The physical sciences and the arts and social sciences are often dichotomized as fundamentally distinct branches of study with inherently different methods of inquiry. The physical sciences are in the domain of empiricism and objectivity, whilst the arts and social sciences are derived from experience and subjectivity.
Though not entirely unfounded, this demarcation has done harm to the world of public intellectual discourse. Namely, the unfounded opinions laypersons have towards the arts are taken unnecessarily seriously, despite the same not being true for the sciences.
One’s opinion regarding the arts is often treated as legitimate by virtue of nothing more than the mere fact that such a thought has been ardently articulated by someone. To demonstrate this point, consider the case of an average person hearing news of a new economic recovery plan. It is entirely common to hear such a person claim that the plan is ineffective or non-sensical despite having no formal or informal understanding of the field of macroeconomics.
What is more, such people often expect their opinions to be taken seriously despite having no backing for them. Notice that such arrogance is not at all commonplace in regards to the sciences. If a new study conducted by CERN gave us reason to doubt the existence of the Higgs Boson particle, the average person would be very uncomfortable voicing an opinion on a matter of which they have little to no understanding.
The unfounded opinions laypersons have towards the arts are taken unnecessarily seriously.
Ultimately, this is because people recognize that there is an important distinction between having a right to an opinion and that opinion being intelligent. Yet, this is precisely what is forgotten in the domain of the arts and social sciences.
Whether it is political science or economics, gender studies or art, one’s opinion is expected to be taken seriously by others, regardless of their understanding of the material. In essence, intuition regarding highly complex subject matter is arbitrarily privileged in one field but not the other.
I find that this hypocrisy is rooted in the erroneous assumption that the sciences are fundamentally objective, whilst the arts are fundamentally subjective. Put another way, in the sciences there is always a right answer, whilst in the arts there are no right answers. This stance seems problematic to me for two reasons.
First, it is not at all obvious that such a rigid line exists between the two, as demonstrated by highly mathematical fields in the arts such as economics, and highly philosophical fields in the sciences such as neuroscience. More importantly, there is no logical reason for us to believe that academic rigor should hold any less sway in fields deemed subjective in comparison to those deemed objective. As such, the aforementioned demarcation is at worst inaccurate, and at best irrelevant.
I want to clarify that I am not arguing for elitism in intellectual engagements. From my perspective, all academic pursuits are bettered within a context of open discussion and debate. Rather, I am arguing that both domains deserve equal respect as challenging fields with no easy answers.
One’s opinion as a layperson should either be considered equally important or equally un-important whilst engaging with the two, and the mere fact that one seems to have an easier answer does not mean it necessarily does.
Society is bettered when citizens take it upon themselves to become educated on the issues and debates of our time. This cannot happen if one field is ignored because it is deemed too challenging, and the other trivialized because it is deemed too easy.