Posted in biology, chemistry, education, engineering, literature, physics

Differing studying styles

I stumbled upon this post from Uncertain Principles about the differences between humanities and science writing.

Prof. Orzel is discussing the values of primary versus secondary sources, and why primary sources are not as important in the physical sciences.

He says “The difference here is in what’s being studied. The physical sciences are studying the nature and behavior of the universe, which isn’t something that’s written down. The analogue of reading a primary source would be doing an experiment, not reading anything.

“In most humanities disciplines, though, the text is the point. As a result, the distinction between primary and secondary sources is critical. The whole point of the business is to read and interpret primary sources– trying to produce humanities scholarship without reading the original texts is like trying to do science without experiment or observation. It’s the humanities equivalent of string theory.”

“Thus, I’m not terribly concerned about the failure to read original sources in physics.”

Read full post.

Granted I do not study physics, but I have to scratch my head at his analysis of the differences between the sciences vs. humanities. In “crossover” disciplines like archaeology and biological anthropology there is a lot of experimenting that is done. Yet it is also considered critical in these disciplines to read the primary source. Taking a secondary source’s word that the original experiment or data was a flop is not good enough. It is  considered vital to read the original researchers paper, to look for clues that the original guy or gal may have missed. And if you can get your hands on a field report, you’ve won the jackpot!

And I honestly believe a lot of confusion would be cleared up if more people actually read Darwin’s theory on evolution.

I suppose it depends on the degree of interpretation going on. When English majors are asked to interpret Dante’s The Divine Comedy, then of course they’re going to have to read the thing, or at least the cliff notes.

But overall I think the Prof. paints too broad a picture. Thoreau, the blogger who started this whole discussion, seems to be a little more open to the idea of reading the original text:

“There’s a lot of history behind [physics], with the older theories (usually) being taught first.  We also engage in a ton of hero worship, telling all sorts of stories about the great physicists.  (A few of those stories might even be true!)  Despite all that reliance on history and that culture of revering our great predecessors, we never sit down and read the original works, a habit that would be second nature to a humanities scholar.

“I’m not saying we should always do that, or add a bunch of original works to an already-crowded curriculum.  But it is interesting just how rarely we do it.”

I think that the physical sciences could use a little more historical context, and at least an effort to encourage the kiddos to read the original stuff.



Beth Kelley is an applied & digital anthropologist with an overall interest in how people engage with and are impacted by their environments and vice versa. This has manifested itself in many ways, by looking at creativity, playful spaces and environmental enrichment, sustainability, design research, and integrative and collaborative models of learning such as through play and hands-on learning.