11 October 2018

Why do people think humanities are easier than science?

I believe that all scholarship is hard. But people think humanities are not as hard. You rarely hear about students who “can’t cut it” in medieval literature and change their major to organic chemistry because they think it’s easier. But the opposite change of majors is practically cliché.

Maybe one of the reasons people view humanities as easier is because they are more familiar with it, because they have grappled with it longer, because teachers aren’t scared of using the original text.

We teach Shakespeare’s plays full on in grade school, for instance. We give students the complete written text of his plays and poems. We teach them despite the language used being far from common today. It’s only because of Hamlet that I have the faintest inkling of what a bodkin is. Understanding Shakespeare is hard. But it’s taught in schools to young people without hesitation. We teach even older stuff written in more archaic language, sometimes (albeit often with translations).

But what about Shakespeare’s scientific contemporary, Galileo? I doubts many schools have students read direct translations of Sidereus Nuncius (Starry Messenger) in full. Instead, students get summaries of science in textbooks that are far removed from the original texts.

Teaching science using only textbooks is like teaching literature using only CliffsNotes or teaching film studies using iMDB synopses. Yeah, you’ll learn something, but you’re also missing a lot. Some might say you’re missing the point entirely.

I’m willing to bet most students don’t get tasked with reading original scientific literature until well into a university degree. So is it any surprise that they can’t understand scientific papers compared to reading literature? They’ve had maybe the better part of a decade receiving instruction on how to parse out a literary text, but almost no instruction on how to make sense of a scientific text.

Because of this, students often don’t understand the process of argumentation that goes into science. They don’t understand how many things are suggested before being demonstrated. They don’t understand science as a process instead of facts. These are not new complaints, but the solution most people veer towards is to have students do more “hands on” work to get a sense of how science is done, not to have students read original science.

The writings of scientists are trivialized next to their discoveries, and maybe it shouldn’t be.