Humanities! Science is not your enemy, it’s a friend who owes you money

by Daniel on August 14, 2013

While in an unusually masochistic mood, I read all of Steven Pinker’s astonishingly wordy essay on science science science science did I tell you how much I love science? Just as there are few clearer signs that one cannot program a computer than to publicly call yourself a “hacktivist” and few clearer signs that you didn’t do statistics at university than to boast that you’re a “data geek”, Pinker, who made a perfectly decent academic career as a computational linguist, and then an absolutely stellar one by making up a load of rubbish about social sciences really sounds like he’s overcompensating for something. Everyone’s happy about the moon landings and curing smallpox and all that, but it really is a bit unseemly to imply that if you object to Pinker and his mates constantly gobbing off about things they don’t want to bother learning about, you’re in favour of unanaesthetised dentistry. The whole olive-branch-I’m-only-here-to-help thing is made particularly ridiculous of course, by the quite colossal strop that Pinker is still throwing even to this day about “postmodernism” and the way in which he reacts to the idea that scientists are human beings operating in a social context, and that therefore the things they do are a potential subject of sociological analysis.

Anyway, if you want to read a lot of very tendentious stuff about the role of science in literature and music, and if you want to be told that evolutionary psychology approaches and “the epidemiological dynamics by which one person affects others” (he means memes, but presumably has been told about the cat pictures thing) are much much more mainstream and universally accepted than they really are, then there it is. Because that isn’t really my subject here, more of an introductory toccata on the theme of run-on sentences.

I wanted to highlight this interview which Chris pointed out to me on Twitter, and which contains this quite startling passage, which was skipped over by the interviewer in such a manner as to suggest that it’s a mere commonplace of British university administration.

The imposition of £9,000 tuition fees did affect the number of applicants last year,” he says, “though that was in line with what we expected as many students who might have deferred their places during the previous year sensibly chose not to, UCAS applications have been back up again this year. Not to their peak, but to where they were in 2009. But we can’t ignore the fact that the demographics are changing – the potential student pool has fallen by 60,000 this year or that student expectations have risen.”

The new fee structure may have put more cash directly into the coffers – universities are about £1,000-£1,500 better off on every arts and social studies student (though down a bit for those doing heavy science courses) – but the gain has come with its own price tag. “Students are now asking themselves if what they are being presented with is a value for money £9,000 offer,” says Smith. “And it’s one they are fully entitled to make.”

[Emphasis added!]

Apart from the other bits, which are interesting enough in themselves, that bit in bold is the real “hang on, rewind” moment. Under the current structure of UK education funding and relative to the status quo ante, the University of Exeter is making upwards of a grand a year off arts and social studies, but losing ” a bit” on science courses? Presuming that the university as a whole is roughly breaking even, that suggests to me that over the course of a three year degree, undergraduate arts students are subsidizing their science-studying mates to the tune of at least three thousand pounds a head. Per taxpayer, that is; the subsidy received per science student is presumably a multiple of that.

Is this not a bit of an odd state of affairs? I can see the rationale for a subsidy to STEM education – as it happens, I don’t agree with it any more than any other form of industrial policy – but if we’re going to have one, why would it make sense to fund it via an effective tax on humanities education (and, I would guess, on pure mathematics which also doesn’t have much in the way of expensive facilities)? Is the idea that humanities education is an active social bad, to be discouraged via a Pigouvian tax? If so, why would there be an implicit subsidy to drama, another notoriously loss-making course? (I have often wondered whether it is not the case that a lot of education policy commentary is motivated by the fear that someone, somewhere, might be doing media studies).

Quite apart from anything, if one handles the subsidy this way, there is considerable danger of creating perverse incentives. Any vice-chancellor who has seen Moneyball and can add must be aware that there is a pretty easy win in terms of research rankings from closing down an expensive science faculty and spending the money on poaching a top-class literature team. Steve Smith of Exeter, the guy interviewed, appears to have done exactly this with his chemistry department. It all seems a bit weird to me, that a reform of the education system which was meant to both introduce a bit of market discipline and promote science education, appears to be doing the opposite of both.

{ 150 comments }

1

marcel 08.14.13 at 11:08 pm

D^2: Glad to see you around here. This has been a great week, a red letter week, for CT readers. Not only you, but 3 posts by BW (plus a fourth at the end of last week). This probably sounds like sarcasm, this being the web and all, but it is not. You 2 and Berube, may his pen rest in peace, are the biggest attractions of this blog (even though JQ, CR and others keep the place going quite nicely in your absences).

Now I’ll go read the post.

2

Daniel 08.14.13 at 11:15 pm

that’s very kind of you to say, but it’s purely an artifact of rarity in my case at least.

by the way, I can recommend having a go at Pinker for any of our readers in search of a cheap and speedy spleengasm. It’s got all the thrill of having a go at Dawkins, but with much, much less of the danger of retaliation by a thousand Twitter followers.

3

steven johnson 08.14.13 at 11:16 pm

If you really think market discipline would, could or was meant to improve science education, perhaps even Pinker has something to teach you.

Perhaps it’s different in the UK. But the private exploitation of knowledge garnered by the expensive research laboratories in universities makes them subsidies for tech businesses. Which means that increasing fees on students is indirectly making humanities students subsidize corporations a lot. (And yes, the science students a little bit, which I’m sure is much more offensive.)

It’s rather desperate reaching to try to turn this into some sort of industrial policy or musty left-wing nostrums. Agenda much?

4

js. 08.14.13 at 11:17 pm

It’s Steven Pinker. Not that it really matters.

5

Daniel 08.14.13 at 11:21 pm

It does matter! Not enough to get it right first time, but enough to change it once corrected. Thanks JS!

6

VeeLow 08.14.13 at 11:31 pm

D2–a not unrelated argument is made by Christopher Newfield for the US university context (specifically the UC system)t; see, eg, the last section of this piece, entitled “Avoiding the Coming Higher Ed Wars”:

“Budgetary secrecy has been straining internal campus relationships for quite some time. Yudof’s remarks about the humanities and social sciences needing subsidies provoked firestorms on faculty e-mail lists. These fields are tied to all others in a maze of commingled cash flows that would give migraines to armies of accountants. Universities are held together by “cross-subsidies,” and the general rule, as explained to UC officials last fall by Jane Wellman, executive director of the Delta Project on Postsecondary Education Costs, Productivity, and Accountability, is that cheap programs subsidize expensive ones. Cheap programs include English and sociology. Expensive ones include medicine. This means that in the real world of higher education funding, English and sociology make money on their enrollments, spend almost nothing on their largely self-funded research, and then, in the cases I have reviewed, actually have some of their “profits” from instruction transferred to help fund more expensive fields. Without these cross-subsidies, plus the everincreasing clinical labors of its own overworked faculty, medical research would be losing money, as the research enterprise always does.”

http://www.aaup.org/article/avoiding-coming-higher-ed-wars#.UgwTwMu9KSM

7

Daniel 08.14.13 at 11:36 pm

My guesstimates would be:

1) if you consider the NSF in America and its British equivalent of “outside money”, then science departments probably break even or just about, on an all in basis.

2) if you consider government science research budgets to be part of the overall education budget, then science education is lossmaking at the level of the whole system – the benefits are accrued privately (which doesn’t mean that they aren’t real benefits or that the subsidy is unjustified, just that it exists).

3) humanities and social science education is definitely a profit centre at the level of the whole system (which again doesn’t mean it’s necessarily a social good; the undergrads might or might not get “value” for the money they pay into the system, although any economist ought to say that the fact that they do actually pay it in a more or less free market ought to count for something).

4) specifically for undergraduate education, it’s not even close.

8

BruceJ 08.14.13 at 11:36 pm

I know that the business/econ/edu reformer types are always jazzed about “running a university like a business”, so why are we at all surprised that running an institution like a business produces the recognizably ‘business-like’ aspects immediately apparent to anyone who’s ever read ‘Dilbert’?

Enron was ‘run like a business’. TWA was ‘run like a business’. Lehman Brothers was ‘run like a business’.

A university is not a ‘business’. It does not produce ‘products’. It is a school. It teaches people. Presumably they go on to utilize what they’ve learned in business to make money, but ‘product’ is not the aim of education.

9

Bloix 08.14.13 at 11:38 pm

“Is the idea that humanities education is an active social bad, to be discouraged via a Pigouvian tax?”

No, the idea is that university education should cost the same for all students, regardless of the cost of providing it. This has always been the generally accepted practice. I don’t see how you could change it. It would unacceptable to charge a student for say, the average chem degree or the average music degree – you’d have to charge by the course. More for seminars, less for lectures, double for labs, etc. You think a university could go down that route?

As for perverse incentives, well yes. In the US, law students have been bilked for generations to pay for the far costlier services offered to science graduate students. As Paul Campos will be happy to tell you, many a university has built a law school primarily for the purpose of obtaining fistfuls of student-loan funded tuition checks to subsidize other parts of the enterprise.

10

Daniel 08.14.13 at 11:42 pm

An economist would also note that there are zillions of independent “small liberal arts colleges”[1] and more or less no “small engineering colleges” and that this counts for something.

You think a university could go down that route?

Well the alternative is the “death panel” approach of rationing by closing down the labs and music departments entirely. If we’re not going to establish your (perfectly sensible) principle of equal cost by subsidy, I don’t see how it’s remotely sustainable to do the same thing by cross-subsidy.

[1] Yes I know some of them have science departments but the broad sweep is accurate, work with me here.

11

Daniel 08.14.13 at 11:43 pm

Enron was ‘run like a business’. TWA was ‘run like a business’. Lehman Brothers was ‘run like a business’.

In fairness these aren’t the only examples.

12

Doctor Memory 08.14.13 at 11:51 pm

‘more or less no “small engineering colleges” and that this counts for something.’

A little-known engineering school called “Cal Tech,” total student body or more-or-less 2,000 including undergraduate and graduate students, wishes to speak to you.

(Harvey Mudd College, with less than 1000 total students, is holding on the other line.)

13

Daniel 08.14.13 at 11:52 pm

It’s rather desperate reaching to try to turn this into some sort of industrial policy or musty left-wing nostrums. Agenda much?

Anyone remember when this comments section used to be fun? Me neither.

14

Daniel 08.14.13 at 11:53 pm

#12: I have one of those fancy dealer-board phones with ten lines. So you can dig up Cooper Union too and I’ll still have enough spare phone lines to prank the local radio station by tying up all of his phones and making him ad lib an hour with no callers.

15

F 08.14.13 at 11:56 pm

10

Some of them???

They all have science departments, many of them quite strong for not having graduate programs.

16

F 08.14.13 at 11:57 pm

Also, you may be pleased to hear that there is a very strong push in the US to start charging unequal tuition for different majors. I suspect that humanities folks will not like the eventual outcome of that movement.

17

Palindrome 08.15.13 at 12:10 am

I thought the real problem with the whole “running educational institutions like a business” idea is that education produces sizable externalities. Students only capture some (most?) of the benefits of education. If they have to bear all the costs, education will be under-supplied to society as a whole. Businesses, historically, have not been effective at managing problems of this sort.

18

Marc 08.15.13 at 12:12 am

@13: it does come across as whining Daniel, regardless of intent. Especially in the US context, where the liberal arts requirements have set up an elaborate interdependent ecology.

19

Daniel 08.15.13 at 12:15 am

many of them quite strong for not having graduate programs.

quite a yaddayadda there.

Also, you may be pleased to hear that there is a very strong push in the US to start charging unequal tuition for different majors. I suspect that humanities folks will not like the eventual outcome of that movement.

“Humanities folks” is very ambiguous between producers and consumers, something which you might have noticed. Some “Science and Engineering Folks” are happy about the fact that the managed price for undergraduate courses is well below the market-clearing price, some aren’t.

20

Daniel 08.15.13 at 12:18 am

elaborate interdependent ecology.

I think you mean “viable product that people want to buy for more than the cost of making it”.

it does come across as whining Daniel, regardless of intent

Let me tell you how you come across one of these days. What a tool.

21

Daniel 08.15.13 at 12:20 am

Ahh, picking fights with bores who didn’t read the post properly in the comments section, it’s almost like old days.

22

floopmeister 08.15.13 at 12:28 am

Wonder if he’s aware of the long tradition of applying the insights of non-equilibrium thermodynamics to fields of social endeavour? My guess is that he’s not.

A nice intro to the field is Tainter, J. & Patzek, T. (2012) Drilling Down: The Gulf Oil Debacle and Our Energy Dilemma, Copernicus/Springer (p8):

It has long been known that within individual technical sectors, the productivity
of innovation declines over time. In 1945, Hornell Hart showed
that innovation in specific technologies follows a logistic curve: patenting
rises slowly at first, then more rapidly, and finally declines. The great physicist
Max Planck thought that science as a whole would experience diminishing
productivity as it grew and exhausted the stock of things that are easy to
learn…
…In tribute to the famous physicist, Rescher termed this “Planck’s Principle
of Increasing Effort.” Planck and Rescher suggest that exponential growth in
the size and costliness of science is needed just to maintain a constant rate
of innovation. Science must therefore consume an ever-larger share of
national resources in both money and personnel. Jacob Schmookler, for
example, showed that although the number of industrial research personnel
increased 5.6 times from 1930 to 1954, the number of corporate patents
over roughly the same period increased by only 23%. Such figures prompted
Dael Wolfle in 1960 to write an editorial for Science titled “How Much
Research for a Dollar?” Derek de Solla Price observed in the early 1960s that
science even then was growing faster than both the population and the
economy and that, of all scientists who had ever lived, 80–90% were still
alive at the time of his writing. At the time of our own writing, there are
discussions of boosting the productivity of American science by doubling
the budget of the National Science Foundation, just as the research budget
of the National Institutes of Health was doubled a few years ago.

Acxcording to others the “peak of U.S. scientific innovation came in 1915. It, too, has been declining ever since”.

There are compelling scientific reasons why science needs ever-increasing subsidies from the social sciences. Funnily enough, as a social scientist I’m very aware of ‘the sin of reductionism’ implied in such research and am trying to ‘square the circle’ with regard to this issue.I’d prefer to see this as the ‘reductionist conceit’ – an awareness of thermodynamics (and the problematic concept of entropy) and the limits they place on certain areas of human/social endeavour do not imply the ability to explain or predict those social endeavours.

It’s a false dichotomy – the similarity between polemicists like Pinker and Dawkins is more than skin deep.

23

F 08.15.13 at 12:35 am

quite a yaddayadda there.

I’m not sure what your point is.

“Humanities folks” is very ambiguous between producers and consumers, something which you might have noticed. Some “Science and Engineering Folks” are happy about the fact that the managed price for undergraduate courses is well below the market-clearing price, some aren’t.

The managed price for all undergraduate courses is nowhere near the market-clearing price, STEM or no.

24

F 08.15.13 at 12:37 am

Also no less a yaddayadda than “[1] Yes I know some of them have science departments but the broad sweep is accurate, work with me here.”

25

Belle Waring 08.15.13 at 1:10 am

Anyone remember when this comments section used to be fun? Me neither.
I must concede it has been slightly escaping me. My saintly husband is even more saintly than I had realized. He’s trying to troll various commenters, sure, but that’s pretty meager fare. You can go get in arguments in the comments at Slate if that’s what you want in life.

To be more serious for a moment, I can’t be the only person waiting for Steven Pinker to experience extraordinarily rapid inherited male pattern baldness.

26

Rmj 08.15.13 at 1:16 am

To be more serious for a moment, I can’t be the only person waiting for Steven Pinker to experience extraordinarily rapid inherited male pattern baldness.

In the words of Walt Kelly: that’s what he gets for talking off the top of his head. He’ll be bald, and nothing to show for it.

27

pedant 08.15.13 at 1:17 am

The great thing is that inherited baldness would be a perfectly innatist cause of his having a blank slate roof.

28

Bill Benzon 08.15.13 at 1:47 am

Add Stevens Institute in Hoboken to the list of small (but very good) engineering schools.

29

bianca steele 08.15.13 at 1:49 am

The infuriating thing about Pinker is that no matter how many times you read what he wrote, it only gets more spleentastic. Having the prospect of complaining on one’s blog is pretty much the only thing that makes it feel non-futile.

But his hair is great. When I met Mr. Steele, he had hair like that. Six months after we started dating, he went on vacation and came back with a short haircut, and a terrible sunburn behind his ears.

I suppose it doesn’t matter whether the stuff in boldface is supposed to be the bottom line or the top.

30

harry b 08.15.13 at 2:10 am

Its pretty common for schools to charge differential rates for majors in different colleges. Our Engineering and Business students pay a surcharge of about $1000 a year in their junior and senior years. I teach a lot of business students, and recently quizzed them about how much it would take to get them to defect to another major. Out of about 60 in the room, a couple defected when the surcharge got to $4000, and NOBODY joined them even after I had (hypothetically) doubled tuition. Of course, I think in reality some of them would defect to Economics, others to Communications etc before that point was reached.

F: if we charged the actual cost of teaching students, I disagree. Science departments are very expensive to maintain, humanities departments very cheap. Arts departments (Music, Drama, etc) would get wiped out, to be sure, or would figure out how to teach students less expensively. Of course, if we went for the model proposed by Florida’s Governor, where you charge more to the students who cost less to teach, then humanities people wouldn’t like that, but that is an even odder business model than what we currently have.

31

Omega Centauri 08.15.13 at 2:12 am

Talking about cross subsidies, I bet nearly all departments make big “profits” on the intro courses. I bet American Thought and Lanquage-101 (or its equivalent) cross subsidises the courses for humanities major upperclassmen as well. Although I guess you can justify intertemporal cross-subsidization because presumably freshmen who overpay, get rewarded a couple of years down the road. In any case, for many departments, its the giant general ed lecture course that capture the bulk of the tuition?

Some of these departments, -especially those that do performing arts, enrich the quality of the college experience, by providing free/cheap on campus performances for the student body. Strict acounting would never do that justice.

32

Chaz 08.15.13 at 2:31 am

Most of the famous little liberal arts colleges have science programs, but hardly any of them have engineering. There’s also a ton of low-ranked ones that have mostly business and vocational degrees. I am under the impression that those are the biggest moneymakers of all.

There are some more engineering focused private colleges beyond the three on David’s phone–MIT, Rensselaer, Worcester, Olin–but Daniel’s right that they’re massively outnumbered by little liberal arts colleges. Of course most of the famous ones were founded back before university engineering was a thing people did.

33

Chaz 08.15.13 at 2:31 am

Meant Daniel not David.

34

heckblazer 08.15.13 at 2:49 am

Daniel @ 14:

You might have full lines when the rest of the Association of Independent Technological Universities start calling.

35

Eli 08.15.13 at 2:49 am

The only thing more annoying than pompous whining about how the humanities are overrated is pompous whining about the reverse. But what would the internet be without straw men, projection, and pissing contests? Pleasurable, I suppose.

36

Bloix 08.15.13 at 3:15 am

“more or less no “small engineering colleges””

In no particular order:

Rensselaer Politechnic Institute
Stevens Institute of Technology
New Jersey Institute of Technology
Colorado School of Mines
Cooper Union
Worcester Polytechnic Institute
Lehigh University
Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology
Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering
New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology
Lafayette College
University of Tulsa
South Dakota School of Mines and Technology
Webb Institute
Wentworth Institute of Technology

That’s enough for now.

37

Brian W 08.15.13 at 3:47 am

It is odd that the UK brought in equal pricing for all degrees. Australia didn’t, though there is still in effect a large subsidy from humanities to sciences. (Maths gets the worst deal, because their students mostly pay at the science rate, but have little costs.) The Australian system is far from perfect, but I don’t think there’s any major pressure to move to equal pricing, or any view that this is one of the seriously unfair aspects of the system.

38

jdkbrown 08.15.13 at 3:55 am

From 1997 to 2006, 13.8% of Reed College undergraduates went on to earn PhDs in science/engineering fields. Only MIT, Caltech, and Harvey Mudd (itself an undergraduate science and engineering school) had a higher proportion of undergraduates earning science/engineering PhDs. Reed is followed immediately in the rankings by Swathmore and Carleton College; Grinell comes in at #8, and there are five more liberal arts colleges in the top 20.

The idea that small liberal arts colleges don’t do science education–or do less of it, do it worse, or take it less seriously than research schools–is simply mistaken.

39

Eggplant 08.15.13 at 4:23 am

If it’s a Pigouvian tax you want, perhaps we should charge business and economics majors more.

40

Ben Alpers 08.15.13 at 4:44 am

Most of the famous little liberal arts colleges have science programs, but hardly any of them have engineering.

Smith College, e.g., has an engineering program that they’re very proud of.

Swarthmore also has engineering, as does Wesleyan.

41

stubydoo 08.15.13 at 5:08 am

A key premise of the OP is that the STEM educational disciplines are riding on the backs and not paying their own full freight. As has been noted, a key piece of evidence is the question of whether there are cases of colleges that stand up with only a STEM specialization, or do they need the humanities to stay afloat. And so we have some nice informative lists (e.g. Bloix @36). Probably a list of humanities focused schools that don’t really do STEM (at least not the E) would turn out to be somewhat longer, but that really only reflects the fact that the population of students ready willing and able to pursue a STEM education is smaller. But I think the evidence is sufficient to show that, at least in the USA (1) STEM is perfectly capable of carrying its own weight, without needing help from other disciplines, and (2) the humanities are also perfectly capable of carrying their own weight, without needing help from other disciplines.

jdk @37 brings up the interesting example of Reed – i.e. a supposedly “liberal arts” school that also manages to be awesome for STEM subjects, but I think Reed is a bit unusual. There really are many liberal arts colleges that are decent (or at least have decent reputations) for humanities, while lagging far behind both the engineering specialist schools and your flagship state schools on technical matters. Also interesting to consider is a few land grant schools which offer a complete educational menu but where STEM is the main thing and humanities is a bit of an afterthought e.g. Texas A&M, though of course the ultimate exemplar is MIT.

42

heckblazer 08.15.13 at 7:09 am

Since I hadn’t heard of it before I looked up the Webb Institute. It’s interesting in that it’s both very small, with a student body of 78, and very specialized, being focused on marine engineering and naval architecture. It also does not charge tuition for US citizens while having an endowment of a whopping $40 million.

Also, is my impression right that it would be easier to make a list of American liberal arts colleges that did NOT start out as a school for training clergy and missionaries?

43

Hidari 08.15.13 at 7:11 am

Good demolition of Pinker the Thinker’s ramblings by PZ Myers here:

” I probably know more about the biological side of how the brain functions than Pinker does, with my background in neuroscience, cell biology, and molecular biology. But I have no illusions. If I could travel in time to visit Hume or Spinoza, I might be able to deliver the occasional enlightening fact that they would find interesting, but most of my knowledge would be irrelevant to their concerns, while their ideas would have broader applicability and would enlighten me. When I imagine visiting these great contributors to the philosophy of science (Hume and Bacon would be at the top of my list), I see myself as a supplicant, hoping to learn more, not as the font of wisdom come to deliver them from their errors. Alright, I might argue some with them, but Jesus…they have their own domains of understanding in which they are acknowledged masters, domains in which I am only a dabbler.

Pinker is committing the fallacies of Progressivism and Scientism. There is no denying that we have better knowledge of science and engineering now, but that does not mean that we’re universally better, smarter, wiser, and more informed about everything. What I know would be utterly useless to a native hunter in New Guinea, or to an 18th century philosopher; it’s useful within a specific context, in a narrow subdomain of a 21st technological society. I think Pinker’s fantasy is not one of informing a knowledgeable person, but of imposing the imagined authority of a modern science on someone from a less technologically advanced culture.

It’s actually an encounter I’d love to see happen. I don’t think evolutionary psychology would hold up at all under the inquisitory scrutiny of Hume.

I tried to put myself in the place of one of my colleagues outside the sciences reading that essay, and when I did that, I choked on the title: “Science Is Not Your Enemy: An impassioned plea to neglected novelists, embattled professors, and tenure-less historians”. How condescending! I know there are a few odd professors out there who have some bizarre ideas about science — they’re as ignorant of science as Pinker seems to be of the humanities — but the majority of the people I talk to who are professors of English or Philosophy or Art or whatever do not have the idea at all that science is an enemy. They see it as a complementary discipline that’s prone to a kind of overweening imperialism. I get that: I feel the same way when I see physicists condescend to mere biologists. We’re just a subset of physics, don’t you know, and don’t really have an independent history, a novel perspective and a deep understanding of a very different set of problems than the ones physicists study.

Just as biologists freely use the tools of physics, scholars in the humanities will use the tools of science where appropriate and helpful. They do not therefore bow down in fealty to the one true intellectual discipline, great Science. I have never known a one to reject rigor, analysis, data collection, or statistics and measurement…although they can get rather pissy if you try to tell them that the basic tools of the academic are copyright Science.”

http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2013/08/08/repudiating-scientism-rather-than-surrendering-to-it/

44

Plucky Underdog 08.15.13 at 7:15 am

Daniel — you’re pretty good at ferreting out the surprising implications of bland accounting numbers. Could you possibly unpack your “per taxpayer” assertion in your antepenultimate para? Apart from the undifferentiated “tax” that you speak of (income? VAT? CGT? let’s go for “income”), that would mean something like 29e6 * £1000 equals £29e9 per UK per year (HMRC sez 29 million income taxpayers in 2008 at aitch tee tee pee http://www.hmrc.gov.uk/statistics/tax-statistics/table2-1.pdf).
That seems a trace high, even for a UK nationwide cashflow. But you *are* better at this than most, so…?
Oh and yes, the phrase “presumably a multiple of that” pegged the needle on my yaddayaddaometer.

45

Plucky Underdog 08.15.13 at 7:17 am

So I didn’t need to do that selfconscious edit after all. I thought it would help me sidestep moderation, but my post just went straight in with a link. Cave PDF, etc etc.

46

magistra 08.15.13 at 7:37 am

As a UK data point, Imperial College somehow manages to survive (and indeed get in the top 25 universities of the world) without humanities students to leach off, so it can be done. I suspect if you can get enough research money in, losing money on undergraduate education doesn’t matter – Oxbridge have always claimed that they lose money on undergraduate teaching, because of the particularly intensive nature of it.

As for the perverse incentives for closing down science departments, that’s already been noticed and seen to backfire. King’s College London closed down its chemistry department (or at least converted it to be little more than a service department) a few years ago, and then lost out as the location of a big biomedical centre to University College London partly as a result. The interconnections of the sciences make it risky closing down any particular one.

On the other hand, the field that probable suffers the most from rejecting cross-subsidies is foreign languages: an awful lot of UK language departments have closed down because they can’t reccuit lots of students, they’re subjects that are expensive to teach and they don’t get lots of external funding.

47

Jenny in Dorset 08.15.13 at 8:29 am

Just a small data point here. My daughter has just finished her first year at Oxford reading Biology, she pays £9000 per year for tuition. She has many friends reading Classics and English, their fees are £3000 or less (I can’t remember the exact details). The explanation given is that Science is more expensive to teach, as it needs labs.

48

Niall McAuley 08.15.13 at 8:39 am

I seem to be missing something. In the paragraph quoted in the OP, I read this:

the new fee structure may have put more cash directly into the coffers – universities are about £1,000-£1,500 better off on every arts and social studies student (though down a bit for those doing heavy science courses)

as being in contrast with the old system. These figures are the difference between the systems, not the new profit/loss figures. Daniel seems to be reading is as if these are net figures, but that would only be true if they broke exactly even on every student in the old system.

So, the question of who is subsidizing who would depend on what the profit/loss per student was in the old system, and how many of each type of student the college admits for how many years.

49

Ronan(rf) 08.15.13 at 9:03 am

I guess I should remove data geek from my CV. Pick up artist is staying, though

50

Main Street Muse 08.15.13 at 10:39 am

I don’t really remember the fine-detail specifics of my undergrad tuition payments – my father paid that – I do remember courses had various different fees depending on the tools one needed (science was more expensive). I also remember vast sums of money spent on textbooks. I am not aware that various majors were/are subsidizing other majors.

Are UK colleges public or private? The public university system in US is undergoing dramatic transformation due to post-crash dollar issues. And in many, each school/department is warring with others over money. Quite fascinating in a very sad way.

At NYU, they just halted the practice of having the university lend upper administration gods money for their second homes (though they apparently are still providing loans for first homes.) http://nyti.ms/19jZPDQ

51

ajay 08.15.13 at 10:59 am

there are few clearer signs that one cannot program a computer than to publicly call yourself a “hacktivist” and few clearer signs that you didn’t do statistics at university than to boast that you’re a “data geek”

“I am the embodiment of the ‘data geek’ who sets himself up against the self-proclaimed experts” – Nate Silver. (http://www.lemonde.fr/technologies/article/2013/05/24/et-nate-crea-le-data_3415955_651865.html)

that bit in bold is the real “hang on, rewind” moment. Under the current structure of UK education funding and relative to the status quo ante, the University of Exeter is making upwards of a grand a year off arts and social studies, but losing ” a bit” on science courses?

I am really surprised that Daniel is surprised by this, to be honest. Was he under the impression that science degrees were no more expensive to teach than arts degrees, or did he assume that science students were already paying more? Surely it can’t be that surprising that a degree which involves lots of messing around with expensive glassware and electronic equipment and dead fish on top of the standard fare of lectures, tutorials and libraries is rather more costly to run than one which simply involves the lectures, tutorials and libraries, and none of the costly smelly and/or explosive stuff?

Note that differential pricing already exists in one area: medicine. SAAS sets your fees at £1820 a year for all undergraduate degrees, but £2895 a year for medical degrees. That’s quite a difference.

Also, two excellent points here:
As a UK data point, Imperial College somehow manages to survive (and indeed get in the top 25 universities of the world) without humanities students to leach off, so it can be done. I suspect if you can get enough research money in, losing money on undergraduate education doesn’t matter.

A university doesn’t get money solely by educating undergraduate students, any more than a newsagent makes money solely off selling newspapers. I’m not an expert on higher education – any more than Daniel is, though at least I am vaguely aware of the existence of the immense world-famous educational institution less than four miles from my house, which gives me a bit of an edge over him – but it seems entirely likely that science departments attract a lot more external research funding, from the research councils and elsewhere, than arts departments do. There are no European projects aimed at increasing our understanding of the Renaissance by spending billions of euros to smash sonnets into each other at high fractions of lightspeed.

52

ajay 08.15.13 at 11:20 am

Also, reading Niall McAuley’s 45, I am inclined to agree: the article is definitely saying that universities are doing better now on arts students than they were before, not that they’re making money on arts and losing it on sciences – though the latter, which is the conclusion the OP draws, is also perfectly possible and in fact rather likely.

53

John Quiggin 08.15.13 at 11:23 am

Australia gets this one more or less right, I think. Humanities students pay the least, and science students a bit more (not quite enough to offset the cost differential, I expect), while business and law students (cheap to teach, but with little in the way of +ve externalities) pay top dollar, along with medicine, dentistry etc (expensive to teach, and highly paid, but obviously necessary)

http://studyassist.gov.au/sites/studyassist/helppayingmyfees/csps/pages/student-contribution-amounts#2013

54

Ebenezer Scrooge 08.15.13 at 11:24 am

There is a big difference between the intellectual worth of a discipline and the quality of the education provided by the practitioners of a discipline. You can simultaneously that all disciplines are created intellectually equal AND that the quality of training is higher in some than others. Law is the humanities counterpart to engineering school. Funny how, in American law schools at least, the better students seem to have STEM backgrounds.

One finds STEM dropouts all over the academy. The converse is far more rare.

55

Chris Brooke 08.15.13 at 11:32 am

All of this reminds me of the old joke. Why are Philosophy departments cheaper than Maths departments? The university has to provide the mathematicians with paper, pencils, and waste-paper baskets. But with the philosophers it can save money by not supplying waste-paper baskets.

56

ajay 08.15.13 at 11:33 am

JQ: yes, that seems to be done mostly on cost lines (bit unfair on the mathematicians though, surely they’re cheap?), with exceptions to subsidise socially desirable but (I’m guessing) expensive degrees like education and nursing, or to shear as much as they can from potentially lucrative degrees like business and law.

Law is the humanities counterpart to engineering school.

That seems a little unfair. Most of the law students I knew were pretty well-groomed.

57

ajay 08.15.13 at 11:35 am

One finds STEM dropouts all over the academy. The converse is far more rare.

One rarely finds academy all over the STEM dropouts.

58

Tom Slee 08.15.13 at 12:04 pm

The talk of how much it costs to provide an education in arts vs sciences is surely not relevant, as university degrees are not commodities to be purchased at the marginal cost of production. Students are (now more than ever) buying credentials, and the value of credentials has little to do with the cost of test tubes.

The general trend, from what I can see, is that there was a two-generation timespan in which a section of the young (my parents; me) could take the consumer surplus from a subsidized credential system, but that the suppliers of these credentials have now realized there is no reason to give up that surplus. If universities are left to their own devices, the price of a degree will converge on the expected lifetime monetary benefit of getting one. Whether this favours arts or sciences depends more on the job market than capital infrastructure.

59

harry b 08.15.13 at 12:12 pm

Magistra,

For many years Imperial got a specific govt subsidy available to institutions with narrow remits. Same with IoE (where I worked), SOAS, etc. May still get it, for all I know. Daniel is talking specifically about the undergraduate market.

Whoever read Daniel as whining, really really wanted to.

60

Adam Roberts 08.15.13 at 12:22 pm

One data point: I have worked in a UK English department for a couple of decades. The introduction of fees has absolutely not increased the amount of cash coming in to my department, as it has not (I suspect) in many, if any. For example: we could really do with recruiting more staff at my place, but don’t have the funds to; we don’t have any money to pay for postdocs, either. We’d like to have, but the budget isn’t there. Nor is this because all our surplus is being leeched off us by the central admin. Since the fees were introduced not to top-up but to replace the amount of money the government used to pay us per student, and since £9k is at the bottom end of what it costs us actually to educate each student, we more-or-less lose out of each home/eu student. Money is made on non-eu students, who pay a much higher rate of fee; and whom we are all, therefore, encouraged and exhorted to recruit, though ‘how’ is not always vouchsafed to us. Money is also made on the overheads depts top-slice from Big Research Grant Fund Allocations, but those are harder to come by in the Arts than in the Sciences. I’ve honestly no idea where Pinker gets his £1000-1500 better off figure.

Worth bearing in mind the main university expense is not labs and suchlike; it is staff pay.

61

Belle Waring 08.15.13 at 12:44 pm

49: I knew there was a reason our relationship was going on so swimmingly, and now I see why–it’s the constant negging! Well played.

62

ajay 08.15.13 at 12:45 pm

I’ve honestly no idea where Pinker gets his £1000-1500 better off figure.

Minor point: that’s Steve Smith, vice-chancellor of Exeter, talking, not Pinker.

63

Alex 08.15.13 at 1:03 pm

51: Nate Silver’s degree is in economics (from Chicago), although no doubt that included quantitative methods and perhaps econometrics.

64

Walt 08.15.13 at 1:21 pm

I can’t believe that I have to point this out, but Daniel may not be 100% committed to the position he outlines, but may rather be applying the economic logic that administrators and politicians claim to be applying to show that their reasoning is bullshit. There’s a British term for this. “Pissing the take”? “Grinning the shit”? Something like that.

65

ajay 08.15.13 at 1:28 pm

Nate Silver’s degree is in economics (from Chicago), although no doubt that included quantitative methods and perhaps econometrics.

Yeah, but if your process of reasoning leads you to the conclusion that Nate Silver is just pretending to be a statistician when he’s really some ignorant bloke gobbing off about something he can’t be bothered to learn about, then something’s amiss.

66

Tom Hurka 08.15.13 at 1:28 pm

Like Niall @48 and ajay @52 I took the 1000-1500 in the Smith quote to be a comparison with the old system, not what Daniel took it to be. So which is it?

67

Ronan(rf) 08.15.13 at 1:36 pm

61: Being serious, and having looked that up, I really didnt mean anything to be personalised. It was genuinely in reaction to the OW thing, and having a lot of free time on my hands, and a couple of days exasperation at American billionaires (Ill accept it could be a lot of other things as well)
So Im sorry if it came across that way, and Ill tone down being an a**e in the future

68

jdkbrown 08.15.13 at 1:57 pm

@stubydoo: “I think Reed is a bit unusual.”

But Reed *isn’t* unusual: nine of the top twenty, and twenty-seven of the top fifty, undergraduate sources of science/engineering PhDs are liberal arts colleges. (And another, Rice, really is as close to the profile of a liberal arts college as it is to that of a research school.) And it’s not even just the very top SLACs: my own school, Gustavus Adolphus College, is *second* in the production of physics PhDs. You can have a look at some of the data here: http://www.nsf.gov/statistics/infbrief/nsf08311/ .

(Of course, this doesn’t, I think, speak to the main point of Daniel’s post–the sciences really are more costly to teach than are the humanities. And these higher costs aren’t offset by research money brought in via grant, since grants don’t cover all of the overhead incurred by the school.)

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William Timberman 08.15.13 at 2:52 pm

Daniel’s point is an interesting one, but being an American, whenever economists start talking about education, specifically about how to value it, I get extremely nervous. Here in the U.S., the business yahoos never give up trying to reduce public education to a work force training subsidy for themselves, and the rest of the yahoos are implacably dedicated to snuffing out all forms of government-funded secular humanism. Between the two flavors of yahoo, it’s a wonder there’s anything left that an impoverished seeker after enlightenment can take advantage of.

No doubt mine is some sort of elitist view, but I came by it more or less honestly. The thirty-plus years I spent working for the University of California spoiled me completely. During the first half of my career, money was literally no object. Things were built and people were hired with a fine abandon — we hadn’t a care in the world, at least not when it came to being able to pursue the abstract good of teaching everybody everything and hang the cost. Talk about false consciousness!

Now, of course, deep penury is advancing everywhere, and skeptics are accordingly biting the coin of higher education and encountering the bitter taste of base metal in the alloy. Wishing ourselves back in the golden age won’t do, I agree, but the idea that education is just another commodity, like light sweet crude, is troubling nevertheless….

70

PatrickinIowa 08.15.13 at 3:03 pm

At my state flagship Big Ten/CIC institution, STEM and Business enroll a higher proportion of out of state and international (predominantly Chinese) students than other majors (except math, to be sure). There’s widespread sentiment that the university recruits these students because they pay a higher out of state rate, and subsidize the in state students. The further perception is that they gravitate to STEM and Business because of perceived career prospects and, of course, ESL concerns.

I wonder if there’s anyone here who can speak to whether that’s true generally with respect to US public institutions. Are Iowa’s perceptions generally shared? Are they accurate?

71

Anthony McCarthy 08.15.13 at 3:29 pm

I wrote about Pinker’s article too, yesterday and today. It’s so full of crap that it would take a long series of posts to deal with it all.

I’ve been a professional musician with an undergraduate and graduate degree in music for about forty years. Aaron Copland once pointed out that when a literary man puts down two words about music one of them would be wrong. Cog-neuro-etc. scientists have a lower ratio of accuracy.

72

William Timberman 08.15.13 at 4:35 pm

When I was an engineering undergraduate at an American silo-tech university back in 1961 (Oklahoma State University, née Oklahoma A&M), my classmates consisted almost entirely of recent male U.S. high school graduates like myself, who’d been dragooned into the post-Sputnik technology panic, and the Indian/Pakistani/Arab/Taiwanese/African government-subsidized kids who were later destined to become the famous brain-drainers who powered our cybernetic revolution.

I admired them. I still do, and it isn’t just nostalgia doing the talking here….

73

Alex Clark 08.15.13 at 4:45 pm

I just moved, in London, from a science department to a humanities department as this change was taking place– the details are a little tedious, but basically the government used to subsidize all courses through a block grant, and has now changed to only subsidizing STEM courses (simplifying a bit: see here if you have a high tolerance for bureaucratese:
https://www.hefce.ac.uk/whatwedo/lt/howfund/ ) because otherwise science departments would be closing even more rapidly than they are now, and they are thought to be economically important. But the subsidy does not cover the actual cost differential between test-tube subjects and non-test-tube subjects in many cases.

74

Lee A. Arnold 08.15.13 at 4:53 pm

Relevant to the topic of certain inabilities of science, I just finished a 1-minute vid that shows why complex systems are not precisely predictable, and why we had better do more, climate-wise:

75

js. 08.15.13 at 5:04 pm

I’m really not getting how this different rates for different majors/depts would work in a US context—presumably the system works differently in the UK, Australia, etc. The problem is you’d have to admit students into a dept., which is absolutely not what happens. I don’t have data on this, but my sense is that many or most students don’t even declare a major until well into their second year. Or at least, they have until the end of their second year to declare their major—certainly how it was for me. Also, the number of courses you have to take to complete a major is a minority of the courses you have to complete to graduate. So, I could declare a lit major and still take enough chem courses to complete a chem major, without actually declaring a chem major. I don’t see what would prevent this.

More realistically, the differential rates would apply by school. But then you run into the problem that at least in my experience, the humanities and the sciences are not in different schools—the standard grouping is Arts and Sciences, which is distinct from the School of Engineering. (I’ve never encountered anything else, and it would be bizarre if my experience were that atypical.)

Finally, and this is what would suit the logic best, the differential rates apply by course. But then, why should all lit courses cost the same, or all the chem courses? Presumably, as someone pointed out, large intro courses subsidize seminars, etc. And I”m not sure about this, but wouldn’t such a system put pressure to simply have more and more very large courses, i.e. large class sizes, because they’re the cheapest?

76

Eli Rabett 08.15.13 at 6:18 pm

The economics of universities in the UK and the US is very different, because US courses of study include requirements for out of major courses. The “liberal arts” departments leach off the STEM students via college requirements to take English, foreign language, social science, etc. courses, which ups their body count and justifies additional faculty slots. The science and math requirements for “liberal arts” departments are much lower.

Further, most science courses have additional lab fees which cover much of the broken glassware and some of the instrumentation.

Add to this that there are half a zillion really small, mostly religiously oriented colleges in the US which really are little better than high schools. . . and you get the feeling that any idiot could argue any side of this argument.

77

matt 08.15.13 at 7:31 pm

Tom Slee: “…the price of a degree will converge on the expected lifetime monetary benefit of getting one.”

At the few colleges I’m familiar with, tuition does not cover instruction costs plus overhead (“production costs”). The operating budget relies heavily on donations, and to some extent state funding, to balance. In working out these numbers, you have to use net tuition per student (sticker price minus financial aid). In other words, almost every student I’ve ever taught paid below cost for their degree. The only exceptions may have been the wealthiest “no-need” students, but even then I doubt it.

78

Mike Otsuka 08.15.13 at 8:15 pm

Tom Hurka @66 writes: “Like Niall @48 and ajay @52 I took the 1000-1500 in the Smith quote to be a comparison with the old system, not what Daniel took it to be. So which is it?”

Tom, Niall, and Ajay are right and Daniel is wrong.

79

bxg 08.16.13 at 3:17 am

>@5 It’s Steven Pinker. Not that it really matters.
>@Daniel 08.14.13 at 11:21 pm
It does matter! Not enough to get it right first time, but enough to change it once corrected. Thanks JS

>@78 Tom, Niall, and Ajay are right and Daniel is wrong

>@Original:
[Emphasis added!]
Apart from the other bits, which are interesting enough in themselves, that bit in bold is the real “hang on, rewind” moment.

The author presumably doesn’t agree that he is wrong, else – being so eager to fix a superficial naming problem in the article itself, not merely in a corrective comment – he would presumably want to correct the article itself if he came to think the key, _emphasis added_, _hang on rewind_, quote, the trigger for the entire article and complaint(!), was misread by him. He’d fix the article for a name error, so I assume if he though you had a point (and I’m with @78, not seeing it able to read it any other way) we’d see the head article rewritten too.
But I’m probably another yaddayadda tool in suggesting this.

80

bxg 08.16.13 at 3:32 am

> [1] Yes I know some of them have science departments but the broad sweep is accurate, work with me here.

What does “work with me here” ask of us? Is it really: “Please assume for the sake of the discussion I’m correct and work within that framework” – o.k., that would be clear enough, but it becomes a thought exercise of no relevance to the real world; why a post here on what has no more value than a philosophical exercise for your students?

Consider @68. Is he wrong because of objective facts (which, yes, seems a bit cherry picked to me) or is he entirely out of bounds because questioning your premise with data is violates the whole “work with me” request?

Suppose there were insurmountable proof that your “broad sweep” was factually wrong; is that something you would want to hear, or would that just be tools not comprehending what “work with me” asks? Or maybe something you’d like to hear someday, just no in this thread because in _this_ thread you want to build on hypotheticals (and possible counterfactuals)??

81

Warren Jason Street 08.16.13 at 3:57 am

As much as I love the Humanities, and I wanted to major in it but had to settle for a minor because my school cut back on offered courses, there really are too many people in college.

Sorry, but there are.

Instead of STEM, we should offer a better technical school education without the stigmas that have gone along with it.

82

Mike Otsuka 08.16.13 at 4:00 am

bxg: “(and I’m with @78, not seeing it able to read it any other way)”

It’s especially hard for those who are familiar with the details of government funding of UK universities to read this passage any other way.

Chris Bertram is familiar with these details, and he’ll be able to confirm what I’ve said.

83

Meredith 08.16.13 at 4:55 am

Maybe there’s a disconnect here between US liberal arts college (and university, too) folks and many others in the world? For instance, at most of these US institutions, from a Reed or Carleton or Wesleyan or Pomona or the innumerable other small liberal arts colleges to the Ivies or the Rice’s and Chicago’s to the state universities and colleges, be the public ones great or not:

You don’t even declare a major until the end of your sophomore (second) year (of four). So how would the institution charge different majors differently? And no matter your major, you have lots of distribution and other requirements to fulfill (English majors studying Biology, Biology majors studying History), so that it’s hard to say who is subsidizing whom. (Not to mention the students who do may not major in Music or Theater or Studio Art but who are committed and sometimes brilliant at performing/doing such). And what about double majors? (I’ll pull a praeteritio on all the programs, from Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies to Neuroscience.)

Someone way up commented on liberal arts colleges as founded in training ministers. True. The secularization of a calling to a full and rich life sounds right to me.

84

RickD 08.16.13 at 5:29 am

@44

Weslyan has engineering? Funny, I don’t remember that. And I was there for three years. Let’s see…what’s going on.

http://www.wesleyan.edu/engineering/

Hm…click, click, click. That seems weak. At Wesleyan, you have the opportunity to spend a semester or two studying at a real engineering school by going to a completely different university such as Columbia, CalTech or Dartmouth.

Of course, you could just go to Columbia, CalTech, or Dartmouth.

As a WesAlum, I would discourage any potential engineering student from going to Wesleyan. If you want to get the mix of a liberal arts education along with a proper engineering education, there are plenty of schools where you can do that: those named above, as well as MIT, Johns Hopkins, Cornell, etc. Wesleyan is a good place to study math and science (I was a math major). But not engineering.

85

Meredith 08.16.13 at 5:49 am

RickD, as the proud parent of a Wes alum, I get what you’re driving at. (And as the proud granddaughter of a Cooper Union grad — from eighth-grade to a degree in electrical engineering — a FREE degree, back in the early 20th century. Those were the days.) The divide between engineers and physicists or chemists or computer “scientists”…. That’s the divide in the discourse I often feel most acutely (and most hope, in my teaching, to overcome), like the divide between medicine and biology, or economics and business. (But then, I enjoyed reading about plowing/ploughing techniques, however tangential to Belle’s real point.)

86

ajay 08.16.13 at 11:09 am

js: I’m really not getting how this different rates for different majors/depts would work in a US context—presumably the system works differently in the UK, Australia, etc.

Yes, very differently. Broadly, in England you decide, in advance, “I would like to study chemistry”. You apply to lots of universities saying “I want to study chemistry with you” and they admit you (or not). When you get there, you spend your entire time studying chemistry, from day one, and you end up with a degree in chemistry.

Changing your subject half-way through does happen, but it’s very rare, and you would often have to start the course from square one.

Joint honours degrees do happen: you can get “History and Economics” degrees, or “French and German”. But, again, you’d apply for that course in advance and commit to it before starting at the university.

In Scottish universities you’ll often find a bit more flexibility: you might study three subjects in your first year, and drop one or two of them later on. You don’t have to commit yourself to a specific degree subject in advance. So you could start off studying French, Russian and psychology, drop psychology after a year or two and end up with a degree in “French and Russian”.

But the US idea of having distribution requirements – everyone has to study a bit of English, a bit of science, etc – is foreign to the UK systems.

87

Phil 08.16.13 at 11:23 am

You apply to lots of universities saying “I want to study chemistry with you” and they admit you (or not).

The downside is that this can mean bright & well-qualified candidates getting rejected because they haven’t got precisely the profile that admissions tutors are looking for in that particular subject.

Changing your subject half-way through does happen, but it’s very rare, and you would often have to start the course from square one.

There are variations. I knew several people at Cambridge who changed degrees. The end of Part One (the first two years) is a popular time to change – a friend of mine did English for Part One then switched to Law for Part Two (one year). But I also knew people who switched mid-year, or in one case at the start of term one. I think Cambridge is unusually flexible in this respect, though.

88

ajay 08.16.13 at 11:48 am

Phil: that’s true; Cambridge’s degrees are a bit broader; the Tripos structure, and the existence of a Natural Science honours degree, probably makes switching around easier. But my impression is that you’re also right about Cambridge being an outlier in England in this regard. I knew exactly one person who had changed degree at my (English) university.

Also true about the limitations that subject choice imposes. There’s no mechanism that I know of for admissions staff to say “Look, Phil, you aren’t quite what we’re looking for in a historian, but would you consider taking up an offer for a place on the English Literature BA course instead?”

89

Peter Erwin 08.16.13 at 12:21 pm

ajay @ 51:
There are no European projects aimed at increasing our understanding of the Renaissance by spending billions of euros to smash sonnets into each other at high fractions of lightspeed.

But why not? That sounds awesome.

90

Peter Erwin 08.16.13 at 12:37 pm

Daniel @ 10:
An economist would also note that there are zillions of independent “small liberal arts colleges”[1] and more or less no “small engineering colleges” and that this counts for something.

[1] Yes I know some of them have science departments but the broad sweep is accurate, work with me here.

American “liberal arts” colleges almost always, by definition,[1] have science programs. The proper comparison is not specialized science/engineering colleges versus liberal arts colleges; it’s the former versus, say, specialized art & design schools, or music conservatories.

[1] This goes back to the original medieval formulation of the liberal arts: after all, the quadrivium is music, arithmetic, geometry, and astronomy.

91

Hector_St_Clare 08.16.13 at 12:57 pm

Re: What I know would be utterly useless to a native hunter in New Guinea, or to an 18th century philosopher; it’s useful within a specific context, in a narrow subdomain of a 21st technological society.

I don’t think that’s at all true.

“How to measure the extent of the universe” might be pretty irrelevant to a New Guinea hunter, but an understanding of how to measure antimicrobial properties of various forest plants, or an understanding of which trees fix nitrogen, could have rather direct impacts on his well being.

92

Peter Erwin 08.16.13 at 1:57 pm

Chaz @ 32:

Most of the famous little liberal arts colleges have science programs, but hardly any of them have engineering.

True, but that’s probably because an undergraduate engineering program is supposed to grant a professional degree (one of the requirements for an engineering license in the U.S.). Specialized professional degrees aren’t really part of the whole “liberal-arts college” idea; most small liberal arts colleges don’t have separate nursing or architecture programs, either.

93

bianca steele 08.16.13 at 2:07 pm

I don’t know how on-point any of this is, especially as it relates to budgets. Civil engineering students don’t need bridge-building equipment.

94

pedant 08.16.13 at 2:13 pm

“…but I think Reed is a bit unusual.”

“But Reed *isn’t* unusual:…”

I visited once.

Reed is unusual.

95

ajay 08.16.13 at 4:43 pm

Civil engineering students don’t need bridge-building equipment.

They kind of do, actually. They do quite a bit of practical work that requires big machines for (eg) constructing things like girders and testing them to failure.

96

Peter Erwin 08.16.13 at 6:48 pm

Civil engineering students don’t need bridge-building equipment.

Further to ajay’s point, civil engineering students also need fairly powerful computers (with expensive software licenses, I would imagine). If you look at the syllabus for the New Jersey Institute of Technology’s Civil Engineering program, you can see quite a lot of lab courses, too.

97

bianca steele 08.16.13 at 6:56 pm

They do quite a bit of practical work

At first I was willing to think “well what does a gurl like me know about big machines and building things,” but in fact the Penn State civil and environmental engineering department, which I’d guess wouldn’t have to worry about space limitations and such, lists two courses with labs, one of which is in surveying. Lots of engineering is pen and paper. Especially at the undergraduate level. I’d bet nothing as expensive as a particle collider or state of the art hazmat facilities.

98

Lee A. Arnold 08.16.13 at 7:01 pm

Sorry the link to a vid I put in #74 had to be broken. Here is a link to the series list:

99

harry b 08.16.13 at 7:11 pm

Engineers also need teachers, who, unlike Philosophy and History teachers, have skills for which there is a market outside the academy. Economists do not earn more than philosophers because they are better teachers (they might be, but that’s not why they earn more).

100

Philip 08.16.13 at 7:21 pm

Ajay & Phil, also Lancaster is an outlier, at least when my sisters went which is over 10 years ago now. You chose 2 minor subjects and one major subject for your first year and had an option to switch. Just had a look on their website and it hasn’t changed.

101

john b 08.17.13 at 8:23 am

Just for the record: the claim made by Jenny in Dorset about Oxford tuition fees is wrong (presumably the result of a game of Telephone…). All domestic undergrad students are charged GBP9000 pa, irrespective of the course they are on.

(well, except for people reading for diplomas of theology at a PPH, I should add for the benefit of any passing pedants)

102

Chris Crawford 08.17.13 at 3:27 pm

This discussion seems to have three independent themes:

1. pricing considerations for science versus humanities education
2. Snide potshots at Steven Pinker and evolutionary psychology
3. Vague resentment of the dominant position that science plays in society

I’ll not address #1; that topic is covered very well in the comments.

Regarding #2, I note that these comments are mere potshots, bereft of supportive evidence or logic, the intellectual analogue of “Yer mudder wears army boots!”. I sense more emotionalism than intellectualism in them.

Regarding #3, I sympathize with the resentment that arts & humanities people feel about the lionization of science and technology. This issue has been bouncing around since at least the 1950s. Those of you who haven’t read C.P.Snow’s “The Two Cultures” should avail yourselves of that fine work, now 50 years old. On the one hand, I would advise a certain fatalism for humanities people — cultural evolution is steadily nibbling away at your habitat. Like American Indians facing the onslaught of the Europeans, your future is bleak. You don’t face utter annihilation, but you will end up on tightly circumscribed cultural and intellectual reservations.

At the same time, I urge you to stubbornly cling to the importance of your work. My failing memory robs me of the ability to quote Einstein properly, but I vaguely recall him writing something to the effect of ‘science and technology give us vast powers, but the arts and humanities grant us the wisdom to wield those powers wisely.’ I can point to my own field, computer games, as an ideal example of the penalties of severing A&H from S&T. The games field is dominated by techies, and the artsies play at best a mere supporting role. The result is a ‘vast wasteland’ of blood-soaked soulless products that can reach only immature young males. The game design field is in desperate need of the contributions of artsies. I blame both sides for this sorry situation. The techies never learn anything about A&H, and the artsies never learn anything about S&T. The problem is worst in America; the European respect for art breeds a more balanced set of techies.

My other advice for the artsies is to roll up your sleeves and wallow in the mud of rigorous linear thinking. I remind you that the Renaissance artists regularly attended dissections of human corpses in order to understand the human body. Imagine closely examining the musculature of a corpse after it’s been fermenting for a few days in the Italian heat. Programming is the next level of literacy; it won’t be long before those unable to write programs in general-purpose programming languages will be considered uneducated.

There was also a grossly ignorant comment regarding falling productivity in science. Use some economic sense here! If scientific productivity were falling, then surely some portions of the economy would be smart enough to reduce spending on R&D. But in fact, scientific output, as measured in economic terms, has been rising at a head-spinning rate. Technological progress is accelerating, not decelerating. Has anybody noticed how dramatically science and technology have changed our lives in the last 30 years? Does anybody here long for the days before mobile phones, personal computers, the Internet, LEDs, and current medical practice? Science is lionized because it has produced social benefits vastly exceeding our investment in it. The rich guys get all the girls; don’t succumb to the poor guys’ tendency to lash out at the rich guys; that just makes matters worse.

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PatrickinIowa 08.17.13 at 3:55 pm

Personally, I think the resentment (which is real) directed at the sciences by humanities faculty is greatly overestimated. It’s my sense, talking with my colleagues in the sciences, that a medical researcher is more like a history researcher than a pharmaceutical CEO or a governor, and that humanities researchers get that. Not that we don’t, on occasion, say extremely ignorant things about science and how scientists work. Engineering may be different. Still…

Of course, I tend to interact with science folks who worry that their students don’t write as well as they should, so maybe be my sample is skewed.

Humanities faculty animus is largely directed at the Rick Scotts of this world. I suspect that mathematicians, pure science biologists and theoretical physicists are with us on that.

I’m not feeling the Native American analogy. It’s not like they (whoever “they” are) want to exterminate us. They don’t understand what we do. Sometimes, that’s probably a good thing. Lots of the time, it makes it harder for us to compete for scarce institutional resources. But they haven’t sent us any smallpox-infected blankets. Yet.

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Chris Crawford 08.17.13 at 4:58 pm

#103: I did not mean to suggest that the analogy with Native Americans saw the S&T faculty as the driving force; my intent was that it is the slow drift of culture towards ever-increasing dominance by S&T that is squeezing the arts and humanities into ever-smaller meme-space in the cognitive universe of our culture.

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PatrickinIowa 08.17.13 at 5:07 pm

#104 I take your point. If we were talking over beers, we could pursue it further, but that feels like a side issue, especially since I’m generally sympathetic to your original comment. Cheers.

106

bianca steele 08.17.13 at 5:08 pm

To sum up, we haven’t solved the problem, therefore the OP was a waste of time.

It was amusing briefly to wonder whether the idea that engineers must need enormous resources stems from the idea that all knowledge comes from the university (explaining why universities own so many hospitals and grade schools, and why law students spend so much on court fees), or from the idea that engineers’ knowledge comes directly from their messing around with stuff so the ideas kind of form gradually in their heads. It does seem that the bachelor’s degree leading to directly to grad school and the BFA are about the only cases where we expect training to be complete upon graduation.

107

James Wimberley 08.17.13 at 6:26 pm

Going back to froopmeiser at #22 and diminishing returns in science. I met a former director of CERN at an Oxford alumni booze-up in Madrid. He didn´t think there would ever be a particle acelerator bigger than the LHC – new magnets perhaps, but that´s very expensive for not much gain in power. I infer that ten years from now, particle physics will gradually stop being an experimental science and become an observational one (astronomy plus blackboard/computer models).
There are more general reasons for thinking that science is likely to slow down. One is the ratio of the area of the known to the circumference of the discovery frontier. Other things being equal, it takes longer to learn the stuff before you get to discovery.
Second, science funding depends on a loose but real connection to felt needs: ending poverty, winning the Cold War, a cure for cancer, climate change, and a few more. The first has gone, cancer will probably be cracked in my remaining lifetime, the climate and poverty are well enough understood for the remedial action to be perfectly clear – it´s just unwelcome. The cry for lots more research on renewable energies (on top of the adequate funding we have now) is mainly displacement activity for those who don´t want to solve the problem by deploying the workable technologies we already have. There´s hardly any public constituency for manned space exploration, which mobilised the USA for science in the 1960s.

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Chris Crawford 08.17.13 at 6:51 pm

Re #107 Mr. Wimberley, the difficulty with your prognostication is that you cannot anticipate the completely new fields opened up by science. A lot of the older physicists at my grad school in the 70s were working on the solid state physics of surfaces in vacuums — top-notch work for a world with electronics based on radio tubes. Utterly useless work for that time, because solid-state physics had moved on to transistors and integrated circuits. But those guys were probably telling themselves in the 60s that their field had been pretty well drilled dry for new ideas.

My opinion is that the hottest research field right now is materials science. It is absolutely amazing how many fantastic new solids are being cooked up. Your smartphone, for example, would be useless without the special glass on the cover that combines flexibility with extreme hardness. And some of the special biological materials they’re cooking up are truly astounding. And we’ve barely scratched the surface of carbon materials and nanotechnology.

As to basic science, it’s true that particle physics is showing its arteriosclerosis. So what? That field has been hot for 80 years — a long lifespan for any scientific field. There are tons of exciting new fields being opened up: climatology and modeling long-term thermal behavior of the earth’s surface; quantum computing; photon computing; genetics and DNA analysis.

Computers and advanced sensor systems have opened up new areas that have barely been touched. The technique of modeling complex systems with computers is still in its youth. Biologists are just now learning how to combine the masses of DNA data we have to trace the history of life backwards. The amount of data generated by space telescopes is so great that some data is 5 years old and still awaiting analysis. Advanced sensing systems are opening up new discoveries for archaeologists and paleontologists.

Far from ebbing, scientific opportunities are opening up at an accelerating pace!

109

Anand Manikutty 08.17.13 at 11:59 pm

Re: comment #102:

If it sounds like nothing more than a snide comment on Steven Pinker, then may be I can help rectify that. Steven Pinker’s take on what Jackson Lears’ argument sounds plausible but, in the ultimate analysis, is incorrect. It be true that postmodernism is ruining the humanities, and also that some people on left resent science, but ain’t, it ain’t what Jackson Lears be sayin’.

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Neil 08.18.13 at 12:23 am

@Chris Crawford: resentment “of the dominant position that science plays in society”.

You will find many posts on this very blog pointing out and lamenting the obvious fact that policy makers ignore science routinely.

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WEU 08.18.13 at 1:20 am

“There are more general reasons for thinking that science is likely to slow down. One is the ratio of the area of the known to the circumference of the discovery frontier. Other things being equal, it takes longer to learn the stuff before you get to discovery.”

From my experience in a graduate physics program, I doubt this. In her education, the typical student doesn’t recapitulate the development of all theory from Newton to Yang-Mills theory before contributing to research. She learns what to learn — what will be useful in the dissertation project — and the more quickly she does this, the better off she is. (A few never make this switch from an undergraduate to a graduate mindset, and thrash around taking classes on Sexy Theory into their nth years.) This is true even for theorists : I do theoretical microhydrodynamics, and I don’t even know everything in my own field — I learn it as I need it — let alone GR, beyond superficial exposure in breadth requirements. A friend of mine, who does QCD, readily admits he isn’t so hot at PDEs, and so on.

This is happily possible because our historically accumulated knowledge is dispersed amongst the thousands of practitioners. No one needs to know the complete picture. The knowledge is deployed where it is needed pretty efficiently. It’s still a reasonably short route from an undergraduate degree to working on, say, theoretical models of topological insulators.

Secondly, as Ian Hacking argues, we too readily overlook the role of instruments. I suspect that the ultrafast optics jock, racking up Nature Physics papers, owes much of his success to his command the experimental setup — its quirks, the limitations on its resolution, and so on — more so than to a deep understanding of the physics being probed in the sample, or the physics of his own device.

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nick s 08.18.13 at 2:59 am

On the one hand, I would advise a certain fatalism for humanities people — cultural evolution is steadily nibbling away at your habitat.

The whiff of “I am an engineer and I read books, so why should literature departments exist?” is strong with this one. Otherwise, excellent troll.

it won’t be long before those unable to write programs in general-purpose programming languages will be considered uneducated.

In truth, it won’t be long before general-purpose computing is, as it probably should be, relegated to the position it had some decades ago as the limited domain of code-stained wretches, while the rest of the world with access to technology gets on just fine.

113

Ronan(rf) 08.18.13 at 3:06 am

I guess the trick is to think of your job as a job/hobby, rather than a life? I guess I agree computers are important, but then so are books, so if we could just combine the two..problem solved?

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Chris Crawford 08.18.13 at 6:14 am

#109: I have no interest in the arguments over postmodernism. My primary concern with the statements regarding Mr. Pinker is really with the knee-jerk rejection of evolutionary psychology.

#110: Yes, I have seen such posts. My concern is not with the authors or commentators, but with the statements in this discussion that seem to have an emotional condemnation of science and technology.

#112: Whatever whiff you are smelling is unquestionably a malfunction in your olfactory glands. Aside from calling me a troll, did you have any reasoned arguments to offer?

On the matter of the future role of computer programming as a form of literacy, I’ll be happy to discuss it with you, but it is indeed a huge subject. I argue that its importance will be in instigating the third cognitive revolution in human mentation, the first being the unifying effects of language that triggered the big leap around 50K years ago (because people were taking lots of time to learn language); the second being due to the Greeks and the development of writing as a navigational tool for rationalism, ultimately leading to science and technology; and the third being at its earliest inklings, in which subjunctive thinking, coupled with process-oriented thinking, trigger another huge leap forward. And programming will be the form of literacy underlying it.

115

David J. Littleboy 08.18.13 at 12:35 pm

” the limited domain of code-stained wretches,”

Hehe. I resemble that remark. Or, more accurately, would like to resemble it more than I do; I spend too much time playing guitar and putting my foot in my mouth here. Whatever. (I did assembler and Fortran and Lisp in the 70s, tried to work on machine translation in the 1980s, but have spent the last 20 years keeping body and soul together by doing actual translation, albeit of the technical variety, so not particularly humanistic.)

I wonder whether experience programming is necessary to understand computation intellectually/philosophically? I certainly think that computation is up there with Quantum Mechanics as intellectually and practically significant. But it may be that a small amount of experience programming makes one stupider, not smarter. Searle gave a TED talk, and still gets it completely wrong. It’s quite simple, really: thought is either computation or it’s magic. If one refuses to believe in magic, it’s all we’ve got to explain, or even think about, thought. (Alan Turing basically proved that there isn’t anything else when he showed that the halting problem (how long a program can run without halting or looping as a function of how much memory it has) grows faster than any other function.) No matter how much you dislike that (and Searle really dislikes that). Of course understanding that thought is just computation (currently) doesn’t give one much leverage on anything: the AI types have completely given up on thinking about thought and are into pure, unadulterated parlor tricks. There’s nothing wrong with parlor tricks: they get things done. But they don’t get any closer to understanding how people think. Sigh.

So I’m not convinced that programming is going to be part of standard intellectual literacy in the near future. In fact, if anything, rather the opposite. When I was an enthused computer nerd, back in the 1970s, programming was pretty much the only way to interact with computers. The things were so slow that you really had to work to persuade them to do something interesting. Nowadays, there are all sorts of apps, from Matlab to iphone thingies, and there seems less motivation for programming. Maybe.

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David J. Littleboy 08.18.13 at 12:49 pm

Speaking of AI, the New Yorker has an article with the same criticism.

http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/elements/2013/08/why-cant-my-computer-understand-me.html

Minor complaint: If you actually read Turing’s paper in which he proposes the Turing test, you’ll find that what he proposed is a lot more subtle that what everyone talks about as the Turing test. Turing’s game requires a computer not to fool people that it’s not a computer, but to engage in the game of a man pretending to be a woman, and to fail in the way a man would fail, not the way a computer would fail. (This was noticed by Roger Schank when he was doing AI at Yale back in the 80s.)

117

Tom Slee 08.18.13 at 1:17 pm

Chris Crawford: I wonder if you are aware how condescending your comments come across? To this reader, they seem full of patronizing advice that assumes others are less well-read than yourself, even in their own area of interest (#102), using arguments that assume your conclusion (#104), swift to limit the agenda to the topics you care about (#114), and with zero indication that you have given more than a moment’s consideration of anyone else’s opinion.

I thought I might engage in discussion here, but by the time I’d read all your comments it was clear there is no point.

118

floopmeister 08.18.13 at 2:13 pm

There was also a grossly ignorant comment regarding falling productivity in science. Use some economic sense here! If scientific productivity were falling, then surely some portions of the economy would be smart enough to reduce spending on R&D. But in fact, scientific output, as measured in economic terms, has been rising at a head-spinning rate. Technological progress is accelerating, not decelerating.

Technological progress yes – but then that was exactly not the point I was making. Read again please (a hint – the argument I am making is partly economic – methinks you missed it).

Has anybody noticed how dramatically science and technology have changed our lives in the last 30 years? Does anybody here long for the days before mobile phones, personal computers, the Internet, LEDs, and current medical practice?

Gosh no, I though we were communicating via wax tablets. Honestly, did you really miss the point of my post so spectacularly?

Science is lionized because it has produced social benefits vastly exceeding our investment in it.

A return which is falling relative to investment (the point of my comment). Read again please.

The rich guys get all the girls; don’t succumb to the poor guys’ tendency to lash out at the rich guys; that just makes matters worse.

I appreciate ‘the argument by analogy to 80′s frat room comedies’ – most droll.

119

Chris Crawford 08.18.13 at 2:58 pm

#115: Mr. Littleboy, I realize that I have not offered much in the way of support for my contention that programming will become part of the standard educational program; the argument is long and complex. It is not the simple-minded extrapolation that some people employ; my claim concerns the way that programming literacy changes the way we think, just as conventional writing wrought huge changes in the way people think — but that took many centuries to develop.

#117: Mr. Slee, I went back and re-read my #102 for condescending comments, and I found one case in which I referred to an argument as ignorant. Yes, that’s condescending, but I think it’s pretty mild compared to verbal violence of your own post. I looked at #104 for arguments that assume their own conclusion; I was clarifying an earlier point. not presenting an argument. Your accusation that I limit the agenda to my own interests assumes that I control the agenda, a manifestly absurd claim. You didn’t bother addressing every point I made; why do you require that I do so of others? And your claim that I gave barely a moment’s consideration to the opinions of others is also preposterous: how could I have offered a long response to a number of themes that pervade the original post and a hundred comments if I had not given serious consideration to all that material? You seem rather angry.

#118: Floopmeister, I went back and re-read your post #22, and I find a disjunction between the first line in your quotation:

It has long been known that within individual technical sectors, the productivity
of innovation declines over time.

and your own first sentence in #118:

Technological progress yes – but then that was exactly not the point I was making.

If you did not intend to talk about technological progress, then why did you provide a long quotation that was all about technological progress? That quotation relies heavily on patent production — a measure of technological progress, not scientific progress. I don’t think that we have a decent measure of scientific progress — the number of papers being published is a measure of scientific effort, not scientific progress.

Perhaps our disagreement arises from a differentiation between science and technology. I find that differentiation tricky to pin down. While it’s clear that the poles are easily distinguishable (research on galaxies is easy to differentiate from development of a new medical instrument, for example), the gray zone between them is impossibly murky. Moreover, pure research sometimes yields surprising results that have immediate technical applicability. Thus, I shy away from arguments that rely on a strong distinction between science and technology.

Perhaps you could rephrase your main point for my benefit?

120

Peter Erwin 08.18.13 at 3:15 pm

floopmeister @ 118:
The problem is that there was very little of substance in your original post (@ 22).

First of all, all of the references in the quoted passage are from the 1940s to the early 1960s, which leaves the question of what’s been happening in the last fifty years or so completely unaddressed.

In addition, there’s no real attempt to define what is meant by “scientific productivity” (or “returns relative to investment”). The only seemingly substantive references are to the highly dubious approach of representing “scientific progress” by “number of patents filed.” You’d certainly never get any sense of progress in astronomy or cosmology from the latter, since patents are wholly irrelevant to those fields (and to a lot of the rest of science).

Aside from that, all you’ve really got seems to be a speculative suggestion or two by Max Planck. It’s fun to mine Planck for curmudgeonly comments about science, but I’ve never seen any evidence that he was particularly correct about the history or sociology of science.

I’ll also add to WEU’s comment @ 111, by noting that one of the purposes of scientific education is figuring out ways of compressing and condensing previous research. People learning about special relativity don’t need to personally replicate the Michelson-Morley experiment, nor do they need to read each and every one of the original papers by Lorentz, Einstein, or Minkowski; instead, a physics student can learn almost all of special relativity in less than a semester. Similarly, anatomy students don’t need to repeat all the work done by Vesalius and Harvey.

As for the following bit:
Acxcording to others the “peak of U.S. scientific innovation came in 1915. It, too, has been declining ever since”.

All I can really do is stare in awe and say, “WFT?” How on earth is one supposed to take something like that seriously?

121

bill benzon 08.18.13 at 3:27 pm

122

Chris Crawford 08.18.13 at 4:42 pm

#121: Er, yeah, but please don’t hold that against me…

123

bill benzon 08.18.13 at 5:01 pm

No problem, more later.

124

Tom Slee 08.18.13 at 5:24 pm

Chris Crawford #120:

I went back and re-read my #102 for condescending comments, and I found one case…

Here is what came across as condescending to me.

I note that these comments are mere potshots, bereft of supportive evidence or logic. — Referring to others’ comments (in passing) as “mere potshots” comes across to this reader as condescending.

I would advise a certain fatalism for humanities people (to end of paragraph) — Offering unwanted advice (and yes, I’m aware of the irony here) and mixing it with observations about the circumscribed narrowness of others’ work comes across to this reader as condescending.

My other advice for the artsies is to roll up your sleeves and wallow in the mud of rigorous linear thinking. More unwanted advice, as if to a junior from a senior. See above.

Programming is the next level of literacy; it won’t be long before those unable to write programs in general-purpose programming languages will be considered uneducated. Unsupported assertions made without qualification, which suggest that the addressee is close to being uneducated, may seem arrogant and, yes, condescending.

There was also a grossly ignorant comment regarding falling productivity in science. Use some economic sense here! You acknowledge this one.

Has anybody noticed how dramatically science and technology have changed our lives in the last 30 years? Condescending.

The rich guys get all the girls; don’t succumb to the poor guys’ tendency to lash out at the rich guys; that just makes matters worse. Condescending.

In #104, the argument you summarise, that the slow drift of culture towards ever-increasing dominance by S&T… is squeezing the arts and humanities into ever-smaller meme-space in the cognitive universe of our culture, assumes its own conclusion. As others have pointed out, culture is not increasingly dominated by the S part of S&T. My own ex-field, chemistry, used to be a mainstream secondary school subject and yet I’d say that subjects like Design or Business Studies now attract more students.

Your accusation that I limit the agenda to my own interests assumes that I control the agenda, a manifestly absurd claim.

I do realize that you don’t control the agenda, and may have overstepped the bounds with “limit the agenda”, but here’s the sequence of events:

1. You say that the comments about Pinker are snide potshots in #102.

2. Anand Manikutty responds in #109.

3. You reply that you have no interest in his arguments in #114.

To this reader, it reads like a person who has no interest in the opinions of others outside a pre-set agenda. Maybe you’re not that person, but my unsolicited advise is to consider that you come across like that to at least one other.

how could I have offered a long response to a number of themes that pervade the original post and a hundred comments if I had not given serious consideration to all that material? I really don’t know, and yet… somehow I got the impression that there was nothing in all those words — at least regarding your themes 2 and 3 — that caused you to change one iota of your mind about anything or that you appreciated reading.

You seem rather angry

Somewhere between frustrated and angry, yes. I don’t know you, so there’s nothing personal here, and I do admit there may be an element of “final straw” at work, following on from comments made by others on some recent posts here, by Belle Waring. I have grown very tired of conversations that demand a winner and a loser.

I think it’s pretty mild compared to verbal violence of your own post.

I apologize if you experienced it that way. It was not intended. Sometimes the words we think we write are not the words that others read.

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Chris Crawford 08.18.13 at 5:53 pm

#124 Well, Mr. Slee, your comments are entirely personal in nature. I disagree with them completely, but I’ll not engage in a pissing match with you. I would be eager, however, to discuss the topic at hand with you.

126

David J. Littleboy 08.18.13 at 8:20 pm

“#115: Mr. Littleboy, I realize that I have not offered much in the way of support for my contention that programming will become part of the standard educational program; the argument is long and complex. It is not the simple-minded extrapolation that some people employ; my claim concerns the way that programming literacy changes the way we think, just as conventional writing wrought huge changes in the way people think — but that took many centuries to develop.”

The general story in education is that the concept of _transference_, i.e. that learning X makes you better at A, B, and C, has been a large failure. It’s what classical humanities education (think Boston _Latin_ School) was based on, but despite a lot of work, the psychologists failed to find anything there. There’s no point in learning Latin unless one is going to actually use Latin; it doesn’t make you smarter (in any way that the psychologists could find, and they’ve tried really hard), it doesn’t even make learning French, Spanish, and Italian any easier, and may make learning Japanese harder. (It might make you a better linguist, but then you’d need to learn Latin to do that anyway.) Math and the sciences are different, because some concepts generalize to a wide range of things. Learn about the Fourier transform and the relationship between the time and frequency domains in your EE signals and systems class, and you find out that’s what the chemists are doing when they decode the crystal structure of a protein, or what a camera lens does when it creates an image.

Computer languages are largely god-awful kludges. Teaching computer science from the standpoint of, say, Scheme or T, makes sense, but the syntax-intense languages (C, Java, pretty much everything) are just ugly. This is why Nick S’s “the limited domain of code-stained wretches” is so perfect. It captures the computer geek’s love of inventing yet another overly-dependent-on-syntax unmotivated-or-even-vaguely-enlightened-by-theory hodgepodge that’s convenient to some problem at hand or pet peeve. Consider the difference between working with lexical closures in Scheme/T vs. the latest C++. Sure, C++ can do it. But with such profound ugliness.

The problem is that it’s not programming literacy that changes the way you think, but understanding the intellectual concepts of computer science: the stuff you’d learn in the theory courses, not the programming courses.

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bianca steele 08.18.13 at 8:58 pm

I admit I thought Chris Crawford was illustrating Poe’s Law. Now that that’s ruled out…

In my opinion, if you want to teach people about algorithmic thinking, you teach them BASIC or a scripting language (or have them write in assembler). It’s ugly, which is entirely the point. If you want to teach logic, you might want to use something more elegant. But you run the risk of giving the impression the mechanics are like that. They’ll have no idea what’s feasible and what’s just imaginable.

128

Chris Crawford 08.18.13 at 11:38 pm

#126: You make an excellent point, Mr. Littleboy, about the fallacy of transference. I had never thought of my thesis in terms of transference, but you have made it incumbent upon me to explain the thesis in more detail.

I begin by noting that learning to read and write profoundly change one’s thinking. This topic has been the subject of a number of impressive books; my personal favorite is Logan’s The Alphabet Effect, but the classic in the field is Ong’s Orality and Literacy. Havelock’s The Muse Learns to Write also covers this ground explicitly, while Goody’s The Logic of Writing and the Organization of Society is more focused on social effects than cognitive effects.

I can exemplify the point by comparing Socrates with Aristotle. Socrates was a brilliant exponent of reason, but his rationalism was fundamentally inferior to Aristotle’s. Read one of his dialogues carefully, monitoring the logic. You’ll see that Socrate’s method relies on exploiting semantic vagaries. An antipathetic reader can easily demolish many (not all) of Socrates’ arguments. It could be argued that these semantic vagaries are merely the artifacts of translation from Greek into English, but a close reading demonstrates that Socrates’ often uses a crucial term (‘the good’, ‘justice’, ‘beauty’) in different ways at different points in his argument.

If you were to listen to Socrates’ arguments in oral form, you’d find them compelling. His slipperiness becomes apparent only with a close reading of the logic. That’s the difference between literacy and orality: literacy promotes a more precise, more rigorous form of thinking. The difference is obvious in Aristotle, who often wrote down his ideas before expounding them orally. There’s a meticulous crispness in Aristotle’s thinking that puts Socrates’ sloppy reasoning to shame. It’s no surprise that Aristotle invented the syllogism, which provided the starting point for much of Western science (although not for mathematics). And the notion of a syllogism would have gone right over Socrates’ head.

It took a few thousand years for the implications of this to really sink into Western civ, but one of the results was the crushing technical superiority that Westerners employed to dominate much of the world. Nowadays, the notion of rigorous logical thinking, which was alien to other cultures, is universally embraced. Literacy profoundly changed human thinking.

What the computer bodes to offer us can be best described as a dual change. The first change I call ‘subjunctive thinking’. This is the switch from rigorous logic to probabilistic logic. Instead of trying to prove what is the truth, we try to define what conditionally could be the truth. Just as “therefore” is the hallmark word of logical thinking, “what if” is the hallmark phrase of subjunctive thinking. Computers allow people to play “what if” games on a massive scale. A spreadsheet allows you to play ‘what if’ games with numbers. A word processor allows you to play ‘what if’ games with the written word. A game allows you to play ‘what if’ games that are, well, games. Indeed, ‘what if’ questions leading to interesting choices lies at the very heart of good game design. As people learn to think more and more in terms of ‘what if’, their thinking expands to consider issues intractable with logic. Instead of seeking black and white answers, they think more in terms of shades of gray that shift under different circumstances.

The second aspect of how computers will change cognition is what I call ‘process intensity’. Programming quickly teaches you a feel for the profound difference between process and data. These two concepts appear in all other fields of human inquiry, because reality can be described as either a collection of things or a system of processes. Thing versus process shows up as goods versus services in economics, assets versus operations in military science, numbers versus operators in mathematics, and particles versus waves in physics. For a variety of reasons, human cognition is biased in favor of seeing the universe as a collection of things. Programming teaches you to think in terms of systems of processes. And because that style of thinking is less common, anything that boosts our facility with it will open up new cognitive possibilities.

This is a very brief summary of a huge idea; I address some of these issues in this hyperdocument. I have left out lots of qualifying details; I can fill in those gaps for anybody who wishes to ask about them.

So, to finally address your point, Mr. Littleboy, I’ll say that I don’t claim that learning to program will equip the student with skills that can be applied to other fields. Instead, I claim that learning to claim changes the culture as well as the individual, at a fundamental level: how we think.

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GiT 08.19.13 at 12:08 am

That something could change the culture (so just taking as given that learning programming would induce an important change in human cognition) doesn’t imply it will propagate so as to realise that potential. And if “A&H” is to be dominated and pushed into reservations by “S&T” because of programming, then what’s needed is not simply a defense of the assertion that programming changes how you think, but a defense of the assertion that everyone is going to start learning programming and thinking like people who have learned programming. That doesn’t seem to be on offer, so far.

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Chris Crawford 08.19.13 at 1:20 am

#129, the rate at which people are learning programming — not just in academic courses but by informal methods — is rising dramatically. Introduction to computer programming is certainly common in secondary schools these days. And all those website designers stepping up from HTML to PHP, Ruby, and other such languages represents another big step.

BTW, I agree entirely with the earlier comments that current programming languages are way too clunky to have much effect. C++ is to computer literacy as hieroglyphics were to conventional literacy — so abstruse as to be limited to a specialist population of scribes. We still don’t have any kind of programming language that is analogous to alphabetic writing systems — simple enough to be taught in primary or even secondary school. But I think that, as we mature beyond procedural languages, we’ll start making some progress. For now, the most important task facing us is the expurgation of the “Microsoft power user” mentality. Learning to program will still be time-consuming, as is learning language and learning to read and write. But it will be important enough to justify the educational investment.

I’m not suggesting a world in which Everyman is a professional programmer. Instead, I imagine a technological system in which people talk to computers using a narrowly defined subset of natural language, providing the computer with all sorts of conditional instructions that, of course, must be rigorously defined.

My argument is of course unproven; I make no claims that my argument is even compelling. I consider it to be an interesting and entirely plausible hypothesis — that’s all. Moreover, look how long it took for literacy to seep in. Only about a quarter of the population of classical Athens was literate. Roman literacy rates were lower. We didn’t see much rise in literacy rates until the Renaissance, when literacy rates in Florence, Milan, and Venice reached those of classical Athens. With printing, literacy increased, but it didn’t pass 50% in any society until the 18th or 19th century. So it took a long, long time for literacy to have its greatest impact. I think that we can expect my hypothesis to develop at a pace faster than it was with literacy, but we’re still talking many generations — my best argument against the hypothesis is that civilization will collapse before the effects take hold.

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David J. Littleboy 08.19.13 at 2:52 am

“In my opinion, if you want to teach people about algorithmic thinking, you teach them BASIC or a scripting language (or have them write in assembler). It’s ugly, which is entirely the point.”

ROFL! Superb point. One wouldn’t want to have any pure of heart humanities type realize that there’s beauty, depth, and intellectual excitement in computer science. That would be truly terrible.

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bianca steele 08.19.13 at 3:17 am

He didn’t understand for a moment. Then he said, “What, the can?”

“Sure,” I said, “best shim stock in the world.”

I thought this was pretty clever myself. Save him a trip to God knows where to get shim stock. Save him time. Save him money.

But to my surprise he didn’t see the cleverness of this at all. In fact he got noticeably haughty about the whole thing. Pretty soon he was dodging and filling with all kinds of excuses and, before I realized what his real attitude was, we had decided not to fix the handlebars after all.

As far as I know those handlebars are still loose. And I believe now that he was actually offended at the time. I had had the nerve to propose repair of his new eighteen-hundred dollar BMW, the pride of a half-century of German mechanical finesse, with a piece of old beer can!

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Rmj 08.19.13 at 3:43 am

Regarding #3, I sympathize with the resentment that arts & humanities people feel about the lionization of science and technology. This issue has been bouncing around since at least the 1950s. Those of you who haven’t read C.P.Snow’s “The Two Cultures” should avail yourselves of that fine work, now 50 years old. On the one hand, I would advise a certain fatalism for humanities people — cultural evolution is steadily nibbling away at your habitat. Like American Indians facing the onslaught of the Europeans, your future is bleak. You don’t face utter annihilation, but you will end up on tightly circumscribed cultural and intellectual reservations.

Not for long, if ever. Humanities covers a great deal: history; philosophy; literature, to name just three. One cannot properly understand science, for example, without understanding Kuhn. One cannot properly understand Kuhn, without understanding philosophy. And one cannot really understand science, until one understands science IS a philosophy.

Which, yes, is a field that yields technological results, like the computer I type on now. But it does not necessarily lead to insight. It’s no accident the Greeks, back in the day, distinquished between techne and sophia. Techne was the knowledge that made ships sail, or temples stand. Sophia is wisdom.

And yeah, I’ve read Snow. I used to think his thesis an insightful one, even sound. I don’t think so any longer, simply because the comparison between say, the laws of thermodynamics and the concept of dasein, are not exactly parallel. The experience of humanity expressed in world literature is not equivalent to the knowledge of the technology that creates a world-spanning petroleum/energy industry (which is governed by humans and, more importantly, by laws; laws which have nothing to do with “laws” in science).

Like it or not, science is still subsumed to the humanities. It does not appear so today because science has radically changed human existence with antibiotics and things like the internet. Yet millions in India still live without electricity, and can’t imagine what they would do with an electric lamp (I’m sure they’d learn, but still….), and antibiotics are rapidly creating germs we cannot kill, which may well lead to a collapse of the “miracle of modern medicine” before that miracle is a century old.

Science teaches humankind the short view of history and the parochial one (we don’t all live in the first world on this planet). The humanities take a much longer view, and that one is far more humbling.

“Tightly circumscribed cultural and intellectual reservations”? Science is already there, and imagines its reservation is the entire world. It isn’t; and it never will be.

Oh, and while I don’t have time to provide details, Pinker is a putz. One quick example: in his Angels of Our Better Nature he relies on purported IQ information of persons who never had an IQ test, as it didn’t exist when they were alive. Drawing on this information, he asserts authoritatively that George W. Bush had the third lowest IQ of any President in history, and attributes an IQ of 156 to John F. Kennedy.

One problem: Kennedy had a tested IQ of 119. Bush is 129.

I’m no fan of Bush, but you’d think Pinker could check that much and get it right. Then again, he’s writing for a general audience, so what need has he to fear challenge on accuracy? A patch of ice doth not necessarily a winter make, but my readings of Pinker is that he is far out beyond his area of expertise, but happily selling himself as a “public intellectual” to people dazzled by his vocabulary. He deals more in self-promotion than in scholarship.

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Chris Crawford 08.19.13 at 4:28 am

#133: Rmj, you seem to be engaging in some chest-thumping, as in “Humanities can kick science’s butt! Har!” I don’t have any emotional attachment to either field of endeavor; I was trained as a scientist but do not consider it superior in any way to the arts and humanities. Indeed, I think that the very concept of superiority is inapplicable here. Your suggestion that science is subsumed in the humanities strikes me as little more than “Rah! Rah! Sis boom bah! Humanities rules!”

My point does not in any way assume any intrinsic superiority to either field, or even the possibility of superiority. My point concerns how people allocate resources. I claim that they will allocate increasing resources to science because science produces a higher economic return on investment than the humanities. It’s about money, not goodness, beauty, or merit.

You write; Science teaches humankind the short view of history and the parochial one
Where have you seen science teaching history? I’ve read plenty of books about the history of science, but I can’t recall any case of a scientist teaching a short view of history. Can you cite the work to which you refer?

I’m surprised that you call Mr. Pinker ‘a putz’; why do you have an emotional investment in his book? I agree that The Better Angels of our Nature was off track for him. I have no sense of loyalty or resentment towards Mr. Pinker. My comments here concern his books on language and evolutionary psychology, which I find learned and insightful. I’d be interested in seeing your criticisms of those works. To be explicit, I’m referring to The Language Instinct, The Blank Slate, Words and Rules, and The Stuff of Thought. Have you any critiques of these books?

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bill benzon 08.19.13 at 10:09 am

@Chris Crawford: First, I agree that, in some sense, computing is on the way to being a general cognitive tool/skill comparable to writing and that what’s important is the effects it has on general cognitive skills. David Hays and I make a similar argument in “The Evolution of Cognition,” Journal of Social and Biological Structures 13(4): 297-320, 1990, reprinted HERE:

We expect childhood exposure to computing to have a similar effect. But we do not as yet see anything significant happening on a large scale. Computers may be in every primary school in the nation, and in a small percentage of homes, but children do not spend much time on these computers. And most, if not all, of the time they do spend is devoted to using the computer in the most superficial way, not in learning to program it. And that, programming, is where the major benefit lies. It is in programming that the child has to deal with control structure, the element which is new to Rank 4 thought.

We know that children can learn to program, that they enjoy doing so, and that a suitable programming environment helps them to learn (Kay, 1977; Pappert, 1980). Seymour Pappert argues that programming allows children to master abstract concepts at an earlier age. In general it seems obvious to us that a generation of 20-year-olds who have been programming computers since they were 4 or 5 years old are going to think differently than we do. Most of what they have learned they will have learned from us. But they will have learned it in a different way. Their ontology will be different from ours. Concepts which tax our abilities may be routine for them, just as the calculus, which taxed the abilities of Leibniz and Newton, is routine for us. These children will have learned to learn Rank 4 concepts.

You are right, there is a fair number of “snide potshots Pinker and evolutionary psychology” in this discussion (and in other discussions on CT). One can, of course, have reasoned objects to both, though both Pinker and EP are fairly complex, so it is possible to toss out the bath water without the baby. But different folks are going to have different notions of where to insert the partion so as to separate the baby from the bathwater.

Concerning Pinker himself, he was a cognitive scientist before he was an evolutionary psychologist. Neither those areas is a well-defined academic discipline; rather both are loose conglomerates and themes, models, metaphors, modes of inquiry, and problem areas. Concerning, for example, The Language Instinct, it’s three things. Most generally (1) it presents linguistics to the general reader. As far as I know, it’s the best such book going, though for all I know there’s a more recent book that does a better job at that.

More specifically (2), it presents a Chomskyian approach to syntactic theory. Chomksy is a major thinker, his ideas have proved very influential and many linguists count themselves and Chomskyians of some flavor. But Chomsky’s technical approach has proven controversial and has been soundly criticized. Myself, I found C.F. Hockett’s critique in The State of the Art (Mouton 1968) fairly convincing. More recent critiques are legion, though I can offer no speciffic citations.

Still more specifically (3), Pinker presents an argument that language is biologically evolved. That too has proved controversial. My own view is similar to those of Terrence Deacon, The Symbolic Species, which you mentioned in your own piece. Though I’m in the camp of those who think the emergence of language was preceded by the emergence of proto-music.

If you’re curious about the current state of linguistics, Language Log is a superb and diverse group blog featuring posts on a wide variety of topics, including some on the state of linguistic theory (though you’ll have to dig them out). You should also check out Replicated Typo, which is not so prolific. With one exception I can think of, these are young scholars, pre-PhD, and are very sharp. If I had to place a bet, I’d say they’re the future of the discipline. And they’re computer literate.

I’m the one exception. I’ve got my degree, though not in linguistics, and, for better or worse, I’m on the far side of 50. I recently published a series of posts there in which I critique Dan Dennett’s views on memetics. In one of those posts – Dennett Upside Down Cake: Thinking About Language Evolution in the 21st Century – I juxtapose 1960s era thinking with what I regard to be the best current thinking.

And then we have Pinker’s The Stuff of Thought, most of which I’ve read and liked. In fact, some ideas in later chapters seemed to me to contain “he seeds of an account of why we tell stories. Not just any stories, however, but only those particular stories one finds in the literary and sacred traditions of all cultures.” So I wrote a post, Seven Sacred Words: An Open Letter to Steven Pinker, posted it, and then posted Pinker’s brief reply.

As for evolutionary psychology more generally, it’s a mixed bag. You might want to take a look at me Three Evolutionary Pieces: Review Essays on the Origin and Evolution of Culture:

This document collects three previously published essay reviews that discuss five books: Steven Mithen, The Singing Neanderthals: The Origins of Music, Language, Mind and Body (2005). James L. Pearson, Shamanism and the Ancient Mind: A Cognitive Approach to Archaeology (2002). David Sloan Wilson, Darwin’s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society (2002). Franco Moretti, Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for a Literary History (2005). Jonathan Gottschall and David Sloan Wilson, eds. The Literary Animal: Evolution and the Nature of Narrative (2005). Taken together they cover music, drawing and painting (on rock), and literature and cover periods from human pre-history, through the emergence of modern man, to contemporary culture and society.

The score: Mithen, Pearson, and Moretti, thumbs up; Wilson, sorta OK: Gottschall and Wilson, thumbs down.

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ajay 08.19.13 at 10:40 am

Yet millions in India still live without electricity, and can’t imagine what they would do with an electric lamp

I am very unsure about this, and I’d like to see at least a description of a single Indian who was given an electric lamp and didn’t know what to do with it. These are, in the main, people who already have artificial lighting, mostly paraffin lamps. Unless it’s a particularly stupid Indian, I’d imagine her reaction would be “I know what I’ll do with this: exactly the same as I did with my paraffin lantern, except better and more cleanly and cheaply”.

“GOOD GRACIOUS THIS MYSTERIOUS GLOWING DEVICE CONFUSES MY TINY PRIMITIVE BRAIN” is, I would think, a less likely reaction.

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ajay 08.19.13 at 10:52 am

Science teaches humankind the short view of history and the parochial one (we don’t all live in the first world on this planet). The humanities take a much longer view, and that one is far more humbling.

This is also a puzzling sentiment. Science is how we get a true understanding of the length of the history of the world (long), the length of human presence in it (very short), the size of the universe (very big) the likely fate of the human race (extinction), and the obvious differences between us and animals (none). That’s pretty humbling.

I’d also like to quibble with this:
” It’s no accident the Greeks, back in the day, distinquished between techne and sophia. Techne was the knowledge that made ships sail, or temples stand. Sophia is wisdom”

…and men like Archimedes and Hero and Hipparchus were perfectly happy to deal with both.

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Torquil Macneil 08.19.13 at 11:18 am

” Science is how we get a true understanding of the length of the history of the world (long), the length of human presence in it (very short), the size of the universe (very big) the likely fate of the human race (extinction), and the obvious differences between us and animals (none). That’s pretty humbling.”

Thomas Mann called that ‘the cosmology of the engineer’ somewhere or other. I don’t think it was meant flatteringly.

When you say there are no obvious differences between us and the animals,, how much work is ‘obvious’ doing? We are, after all, pretty clearly different from the other animals in some important respects.

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Rmj 08.19.13 at 11:41 am

This is also a puzzling sentiment. Science is how we get a true understanding of the length of the history of the world (long), the length of human presence in it (very short), the size of the universe (very big) the likely fate of the human race (extinction), and the obvious differences between us and animals (none). That’s pretty humbling.

And that tells us how we should then live?

Besides, did I say science was worthless, had nothing to teach us, was a waste of time? A true understanding of the history of the world may be useful; a true understanding of the history of humankind, is, to humans at least, more useful still.

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Rmj 08.19.13 at 11:43 am

I am very unsure about this, and I’d like to see at least a description of a single Indian who was given an electric lamp and didn’t know what to do with it.

Something I heard on the radio, to be honest. A quote from an Indian woman. Perhaps there was something lost in the translation.

The greater point is not the precise accuracy of the claim (this isn’t a scholarly article I’m writing, after all) but the false perspective of thinking everyone is, or wants to be, a Westerner; that the technological triumphs of Western culture are the sine qua non of human experience and the only way to understand existence.

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Rmj 08.19.13 at 11:44 am

…and men like Archimedes and Hero and Hipparchus were perfectly happy to deal with both.

And yet we discard philosophy almost entirely (you can raise quite a controversy just calling science a philosophy) and worship at the altar of technology.

I’m not sure where your quibble gets us.

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ajay 08.19.13 at 1:24 pm

And that tells us how we should then live?
Besides, did I say science was worthless, had nothing to teach us, was a waste of time?

No, but you did say that science teaches humankind “the short view of history and the parochial one”, which I found rather puzzling.

I’m not sure where your quibble gets us.

I was casting doubt on your assertion that the Greeks drew a hard and fast distinction between philosophy and technology, as evidenced by their having different words for them. In fact, some of the most famous Greek philosophers considered it entirely appropriate to have breakfast, think about the nature of time and the structure of an ideal government for a bit, have lunch, have a little nap, and then turn to inventing the windmill or the steam engine (or, regrettably, some sort of siege engine).

Thomas Mann was wrong about cosmology, anyway. I’m sure I heard him admit it on the radio at some point or other.

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ajay 08.19.13 at 1:35 pm

Something I heard on the radio, to be honest. A quote from an Indian woman. Perhaps there was something lost in the translation.

It’s really quite worrying that you heard something like that and uncritically accepted it – and even pass it on to other people – without a single second’s thought about whether it makes sense or not.
And then the first time that someone says “hang on, what are you saying? Indians, even rural Indians, know what electricity is, and use artificial lights all the time, we’re not talking about Stone Age primitives here”, you start saying “oh, well, it doesn’t really matter whether that’s accurate or not”.

If I were in that position, I’d think it was time for a serious round of “how much other stuff in my picture of the world is complete and obvious rubbish that I have accepted up to now?”, not another bout of “oh, well, accuracy is unimportant, what matters is the wrongness of a western-centred perspective!” Especially from someone who’s so keen to leap on Pinker for getting someone’s IQ wrong.

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godoggo 08.19.13 at 2:22 pm

whatever

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Chris Crawford 08.19.13 at 2:25 pm

#135. Wow! Mr. Benzon, you offer a feast of sources for me to follow up on. I greatly appreciate your comments, especially the nuances you offer, and I shall be spending a lot of time over the next week digging through all those sources. Thank you very much!

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bill benzon 08.19.13 at 3:10 pm

You’re welcome, Chris Crawford.

FWIW my initial reaction to your posting was similar to that of others here. However, your persistent confidence and calm also suggested that you might not be a jerk, that you might have come by your confidence legitimately. So I googled you name and came up with the Wikipedia entry, plus other stuff. That was all I needed to take your remarks seriously.

I’ll be interested in what you think of that material. You should be able to contact me through my blog, which is linked to my name here.

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the witch from next door 08.19.13 at 3:27 pm

Forgive me if someone’s already made this point, as this thread is expanding faster than I have time to read it, but AFAICT, the way that science-heavy institutions like Imperial College, and the top UK universities generally, subsidise teaching UK students is not by special grants or by pilfering from research funds (teaching may accrue some benefits in kind from being adjacent to great research but I’m entirely confident there’s way of skimming off money to subsidise teaching) but by the substantial fees they charge international students.

My impression is that the higher up the rankings universities are, the more global their student body, and therefore the more cross-subsidy is available to the loss-making teaching of expensive courses to UK (and EU) students.

This has been a hot-button issue for a long time – many academics are fiercely resistant to the idea that they would flex their admissions requirements for the sake of padding their courses with lucrative international students. Some academics (and admissions departments – I think where the power lies varies from university to university) are perhaps less scrupulous. And at the end of the day, universities have to pay for their teaching from somewhere…

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AcademicLurker 08.19.13 at 3:38 pm

Some academics (and admissions departments – I think where the power lies varies from university to university) are perhaps less scrupulous. And at the end of the day, universities have to pay for their teaching from somewhere…

See Paul Campos’ posts on law schools for example…

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the witch from next door 08.19.13 at 4:44 pm

I’m entirely confident there’s way of skimming off money to subsidise teaching

Sorry, that should have been “there’s NO way”.

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ajay 08.21.13 at 4:42 pm

teaching may accrue some benefits in kind from being adjacent to great research but I’m entirely confident there’s way of skimming off money to subsidise teaching

If you have lots of research funding, you’ll attract good faculty who want to spend it, and once they’re there they have to do some teaching. That’s not really a subsidy per se, but it’s a way that teaching can benefit from lots of research funding.

My impression is that the higher up the rankings universities are, the more global their student body, and therefore the more cross-subsidy is available to the loss-making teaching of expensive courses to UK (and EU) students.

HESA actually has the numbers on this. The top 10 universities – the ones with the highest percentage of non-EU undergraduates – are

The University of Buckingham
London School of Economics and Political Science(#9)
The University of St Andrews
University College London(#7)(#9)
University of the Arts, London
Imperial College of Science, Technology and Medicine
The School of Oriental and African Studies(#9)
Glyndŵr University
Royal Academy of Music(#9)
Royal College of Music

and the bottom 10 are
Institute of Education(#9)
Leeds College of Art(#7)
University of Chester
University Campus Suffolk
University of Cumbria
Edge Hill University
The Open University
Bishop Grosseteste University College Lincoln
Newman University College
St Mary’s University College
Stranmillis University College

Oxbridge are kind of in the middle.

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