seems you’re right, the 15 million is all Christians enslaved by all Muslims, not just the ones enslaved by the Ottomans. (Though that still means almost a third of all Christian slaves Muslims ever took, were taken by the Ottomans.)

            Of course all Christian enslavement by Muslims, Ottoman or otherwise, is dwarfed by some of what Muslim regimes did to non-monotheists, e.g. in India—the Mughals, both in their treatment of Hindus and in their African slave-trade, were undoubtedly the worst Islamic regime ever.

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          4. Actually to that we do have to add a couple million in Hungary, Romania, and maybe Poland, enslaved by the Turks themselves not their Tatar vassals. So while 10–15 million is probably too high, the 4–5 million is probably too low. Say 7–8 million for the Ottoman total.

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        3. Replying to myself because the nesting limit has kicked in.

          Yeah my estimate of 4-5 million was based on about 30 minutes of skim reading sources culled from wiki pages – it was definitely not intended to be the last word.

          In terms of the African trade into the Islamic world, I found a suggested number of 17 million (8 million across the Sahara, 9 million via the Indian Ocean, Red Sea and Persian Gulf but it was subject to dispute and there didn’t seem to be any academic work sitting behind it. Also as the trade was started so much earlier in history it’s going to be a lot more difficult to get to a hard number – say what you like about the European blackbirders but they kept excellent accounts, which makes it relatively straightforward to put together a pretty precise estimate

          Regards
          Luke

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      2. Notably, every European nation powerful enough to object to the enslavement of their own subjects found itself fighting the Ottomans, or whoever was marketing slaves from their nation TO the Ottomans, at one point or another. Nobody wanted their own subjects getting enslaved by foreigners, but other people’s subjects getting enslaved by a third party was generally tolerated

        By contrast, within slave-owning cultures such as the antebellum Carolinas, you see a downright militant insistence on the natural slave status of blacks, even ‘blacks’ who were obviously sired on ‘black’ sex slaves by white owners. Some owners flinched from this profound cruelty, but many did not, and indeed actively denied the parentage of their own children to avoid the social stigma of doing what everyone already knew was done.

        In other words, “it’s only miscegenation if it isn’t a white man doing the race-mixing, or if it is but he cares enough about her to treat her like a human being and not an attractive chattel.”

        Even many other slave-owning societies didn’t manage to rise to QUITE that level of brutality and hypocrisy, though some did.

        On a related note… you seem to be focused mainly on the 1800s, since you’re talking about “going to war on behalf of the Ottomans in the Crimean War.”

        When discussing that time period, you are mistaken if you operate under the assumption that the typical Western European leader of the time viewed Eastern Europeans as ‘white like us’ or ‘Christian like us’ and therefore deserving of liberation from slavery. Russia was itself widely disdained at the time as a land of barbarism and subjugation (see serfdom, see ‘Scratch a Russian and you’ll find a Tatar’). Whether Russians counted as ‘civilized like us’ or ‘barbarians like the Turk’ was very much a subject of debate, and a subject where rhetoric flip-flopped as convenient.

        Russia and much of Eastern Europe only really got retconned in as “white” by Europeans as a whole in the late 19th or early to mid-20th century, in my opinion. This is much like how the Irish were not considered truly “white” in America until the late 19th or early 20th.

        By contrast, Greece got grandfathered in quite a bit earlier, probably thanks to the influence of classical scholarship on early Industrial Age Europe. Note that pan-‘Western’ support for the Greek war of independence against the Ottomans was very high as early as the 1820s, even among nations that turned around and backed the Ottomans against Russia a generation later.

        The definition of who does and does not count as “white” has always been negotiable, and subject to renegotiation as convenient to whoever is using white racial identity as a piece of cultural leverage. The same is true of whether groups are identified as ‘Christian.’

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  27. And another post of mine disappeared – too long? too many asterisk characters in it?
    Who knows? (shrug)
    This one was commenting mostly on how it seems to me that at least some modern scientists get the same kind of respect and awe that holy-men and holy-women got in previous centuries, with an aside that at least in my own experience geology can get surprisingly mystical when it comes to trying to explain things beyond current capabilities to meaningfully analyse. (Heck: I remember one professor actually using the word ‘dogma’ when describing the importance of not getting too attached to ideas, because that was bad scientific method.)

    I’ll bow out of this discussion by commenting that one of the first things I thought of regarding this topic, but couldn’t find a reason to mention in a reply to another post was that Leonardo da Vinci was both scientist and artist.
    And with that, goodnight.

    Liked by 1 person

  28. Hard scientists and mathematicians would be better at the humanities too, if they cared to enter them.

    Physicists are notorious for invading less rigorous fields and revolutionizing them, while scholars in the humanities are typically unable to study physics because their IQs are too low. General intelligence got its name from the observation that humans who are good at one cognitive task are also good at others. Learning Koine Greek and making sense of Roman inscriptions are thus not fundamentally different skills from mastering calculus. To find talented scholars, focusing on language skills rather than mathematical aptitude might be ineffective: In the US, the SVPY study that investigated verbally precocious youth was cancelled because it did not predict future achievement well. In contrast, the SMPY which investigates the life outcomes of mathematically gifted individuals is still ongoing after almost four decades.

    The prestige of scholars in the humanities has been eclipsed by that of scientists because the latter are better at explaining the world. In the 19th century, German philosophers thought of themselves as the pinnacle of human wisdom and looked down at the mere practitioners of observational science. But insofar as their ideas have survived the onslaught of science, it is mostly because of our difficulties in studying the brain. The reputation of historians has also declined and no one among them enjoys the celebrity Mommsen once did. Having collected great amounts of data, historians have difficulty making sense of them and all too often resort to historical analogies to bolster their favorite worldview. One interesting result of Tetlock’s forecasting tournaments was that historians were not especially good at predicting the outcome of international conflicts, whereas physicists were.

    Now that historians can no longer claim to be particularly useful or to confer much prestige on their donors, the claim to have special knowledge about the human condition sounds too unconvincing. I notice that even literary scholars make that claim, which rings my alarm bells when I consider how useless or outright misleading the content of best-selling novels turns out to be. Yet I would like the humanities to be more than literature. Making it more quantitative might increase its prestige and diminish the harm that comes from being governed by leaders who know lots of trivia about WW2 while being unable to define terms like eigenvalue or standard deviation.

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      1. Well, they’re notorious for invading other fields and saying lots of stuff, so I guess they’ve got that part right.

        On the other hand they’re notorious for that stuff also being stupid versions of things that had already had more sophisticated versions of it examined and, as often as not, rejected. So it’s not quite as helpful as an argument. It is very helpful as an example of what leads to some very embarrassing moments for sincere, humbler physicists though, and whiny rants from the others.

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        1. You – you realize that the XKCD link is *mocking* physicists who think they can do this, right? It is making fun of the assumption that the hyper-simplistic models that get suggested can actually describe the extreme complexity of social systems? Note the phrase “when they first encounter a new subject” – that is, before they have come to understand its complexities.

          Edit: It occurs to me that this is an amusing self-demonstration of the fact that being good at numbers does not automatically make one good at linguistic tasks, like deciphering the meaning of texts.

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          1. To be fair: A significant fraction of the economics chairs are populated by physicist and mathematicians. Same, but to a lesser extend, goes for the “tangential” fields, like biology and medicine (mostly in the imaging and modelling departments), chemistry (mostly in physical chemistry). In the other direction the number of faculty with a non-physics/math background is zero.

            I wouldn’t want to argue that this is necessarily a good thing, but at least some faculties seem to think it’s a good idea for physicists and mathematicians to wilder in other scientific subjects. Especially at the start of the Covid pandemic the behaviour of (some) physicists was somewhat appalling, with all that brandishing of hopelessly simplistic models. That being said, they also were the _by far_ best models that were communicated to the public. While I have my problems with the amount of public visibility that we (physicists) had at that point, it is more a criticism of the public relations management of the public health organisations and their communication.

            I’d also argue that there is a fundamental difference between the harder sciences and the humanities: For a given physical system (and societies it turns out are surprisingly simple to model, given a high enough level) we can write down a model and make a prediction of how it will behave. Now these may be wrong, but a good model can quantify how much, but that is more information than you can gain from a pure reading of histories. These information is what makes science fundamentally useful.

            The point where I completely agree with you is: This is the start, not the end of the discussion. It turns out that in most situations it is rather straightforward to agree on the “correct” choice. My favourite example is the question whether all blood donations should be tested for HIV. The CDC fought a hard uphill battle to get that written into the guidelines, because the blood bank didn’t want to pay the extra cost and the officials were (understandably) unsure whom to believe. The discussion ended when the CDC researchers put inverted the question and asked: “How many HIV-positiv cases do you want, before you order this? Give us your number and we give you the date.” The discussion ended at that point.

            This is how science should work. The only question that science can answer is: “What is going to happen?” Whether that is good, acceptable, bad, catastrophic or whatever other adjective you want to assign, that is up to the society to decide. In the HIV-case, the confidence of the ability to provide (an accurate) time estimate for an arbitrary number, is what made it abundantly clear: Unless we say HIV isn’t that bad, every future case is one too many, because we _have_ to introduce this at some point (or we will have a 100% HIV-positiv society).

            _Those_ decisions are easy, those decisions can be externalised to science, there is no room for discussion. Covid is much more complicated: Preventing it from running through society requires a disruption of the normal economic flow, and that has and will negatively impact a large fraction of the society. Worst case scenario with the 5% hospitalisation rate that we see is 5% of the population dying. Best case scenario is an instant vaccine. Both are unlikely, the latter, because we cannot produce one safely without 1-2 years of testing and the former because society will break down far before reaching that point. However in which scenario we end up with the best results is a complicated question that we cannot model accurately. Nevertheless we did have to decide on how to deal with that pandemic, that is a political question.

            Now humanities do give us information about how to build and run a political process. There are two components here: One is, how did societies in the past form opinions and communicate and execute on them? And second is: How do people learn of facts? And essentially we can only test our hypothesis on historical data. Running large scale experiments is just prohibitively expensive (plus some ethical issues). I do think having a good background in literature is incredibly helpful for a society, if only that you were exposed to some propaganda and you may be able to do some basic rhetorical analysis and especially separate rhetoric from logic. But doing that kind of (mandatory) training in university is far too late.

            I _hate_ the fact that practically everyone is forced to go to university nowadays, that may be my german bias, but there is a wonderful tradition of an apprenticeship time here, where you do 2 days in school + 3 days at the company for 3 years (Ausbildung). That is where (at least traditionally) most of our high skilled labor came from. There is little room and also little cause to do history or literature courses on that level and also for a physicist or engineer, forcing them to do something completely off-major is just pointless. But I’m also saying that with the understanding that we do a lot of this in school. That is where the _general_ knowledge (Allgemeinbildung) should originate. Rather than forcing everyone to take a weak version of off-major courses. (Exceptions apply)

            So that turned out to be quite a bit longer than anticipated and I would completely understand if you just skip over the rant 🙂 I really do enjoy the premise of your blog and I really do enjoy the in-depth knowledge and context that you provide for a lot of my favourite fantasy series. There should be a place in the public education system for people such as you, but (at least here in Europe) this is financed publicly, the professor positions are basically gods (no way of removing one that just doesn’t want to do anything anymore). I find it very problematic and have to constantly push back against the demand that research and science is owed something. I know that you didn’t do that explicitly, but especially over the last couple of months I got the feeling that you feel under appreciated (which you probably are). Do not try to contrast why you (or your field or whatever) should get funding _over_ something else, rather give me a reason what I would loose (even if that is intermediate) when you do _not_ get funding. The latter argument might not convince me, but the former always antagonises me (especially if it’s made by other physicists wrt humanities 😉 )

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          2. Huh? You will only get a 100% HIV+ society that way if everyone eventually gets a blood transfusion, AND every single one gives it. Since not everyone gets a blood transfusion or gets HIV+ some other way, there will always be safe donors even if you never test.

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          3. @Mary: In Germany about 6m transfusions are done per year, that’s about 7.5% of the population. Divide that by a factor 5 to be on the safe side (most people probably get more than one transfusion), that still makes 1.5% of the population per year. About 0.1% of the population is currently infected. That makes 6k (or 0.008% of the population) new infections per year initially. After that this increases quadratically. I haven’t run the calculations but I’d be massively surprised if this would take more than 3 generations for 100% HIV-positivity (to be fair, the amount of funding going into a cure would probably also explode)

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          1. Roger Penrose on consciousness.

            Pauli on parapsychology.

            Linus Pauling was a real biochemist as well as a physicist, but turned into a quack on diet and vitamin supplement related issues later in life.

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      2. Invading them, sure… revolutionizing them? I don’t think I’d agree, and I say this from the perspective of someone on the STEM side.

        I’d say they’re notorious for showing up, making a big stink about how easy those humanities people have it, and producing not much novel, with the possible exception of cases where mathematical modeling turns out to be actually helpful. It also usually turns out that mathematical modeling is less helpful than people act like it is, because getting Intellectually Important People to Take Them Seriously is important.

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        1. I think they’re more infamous for invading “softer” fields like biology, maybe some social sciences that actually have numbers to work with.

          Physicists do have a powerful mathematical toolkit which sometimes does pay off in fields where such haven’t been applied yet. Not that I have a specific example, though relatedly there’s the infamous med paper that re-invented basic integration (Calculus I stuff.) https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2020/07/it-okay-go-beach/613849/

          I was told that the Caltech Geology department (or maybe the Geophysics specialization?) preferred admitting physics and chemistry majors from other colleges, figuring it was easier to teach them basic geology than it was to teach typical geology majors Caltech’s idea of required math and physics. I was a geology/planetary science *undergrad* there, so I don’t know how true this was, but it seems plausible.

          But OTOH physicists can also barge in thinking their math tools give them more power than they actually do.

          (Then there’s the perceived if not rigorously measured correlation between engineers and complete crackpottery.)

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        2. Physicists have certainly contributed to other disciplines, or at least philosophy, but the contribution isn’t generally the same kind of thing as coming in and revolutionizing them. It mostly either starts with or after some embarrassment gets to the physicist putting in a lot of work familiarizing themselves with the argument-up-till-now, getting a sense for the general conceptual landscape surrounding the problem, and then getting involved with the question.
          The extent to which they’re trained in physics is usually pretty minimal as far as what they’re adding, though, compared to the bit where they’re a smart person who just did a bunch of hard work. As far as actual knowledge/experience of physics goes the addition to the debate isn’t usually much different from what you’d get from philosophers who did the same kind of study of physics.

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      1. I am all to aware that
        a) anthropology is sadly one of the least rigorous disciplines of all (the AAA even dropped the word science from its mission statement)
        b) while psychology has its problems (as shown by social psychology being in the center of the replication crisis), the existence of g and the possibility of measuring it through IQ testing is both the least popular and most reliable of its findings

        Perhaps you think that IQ tests are nothing more than fortune cookies (though a bad fortune cookie does not scare anyone). Or that there are many ways of knowing, and thus multiple intelligences. Yet such views have failed to gain acceptance among mainstream psychologists. Stuart Ritchie’s “Intelligence: All That Matters” is an accessible introduction to the topic that addresses some common misconceptions. I will probably also be able to recommend “In the Know: Debunking 35 Myths about Human Intelligence” when it comes out later this year.

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        1. So… Psychology is the least rigorous, except for the IQ test, which is accurate?

          Are you aware that the existence of a ‘g factor’ is not uniformly agreed to by psychologists? Or that your position immediately after, “there are many ways of knowing, and thus multiple intelligences” contradicts the existence of a ‘general intelligence’, which is what the g-factor purports to be?

          I am also curious as to what fields have been ‘invaded and revolutionized’ by physicists. Since you say they are ‘notorious’ for doing this, I am sure a number of examples will be at hand.

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          1. Some examples of physicists who turned out to be very successful in fields outside of their expertise:
            * Alvarez figured out why dinosaurs went extinct without studying palaeontology
            * Crick knew no chemistry, which did not stop him from co-discovering the structure of DNA
            * Delbruck made massive contributions to genetics, partly because he had quantitative skills that biologists lacked. One of them was finding out how viruses reproduce. His phage group was full of physicists (which included another Nobel laureate, Gilbert) who had become interested in genetics. I wonder how much less advanced genetics would be without their contributions. Would we have DNA sequencing at all? How long until someone would have invented GWAS?
            * Vote Leave heavily relied on physicists who quickly managed to predict voter behavior more accurately than professional pollsters

            As for psychology, I will not bother to reply since I expect that it will be useless.

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          2. OK – selectively ignoring things, then:

            * Alvarez figured out why dinosaurs went extinct without studying palaeontology

            Father or son? The son was a geologist, and while the father is given some credit for the theory, and was a physicist, I think saying this ‘revolutionized the field’ or that his father took over the field, is a bit of a stretch. (0pt)

            * Crick knew no chemistry, which did not stop him from co-discovering the structure of DNA

            I am pretty sure that Crick knew a significant amount of chemisty, and while his undergraduate degree was in physics, that was not really his field. The discovery of the structure also was done by Rosalind Franklin. But I will give you that the Central Dogma, which he did help develop did revolutionize molecular biology. (0.5 pt)

            * Delbruck made massive contributions to genetics, partly because he had quantitative skills that biologists lacked. [citation needed] One of them was finding out how viruses reproduce. His phage group was full of physicists (which included another Nobel laureate, Gilbert) who had become interested in genetics. I wonder how much less advanced genetics would be without their contributions. Would we have DNA sequencing at all? How long until someone would have invented GWAS?

            Yes – we would still have genetic sequencing – Sanger got that started in ’55. And Delbruk did not really revolutionize the field – he also did not do his work alone. Much of what he did followed lines of research that other groups were also doing. But – ok, this is a solid hit (1 pt).

            * Vote Leave heavily relied on physicists who quickly managed to predict voter behavior more accurately than professional pollsters

            Good for them? I am unable to find a reference to ‘Vote Leave’ as a polling company (I am being swamped by Brexit articles). Maybe not as revolutionary as you think? Especially if you cannot name any of the physicists involved… (0 pt)

            1.5 out of 4

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        2. The people who invented the IQ test said it was only intended to assess how well the students in Paris public schools were learning what their curriculum was trying to teach them; they said they’d have to make up a whole new test just for Paris private schools, or any other French city’s public ones, let alone the schools in any other country.

          This is some Flat Earth stuff. The German word is Fremdscham.

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    1. I am studying physics myself. It seems to me that you have gravely misunderstood what this discussion is about. Bret never ever claimed that scholars in the humanities are smarter than STEM researchers. He did not even claim that they are just as smart, or that they have a different kind of intelligence.

      He is simply saying Humanities are worth the effort. If anything, he advocates for smart people of all backgrounds to try it.

      And even if some historians are not particularly smart, history is a complicated thing. To understand it and profit from it, one needs to immerse himself. Even is he comes from a STEM background, if he does history professionally, he is a historian. Perhaps he can use some of his analytical and mathematical skills and tools, while others he would find useless. Historians do not claim to have occult knowledge: They have to acquire it just as scientists have to.

      And yes, humanities are useful. I have seen countless badly written papers and lectures so boring that I lost track. Even you used the special bastard of humanities and science to bring your examples: It is called “The cultural history of Science”

      I also wish to nitpick on your two chosen examples of useful mathematical concepts:
      Standard deviation is a bad example because students in many humanities disciplines (like psychology, history, social science) students are taught and expected to understand it.

      Whereas eigenvalues are only relevant in linear systems. It is a fortunate coincidence that QM is one, and that so many other physical systems can be approximated by linear ones. But most complex systems in our society are strongly nonlinear and/or impossibly high dimensional (incl individual humans). Some physicists did have great insights into other fields. But until we have a Foundation style predictive theory of human affairs, it would do us well to be less cocksure.

      To finally say something pleasing to you, the reason why physicists can sometimes do chemistry is because chemistry is nothing more than a collection of heuristic tools to solve the Dirac equation for low energies in commonly occurring many-body systems, and then classify the solutions in ways that can be taught to engineers.

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  29. I think you are making the case here for the funding of the teaching of the Humanities, rather than ‘the humanities’ per se. In the UK, and I’m conscious that our circumstances are very different here from the US (I’m a history and war studies graduate from the UK), people with humanities degrees seem pervasive. Our government institutions retain our usual attraction here for privately educated Oxbridge graduates – current UK Cabinet 45% Oxbridge, 57% Humanities subjects, only 3% STEM, the remainder mainly social sciences (and those include PPE which is pretty much humanities really).

    Using the skills of the humanities can also be gained in later life. We have The Open University here that is a major proponent of HE for older students, and these students primarily study humanities. My wife is a classic example – she originally studied a 4-year science degree at a polytechnic (a peculiar UK institution that eventually morphed into a university). Later, she took a 1st class honours degree from The Open University studying a mix of subjects including systems thinking (philosophy-based), history of mathematics, social psychology, and so on. She is now heavily involved in writing non-digital games (usually free-form theatre-style live action games), writes poetry and produces very good art. My point here is that the humanities can remain pervasive, even if the funding of the teaching of the humanities declines a little. It’s certainly not in terminal decline here in the UK.

    I particularly liked this sentence: “We needed science to ‘beat the Russians’ and now we need it to ‘beat the Chinese.’ I don’t want to get lost in the weeds of if ‘beating the Chinese’ (which I think, would be better phrased as ‘deterring the leaders of the PRC from mutually destructive conflict’) is a worthwhile goal!” I feel that the thought you express here encapsulates your whole argument well. It’s the humanities approach that leads to this better phrasing! That’s a fine argument for the humanities.

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  30. Big STEM guy here – 2 bachelors, 2 masters, all in STEM fields (mathematics, physics, chemistry, microbiology, and anatomy – counting majors and minors).

    Currently I work in healthcare data analytics performing audits. I use almost nothing from any of those degrees (the necessary mathematics is covered by knowing basic algebra and basic statistics (what might be taken to cover requirements for any major). Of far greater importance is to be able to read and argue critically with the entities we are auditing (and their lawyers) and to be able to present our findings to our clients (and their lawyers). The other members of my team are all trained mathematicians who look towards a mathematical certainty that is impossible given the loose language in the contracts. I keep having to remind them that our position must be defensible in court, not in an academic journal.

    Even absent their inherent value, I think that the humanities teaches valuable skills in argumentation and writing that are applicable and even vital in STEM professions.

    When I was a TA teaching calculus, I required a paper as part of the coursework. My student evaluations suffered from that, but neither I nor the course coordinator minded.

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    1. > I think that the humanities teaches valuable skills in argumentation and writing that are applicable and even vital in STEM professions.

      Has this actually been tested? How well do college students write after a four-year degree compared to similar peers who started with the same writing skills but did not go to college? If “The Case Against Education” presents educational research somewhat accurately, spill-over effects rarely occur: Learning Latin does not boost your skill in Romance languages, for instance.

      But even if a substantial improvement occurs, it is not obvious to me that this would justify a humanities education. A short writing course might be more effective. You don’t need aircraft carriers if your requirements are met by a professional task force than can help in case of natural disasters.

      This also applies to other areas, of course. When parents think that learning the piano will make their children smarter (it does not) or give them career opportunities, they should rethink their approach after learning the facts. I would prefer if they believed that playing an instrument can be interesting and fun!

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      1. Has this actually been tested?

        I am not aware of a test that addresses your specific question. I have my personal observations to go on, plus there is some slight evidence in the GRE verbal scores that support my position (weakly, I admit).

        Given that a short writing course is required for a four-year degree, the evidence is that alone is not sufficient (I was required to take two course, one writing, and one either speech or writing; I believe that is a general requirement at most 4-year institutions, though I am not aware of any study looking at graduation requirements for four-year institutions that might answer this question to your satisfaction).

        The larger point that I was trying to make is that the undergraduate STEM curriculum is generally weak on having students produce written work of any kind. Writing is a complex skill and requires significant training to do it well (again, that is my personal opinion based largely upon my personal experience both with learning to write in various contexts and having to teach students). In working with analysts in business, while they may have strong mathematical skills, they are often weak when it comes to both producing and absorbing written work – of late, I have noticed that most with the reading of contracts and the difficulty in having my team communicate their findings to corporate clients and their legal teams.

        “The Case Against Education” was written by an economist rather than someone who has been researching education, while it may cite such work, there is a question of whether or not the author is correctly interpreting that work, not to mention whether or not they are also ignore work that might contradict their position. However, I am arguing not about the transfer of learning (that is, leaning Latin may make leaning a romance language easier – not your example that learning Latin will improve your skill in a romance language, though it may also do that). I am arguing that the writing done in a series of humanities courses will provide practice, both in the skill of writing, and the skill of evaluating written materials and arguments. Using writing as a tool, as opposed to taking a class specifically for writing (and another for evaluating written arguments, and another for whatever specific thing you may be thinking of bringing up) seems to me to be a more effective way of internalizing that skill, in the same way that using mathematics and statistics within another course will help cement your knowledge of how to apply mathematics and statistics correctly.

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  31. As a former student of a PPE program and a current student of the humanities, I cannot express how well your words resonate with me, how much I appreciate you sounding the call, and how much I hope people all over the world will heed it.

    I think a lot about John Keegan’s quote: “Aldous Huxley said that an intellectual was a person who had discovered something more interesting than sex. A civilized person, it might be said, is someone who has discovered something more satisfying than combat.” And I wonder if a cultured person (for lack of better word) might be someone who has discovered something more satisfying, more valuable than that which can be found in the purely physical realm. This is not to say that those who deal in the more rigorous scientific fields are necessarily uncultured – but I wonder, if there was ever such a scientist who had no interest in the humanities, what would we make of them?

    Thank you once more for your words, and I look forward to reading more soon

    Liked by 1 person

  32. I’m of many minds about this, and the many other topics with which this seems so inextricably intertwined.

    There are practical concerns, e.g. humanities research must be supported because researchers need to make a living too. But there are also political, moral, and ethical concerns, e.g. should some people be required to support work they wouldn’t want to personally? Academia as a whole, even a part from the humanities specifically, is perceived to be, and probably is, partisans for ‘one side’ of The Culture War.

    More generally, it seems like almost everyone is frustrated with and by large impersonal ‘systems’ over which they don’t much have influence and seemingly little opportunity to escape. It doesn’t seem _obvious_ that the current specific forms of higher education (in the U.S., or elsewhere) _must_ be defended. Arguably, those forms ill-suit both teachers, researchers, _and_ students. I’m skeptical that simply increasing funding solves all, most, or even really any of the problems it has now.

    Personally, I have been struck many times in the years since I _left_ school, how curious and interested almost everyone is about all kinds of things. It seems to me like ‘school’ is almost perfectly designed to _avoid_ any kind of ubiquitous education of students. And yet nearly everyone is interested in history, literature, and art – to some degree or for specific subjects, interests, or bodies of work. Formal education doesn’t seem to meet the real demands that the people, often with no real personal choice in supporting them (materially), have and hold dear.

    I found your point about the need to support academic research most interesting (to me). You’re right that that work is a crucial input for the humanities work that I care about and want to enjoy. I don’t _think_ I would enjoy most research directly – I would love to be wrong about that – but a particularly galling (to me) aspect of the current academic systems is that they, at least effectively, refuse to share that work with the public, even tho they demand that that same public pay for it. What I _do_ know I want to enjoy directly is work like what you’re doing here on this blog. And I think this kind of work – for which you are only being compensated by voluntary donations – is arguably more important than the bulk of academic research. It also seems to be the greatest, most visible, and most understandable demonstration of the value of the academic research on which it depends.

    (I also don’t think that most STEM academic research is of any value. There seem to be far too many scientists and researchers simply holding down jobs as Science! cargo cult members than acting as anything like ‘natural philosophers’. See, e.g. the ongoing ‘replication crisis’ basically everywhere outside of maybe a few of the ‘harder’ sciences.)

    I imagine that, as someone _inside_ the formal humanities education systems, you’re most interested in reforming and improving those systems. But, given your own understanding of history, how likely do you think it is that those reforms or improvements are possible (e.g. politically, socially) or would work even if attempted?

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    1. > And yet nearly everyone is interested in history, literature, and art – to some degree or for specific subjects, interests, or bodies of work.

      Unfortunately I suspect that is not true. Anecdotally, at my decent selective high school only about a quarter of the students seemed to have intellectual interests. The rest accepted the curriculum as a chore. More inspiring teachers might have increased attentiveness, but would they have sparked students to read a history book or visit an art exhibition on their own? Perhaps your peer group is unrepresentative?

      I agree that a lot of STEM research is probably not useful, although utility is hard to predict. Perhaps proving the abc conjecture or finding a new elementary particle enriches the life of average persons no more than deciphering Minoan script. But why should these activities be dependent on their endorsement? They can get funded as long as a few wealthy and powerful people are happy to pay.

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      1. That’s one thing that has to be to the forefront of any discussion. The intellectual life does not suit everyone, and institutions dedicated to it therefore can not be built for everyone.

        We should look at ways to hive off the other functions they accreted. Also, we have to accept that we are overbuilt and should look for ways to jettison the excess. Perhaps repurposing them for the other functions.

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        1. I don’t think it _is_ true that “the intellectual life does not suit everyone”. I think the common sense of ‘intellectual’ has been effectively defined to exclude all kinds of things that actually are intellectual. ‘Schooling’ is _not_ a good proxy for ‘education’ in a reasonable, generalized sense.

          I agree that ‘schooling’ has accreted too many functions. It’s arguably mostly social and economic signaling, which makes sense given the history of schooling (e.g. training for elites). Nominally, schooling is partly job training, tho it seems to be pretty bad at this too. Post-graduate education has also seemed to be transformed into supplying cheap labor for education institutions as well. And, assuming that schooling really does provide significant benefits and advantages, it’s understandable why people would want it to be available to everyone.

          It’s not obvious – to me anyways – how to reform schooling. It’s also not obvious that any significant reforms are plausible.

          But, I think a good reason for hope is that education is still possible even if schooling isn’t very good at providing it. This blog is a wonderful education resource! And it’s available to anyone interested. I disliked history classes in school because they almost entirely seemed to involve memorizing dates of events that I didn’t understand to any real degree, let alone with enough context for them to be interesting. But I discovered – luckily while still in school – that I love ‘history’! Beyond historical texts themselves, the past is endlessly fascinating. And the study of historical texts is an absolutely crucial source of info and evidence about the past. In some of my history classes, I _did_ ask questions, and offer context, and mention other info, evidence, and accounts that disputed what was being taught, but I _was_ – technically – ‘disrupting’ the class whenever I did so, even if some teachers earnestly appreciated my behavior.

          I imagine Brett might be the kind of teacher that would appreciate actively engaged students. I value teachers like that, and him. I value scholars – both professional and amateur. It would be good to them. Everyone needs to make a living somehow. Classes _can_ be amazing ways to learn. But I’m skeptical that requiring or _strongly encouraging_ people to take classes, in the way that we now do, is of much use or value to anyone.

          Down with (mandatory) schooling! Up with education!

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          1. The admirable sentiments here expressed are somewhat complicated by the fact that Brett, and others like him, only *exist* in the sense of “here is someone capable of writing this excellent blog” because they are extensively schooled in the humanities.

            To be sure, that doesn’t mean cramming everyone through mediocre history courses like the ones you describe is a good idea- but it does mean you need large-scale institutions capable of generating the scholars who in turn generate the scholarship that everyone else thrives on.

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      2. My point was precisely that school isn’t about education in general. You may think that three quarters of the students at your school don’t “have intellectual interests” but I’m pretty sure you’re wrong. I also wasn’t describing school-age people _only_ – almost everyone is interested in history, literature, and art _at some point_ in their lives.

        I think, if you really investigated in any detail, that almost every one of the three quarters of students at your school that you think doesn’t have intellectual interests has interest in the history of _something_. I’m less confident of their interests in ‘literature’ but I’m sure they could all intelligently critique all kinds of written texts. I’d be _very_ surprised if none of them had any interest in art, whether music, movies, TV shows, cartoons, etc..

        What I think is hard to see or notice when discussing schools and ‘education’ is that schools are very ‘formal’, e.g. rigid, particular, stuffy, and often ‘cheesy’. The history taught in schools isn’t the _only_ history worth studying! A lot of what is taught as ‘literature’ is both difficult for and boring to students. Art is such an expansive area of human experience that _of course_ what’s taught in schools is but a tiny, and likely uninteresting, subset of it.

        It’s telling that you mention inspiring students “to read a history book or visit an art exhibition on their own”. Those are only a tiny number of ways to appreciate history or art! I consider reading this blog to be appreciating history. I personally enjoy going to art exhibitions occasionally, but I had to learn to accept that I don’t have to like, or _want_ to appreciate, all art. I learned that I most enjoy art exhibitions and art museums by scanning and then appreciating in detail the works that catch my eye. I also better enjoy works I like by sketching them myself. I didn’t learn any of that in school tho. And it’s just not true that art exhibitions are even a particularly good way to appreciate art. Art is everywhere! People naturally appreciate it (or not).

        My point about STEM research wasn’t whether it was of _sufficient_ utility – that _is_ hard to judge long-term. My point is that _most_ research isn’t even true, e.g. it’s modeling noise.

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  33. “Does anyone look at the present moment and conclude that we have an over-abundance of humble, empathetic, well-trained and effectively communicating leaders?”
    I’d say we do, but they are not in positions of leadership…

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    1. They’re not because a major role of the police isn’t as agencies of justice, but of social and political control. If they were really concerned with justice, cases such as Breonna Taylor, Philando Castile, and Trayvon Martin would have seriously hard-nosed investigators on the case before any public complaints and there would not be stupid comments about “oh, we can’t look into these because it would make the police think too much.” By that logic, we should stop investigating air crashes because the pilots may get too nervous in case of trouble when, in reality, it’s been the serious, hard-nosed investigation of air crashes is the reason that air travel is so safe. (do note, that even with that investigation, being a commercial pilot is actually more dangerous than police work. It’s not commercial air transport that is the source of that danger, it’s Life Star helicopters, aerial application, high tension line maintenance, etc)

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    2. Are you sure that “rule of law” conservatives _aren’t_ angry about this? I know many that are! Some of them have been cataloging exactly those kinds of abuses for decades.

      Absence of evidence _is_ evidence of absence. But how are you collecting the data or evidence that led you to believe that no conservatives _are_ angry about police abuses? If your data sources are biased so too will be your conclusions.

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      1. Some might be, but clearly not enough people have been angry enough to, you know, actually reform the police. We can indict both parties for complacency, but when I see someone doing something, it’s usually a Democrat, and when I see someone protesting, it’s usually someone on the left. Conversely, the conservative voices that reach me are almost all complaining about protests, not complaining about the police killing or torturing or framing people.

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        1. Do you have a statistical analysis showing that such abuses are evenly distributed between areas under Democrat control and those under Republican control?

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        2. The voices I have heard have been simultaneously angry about the police killing or abusing people and about riots/murders/vandalism. (Often there’s anger at first as accurate reports about police abuse show up, then once clear reports of destructive violence or pointless vandalism show up you start hearing more frustration about riots). There is enough anger in the world to be angry at more than one thing at once.

          The judgement isn’t always as instant, and conservatives and liberals are comfortable with different ‘clear-cut’ scenarios than each other, but…

          Liked by 2 people

          1. Observations:

            1) Many individual conservatives care, in principle, about police abusing their power. They acknowledge that it is wrong for the police to abuse their power. This much is objective fact.

            2) In each clear-cut instance of police abuse for the past several years, the conservative narrative ends up being more about criticizing the (I daresay exaggerated) disruption and violence associated with *opposition* to police abuses. Somehow, the police abuses are bad, as per (1), and yet the apparent consensus among conservatives keeps emerging that the opposition to the abuses is worse. Note that this is a comment about the prevailing narrative, not the actual beliefs of individual conservatives- what is going on on Fox News, not what is going on inside the brain of the Fox News watcher.

            3a) Conservative politicians feel relatively safe doing nothing about police abuses. After the Floyd Protests, Democrats, including the city mayor Democrats who are arguably responsible for solving the problem, were very quick to start announcing measures to rein in police. Republicans, slower. For example, take the issue of police chokeholds, a proximate cause of George Floyd’s deaths. Nancy Pelosi was fast to propose a chokehold ban. Mitch McConnell was fast to declare his intent to veto it, though he may be reconsidering that.

            3b) Donald Trump, who seems to have a pretty good intuitive grasp of the wishes of Republican base voters given how popular he is among them, announced a ban on chokeholds “except if an officer’s life is at risk-” which assuages the conscience of his listener while being largely meaningless given how easy it is in practice for police to get away with claiming that they ‘feel threatened,’ shooting first, and answering questions later. And yet Trump also remarked that he found the concept of the chokehold ‘innocent’ and ‘perfect,’ using those exact words. Again, I emphasize that Trump is still quite popular among Republican base voters, so he presumably has a fairly good implicit if not explicit understanding of what they want to hear. If he were truly offending them, they wouldn’t like him.

            =======================================================

            Hypotheses:

            1a) There is something about the protestors that show up to object to police abuses- the ones actually marching in the streets, as opposed to frowning in the privacy of their homes. *Something* about them, something that conservatives do not like. Even if the conservatives do not like police abuses, they dislike, or are somehow *convinced* to dislike, the protestors *more.* Or at least to spend more of their mental energy discussing dislike of the protestors, and less discussing dislike of the abuses.

            1b) As a corollary to Hypothesis 1a, some process is at work here by which conservatives mentally dissociate the protestors from the issues that cause them to march in the streets.The protests (and the correlated sporadic random violence that occurs during any period of civil unrest) are not viewed as a logical or predictable consequence of the abuses. Rather, the protests- not just specific violent individuals, but the protests as a whole, and the underlying movements such as Antifa and Black Lives Matter- are viewed as if some hostile, dangerous, alien force has intruded upon the natural functions of the body politic. An alien force that is does not have a legitimate role in the national political discourse. A force that is *at best* to be disapproved of, and *at worst* richly deserving of getting their heads broken for their perceived ‘orcish’ conduct.

            2) There exists a media-political-leadership ecosystem, that has incentives to obstruct the caring I mention in Observation 1, and prevent this caring from expressing itself in the form of police reform. It does this by generating the worldview expressed in Hypotheses 1a and 1b. This produces the result described in Observation 2, and the political dynamics expressed in Observation 3.

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          2. 1a) There is something about the protestors that show up to object to police abuses- the ones actually marching in the streets, as opposed to frowning in the privacy of their homes. *Something* about them, something that conservatives do not like. Even if the conservatives do not like police abuses, they dislike, or are somehow *convinced* to dislike, the protestors *more.* Or at least to spend more of their mental energy discussing dislike of the protestors, and less discussing dislike of the abuses.

            Modern conservatism was born in opposition to the excesses of the French Revolution, and has retained a strong horror of lawlessness and anarchy ever since. There’s nothing at all mysterious about why people with a strong ideological predisposition towards law-and-order policies would react badly to the sight of an angry mob.

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  34. Interesting article! I’d heard “humanities for reasoning” before, but not so much “for advisors and leaders”.

    Going by the comments, many people need more training in reading comprehension, never mind writing ability…

    Drawing on both cognitive science and the humanities, I’d note that people may not always think in words (vs. expressing our thoughts in words), but we do think in analogies. The more you know, especially in history, the more analogies you can make (including to people drawing the wrong analogies.)

    That said, there are some STEM skills I would consider universally essential for voters and leaders, a modern and numerical equivalent of the trivium. A comfort with numbers and quantities (grammar), algebra and probability (logic), and the presentation and pitfalls of descriptive statistics (rhetoric).

    The book *How to measure anything* is an interesting read on how to apply numbers to things people think can’t be numbered. It’s more aimed at business decisions[1] than reading historical primary sources, but still comes to mind.

    ‘if a consultant claims they produce intangible benefits, ask customers if they can perceive any difference whatsoever.’ — one could apply this to the claims for the humanities.

    Topics include calibrated probability estimation (how good are you at giving 90% confidence intervals that are actually 90% accurate? This is measurable, via trivia quizzes.), the power of simple measurements when you didn’t have any, experts often being outperformed by simple statistical equations.

    [1] He notes the irony of businesses doing cost-benefit analysis of low level production decisions but not on major decisions like forming a merger. Also of businesses often measuring things that are easy but low value, while overlooking cheap and high value data.

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  35. The vast majority of the World’s political leaders have their educations in the humanities; I don’t think a single one has a STEM background (I do not count “business” or economics to be STEM fields). It is largely not the people with a STEM education that went beyond ticking the check-boxes for undergraduate distribution requirements who are denying climate change, opposing vaccination, ranting against environmental regulation, or trying to ram the YEC fallacy into public school curricula.

    What is needed, both for STEM majors and humanities majors, is a thorough and rounded education in the humanities, STEM, and fine arts. This is barely possible within the current constraints of US tertiary education, and possibly even more difficult in countries which have different systems.

    My ideal college curriculum would require, for everyone, significant (at least 12 each) credits in history, math, writing (especially non-fiction), literature, and 24 or so distributed between physics, biology, and chemistry, including at least one real, vs cookbook, lab class (field biology may be a good choice). I’d throw in some philosophy, foreign languages, fine, performing, or decorative arts, and some social science classes.

    I actually have nothing against the humanities; what antipathy I have is to the concept that only the humanities teaches critical thinking, which is blatant nonsense: the entire basis of the scientific method, the basic philosophical underpinning of science, is the critical examination of facts and ideas. Our gracious host has examined the fictional worlds of JRR Tolkien and George RR Martin through STEM methods: examination of sources and mathematical modeling to examine the likelihood of the sources being correct.

    ——————–

    As to complaints about ideology, the entire Enlightenment was and is based on the critical examination of the conservative ideas of revealed knowledge, fixed and unchanging hierarchies, and rule by a closed and self-contained group of oligarchs. Put together a bunch of people whose entire philosophy is based on critical thinking, and it’s not going to be completely accepting of the status quo.

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    1. Merkel is the exception in Western countries. She has a PhD in quantum chemistry. Compare her and Johnson talking about the Coronavirus, and it becomes clear what a gap in competence there is between them.

      The UK had one PM with a scientific background: Thatcher. She was the first world leader to be concerned about climate change.

      In China, having a STEM background is the norm for high-ranking officials (Xi studied chemical engineering). Overall, the prestige of the humanities seems to be lower in East Asian countries whereas mathematical abilities are respected. But the smartest world leader is probably the Singaporean PM: He was the senior wrangler (best mathematics undergraduate) at Cambridge.

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    2. Statistics.

      Statistics is not treated as a core function of math and it is in reality the most important skill past basic arithmetic.

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      1. My experience is that statistics is usually snuck in through lab data analysis in high schools and college. You are right in that it is actually quite important, although one really needs a lot more than basic arithmetic to really know what’s going on in statistics.

        Calculus and differential equations never hurt anybody.

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        1. My impression is that most stats classes are taught as toolkits, rather than understanding proofs.

          I’m not sure most people need a full inferential statistics course. I would go with descriptive stats — mean, median, deviation, how to mislead with graphs — and probability, including Bayes’ law. Which gives you the fundamental of a more modern approach to inferential statistics.

          Also Fermi problems/estimation/back of the envelope calculations. The ability to think about numbers and guess if they smell like bullshit.

          Calc and diff eq do take a lot of time, especially if you add in the prequisites for full calc (trigonometry). There’s an argument for pushing kids into a bunch of practical math so that they have the option to go into STEM, where the trifecta is linear algebra, diff eq, and inferential statistics, but it’s also true that it ends up being a whole lot of material you won’t use unless you go into (the right) STEM field.

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        2. I’d be happy if people knew that disparate impact is rubbish.

          Though there’s a large contingent that know it and willfully ignore that. They can’t be cured by education.

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  36. I found this post interesting and certainly compelling as an ideal. However I have two concerns. First the rising cost of college compared to the salary of a humanities degree. I know many people in college majoring in English, History, and the Arts because they enjoyed with no clear plan after college to support themselves. Some vaguely were interested in teaching, others who weren’t interested in that didn’t have a plan. It seemed more like the humanities were a breeding ground for dissatisfied citizens overburdened with debt and susceptible to bitterness and socialism as their only escape. I really can’t recommend anyone go into serious debt for a humanities degree which is the popular option.

    Second, while you speak ideally of how humanities should train people in leadership, it mostly seemed to me to teach people to regurgitate opinions into papers and produce one of two results. Either the students believed nothing because they had read widely and seen many contradictory opinions or they believed a one writer completely because it had been written and never considered whether it was true. I feel at least personally, you need to go beyond discussing what someone meant in their writing to if it is true.

    So while I feel the ideal humanities, teaching leadership, considered reasoning, the ability to read widely for understanding but distill from it a functioning world view is needed, I don’t know where to find it or where to send any of my children or friends to find it.

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    1. The economics of higher education seem unsustainable. Higher and higher debt burdens, more and more underpaid adjuncts, more and more alternatives to traditional higher learning, something will give eventually for strictly economic reasons.

      My wild ass guess is that we’ll see more companies shifting over to requiring entry level white collar employees to score a certain level on a standardized test and have that matter more than their college degree. Kind of like how in the old days you didn’t always needs to go to law school to become a lawyer as long as you could pass the bar exam.

      Not saying that’d be better or worse, just that might be where we’re heading.

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      1. Except that hits the disparate impact problem. Dumb luck can drive you to bankruptcy.

        You notice how the degreed elite let you use degrees in spite of disparate impact.

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  37. I’ve seen it said that modern medicine really starts in 1948, with randomized controlled trials. The difference between “this seems like a good idea” and “we can show this is a good idea”.

    Though for precursors there would be John Snow’s tracing of cholera transmission (via “a microscope made of numbers”, a phrase I got from Gregory Rawlins), Semmelweis’s handwashing, limes and scurvy (but the full story of that and Semmelweis don’t reflect well on the medical establishment of the times…)

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    1. Western doctors killed more people than they saved until somewhere between the late 19th and early 20th century. They bled their patients to death, poisoned them and infected their wounds. Homeopathy was a great alternative!

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      1. Western doctors were better in the 12th and 13th century than they were till the last decade of the 19th, actually. Since Medieval doctors, unlike Early Modern ones, knew about sterilizing their tools and washing their hands, and used things like laudanum as anesthesia.

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        1. I have nothing against High Medieval doctors, and I can believe that their surgeries were more survivable than Early Modern ones. But the Early Moderns also had some goodies: For example they knew about the appendix, and tried to operate on it https://www.oumedicine.com/docs/ad-surgery-workfiles/williams_history-of-appendicitis-with-anecdotes-illustrating-its-importance.pdf, and they had forcepses with which they could deliver live babies in situations where earlier doctors had to cut them to pieces to save the mother. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Obstetrical_forceps

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          1. I was responding to the ludicrous claim that pre-19th century doctors “killed more people than they saved”. It’s actually truer of 16th–19th century doctors than it is of 11th–14th century ones.

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  38. I liked this bit: “Assertions are followed by evidence and capped off by conclusions in a three-beat-waltz with a minimum of fuss and a maximum of clarity.”

    One problem with how the humanities are taught is that you don’t get enough of this. I graduated in 2003 so I’m not sure how things have changed since then but I remember my assigned reading in history containing a lot of Post-Modernist writing which generally specialized in a maximum of fuss and a minimum of clarity. It took a couple classes to get to the point where I could understand the jargon and have a clear idea of what they were saying. But what they were saying was often just some lazy hand-waving obscured by a dense mist of confusing rhetoric. I remember once reading two pages which when you stripped out all of the jargon could be boiled down to “people became more individualistic after they started buying mirrors. Why? Because I said so dammit, I don’t need to stinking evidence, I’ll just make a whole bunch of vague inferences!” without losing anything.

    There were some exceptions, I remember being assigned this: https://www.amazon.com/Holy-Feast-Fast-Significance-Historicism/dp/0520063295/ref=sr_1_1?dchild=1&keywords=holy+feast+and+holy+fast&qid=1593999517&sr=8-1 in a history of religion class and the book actually did a great job of convincing me of its main thesis after my initial immense skepticism. But I don’t think I would’ve understood its arguments at all I hadn’t already taken a slew of undergraduate history classes.

    I like how this blog is set up. You present a lot of evidence but it’s always very clear what you’re saying and why. Even when I disagree with you (I think a modified version of the Fremen Mirage carries some water, often stable political systems become more and more unequal which can hamstring a state’s military power as you show in the spartan case where greater and greater inequality lead to less and less effective manpower while crisis can often do some leveling which can be helpful in a number of ways despite crises often being horrible). But so many academics are shit at that.

    Hard for them to teach writing with “a minimum of fuss and a maximum of clarity” when they’re often so terrible at that themselves.

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  39. There’s a lot of low-grade work in the humanities, but then there’s a lot of low-grade work in most disciplines (publish or perish). Science is hardly immune – and in most disciplines there is a process to sieve the gold from the dross (the major exception I know of is economics, where one can win prizes for re-stating hypotheses refuted in every possible way for over a century). It’s also true that STEM is not a ticket to riches – science grads in particular struggle with short-term contracts, precariously renewed, and often spend as much time writing grant applications as research.

    Why all the angst above? There seems to be a conservative notion – perhaps parallel to the notion that climate change would go away if we stop listening to climate scientists – that the uncomfortable side of history would go away if historians stopped writing about it. Here in Australia a couple of conservative Prime Ministers reacted strongly to historians documenting the sorry record of aboriginal resistance to white settlement, met with massacre and dispossession, as well as other departures from the narrative taught in their youth. One called it “the black armband view of history” and encouraged the establishment of a university course in ‘Western Civilisation’ – presumably one where such unseemly goings-on would not figure (Ramsay Centre if you are interested, Bret).

    Finally, one would not know from many comments above that there is a whole chunk of historical endeavour (‘cliometrics’) applying quantitative methods to history, or that ancient and medieval historians in particular have close relationships with archaeology – a discipline where science of all kinds plays a major part.

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  40. “To be fair, that would be much less of a problem if the federal government had a restricted remit, like the founders intended.”

    They tried, but I think successfully locking the federal government into a fixed limited role would also have been a mistake. Government exists (at best) to solve collective decision problems, and as technology and economic change have advanced our radii of interaction, there are more and more decisions that need to be made collectively. What works for low-tech mostly-farmers (ones growing their own food, even) doesn’t work for high-tech urbanized and completely ‘marketized’ people. The USA’s lack of coherent response in public health is literally killing us. And there are multiple questions, mostly environmental but also economic, that call for *global* decision-making.

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  41. So I am thinking about this a couple of days later after the posting of this story next to a Carnegie Library in Ohio (he made a total of 2509 in donations to build libraries by grateful communities all across the world). These libraries are usually packed with people.

    Why do we not value the Humanities enough?

    So I took a walk, past the College of Art and Design and the Columbus Museum of Art, a dozen gorgeous places of worship to speak to the Divine.

    Nothing occurred to me.

    Why do we not value the Humanities enough?

    Perhaps a college or university had the answer. But which one: OSU, Otterbein, Franklin University, Ohio Dominican University, there are something like 10 in the Columbus area alone.

    I walked by a sidewalk artist, observing his use of spray paint to create interesting designs. I bought one for my daughter. But I got distracted.

    Luckily I had time to focus. All of the myriad music performances which normally grace our fair city have been cancelled, paid for from donations and the public fisc. I quickly ran past Southern Theater, the Ohio Theater, the Palace Theater on my way to the car.

    Why did we not value the Humanities enough? I would have asked my daughter, but she was Skyping with her theater group. The other was practicing violin. The boy was asking writing tips on developing good villains, but I had sunk my teeth into this question.

    Perhaps YouTube?

    Well, RedLetterMedia had another deconstruction of some films, some new biographies of Charlemagne, Grammar Girl and a variety of histories…but no answer as to why we don’t value Humanities enough. These people learned in Humanities were obviously wasting their time making money teaching Humanities to actually answer the important question of why America didn’t value the Humanities enough. Some support themselves this way. They make entertaining, digestible, and apolitical content. Videos on how to lead, how to debate, how to comport oneself, how to embrace Stoicism or a variety of other philosophies.

    Or perhaps…it isn’t that America doesn’t value HUMANITIES so much as it is that there has been a loss of money and prestige and cultural influence of Humanity PROFESSORS to guide the culture of America. Perhaps they are viewed with that Critical Eye.

    I see an awful lot of Humanities in America.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Of course lots of people enjoy humanities and humanities-related stuff as a hobby. The question I took Brett to be answering was whether we should pay people to study humanities as a full-time job.

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  42. A couple of things you things you said struck me as curious. First of all, I’ve never taken the term “political science” literally, but apparently you do. I imagine you know more about the topic than I do, so pray tell: in what ways do political scientists employ the scientific method?

    Secondly, what you said about teaching students to reason soundly and assess evidence instead of just regurgitating facts applies just as much to the sciences. In fact, critical thinking is one of the most important things a science class can teach you. This is in no way meant to imply that science makes the humanities redundant. I think both are essential if you want to be a knowledgeable citizen of the world, and dismissing either of them as not worth one’s time is a sign of an impoverished mind.

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  43. As many other people have said (sometimes with claims that made me think “what planet are you on”) there has to be some effort to de-politicize the humanities, or establish trust that the humanities are able to not be a partisan political project.

    I do not know how this can be done.

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  44. I apologise for posting this so late: I have been thinking about this post for some days, and it has taken time to get my thoughts into some order.

    I take it this post has two main points about the humanities; that they are about gaining useful information about human behaviour, such that such behaviour might be predicted in some ways and circumstances; and that they deal with concepts that cannot, or are best not, treated numerically.

    The first is surely a noble endeavour, but I am not at all sure about the second point.

    Beauty, for example, certainly could be treated numerically, at least in the sense that IQ is. People can certainly rank images in order of beauty. Not everyone needs to look at every image – as long as every image is seen by many people, individual subjects need only see a random sample of the images. With that, you can rank the beauty of the images, as seen by the average human. And then you could measure the beauty of the images, with the first percentile perhaps being described as having a beauty of ten milliHelens, the second percentile twenty milliHelens, and so on. Indeed, how could you hope to study beauty rigorously without an objective technique for telling if one image is more beautiful than another?

    Or consider Philip Tetlocks Forecasting Tournaments, where contestants were challenged to predict certain aspects of the near future. One thing that he discovered was that it was very hard to construct such a tournament without numerical predictions. If someone predicts that the stock market will probably rise dramatically in the next few months, and it rises 5% in six months, were they right? But if they predict a certain percentage chance of it rising a certain percentage in a certain time, then you can say whether they were right, and draw a distinction between people who were 90% sure of a prediction, and people who were only 60% sure.

    Famously, his book Expert Political Judgement suggested that most experts were not very expert. The phrase “dart-throwing chimp” was used. But people could produce reliable predictions, and improve at them, so long as he had a method of measuring how good their predictions were. You cannot improve without being able to compare your performance on one occasion with that on another occasion. Self-improvement requires you to be able to tell if you are improving.

    So here is the thing that concerns me: In order to make good predictions, you have to make meaningful predictions, and see if they are good. It seems to me that if a discipline does this routinely, we tend to call it scientific. There may not have been a lot of math in Lyell’s Principles of Geology, or in the works of Cuvier, but they did contain a lot of predictions of the form “If you see X and Y, you should expect Z”. And there were plenty of tests of those predictions.

    It is not obvious to me that researchers throughout the humanities routinely do this, although they surely could. Any pattern you see in a part of the world of which you have good information, can be extended into those parts of the world in which you have worse information. In principle, a comparative historian could be as able to make predictions about little known subjects as a comparative anatomist. Indeed, many of the posts on this website are attempts to extrapolate from European history to Middle Earth or Westeros. It should be perfectly possible to extend such predictions to parts of the real world of which the author knows little, and see if they pan out. If you are 70% sure that something will happen in circumstance X, and it happens 70% of the time – Congratulations!

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    1. I think that you have misunderstood the pro-Humanities argument here.

      1) It is not about prediction. Neither of the words ‘predict’ or ‘prediction’ occur in the blog post. Human behaviour within its context is usually too complex for accurate prediction. We’ve not yet reached Asimov’s Foundation concepts! The key concept is to understand human experiences in all their richness, over time, cultures and societies. This understanding should then help us to deal with present day problems and their projections into the future, not via prediction, but via a deep understanding and a lot of thinking about human experiences. Humanities, it is argued, can help to inculcate leadership virtues, in the classical sense. These virtues, also updated to their equivalents in a modern setting via modern approaches, are applicable in a wide variety of contexts, including for example, politics and business. These approaches can help us to make better decisions, taking into account human experiences and our understanding of them.

      2) Your analysis of the concept of ‘beauty’ by the numbers is flawed. You have attempted to objectify beauty in terms of the average human, or rather the average human who has been used in the ranking process (‘you can rank the beauty of the images, as seen by the average human’). But this analytical framing denies the possibility of disagreement about aesthetics, about what is more beautiful and what is less beautiful, it denies valid differences in perception and understanding gained from different individual human experiences. To take this approach reduces beauty to a poor lowest common denominator, it denies that aesthetic sense is subjective.

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      1. 1) Any explanation is a reversed prediction. If you explain A as a result of B and C, you must predict that B and C will cause A. Otherwise you do not have much of an explanation. Any patterns you claim to find also make predictions: If X and Y are followed by Z, you should expect cases X and Y to be followed by Z. So you can test explanations and patterns by checking for the implicit predictions.

        And any advice predicts that if you follow the advice, you get the desired result. A discipline that makes no predictions, therefore, must suggest no advice about its own subject. I don’t see much of a practical case for that.

        2) People who call an image beautiful are saying that most people will like looking at it. That is what “beautiful” means.They make a prediction.

        And someone who claimed to be studying beauty, while claiming not to care about what most humans found beautiful, can hardly be said to be studying any aspect of humanity. Certainly not its aesthetic sense.

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        1. “People who call an image beautiful are saying that most people will like looking at it.”

          Or they’re saying they they themselves find the image beautiful, regardless of what anyone else thinks.

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  45. Prediction doesn’t have to be about the future, it could be about completing patterns. “I know X, Y, and Z about a society, so I am 80% confident that W is true as well.”

    OTOH, something can be worth studying even if you can’t do that much. Linguistic. Pre-Darwinian biology. (Natural selection lets you make some predictions.)

    And yeah, I would say “is something beautiful” is ultimately an individual subjective judgement. OTOH people do overlap in preferences; one could certainly try to measure or a define a sense of beauty frequent among some population of humans. But this would be psychology at least as much it would be ‘art’.

    People will disagree about whether X is more beautiful than Y or not, making aggregation perilous if you try to take it too seriously. You can be adding up rankings that are fundamentally inconsistent, not just noisy.

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    1. It is said of the pre-Darwin French anatomist Cuvier, that a student of his once played a prank on him. He dressed up as the Devil and, in the small hours of the morning, burst into Cuvier’s bedroom screaming that he would eat his soul. According to the story the still half-asleep Cuvier opened one eye, glanced at the student, said “Horns and hooves – you must be a herbivore” – and went back to sleep.

      The point is that biologists could make predictions before Darwin. Plant and animal breeders, for example, predicted that plants and animals would resemble their parents. They relied entirely on that prediction. As did Darwin.

      As for beauty – If I say I find an image beautiful, I say something about how I respond to it. If I say the image IS beautiful, I say something about how most humans will respond to it. Are not most humans supposed to be the subject of the humanities?

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  46. “If you expect other people to disagree with you, you say you find it beautiful, not that it is beautiful.”

    Most people are not that precise in their use of language.

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  47. Thank you.
    I’m late to the party, but both the article and the comments were edifying.

    I believe that humanities (taken as a whole) as a full-time job face a variety of bleak futures (at least in the English-speaking world).
    The best outcome is, yes, the playground for rich and influential, the patronage not of art, but of SCIENCE. Has a ring to it, especially with the seemingly widespread deification of SCIENCE.

    By and large it stems from humanities (again, taken as a whole, in a very, very gross simplification) producing not testable frameworks and repeatable experiments, but irreproducible works of art.
    With little to no means of external validation (and sometimes the impossibillty of such validation), the trust in humanities, that people need to be employed on full-time job to explain known and to discover even more unknown, is the trust in the institutions that employ these people.

    As the trust in institutions seems to be very patchy (and the comments above illustrate a lot of rational and irrational reasons; irrational even more important as trust is largely irrational), all signs point to ‘no’.
    Until the trust is regained by some half-new or fully new institutions, probably. Or is credited to them for some irrational and thus valid reason.

    I doubt the ‘pragmatic case’ will help. It’s too rational and addresses the wrong audience.
    This summer it seems the main course of discussing the distrusted institutions is to argue “Defund” vs “More money”.

    Not mentioning the elephant in the room, it was interesting to watch the discourse on Hackers News about Scott Alexander doxing by New York Times. The same battle of “defund” (and burn on the stake and scatter the ashes to the four winds and salt the ground) and “more money” (and support the reforms and help to build better integrity and enable better conditions for their public services) went on and on and on. The sides may or may not be switched from the elephant in the room positions, I didn’t watch too closely.
    Going into this fray with “we need humanities to have more and better leaders” went largely the same way, it seems to me. Either “more money” to humanities to produce better leaders, either “defund” humanities, they gave us the leaders “we” have today.

    This war won’t be won on this battlefield for sure.
    It’s not like one can force people to trust this or that.

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  48. Thank you for this well reasoned essay. I gotta admit I’ve often held a flippant attitude toward the value of the humanities. I was It was an enjoyable read, and you’ve swayed my opinion on the matter.

    Like

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