STEM versus the humanities (aka Information Analysis)

Chart of a "Complex Adaptive System"

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. Because we all love a good chart.

Yes – I’m going to go there. Buckle up, and God help me.

As happens on Twitter, a one-off grumpy tweet I didn’t think anything of — saying things I and many others have said many times — went mini-viral and elicited all the usual replies. Yawn. Twitter is just not the venue for this. So here I am breaking out the long-moribund blog space to say something that takes more than 240 characters. These are the words I’m thinking when I tweet a grumpy one-off about STEM and can’t be arsed to be polite about the predictable replies. Now I can just link to this every damn time it comes up again (as it does, with the literally almost weekly op-eds by science profs who think they not only understand everything about history from reading one or two books but who also grace us with their magic solutions in the form of best-selling, money-making books, while actually qualified historians don’t make any money and therefore must be Doing It Wrong, because as “we” “know” making money is incontrovertible evidence of being right.


Wait, no we’re not ready to start yet. We need another introductory caveat. My tone. Yes, my tone here is a bit on the hostile side. For good reason. But like all hostility, it’s rooted in fear: specifically, the fear that we’re all gonna die because people are so fucking afraid of new information. This is indeed intense and personal for me, because my whole life is defined by actually liking new information and trying to help others appreciate it too, even if they can’t quite like it. Maybe STEM types can find common ground with me there? I would think it’s something we have very much in common. But to get there you’re going to have to get over my tone. And if you’re a white, cis man and you comment about my tone, there’s going to be further words, and they’re going to be very hostile words. And I’m good with words. So just go in with your eyes open and maybe think harder before speaking, as a good guide to behavior generally.

So. Now we can start.

Wait, no. I’m female. And I’m saying things that may threaten your sense of being the smartest person in the room, which for some readers may be closely entwined with masculinity and your sense of self. This may trigger feelings. Please process these privately. I exist as a female, and I communicate freely on my own blog as I am currently legally allowed to do, independently of you. My existence or the things I choose to say are not aimed AT YOU, even when I seem to be literally addressing you. Naturally what follows does not apply to all STEM professionals. Literally no statement ever actually applies to all things unless….oooh…we’re getting to it…unless the statement is a purely empirical one about the physical world. That’s an area, a small part of the rich universe of human consciousness, where it is possible to be that precise. It may be the area where you (some of you) feel most comfortable. This is not that area. This blog post is an area of rhetoric, which abides by rules of logic and evidence, but is still not, cannot ever be, held to the same absolutism of, say, simple numbers. This is nonetheless a part of human existence that is real and has meaning. If that makes you uncomfortable, again, that’s not something I’m doing to you, it’s an aspect of how you relate to the world. Whatever discomfort, including existential threats, my words may in some cases arouse, those are things the person feeling them needs to process internally and do not in fact have anything to do with me.

Now we can begin.

Yeah, yeah, nobody knows stuff outside their field, everybody misunderstands everybody, blah blah. Those are obvious truisms, and logical givens, and sure, it goes all ways. The problem with this conversation is one side of it isn’t getting past that obvious bit, while the other side inhabits, by definition, a region well beyond, and well all exist in a society treats the former as geniuses and the latter as useless idiots.

Yeah, yeah, we know there’s science denialism. Some people hate you, too. It’s really bad. It threatens us all. We (information analysts) could even maybe help you (STEM professionals) with that if you knew we existed or had the faintest inkling what we do, let alone respect for the fact that we may have thought of things beyond your ken. That anything actually exists beyond your ken, science-man. (Go ahead and pause to look up “ken” if you need to. Some do, some don’t. Not all men, not all STEM, yadda yadda.  Whatever. Please note that dictionary definitions are NOT what we do. That’s what kids do in school. You’re supposed to learn words and word usages mainly by reading, though. None of that constitutes any of the humanities as a discipline, that’s just being a person.)

So, there are lots of smart and well-educated people in the world whose jobs are to solve problems. We roughly lump these people into two very broad categories, those with evidence/applications in the physical world and those with evidence/applications that are entirely, definitionally abstract information rather than at least theoretically involving physical matter. The world respects STEM vastly more than the information sciences, and has a clearer basic sense of what STEM is–while mostly able to comfortably admit to a total ignorance of the details–because they see the results of that kind of problem-solving improving their lives every day, EVEN WHILE many people deny the parts of STEM that they don’t like or are scared of, because people are nutty like that.

Meanwhile, the half of problem-solvers working in the information realm work entirely in the abstract. There’s no bridges or medications or machines coming out of our work. What we produce is insight and new knowledge. This is not to say STEM doesn’t produce insight and new knowledge, but that STEM insights and new knowledge often, not exclusively, but often enough to impact society, have physical manifestations as information analysis disciplines do not, ever.

The insight and new knowledge that information analysis fields produce don’t have physical manifestations that are easy for literally anyone to grasp even without needing to know any of the substance behind those manifestations. The insights and knowledge we produce are always, every bit of it, inherently an affront and a deep existential challenge to everything everyone believes. That’s the entire point of what we do: to challenge what everyone believes and find out where we’re wrong. People don’t like that. You don’t like that. That discomfort shapes everything about how our society–including you, including us, including everybody. People don’t just fail to grok the substance of our fields. They actively, belligerently, choose to not recognize that we ARE a discipline, have meaning in any way, or could ever be right about anything unless they already got to that insight first.

Yes, again, I know, science denial is a thing. A very horrifically serious thing. I wonder who could help with that giant, intractable problem? Maybe the people whose entire discipline is about understanding understanding itself? How and why people willfully misunderstand new information that challenges their beliefs? Think this could be useful?

First you’d have to recognize that it exists. That the conventional wisdom you’ve lived with, that gets reinforced by our whole society, is wrong. That the conventional wisdom that may have become very personal and visceral for you when you, a very smart person who did well in school and for whom knowledge and problem solving is a core part of your identity, when you first encountered things you didn’t understand and maybe even couldn’t understand, to which you may have reacted the same way all humans react to that deeply uncomfortable situation, by rejecting and rationalizing the thing you didn’t understand, is all wrong.

To move past that, you’d have to really take on board some intellectual humility. You’d have to question some of the most pervasive, yet idiotically wrong, conventional wisdom of our culture. That’s not something you can look up, or grasp in a moment of clarity. It takes some work, and not a kind of work you’re accustomed to doing, even though you’re an incredibly hard and effective intellectual worker.

As a humanist I don’t have to understand beyond the most basic definitional principles of any STEM field to get that climate change is real (thank God – I don’t want to and I fear that I’m not capable of it – I probably am not in fact capable). I can trust the basic understanding of the principles of science I do have, that are not personally threatening to me, to know that when all scientists agree, it’s in my best interests to follow along. I can also use my very basic understanding of calculation, proportion, probability, and the scientific method to eyeball a science news report or the abstract of a review article and sniff out a rat enough to ask more questions when I need to. God knows most people can’t even do that much – that’s the problem we all need to be working on – but as a very highly trained humanist, I can and do do that much. I think that that’s enough for any non-scientist; I only wish we could get all the non-scientists up to that point. (I wish that so much that I wrote a book trying to help – I’ll even give you a free copy solely for the purpose of hunting through it to try to catch me out on anything – go ahead, DM me for it.)

Here’s the question I’m posing to you: do you have a comparable, MINIMAL, understanding of the information analysis fields? Do you know their most basic assumptions and methods? Can you accurately sniff out a rat when you’re reading results of general interest to the public? Do you have sufficient respect for these disciplines as knowledge disciplines to trust when literally all of us who are professionals all say the same thing? (For example, when we all say the mutual misunderstandings between STEM and info analysis are not, in fact, balanced or equal and yes, you’re missing something?) I’m here to tell you that you don’t. You really don’t. (Here “I” is basically everyone in these fields, just as basically everyone in your fields agrees climate change is real.) You keep protesting that you do, but every word of your protest is evidence – hard, empirical evidence (of the information kind, not the physical kind, but empirical nonetheless, and equally requiring trained methodology to accurately read and make meaning from) – that you don’t actually understand. (Here’s my book defining history, for those interested. Can’t offer this one for free, sorry.)

That’s neither surprising nor something to feel ashamed of. I mean, literally no one really gets it who isn’t actually working in or especially personally interested in information analysis on some level. And most of us come to it because our brains happen to be wired that way (yeah, I know “wiring” is not actually how brains work – it’s called a metaphor, metaphors have meaning and purpose, rhetoric is a thing and humans need it to communicate whether that’s something you’re comfortable with or not)…anyway our brains happen to be wired to grok the fundamental assumptions of information analysis intuitively, so we break through all those cultural barriers sort of by accident, though it still takes a lot of training to get from there to doing anything in this field well, and of course, as in any field, not everyone is doing everything well all the time.

If information analysis disciplines are so widely misunderstood, you might well say, haven’t all of us in these disciplines badly failed to teach what it is we do? Good point! We absolutely have. Much as science has made some communications errors along the way (leading to frankly horrifying public misunderstandings). But, in the exact same way that that’s not entirely your fault, the total misunderstanding of information analysis on any level is also not entirely our fault: both kinds of understanding are difficult to disseminate for a reason. The terrifying findings of climate science meet resistance because humans are driven by fear. Similarly, everything – actually everything – information analysis fields do triggers fears in humans. We can’t build bridges and make life-saving medicines to earn that respect and gratitude you (rightfully!) get that makes people treat you like a genius. Unless you happen to tell them about climate change and then they suddenly turn on you, some of them, don’t they? You know what I’m talking about? So, we in the information analysis fields get that all the time. That’s ALL WE GET. None of the genius love here. That’s because everything we do, even when it actually is just as important and life-on-this-planet-saving as climate science, is scary to basically everyone.

What could we possibly do that’s as important and life-on-this-planet-saving as climate science, you ask? How about teaching people how to get beyond their fear to grasp just enough about science to save the planet before it’s too late? Yeah, that’s in our wheelhouse. Also, this global fascism thing going on around us, burning down what just a decade ago still looked like pretty functional and well-developed societies? Yeah, that’s our area too. We (collectively) understand it, predicted it, saw the evidence a mile away, are still tracking the evidence, and see how absolutely dire the current trajectory looks, just as you do, looking at the physical condition of our planet right now.

Okay, so why are we failing so badly, if our job is to get people past their fears to understand how to process information and make meaning from it in the most basic ways? I’m going to ask you to try to grasp something really big here, really foreign, really contradictory to everything our culture reinforces. Something that may be very personally scary to you. I’m going to ask you to believe that this most fundamental task of the information analysis realm of knowledge-building is MORE DIFFICULT than anything in STEM. Not only is everything about it abstract, without any physical evidence to go on or any possibility of direct experiment or observation in “laboratory” conditions, but everything about it is as terrifying to everyone (us included!) as climate science is to everyone.

I have to stop here because this needs to sink in. It’s so incredibly long overdue and difficult to even get this far. But this isn’t even step one to getting where we need society to be, as we are literally destroying ourselves in a process we call information revolution.  It’s that hard to even begin to recognize the existence of information analysis as a legitimate area of knowledge-building IN AN INFORMATION REVOLUTION. This is all just the introduction to step one. But I can only hope these words can help even one person to start processing some of what, collectively, the information analysis knowledge workers know is as vital to survival as halting the rise in global temperatures.

If I can personally beg you to please just stop commenting on “the humanities” at all for, say, a year, and instead try sincerely to begin learning just a little of the fundamentals–just as much as I know about STEM, which as clearly stipulated above is VERY basic stuff any human should know–before you comment again. Just take it in. You’re not going to be graded and no one is watching you and thinking you’re dumb (avoiding commenting on disciplines outside your discipline on Twitter is a great way to avoid looking dumb). Just give it a chance.  For all of us.

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