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The only thing that can stop this asteroid is your liberal arts degree (mcsweeneys.net)
122 points by msurel on Apr 22, 2010 | hide | past | web | favorite | 65 comments

As someone with a philosophy degree and many years of formal training in classical music, I give this piece a hearty thumbs up.

While the author clearly values the liberal arts (um, it's McSweeney's), there's something to be said for actually getting things done in the world. A lot, actually.

What the author is parodying is less the degree itself but more the miles wide and inches deep approach to education and life that many intelligent people are fond of taking.

I've been guilty of this, and satire is usually born of familiarity, so I assume the author has been as well. The point is, recognize that pursuit of education as amusement and status symbol is a hobby done for you and none other, and if you want to make some kind of impact outside of your own head, you're going to either have to get deeper and more focused or get more pragmatic.

As someone with a computer science degree and several years working experience in software development, I feel an urge to play devil's advocate here.

In terms of "getting things done in the world," how is making iPhone fart apps any more of a contribution than, say, publishing a screed in a tabloid? I'm trying not to set up a straw man here, so I'm deliberately choosing lowest common denominator activities.

I don't think it's fair for us technical folk to rest on our laurels simply because we have mastery over some very specific kind of knowledge that has a great deal of useful applications. We have to get out there and get real things done, too.

The term liberal arts denotes a curriculum that imparts general knowledge and develops the student’s rational thought and intellectual capabilities, unlike the professional, vocational, technical curricula emphasizing specialization. The contemporary liberal arts comprise studying literature, languages, philosophy, history, mathematics, and science. In classical antiquity, the liberal arts denoted the education proper to a free man (Latin: liberus, “free”), unlike the education proper to a slave.

The modern liberal arts student avoids math and science like the plague.

In practice, the belief that a liberal arts education has equal value to a BS degree is anti-science.

There's something to this. Modern society taxes (enslaves) the high earners (specialists) in favor of mostly giveaways to the middle and lower middle class (liberal arts majors) and to the very rich (bailouts).

*note: originally I was writing this as a joke but it stopped feeling like one halfway through.

Dude, jokes aside. You forgot the masses that cannot even afford to go to college, and depend on your "giveaways"

The less polite original title: "The Only Thing That Can Stop This Asteroid Is Your Liberal Arts Degree".

Unfair since plenty of those with liberal arts degrees contribute to society in a way we geeks value, but still amusing.

There are a fair number of geeks who were liberal arts majors in their earlier years. It's not a crippling setback. In fact it can be an asset when you need to communicate densely abstract technical topics to those of a decidedly nontechnical background.

I've met a fair number of philosophy and language majors who are programmers, web designers or system administrators. And a number of them have much greater mental flexibility than someone who got a four year CS degree for the job prospects but have never demonstrated any great degree of intellectual curiosity.

Some "technical" content comes from those backgrounds as well, which sometimes turns out to be useful. I'm in AI, and people sometimes run into pitfalls that a stronger background in some other area would've let them see much further ahead of time. Sometimes a solution that seems like it might work is one that you'd immediately spot holes in (or at least likely points of difficulty) if you were familiar with philosophical logic, or semantics of language, or something else of that sort.

Don't you understand? We're not really learning how to critique The Bell Jar from a absurdorealist point of view, we're learning how to use our minds!

The irony is that usually there are no asteroids headed for earth, so it is debatable how useful the astronauts and nuclear warhead constructors are.

Keep in mind we seldom really need them, but, when we do, we need them really, really bad.

Unfortunately, if it turns out that we do end up needing them, I think the bottleneck field might be political science...

Actually, by most accounts we did fine without them for 200,000 years.

We did just fine without them for a good couple dozen million years.

It's just that we won't be able to do without them forever ;-)

In fact, I like to tall my son the dinosaurs only died because they had neither rockets nor nukes.

Looking at the situation objectively, we will either destroy ourselves, or incidentally gain rocket technology capable of destroying an asteroid long before an extinction-level event occurs. There is no reason to make asteroid deflection a priority. There are far more pressing threats to the human race. Mostly the human race itself - and the humanities are the best defense against humans.

You realize that Armageddon was just a Hollywood movie, right? :-) I am not sure if the same thing would be feasible in the real world, with current technology.

Nor am I convinced that we will eventually be able to escape our dieing sun, but I keep my fingers crossed.

Unless we have a good couple years of advanced notice so we can gently push it in another direction, nukes are the best option. If you spread the thing wide enough, less of it will hit you. If the pieces are small enough, chances are few of them will do any damage.

It won't do much good if the thing is the size of a state, but mountain-sized rocks seem manageable this way.

The dinosaurs beg to differ.

In that case, we did just fine without them for 65 million years.

It's that 200,001st year that'll get ya.

How I'd answer if I had a liberal arts degree: "If I make up a hypothetical situation where you wouldn't fit in, does it prove you're worthless?"

Just to confirm... the typo in the title of this submission is on purpose, right?

what typo?

Asteriod is the typo in the submission. Either that or there is some joke I am not getting.

Ah, Grinnell, alma mater of Robert Noyce.

Actually, I'm not sure what the point is. The fantasies with which underemployed recent BAs make the 40 hours pass? A take-off on the brand of thriller in which Joe Normal gets sucked into international (or interplanetary) intrigue and danger? Revenge for the balderdash the author was forced to write last year?

But wasn't the lead in _The Eiger Sanction_ an art history professor who did CIA hits in the off-season to support his Picasso habit? Yeah, Clint Eastwood's a bit long in the tooth, but I'd back him against Bruce Willis for asteroid destruction any day of the week. (Cf. _Space Cowboys_<liberal arts mode>, another profound exploration of the human spirit</liberal arts mode>.)

I'd just like to point out that Harvey Mudd College is a liberal arts college. As is Pomona College, where I got my (BA) degree in Computer Science.

So, yeah, the post is funny, but some of us have both a liberal arts degree and an ability to do utilitarian things.

There's a flaw in assuming that an undergraduate liberal arts education is terminal. For instance, "between 1986 and 1995, more people earning PhD degrees in the earth sciences graduated from Carleton (50) than any other four-year college."

And that's from a tiny liberal arts school with a total population of ~2,000 students.

There’s a lot of fuzziness about what “liberal arts” actually means. To me it means something like a general education including both sciences and the humanities. In this sense there’s nothing the least surprising about getting a liberal arts education and a degree in the earth sciences. But I see it in a lot of contexts where it seems to mean fluffy humanities and only fluffy humanities.

The real issue is the separation of Arts from Science. The best artists are scientists and the best scientists are artists. Was Da Vinci any more into liberal arts than science.

Anyone who specialises in a single viewpoint and is unable to compromise probably isn't a candidate for saving the earth.

Way too many people taking this far too seriously as an attack on liberal arts. It's just absurd humor and could be flipped for equally funny effect - some movie astronaut/action hero in a tense meeting of academics who all consider his input weirdly vital.

Of course it's joke, but when I tried to think of situation that would be analogical in importance and where astronaut/engineer would be so much worse fit than liberal arts, I couldn't.

That probably just tells my imagination is limited.

But not everybody has to be able to save the world when it comes to that. Singers and writers are useful, and they wouldn't fit in to asteroid scenario, neither.

Or loads of "geeks" who know barely more than a layman about astrophysics.

What are the odds of actually stopping an asteroid? I suspect that asteroids small enough to be escaped by evacuation wouldn't be detected soon enough, and I highly doubt if we could do anything to divert or destroy a larger asteroid.

This is total bs. The ONLY thing that can stop an astroid is Bruce Willis. And aerosmith.

The same joke over and over.

It's still true.

What's true about it? That, within certain contrived scenarios involving existential threats to humankind, humanities knowledge becomes useless?

Science and technology are important, and deserve more respect and funding than they get in this society, but not to the detriment of all else.

I think the standard (and weak) joke about the uselessness of humanities degrees is to some extent a red herring. The real subject of satire here are technophilic power fantasies, such as _The Core_, _Impact_, _Asteroid_, etc., etc.

The real red herring is the idea that this is satire with a message and not just a joke.

The irony of this is incredible. You're reaching to label this as an example of confirmation bias. What's the term for trying to make data fit a preconceived idea, again?

Few things are more tedious than reading science majors endlessly, smugly belittle arts subjects. "Oh ho ho, something I don't understand and haven't done and probably couldn't do, they must be idiots, let's constantly mock them". I saw quite enough of that on slashdot so was very disappointed to see this sort of bilge get so many upvotes here. Thankfully some of the comments, at least, show a more nuanced grasp of reality.

While studying engineering, I took lots of upper-level classes in history, philosophy, polysci, etc. I aced those classes without much effort. To really "learn to think", you have to push yourself to think about more complex and abstract ideas. Advanced math pushes your brain to its limits. Most liberal arts fields have very low levels of complexity. In most cases, it's just read & regurgitate. In adv. classes you might follow a few levels of indirection. This is trivial for scientists, but difficult for most others.

> In most cases, it's just read & regurgitate.

You embody what I am talking about so perfectly here I can only assume this was a clever piece of satire.

> I saw quite enough of that on slashdot so was very disappointed to see this sort of bilge get so many upvotes here.

A developed vocabulary is awesome, but you always got to consider who your audience is and why you're writing. If you're trying to persuade a lot of people, it's almost always better to choose the easier and more readable word instead of the bigger or deeper or more obscure word.

I read a hell of a lot, and I had to look bilge up to figure out exactly what you're saying - you could've just said "trash" instead and everyone would've got your meaning. Likewise, "tedious" could be "boring", "smugly belittle" could be "insult", you could drop "endlessly" altogether since it doesn't add any more information. Likewise, "quite enough" doesn't convey more than just the word "enough", "nuanced grasp of reality" could've just been "perspective". Here's how I'd write it:

> Few things are more tedious than reading science majors endlessly, smugly belittle arts subjects. "Oh ho ho, something I don't understand and haven't done and probably couldn't do, they must be idiots, let's constantly mock them". I saw quite enough of that on slashdot so was very disappointed to see this sort of bilge get so many upvotes here. Thankfully some of the comments, at least, show a more nuanced grasp of reality.


> It gets old reading science majors put down the arts. It's easier to mock something than it is to try to understand it. Sheesh, I saw enough of that on slashdot and I'm disappointed to see it here. It's good that at least a few commentors are taking the time to share a perspective from the other side.

So, you write less, it's faster, more people understand you, more are convinced, and you come across less arrogant. Anyways, I been there myself, I grew up reading lots of books and always used to choose the bigger word. Now I choose the simpler more readable way unless the bigger word is really necessary or conveys more.

Well, thanks for putting words in my mouth, but your rewriting is not synonymous with what I wrote. If I had wanted to write what you wrote, I would have done so. For example, "a perspective from the other side", implies opposing viewpoints A vs B, whereas "nuance" implies a stance accepting parts of A but balancing or supplementing them with qualifiers drawn from B.

As for "bilge", contrary to your pleasant assumption I am trying to show off how many books I read, I probably chose that word because it was at the top of my head, having been widely in the news here this week: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/election-2010/7608422/Genera...

Ironically, this notion that you can freely swap NEAR-synonyms with no change of implications and associations of what is meant is a rather maths-y perspective. Someone with more of a liberal arts background would be more aware how far from the truth is. Human natural language, English especially, is not like simultaneous equations where terms can be freely reduced with no loss of accuracy. The range of "big words" and "small words" signify similar but not identical concepts... but of course, if you follow the thoughts of my other responder, the work of Saussure, Derrida et al on signifiers and signified didn't involve any abstract thinking, just reading and regurgitation.

I do admit that my initial post was perhaps rather bullishly worded, and in that sense, the downvotes perhaps deserved. However, it is a bit ironic how hostile a reaction from HN members it recieved, considered it was intended as a compliment to HN members. What I was trying to get at was that the linked piece was essentially a very cheap shot - a cheap shot understood by reading the headline alone, at that, with the rest of the text offering little or no further insight or interest. On the other hand, the comments of (for example) cousin_it, jlc, olefoo were far more intelligent.

Do we really need physicists? What have they done apart from give us ever increasing ways of destroying ourselves. Has quantum theory brought happiness to the world? Love? Peace? Has it helped you feel more connected to your neighbours, to the person on the bus or tube? Has it had any meaningful positive effect at all on the human condition?

Or is it and its ilk of science degrees merely a relentless march to the day that the whole world disappears in one of two ways, self-annihilation or self-exile in VR?

And even if we survive somehow, what about once the relentless march of science is over, when there are no more secrets to uncover? What next? Is that the end of meaningful life as this author thinks?

Or is there perhaps something more to life than finding the next equation? Perhaps we will put aside the toys of technology and start reflecting on ourselves.

Maybe by doing a liberal arts degree.

Listen... I studied Math (B.S), Philosophy (Minor), and Classical Literature(B.A). I'd like to take this opportunity to encourage a bit of perspective on your part.

Sure, read some books, give them good thought, encourage others to read them too. Write poetry, publish articles, and start groups to discuss and reevaluate the social, psychological, and aesthetic relationships expressed by and represented in artistic productions. Think about, read up on, and be interested in history, social geography, food politics, 10th century Latin lyrics, the structuralist writings of Roland Barthes (Mythologies is one of my personal all time favorite books), and the consequences of modernism in the 21st century - do all of that. I'm saying do it. But do not attempt to argue that the study of the natural world is bereft of its own wonder, beauty, and artistry. Science, and more importantly, the scientific perspective, has liberated us (as a civilization) from the oppression of authority-as-truthmaker, and imbued us with an inquisitive fact-seeking attitude that serves the progress of humanity.

I'm giving you a point up - you deserve a second chance.

Pretty much everyone I love is alive and healthy today because of science. I myself am alive and healthy today because of science.

Hell, you can even start pointing at particular bits of science. For example, there would be mass famine without the Haber-Bosch process for ammonia synthesis.

Of course, without this process producing a lot of available nitrogen to use in making explosives during the first half of the 20th century we would probably also have avoided two world wars. Occasional famines and a lower upper-limit on human population or millions dead from guns and bombs... interesting set of choices.

Number of people people killed in major wars in the 20th century (moderately pessimistic estimate): 100,000,000

Number of people in the 20th century saved from starvation by green revolution: 1,000,000,000

Average life expectancy in 1900: 35 years

Average life expectancy in 2000: 65 years

Sources: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_wars_and_disasters_by_d... http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Norman_Borlaug

Net 900,000,000 lives saved? I'll take that deal any day.

You don't get to claim the entirety of the green revolution here, and most of those 1 billion would not have been born in the first place if the Harber-Bosch process did not exist. If we are going to go to that particular level of sophistry then I would add the four generations of descendants from WWI deaths and three generations of WWII/Stalin-induced famines/Great Leap forward deaths, etc. Playing alternate history speculation is interesting, but trying to project any particular distance beyond the immediate point in question is a fools errand.

No, 1 billion already-alive humans would have starved to death if not for the green revolution. Malnutrition plays a role in over half of all deaths today. It was even more commonplace before fertilizers and high-yield crop strains.

Eh this is the classic guns kill people vs. people kill people argument. Not having guns or bombs isn't going to stop a war. Some of the bloodiest wars in history were fought using swords and spears.

Perhaps you should

- stop using your computer

- stop using electricity altogether

- stop using any form of transport other than walking

- stop wearing modern clothes

- stop drinking water that was cleaned with the help of technology

- stop eating food that was produced with the help of technology

- stop living in a house

And most of all, stop reading those books for your liberal arts degree. Who needs science?

I'm assuming you're trolling, but on the off chance you're not - grandiose, self-congratulatory BS like your comment is exactly why articles like this get written.

We only know about the threats to our existence because of science. You could not even make the above statements without the knowledge it has delivered.

Its true that some things it has created have caused problems, but it is also responsible for many of the solutions to those problems and will deliver many more.

Haha, good one. I had prepared a rather sharp reply, but just before hitting the reply button I figured this is just some awesome trolling... Right?

I hope so!

It could go either way. We're already well into Poe's Law territory.

Science is neither good nor evil in and of itself. It just increases the capacity for doing more of either.

Although it is as easy to brush the above post off as it is to say 'polio vaccine', it IS important to consider that a large portion of scientific research is funded directly for military applications. In the US FY2010 budget, military R&D spending is $20 billion greater than non-military R&D spending.

Heh, nice troll.

How about cheap, nearly unlimited electricity (nuclear), medical scanning devices that use radio isotopes, radiation therapy to treat cancer, or a variety of other technologies based on the early work of physicists.

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