Let's not be STEM-supremacists

Let's not be STEM-supremacists

A plea for respecting fundamentally different ways of acquiring knowledge.

"Is there an idea somewhere within you, as STEM (science, technology, engineering & mathematics) scientists, that you are smarter than the rest, smarter than the social scientists?"

"These are things that, politely said, I would prefer not to talk too much about. I always feel that the respect I have for a fellow scholar is largely determined by my feeling, ‘can he do something I think is worth being able to do?’ I have that with a lot of scientists within the humanities, but I very rarely have that within the social sciences."

This exchange was between a Leiden mathematics professor and the presenter of the TV programma 'De Hokjesman', in 2016. The answer was the professor’s, and he thus gave it on national television. I don't think it is controversial to say that for a professor at Leiden University, this is a controversial statement. The most favorable interpretation of why someone would say something like this is that the professor simply has no interest in fields like law, political science or psychology. The least favorable is that, according to the professor, almost all research in these fields is nothing more than wasted effort. In my opinion, the former is the cause of the latter: for someone who does not want to know anything about society or behavior, research in these particular fields is useless. Quite ironically, the professor seems to admit this himself earlier in the interview, when he states that betas often lack certain social antennae.

We proclaim ourselves winners of a race in which the alphas and gamma are not even competing (...)

The professor’s thinking can be summarized as the idea that exact science invokes some inherent objectivity that makes it unquestionably more useful than other studies. And indeed, I think that this objectivity is inseparable from studies like mathematics and to some extent the other studies in our faculty, but that ought never to scaffold a feeling of superiority: the problems we want to solve are quantifiable, and systematically solvable in a way that societal issues are not. This does not mean that natural scientists can triumphantly claim the intellectual high ground. We proclaim ourselves winners of a race in which the alphas and gamma are not even competing, when we confuse natural science with, say, social science. Different problems require different approaches, and apparently understanding society and getting to the bottom of the infinitely complex concept of 'behavior' is more of an art than using mathematical axioms or Newton's laws. And the same applies vice versa: an alpha or gamma has no right to look down on a beta: in this sense, it is a universal character weakness to use one's own philosophy of science to measure another's field.

Only when truly respecting and understanding how another researcher thinks, may we express an opinion worth having. There is nothing to gain from holding on to distorted caricatures of other sciences.


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