Big fail: Humanities curriculum goes all anti-scientistic

January 31, 2014 • 9:45 am

Reader Veronica Abbass, who’s heavily involved with the Canadian Atheist website, called my attention to her new post, “The Medium is the message?

She displays a poster sent her by a colleague, and asks the question, “What is the message?” (Her title comes, of course, from Marshall McLuhan’s famous book.)

A colleague tweeted this poster, and I’m having a difficult time interpreting its message

Utah More explanation from Veronica:

So what’s the message?

The poster was produced by the College of Humanities, University of Utah and is featured on its home page. Does this influence how we read the message?

What message do we derive from seeing scientist who is, stereotypically, clothed in a white coat, running away from the Tyrannosaurus Rex?


I think Veronica already knows the answer: it’s a defensive maneuver by the humanities college at Utah, designed to tell you that science can’t answer all the questions about life.  (Perhaps they’re faced with waning enrollment.) And that’s true: science can’t tell you, for instance, “what is a truly moral life?” or “how do I feel when I hear Glenn Gould’s “Goldberg Variations”?

But I have to say that the poster is extraordinarily defensive, what with the scientist running away and all.  And there are three other reasons why this is a bad poster.

1. The big problem: SCIENCE CAN’T TELL US HOW TO CLONE A T. REX! We don’t know how now, and we may never know, for we’d have to get a complete sequence of its DNA, and even then it might not be possible. I won’t go into details now, but maybe Matthew (who knows this stuff) can weigh in below. If humanities is going to proffer itself as superior in some ways to science, then it should at least get the science right!

2. Before we determine the ethicality of cloning a T. rex, it’s still up to science to first tell us what would be the likely consequences: how the beast might behave, how would we contain it and feed it, would it nom humans, and so on. Once we’ve determined that getting nommed by an enormous reptile is bad—and granted, that’s the somewhat subjective purview of ethics—then philosophical rumination combined with empirical observation will tell us either “don’t do it!” or “build a big place to isolate it.” (That, of course, didn’t work in Jurassic Park.)

3. Humanities has advantages that stand on their own: it, and not science, can teach us how to read and appreciate literature and other fine arts, and—if you see philosophy as part of “humanities”— how to think clearly about human problems. There’s no need to denigrate science to point out those advantages. Imagine if scientists made similar posters showing a T. rex chasing Jacques Derrida with the caption, “HUMANITIES can argue that there is no objective truth, but SCIENCE tells us that Mr. Derrida is gonna get NOMMED.”

The thing is, science doesn’t need to advertise its virtues by denigrating the humanities. Why should humanities need to do that to us?

92 thoughts on “Big fail: Humanities curriculum goes all anti-scientistic

  1. Quibbles about the content of the poster aside, humanists generally believe that people appreciate the humanities insufficiently. So it’s understandable that they would want to explain why someone would want to take humanities courses.

    I don’t read the poster as arguing that humanities are better than science, but instead, as telling someone who visited their Web site why someone would want to take humanities courses at least in addition to science courses. Granted, they make cloning a T. rex seem to be a bad thing, so maybe they should have changed that, but it’s also more humorous this way, right? (I’m actually not sure anyone thinks scientists really know how to clone T. rex, nor that they would recklessly do so.)

    1. The poster implies that scientists are either unwilling or incapable of making moral choices. Still, it is not terribly poster, but it is not well thought out.

    2. I think they watched too much Jurassic Park. It would’ve been funnier if it was referencing lawyers. 😀

      Well, as a Humanities grad that has been called stupid many times while doing my degrees simply for studying Humanities I can tell you that Humanities folks are often questioned and attacked by their peers in other disciplines and their families. I still remember someone that couldn’t get into a course at my alma mater telling me that “anyone with half a brain could get a Humanities degree”. Yeah, she dropped out of university. I think she might have attended the local community college but she still felt we were all stupid.

    1. Indeed; I would argue that the humanities and the sciences are coupled in various ways and can feed into each other (my usual philsophy as general science idea, plus literature, etc.)

  2. I find the poster pretty funny, and don’t think it denigrates science at all. The scientist running away looks more like laughing with us, not at us. I certainly would run from a T Rex, for all the good it might do me.

    1. Oh, I think there’s at least a little anti-science sentiment in that cartoon. It’s saying that science is obsessed with the narrow consideration of how stuff works and will therefore myopically plunge headlong into various endeavors without considering the implications. It is the same argument anti-scientismists make when they blame Hiroshima on science.

  3. Science does not have the answer to moral questions or “feelings” but neither does the humanities or philosophy.

    Morality is just a human preference. We just need to agree the best way to achieve it.

    1. Morality is just a human preference.

      So I prefer to eat babies, or kill all blue-eyed people, that’s not immoral in some non-trivial way?

      1. And there’s the rub. It is a collective preference where the expectation is that the individual will conform.

        1. There have been a variety of relatively modern examples of collectives doing things that would usually be called “immoral”.

          1. And I’m sure there are things that are considered moral in 2014 that will be considered immoral in 2314. (assuming humans are still around then.)

    2. “Morality is just a human preference” is a philosophical argument which you might support with scientific discoveries. And figuring out the best way to achieve it also involves philosophy, sociology, ethics, politics, sociology, and so forth. “Humanities” is a huge field. It may not be able to arrive at the one right definitive Answer, but it’s what we’d use to get closer to better.

      1. Actually science would be best at figuring out how best to achieve it. The humanities and other fields might help too.

        I just take issue with the claim that science can’t give us moral answer but philosophy and the humanities can.

    3. Yeah, I don’t think it’s a preference – maybe for a sociopath but not for people with non pathological brains.

  4. Given that humanities typically get vastly less funding that the sciences, I’m OK with them poking a bit of fun at the cliched view of science. I think this is a humorous attempt to make a useful point, and I don’t see it as denigrating science at all. I think there’s no need to be defensive about this poster — after all, the real threat to science isn’t university philosophy course, but religion.

    1. Except that it perpetuates the clichéd view of science. I don’t think this is ok. Science is not about getting involved in dangerous projects just because we know how.

      I also bristle when I hear the “the doctors told me I’d never (x) again but I showed them” trope, which I think is similar.

      Doctors are not chronically negative nay-sayers who are trying to keep us down, just as scientists are not short-sighted idiots who will destroy humanity with dangerous knowledge if we let them.

      1. I always wonder both how well the victorious patients are reporting what “the doctors” told them, and how often doctors are using such as motivation.

        For example, the doctors might well have actually said, “You’ll never walk again without a grueling physical therapy regimen and likely painful and expensive surgery,” but the patient is just reporting the first four words. Or, the doctor is being something of a boot camp drill instructor and trying to kick the patient’s ass into gear. I’ve personally experienced a less dramatic example of the former (twice — once with each arm) and had the threat of prescription statins motivate me into exercise, so these don’t at all seem unlikely or uncommon to me.



        1. I agree; the adversarial picture patients like that paint is certainly in most cases an artifact of reporting. But it remains disingenuous and betrays the us-vs-them anti-expert sentiment held by many people.

          1. It is simultaneously depressing that so many people discredit the work of the physicians that makes and keeps them whole and hale, and uplifting that that doesn’t stop said physicians from doing what they do.


        2. Or they just had really sucky doctor(s). My doctor says a lot of annoying things but it’s the things he doesn’t do that I find worrisome.

          1. Yeah…it’s worth remembering not only that 50% of all physicians finished in the bottom half of their classes, but that there’re plenty of superlative medical technicians, including superstar neurosurgeons, who haven’t an hint of a clue about anything outside of their area of specialty. Indeed, many believe in both zombies and human parthenogenesis….


            1. Yes, I remind people that doctors aren’t smarter than all of us and many of them aren’t as smart and may have graduated at the bottom of their class.

    1. Exactly. Why not do something like this: Science can teach us to treat disease. Humanities can help us see why access to healthcare is important to all of us.
      I’m sure someone can be more eloquent than that, but you get the idea.

          1. Even then, science still might have something to say. For example, the amount of beauty necessary to launch but a single ship is generally referred to as one millihelen.



    1. Me too! I actually thought that would be a good poster. Or William Blake, no Walt Whitman because Leaves of Grass bugs me. 😀

  5. Imagine if scientists made similar posters showing a T. rex chasing Jacques Derrida with the caption, “HUMANITIES can argue that there is no objective truth, but SCIENCE tells us that Mr. Derrida is gonna get NOMMED.”

    Loved it!

  6. It looks like the poster is meant to be eye-catching and humorous. I would suggest a less . . . defensive response from scientists.

    My alma-mater, the University of Wisconsin, has, by my count, constructed two Humanities facilities in the past decade, mostly thanks to the art department having some wealthy donors and a good museum. In the same period, the university has spent close to a billion dollars on dozens of science facilities with many more planned. It is zero-sum to the humanities when the foundation and administration can generate that kind of scratch chasing research dollars while core instructional facilities develop serious mold problems and departments lose faculty.

    This is not to say that the fault lies in the sciences, which are by no means wasting the funding. It’s mostly in the neoliberal attitude that pervades our country these days, denigrating the liberal arts in general and judging institutions by how many STEM degrees they can churn out, not because of the knowledge those disciplines create but because the money the private sector hopes to wring out of them. It would be a very useful thing to explore that philosophy and the assumptions that underlie it. That’s not going to happen in a chemistry lecture.

    1. I agree, Peter, I’m also a UW alum, with an arts degree. It’s kind of a dumb poster but to take offense would be reading too much into it. It’s just a promotional piece, meant to be light-hearted.

      Actually, what ticked me off more when I was a student there was the money extracted from us to pay for sports facilities, while our facilities should have been condemned under the fire code.

    2. Yes, I agree and I see this affect science as well. In Canada, science research is cut off from whatever doesn’t benefit business or promote the government’s ideology.

  7. It’s arguably a bizarre assumption that science cannot work in ethics. And yet this supposed fact has never been established in the history of philosophy. Indeed, Aristotle and the Stoics worked under the explicit assumption that science would work in this field too, as improper work never works. Thinking otherwise is in fact Special Pleading.

    To establish that science cannot work in ethics, barring the impossibility of observation, would require a testing of every single possible theory of ethics and show that they all would contain inconsistencies. To my knowledge this work has never been done, and since we know observation is indeed possible, we therefore have to say a scientific theory of ethics is most certainly possible. The burden of proof therefore lies on those who would claim it cannot work.

    It might be hard, of course, but science is rarely easy. Luckily for us, moral philosophy has not assumed science doesn’t work since the Sixties, with Searle, and has in fact explored virtue ethics. And since Becker decided to test Stoicism against current theory, it seems that is the best we currently have.

      1. Tell me about it. Relativism and its descendants, the antirealist ethics systems, seem to deliberately base their core theory on a contradiction. Quantum logic is a complete misunderstanding of what logic is for. Paraconsistent logic tries to solve ‘explosions’ (think logic bombs) by assuming contradictions to be true in certain cases, and science philosophers not quite being able to grasp how generally the definition of Science applies. And then we have pomo and its descendant/predecessor. It’s a right old mess.

        1. And it’s exactly what one would expect, since philosophy has no reliable method of determining good philosophy from bad.

          Philosophy’s obsession is with trying to determine how the Universe ought to be. Science only cares about how the Universe is.

          And it was only once we realized that we’re not smarter than the rest of the Universe, and that maybe we should have the humility to see it for what it is instead of what we want it to be or what we’re just certain it should be…only then did we start to actually make some headway in understanding the Universe. And only by closing the investigative loop, by recursively comparing answers with questions, have we ever had a successful way of doing so.



  8. The scientists equivalent could be: “Science is working to clone dinosaurs. Humanities are watching Jurassic Park.”

    1. Right. And whoever made this poster doesn’t seem to get that movie science is FICTION and bears little or no resemblance to the real thing.

  9. My biggest problem with it is that–although it might not be the hard sciences that answer the question–it will be the ‘soft’ sciences that are trying to use scientific methods that do. In a case like this, we’d be looking at some type of cost/benefit analysis. I do those for a living and when doing them, we do our best to apply the principles of science (empiricism, or controlled testing as best we can, or looking at results, data, and other evidence) and not just ruminating or finding parallels between it and some ancient literature.

    For the most part, humanities are only answering questions when they’re applying the scientific method.

    That said, I did think the poster was funny.

  10. What message do we derive from [this]?

    The message I get is that science is cool and teaches you how to do stuff, and the humanities are about nannying.

    Seriously, this tells me that the humanities folks to put the poster together are really poor at public communication. I bet if you asked 20 people whether they’d rather (a) be able to clone a dinosaur or (b) learn a good reason why they shouldn’t, 19 of them are going to pick (a).

    1. It’s worse than that. The poster suggests that cloning T. rex is bad because T. rex is a dangerous predator. But how do we know that? Because science tells us so. If I think dinosaurs are cool and want to learn more about them, which department should I apply to? The humanities department? I don’t think so.

      So even in its own terms the poster fails to make a coherent case for why the humanities are valuable.

    2. Yes indeed. Strangely, my four years of humanities-only courses never once mentioned that I should avoid being eaten by a T. Rex.

        1. Oh, that one’s easy. Cloning, by definition, creates a monoculture, and experience shows us that such populations are incredibly fragile. It’s certainly a critical area of study and has its places in certain areas of study, as well as a last-gasp effort against extinction…but you really want to be looking for as much genetic diversity as possible in a sustainable population.

          So, it’s science, not the humanities, that tell us that we should try, as much as possible, to avoid cloning T-Rexes. (T-Rexen? T-Rexi? T-Rexapodes?)



          1. No, there are still a lot of cloning critters. In biomass they may in fact outweigh the sexually reproducing ones. And of course there are a lot of critters that do both, or switch depending on environmental cues.

            I think the ethical argument against cloning dinosaurs is the same as the ethical argument against cloning anything: humans don’t do this well; artificial cloning is (at this time) an extraordinarily faulty process that generally leads to a lot of errors that cause the resulting organism to live shorter, more painful lives. You don’t do that unless you have a really compelling reason to do it. You don’t create a cat or dinosaur or anything else by a process you are pretty sure is going to lead to major birth and developmental defects, unless you really have no choice in the matter.

            But my reason, like yours, is mostly science not humanities. 🙂

            1. But aren’t the clonal critters the ones also most likely to do the horizontal gene tango? Ya gotta get a diversity pump going somehow. Drift isn’t a factor with cloning, and mutation generally isn’t fast enough for keeping up with the Red Queen’s Joneses.

              But, yeah. As usual, science for the win!


  11. I thought the poster was funny and I too don’t think scientists should be defensive about it. The fact that we can’t clone a T-rex isn’t the point really, it is just that hydrogen bombs aren’t very lighthearted.

    If we want to get more serious and not make it into a zero sum game, they might try: Science majors and humanities majors agree, spending money on pharmaceutical research is a good thing, perhaps humanities majors can help scientists convince pharmaceutical companies to stop spending more on marketing than they do on research.

  12. Imagine if scientists made similar posters showing a T. rex chasing Jacques Derrida with the caption, “HUMANITIES can argue that there is no objective truth, but SCIENCE tells us that Mr. Derrida is gonna get NOMMED.”

    That would also be an awesome poster. Really, any time you associate dinosaurs with science, science comes out looking pretty cool. I offer you Exhibit 1 and exhibit 2.

    You’re right that the folks at Utah were incredibly defensive in attacking science to try and make themselves look better. But I think the bigger blunder is that their efforts made them look worse while making science look better. IMO this poster will push people away from the humanities, not towards them. Which is a shame.

  13. If you want to recruit teenagers into science, that’s a great poster.

    If you want to recruit teenagers into the humanities, show the miserable submissive lab assistant work that science grads actually fight for.

    1. I don’t know about that. Graduate students in the humanities are much less likely than science graduate students to get any kind of support that won’t necessitate them incurring more debt on top of their undergrad debt.

      1. An cynical portayal of either type of grad school would not necessarily be good. I can see it now:

        “SCIENCE will have you working as a slave in your professor’s lab….but the HUMANITIES will have you working as a slave in your professor’s classroom.”

        1. Or science will have you working as a slave in your professors lab but Humanities will have you working as a slave EVERYWHERE you can bring your laptop!

  14. NO T-Rex for me, and what lab could afford to keep it fed, even with our current glut of lawyers.

    …But I’d love to see how a chicken-sized bird would use a GMO’d body that’s supplied with hand-claws, tail, and teeth…, and, perhaps, ratite-grade pecs.

    Seems to me that we’re close to having the ability to do such tweaks, and might learn some interesting things about the biomechanics of Sinosauropteryx and its relatives if we could.

    Can anyone explain — beyond the argument from personal frisson, or exaggerated slippery-slope — why that would be a “bad idea”?

      1. Heck, a few T-Rex’s could have a salutary effect even on the behavior of all lawyers – deterrence, you know.

  15. You’re overanalyzing it, Jerry. Us scientists should be able to laugh about ourselves, and this poster is pretty funny. And it contains a true message: Science is great for discovering stuff about nature, and how we can manipulate it. And some branches of the humanities can help us discern if certain applications are good or not.

    Take human cloning for example. After we achieve it, we can use it for many different purposes, from assisted reproduction, to organ harvesting, pharmacological research, etc. The humanities may tell us why it’s wrong to clone a sentient human to harvest organs, and not wrong if we only clone a headless body.

    There might be not-so-obvious examples than this one.

  16. No, step two is the student working in animal behavior trains the T-Rex to wear a saddle. We then selectively breed our new T-Rexes for their willingness to let grad students ride them on campus.

  17. Okay, the poster is simply funny, but so is proof by NOMs.


    it, and not science, can teach us how to read and appreciate literature and other fine arts,

    Not a good analysis, since computer science is successful in having computers read and appreciate literature and arts. E.g. IBM’s Watson: “Watson is a question answering (QA) computing system that IBM built to apply advanced natural language processing, information retrieval, knowledge representation, automated reasoning, and machine learning technologies to the field of open domain question answering.[2]” [ ]

    If appreciation is the ability to derive knowledge, science has beaten humanities.

    If appreciation is the ability to experience, the use of humanities to deepen experiences is still fine. But so is drugs. =D

    1. If appreciation is the ability to experience, the use of humanities to deepen experiences is still fine.

      But I would like to stress that not even experience is off limits to science.

      Computers can in many cases recognize emotions. This has already been tried in customer support. When you have automated phone systems that have complicated menus it has been tried that the computer listens in and determines your mood. If the customer is getting angry or desperate he is being connected with a human operator.

      Research is being done to “transfer” feelings between people and I think it is not inconceivable that one day a machine will be able to experience feelings of its own.

  18. Cloning a T Rex would be an extremely good idea and any humanities prof who disagrees has had their sense of reality warped by bad 90s action movies. A live T Rex would be an absolutely magnificent animal to behold, and extraordinarily beautiful in its way – arent these the sorts of values that people in the humanities have been trained to appreciate?? We manage to prevent polar bears from killing and eating people, do they assume we couldnt do the same for T Rexes? Or maybe they assume that it wouldnt occur to anyone outside of the humanities that a T Rex would need to be kept in a cage. Of course, the reason we know it was carnivorous – the reason we know it even existed is because of scientists.
    I can imagine someone defending this by saying ‘whats all the fuss, it was tongue-in-cheek’ etc. ..but I still think it betrays a subtle anti-intellectualism.

  19. > …posters showing a T. rex chasing Jacques
    > Derrida with the caption, “HUMANITIES can
    > argue that there is no objective truth, but > SCIENCE tells us that Mr. Derrida is gonna
    > get NOMMED.”

    I WANT one of those posters!

    Take my money, please!

  20. Got to agree with you Jerry. I did my university degree in the humanities. However, for the last few decades I’ve become really interested in the sciences. I think all humanities graduates should do some courses in science, particularly the history of science, evolution and cosmology. Also I think science graduates should do some humanities courses. I think both fields would benefit undergraduate students.

  21. Some years ago, I read an argument that when I teach science from an historical viewpoint, I am actually teaching humanities. Because I like to teach science that way I wear my humanities mantle without embarrassment. I have not seen a converse argument that teaching the humanities in a certain way means teaching science.

  22. Aside from being a stupid poster, I don’t think cloning a T-rex in practice would be that dangerous. Not even if it reproduced. Not even if it escaped. Not even if it escaped AND reproduced AND thought snacking on humans was a good idea.

    Why not? Because it’s so big. It might kill a few people to start with but animals that size are easy to hunt down and shoot. Can anyone think of a very big predator that isn’t on the endangered list?

    Much MORE risky would be cloning something the size of a dog, or a rat, that breeds rapidly – introduced species like that have proved almost impossible to eradicate.

    TL:DR summary: The bigger it is, the LESS risky it is to clone it.

    Stupid poster. What can humanities possibly tell us about it?

    1. Oh by the way, change that to “not even if THEY escaped and reproduced…” for obvious reasons. 😉

  23. Humanities help you appreciate the fictional moon-voyages of HG Wells, Jules Verne, and Arthur C. Clarke.

    Science gets you to the moon for real.

  24. I think the biggest red flag that this is an “anti-scientism” poster is the reference to Jurassic Park. While it certainly may be unintentional, the author Michael Crichton was often considered anti-science, anti-Enlightenment proponent — and became a rather well-known denier of global warming.

    I love the following description of a typical Crichton plot:

    First, a gosh-wow technological breakthrough is pursued by some cryptic entity (government agency, corporate lab, mad scientist or, lately, eco-fanatics) in total secrecy, evading the corrective effects of criticism. Errors are made due to a combination of hubris, profound stupidity, overweening pride and the utter absence of oversight by an obtuse civilization. And then (of course) hubris is compounded by more hubris. These errors very nearly lead to calamity while a solitary goodguy demigod berates the team efforts and the entire ignoramus culture that brought us to the brink.

    Alas, not one of these lecturing heroes ever mentions the one corrective prescription that might actually work – general openness. The way we have often managed to get so many advances without hubristic calamities.

    1. A lot of science fiction is really fear of technology and science and it usually reflects society’s way of coping with technological change. Often it takes the form of scary robots chasing us or some weird ass plant getting out of control.

      I like those science fiction stories though (but Day of the Triffids gives me the wiggins).

          1. John Wyndham was very good at what he did.

            I’ve just been reading a novel of his called ‘Web’ (published posthumously, apparently) about a Pacific island exposed to radiation from bomb tests, where the spiders learnt to communicate with each other. Quite scary.

            1. If the spiders ever start conversing, I hope they recall that I have been very nice to them, always catching them in the bathtub & relocating them to safer places.

          2. I seem to recall a similar film called ‘Night of the Philosophers’- they bored their victims to death.

  25. That’s my alma mater. I was a humanities major there in the 1960s. We didn’t talk about dinosaurs back then. The curriculum must have changed.

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