Opinion: Science doesn't matter without art
Updated: Aug 14, 2019
We all know that person. And if you don’t you probably are that person. I’m talking about the person who scoffs at what you do or what you’re studying. The university microcosm offers a unique insight into this clique feud. Art kids find pharmacy kids stuck up and weird, and laugh at them walking around in their white lab shirts or coats. Science kids laugh and joke about the humanities. “What are you going to do with that monumental waste of money – your philosophy degree?” I think science students, and perhaps bona-fide scientists need to loosen up and get off that high horse. Here’s why that stuck-up attitude needs to go.
I’ve always sat uncomfortably between left-brained and right-brained. I’m completing a journalism degree, but I majored in zoology. Nothing quite highlighted my exceptional situation like one afternoon at a zoology practical. My class was sat in rows behind the lab benches, working away at the task at hand. Our lecturer was hanging around and chatting to us, and the question came up: “Would you rather do a diagram or calculations?”
It was a no brainer – everyone would rather do calculations than attempt a drawing. It was painfully clear that I was the outlier. I would much rather craft a well done scientific drawing than punch numbers into my calculator. I was shocked that my classmates would rather do maths than make something somewhat pretty, that I was the only person who felt that way.
Now, there’s nothing stuck up about having a preference in your prac. What needs to change is this attitude that comes across ever so subtly its almost imperceptible. The casual overlooking, no, dismissal, of the importance of the humanities. Sure, life as we know it today is founded on science – the radio, space travel, conservation. But what value do any of these things have without the humanities?
"This attitude that comes across ever so subtly it's almost imperceptible. "
Sure, you’d have a radio, but there would be no music coming from it, for the cause of that music is artists. You might have space travel, but you’d miss out on all the fantastic pieces of art and entertainment that are inspired by it. You might have conservation scientists, but their work would mean nothing without the management and people skills necessary to generate broad-sweeping change and awareness – both skills that are not taught in the sciences to the extent they are taught in the business and humanities faculties.
It’s one thing to not appreciate the value of the arts and the humanities, but it’s another when that devaluation affects science. If scientists had more of a holistic approach to the work they do, and I’m pleased to say that I think this is coming, their work would have untold positive impacts on our world. The best scientists are learners, not necessarily only knowledge producers. To have the strength and humility to admit you don’t know everything, and to value the insights of others, is the mark of a terrific scientist. Science, at its very core, is all about learning, and what kind of learner are you if you always assume what you know is somehow above the knowledge of others?
"To have the strength and humility to admit you don’t know everything, and to value the insights of others, is the mark of a terrific scientist."
I took politics in my first year, and I am eternally grateful for it. I think a common misconception that science students have about the humanities is that they’re airy fairy, with no place in the world (also that a humanities degree is easy but that’s a lie for another article). I’d argue against that. What I learned in my year of politics was life changing. It shaped my thinking. I’m aware of social issues and that has impacted my skills as a scientist by making the bigger picture immeasurably clearer. What’s the use of conservation, and preaching ‘educate others!’, if the very livelihoods of people of classes, races, and genders different to yours depends on some kind of damage to the environment?
For example, it’s easy to look at poachers and think ‘bring back the death penalty!’ but when you do that you’re ignoring the fact that the guys on the ground who do the poaching are pushed into that line of work by poverty. It’s the ring leaders who are the problem – the vets with the drugs to get the job done and enough money already, the ones driven by greed, not desperation.
"We can make a conscious effort to be less dismissive."
Any way I could babble about that endlessly. The point is: my social awareness, bestowed upon me by just one year of a certain humanities subject, has shaped me as a scientist, and as a science communicator. It added unfathomable value to my character, and that shows in the way I think and the way I work. I would bet that if every scientist had to take a humanities subject just for a year, their outlook on the world, and their practice of science, would be forever altered in the best way.
Now that isn’t something I or many of us can change, but we can make a conscious effort to be less dismissive, to value the diverse array of skills the human race has to offer, and to seriously consider the lives of others in everything we do. You might have fantastic science going on, but what’s the point if it’s not appealing to the masses? And the only way to do that is to merge science with other parts of life, like art, like media, like philosophy. The only way to do that is with the help of non-scientists. And it’s time to wake up to that.