Over at Scienceblogs, there has been a discussion about the relationship between science (and mathematics in particular) and the arts and humanities. This was started by Chad Orzel, and continued elsewhere. John Wilkins has a fairly up to date set of links, as well as some well thought out musings. He’s also the firs to point out that C.P. Snow talked about the same issues in the first part of his 1959 Rede lecture (the whole essay is worth reading: many of his lesser-known points are still relevant today).
This got me thinking about why I, as a scientist, should know about the arts and humanities. After all, they’re on a different campus from us.
For me a knowledge of the humanities has been useful for me as a scientist1. Having a greater understanding of the cultural realm should inform the way science is done and understood. To pick a few examples from my own scientific development:
Ever since I was an undergraduate, I read histories of science written by historians. It became apparent that the history we are taught in science is very much a fake history – the Good Guys make great advances by carrying out the crucial experiment, and once it was published the best of the scientific community accepted it and moved on the next Great Advance. Only the elderly professors and the less competent objected, and they were wrong. Aspects like Mendel being ignored are treated as some oddity – how on earth could scientists have ignored the ground-breaking work of an obscure monk for 40 years?
Once you start to read “proper” histories, you see that reality was different. It was never as clean: the original experiments were not definitive, there were valid criticisms of them (some were even fiddled!), or were not understood the way they are today. Sometimes experiments had to be placed in the right context before they could be properly understood (this is more or less the issue with Mendel: he was thnking along different lines when he did his experiments). If we are ignorant of this sort of history, we can end up with a distorted view of science and its progress – we can become naïve scientific triumphalists (to use a phrase one of my genetics lecturers used about her head of department). It should be clear that, by implying the inevitability of progress, this can breed undue arrogance.
Similarly, sociology can be useful. Both in our understanding of how science develops (it is done by people, so has to be a social phenomenon), but also of how science relates to the outside world. Both aspects became clear in the last couple of years when I was involved in a project on risk assessments for GMOs. Our project included some sociologists. One thing we did was to sit down and discuss how our risk assessment tools would be used. Simply doing this made us aware that doing the work was not enough: we also had to work out how to make sure the work was used. This entailed looking at who would use it, how it could fail etc. It is clear that the success of our work depends on the social, not technical, realities. Whilst it is obvious at one level, it is clear that a lot of scientists don’t think about this. Many good ideas languish in the scientific literature because they are not marketed well enough. The success of the R statistical package is partly because it was taken up by enough people early on. Contrast that with Survo, which does a similar job and has been around for much longer. A large part of the difference is that Survo was developed by one person, without reaching out to the wider community. The problem is one of social interaction, not science (or perhaps in this case technology).
I think we see something similar with GMOs and public perception. As a scientist, I can see the potential for great benefit, as well as the possibility of harm. I can weigh up the possibilities, and decide on what I think is best. It seems it was a shock for a lot of the scientific community when there was a backlash against GM. A lot of that, I think, was because we (or perhaps companies like Monsanto) didn’t realise how the public would perceive the introductions. There was (and to some extent still is) an attitude of paternalism: we just have to tell the public that GM is good for them, and they will follow. But this ignores why the public is suspicious. There is ignorance about GM, but also many of the attitudes and arguments are not scientific at their core: they are about what is “natural”. Understanding these arguments requires humanists: philosophers to pick apart the logic of the arguments, and sociologists to explain how they came about and perhaps how we could respond.
I can even delve into the worst horrors of the humanities: post-modernism. My reading of post-modernism (which is, after all, as good as anyone else’s) is that there is a an important nugget of insight. The problem is how we decide what values are the right ones. The pomo argument is that any set of values is as good as any other. Now, this is a challenge to science, and particularly to philosophy of science, because if we can’t show why it is wrong, we’re in trouble: why should scientific knowledge be previleged over any other? I suspect we can do this, but we might end up defining a more basic set of values2. But the positive aspect of pomo is that it tells us that there are alternative sets of values we can use. Outside of science, it says there’s nothing wrong with reading space opera: it still has value. Within applied science, it tells us that other values can be important too, which brings us back to the GM debate. Once we are aware that there are competing sets of values, and no one set is “right”, we are then aware that we have to negotiate the different value sets. Which brings us back to sociology.
I guess the point of all this is that as scientists we do science, but if we are to understand what we do, and do it effectively, we need to understand the hows and whys of the scientific process. Because science is done by people, we need to understand how people behave as individuals and in groups. This is the job of the humanities, so we need them if we are to be effective as science practicioners.
1 The arts are useful in making us rounded people: knowledge of nutrition naturally does the opposite.
2 Unfortunately we can’t simply appeal to reality because we have to demonstrate we know what reality is. And that is what science is meant to be showing us. So how do we know science is doing that? We end up in an infinite regress, with elephants all the way down. The only escape, I think, is through induction. But that just replaces elephants with turkeys, at least until Christmas.