Tierney, social sciences triumph in Bathtub Debates

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The fate of our planet fell into the hands of Professor Dominic Tierney last Thursday after winning Swarthmore’s Bathtub Debate, in which professors representing each of the three academic divisions — the natural sciences, social sciences and humanities — duked it out over which would most likely deter extraterrestrial life forms from annihilating Earth. With social sciences emerging victorious for a second consecutive year, undeclared sophomores are advised to immediately scurry over to the “hardest and most complex” of the disciplines, as described by Tierney in his opening argument.

The premise of this year’s debate was saving the planet from destruction by extraterrestrial life forms known as RonPaulians, who found Earth’s educational institutions do not meet intergalactic standards. Humans have one chance to convince the RonPaulians to save the planet by presenting a single academic discipline’s merits, the question being whether to rely on the natural sciences, the social sciences, or the humanities to impress the aliens enough to spare the world.

Professor of Political Science Dominic Tierney (left) emerged victorious in the annual Bathtub Debates hosted by the Peaslee Debate Society. Michael Marissen, professor of music (right), represented the humanities in the debate. (Allegra Pocinki/The Phoenix)

Professor Amy Vollmer of the biology department and Professor Michael Marissen of the music department found their best efforts could not compete with Tierney’s liberal quoting of “A Few Good Men,” his analogies likening each of the divisions to prominent political figures, and his blustery confidence that the social sciences were indeed the way to go in this “life or death, one shot” attempt to save the planet. Between his scattered interjections of “You can’t handle the truth!,” he managed to reduce the technology and information produced by the “soft” natural sciences to mere “trinkets” in the eyes of the RonPaulians.

“They have alien motherships that can annihilate planets,” Tierney said in presenting his case. “We can show them our televisions, and they can show us their teleporter. We can show them our iPhone 4, and they’ll show us their iPhone 4,000, which still doesn’t play flash video.”

Tierney was equally skeptical of the humanities’ power to save the planet. “Can you imagine showing the RonPaulians a modern abstract painting? ‘Hmm … I don’t like it. Kill them all!’”

So what can the social sciences offer the RonPaulians? Apparently, the principles of human rights — such as the right to bear and keep mother-ships.

Marissen seemed less than convinced on the promise the social sciences offered. “We probably need the natural sciences to survive, but we need the humanities to thrive … and we may not need the social sciences at all,” he said.

Vollmer expressed similar doubts. “With the current political and economic situation, we don’t need the RonPaulians to destroy the planet — the social scientists are doing a pretty good job.”

However, despite these jabs, Tierney proved victorious — perhaps in part by tying the other divisions to prominent Republican politicians. “The RonPaulians hate Romney and Gingrich. The natural sciences are like Romney — they are flip floppers … First they tell us the Sun revolves around the Earth, then they tell us the Earth revolves around the Sun, next they’ll tell us the Earth and the Sun go around a giant spaghetti monster. … The humanities are like Gingrich — their best days are behind them. … The social sciences are a continuous debate; our best days are ahead.”

While perhaps not as popular when it came down to final judging by the Applause-o-Meter (also known as Provost Thomas Stephenson, the mediator for the debates whose evaluation of applause volume determined the end result), both Marissen and Vollmer relied on statistics to back up their arguments. Marissen displayed a chart detailing top enrollment for the semester, with “W.A. Mozart” topping off the list ahead of both Organismal & Population Biology (BIOL 002) and Introduction to Psychology; Vollmer reminded us that Cellular & Molecular Biology (orBIOL 001) teaches more freshmen students writing than all of the humanities courses put together. Additionally, Vollmer noted that students majoring in the natural sciences take courses in the other two disciplines more than students majoring in the social sciences or humanities explore courses in the natural sciences, making natural science majors more broadly trained than students in other disciplines.

After a question from the audience demanded the professors select a single representative to present their cases to the RonPaulians, the battle moved from the teaching faculty to their chosen ambassadors. Chosen by Vollmer to represent the natural sciences was Eric Jensen, professor of astronomy at Swarthmore College, whom Vollmer described as “unbelievably charming.” Stepping up to bat for the social sciences was — unbelievably — Thomas Jefferson, whose selection by Tierney raised some eyebrows (time travel would be a service provided by the natural sciences, as Vollmer noted). For Marissen, an expert on Bach, his musical specialty seemed to be the obvious choice, although in his case it mattered little whether Bach was revived from the dead or not, as anyone with the technological capabilities to transport his “Gloria Mass in B Minor” to the motherships of the RonPaulians would be sufficient.

Jensen thinks he may have the upper hand in being ambassador to the RonPaulians over Tierney’s pick. “I think still being alive would be a significant advantage in my favor. Being dead for 200 years or so would make it hard [for Thomas Jefferson],” Jensen said with a smile.

Tierney, for his part, stands behind his selection. “It’s hard to compete with [Professor] Jensen’s charm, but with the fate of humanity at stake, our best bet is to impress the RonPaulians with an idea: that all men and women (and aliens) are created equal,” he said in an email.

Marissen may not have won the minds of the audience, but he certainly captured their hearts with his closing recording of “What a Wonderful World,” which put an end to the “rigorous, passionate absurdity” of the debate, as described by the Provost. With the Applause-o-Meter registering a close call as to the winner, students shouldn’t stress too much about majoring in either of the “losing” disciplines. “I think the debate shows what’s best about the college. We argue intensely about big ideas, but in a positive and humorous way,” Tierney said.

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