STEM and the humanities

In my experience with MDs, stockbrokers, architects, dentists, accountants and other STEM-trained professionals, when they are speaking within the area in which they are trained and licensed to practice, they are usually careful and reliable; but the critical skills that they learned within their discipline don’t transfer outside their discipline. In political-social conversations, and in general current events outside the focused area of competence, they can be as naive as utterly uneducated people.

People I know who are trained in areas within the humanities such as history, philosophy, theology, and biblical studies and in practical areas like pastoral ministry, counseling, and social work tend to be less gullible, more astute at detecting attempts to conceal, deceive, misdirect, distort, etc. The former have a lot of training and experience in reading texts; the latter have a lot of training and experience in reading people; and these skill transfer readily to previous unencountered texts and people. In political-social conversations, even when these conversations become tangential to the intersections of public affairs with science and technology, they are not so easily fooled as the STEM-only people..

In terms of what many people think of as raw brainpower, the STEM people are certainly not deficient! In their areas of expertise, they operate according to strict protocols that were developed over time by brilliant people on the basis of masses of experience and experimentation. A good brain surgeon is not just a little bit better than me at fixing something wrong inside your skull. The good brain surgeon can do things that I cannot begin to imagine or understand. The surgeon can restore your health. If I jumped in and took over from the surgeon, you would not just be slightly worse off; you would be dead. If I took over from your accountant, you could easily fall out of compliance with regulations and laws and we’d both land in jail. If I took over from your architect, your new mansion might well collapse. If I wrote your code, your system would crash.

I know I’m not competent at those things, and I’m not about to try doing them.

But reading texts? Reading people? Heck, anybody can do that. The brain surgeon feels quite comfortable about jumping into a conversation about history or theology or politics. Many STEM-educated professionals had a good undergraduate education in the humanities and through reading and conversation have retained and extended what they got there. But many other did not, or have not. What’s more, trained or untrained, self-aware or not, people cannot hand over to experts the living of life, including political functions like voting. They have to do these things for themselves. We should want them to do them. But sometimes . . . some people . . . oh, my goodness.

So here we are. How can we best help each other?

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