HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

THEMETHATISME has sent in a link through to an excellent article at THE GUARDIAN by George Monbiot. It's about the chasm between science and the humanities and, ultimately, between science and "the rest of the world."

The author sees this as an increasingly widening and increasingly dangerous academic vacuum that is seriously damaging scientific progress and turning those not trained in scientific method into confused Luddites totally uninterested in a subject that now impinges on every aspect of their daily lives. On the one hand this leads to science being poorly supported by both the public and their governments and, on the other hand, to scientific arrogance and isolationism that can border on intellectual fascism.

I agree entirely with Monbiot's diagnosis and prognosis, but from the opposite camp to where he comes from. I can understand how annoyed and frustrated scientists must get when idiot, flat-earth religionists and deranged conspiracy theorists bog them down in pointless arguments which drain their resources and energy and slow down the scientific enterprise that could lead to benefits for all humankind, including those whose head-in-the-sand attitudes are causing the problems. But, I also, as an artist and philosopher, with a fervent interest in many areas of scientific knowledge, get really pissed off with the arrogance of many scientists and their refusal to listen to voices from outside their academic discipline.

People who think seriously about scientific matters without the constraints of scientific methodology can give much to the scientific community. It is very unlikely that I, as an art based thinker, would have ever come up with the theory of evolution. It is also very unlikely that an evolutionary scientist would perceive, like I do, that there is something obviously missing from current theories, especially in respect of evolution through natural selection. Now, I admit that I may be barking up the wrong tree (as all good philosophers have to in respect of all their ideas). But, the scientific community's refusal to even listen to the questions philosophers raise concerning science can hold up scientific progress just as effectively as a whole state load of creationist Southern Baptists. Furthermore, as so often is the case, science can end up being proved wrong and have egg all over its face, when a bit of humility would have avoided such embarrassment. Scientists will claim, when they have to publicly renounce previous assertions that every claim in science is always tentative. But you only have to read Dicky Dorkins' on evolutionary theory to see that in reality scientists are as quick to make truth claims based on insufficient evidence as everybody else.

The answer lies in the classroom. At my senior school we were made to choose between arts or science at the age of fourteen. That sort of compartmentalising of academic interest has to stop, right up to, and including, university level education. We need to return to the golden age of universities when the hallowed halls were truly places of universal knowledge, but within the more egalitarian context of our modern world. We need to encourage a new renaissance thinking among our students and in ourselves, whatever our natural academic bias. Universities should be opened up to the public and students should be allowed, and actively encouraged, to attend lectures on subjects of absolutely no benefit to their degree, simply for the love of knowledge. All educationists should read J.Henry Newman's "Idea Of A University," which, in my opinion, was his finest piece of philosophical work.

Above all, governments should tell big business to take a hike and should base the promotion of education on the acquisition of knowledge for its own sake and not on what will provide the best returns for the multinational companies whose wealth is dependent on the slogging away of legions of uncreative lab technicians and bought academics. Of course, such an attitude would more than likely end up with bigger profits for these companies as employees who can think for themselves and ask pertinent questions come up with really useful discoveries and inventions much more often, and more speedily, than culturally impaired, blinkered technicians.

POSTSCRIPT: All the above claims about scientists can, with only a small adjustment in context, be reversed to apply to artists and philosophers.

Comments

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED — 20 Comments

  1. MP,

    I shall go read the article but first an anecdote. I am majoring in Humanities at my university. For a class I am doing a paper on uranium mining in Arizona. I phoned the department of mines for info. The engineer was surprised to learn that, indeed, the Humanities cover sciences as well! At least in my university.
    Brenda

    Oh, and yes to everything you said!

  2. It’s getting a bit better now, you can take a mix of science and humanities at A’Level.
    But only studying 4 subjects to A’Level is still the main problem.

    I don’t want to praise the German system here, there’s a lot wrong with it! But we had to study 10 subject to A’Level, with special emphasis on 4. Those 4 had to include a science and a language. And you couldn’t drop maths either.

    The downside is that we entered university with a huge knowledge gap in your chosen subject compared to our British friends and that university courses are on average 2-3 years longer.

    The upside is that there is a lot less polarisaion than there seems to be in Britain. I notice it especially in the religious debate where deeply unscientific nonsense about gay people has little currency and where creationism is barely heard of.

  3. There is also a v.good series on BBC 4 at the moment ‘Beautiful Minds’ which is considering such things. The first programme was on Wednesday, all about Jocelyn Bell Burnell, on of my personal heroes. ( I know she doesn’t look much like Xena but that 60’s thing!!!) Brilliant programme, including how she was stiffed by the male establishment and the good grace with which she dealt with that.

    UK based bloggers can see the programme on iplayer.

    “Scientists should never claim that something is absolutley true, you should never claim perfect or total or 100% because you never ever get there. If we assume we’ve arrived, we stop searching. We stop developing.”

  4. I like the article in general and agree with Mr. Monbiots call to break down the walls of specialist enclaves and attempt to bridge the divide between the science and humanities.

    One point to make is that science is done by scientists who are, despite best efforts, human. They make mistakes and they are intensely territorial about their subjects. Peer-reviewed journals are used to ensure a level of scientific rigour, but also a level of orthodoxy. This was brought out in the infamous emails, but anyone who has been ‘in’ science can point to that.

    As a student of history, all too often personalities drive policy and the Self spurs science. Just ask Arthur Wegener, Barry Marshall, Elaine Morgan or Jocelyn Bell to name just a few.

  5. But that’s the whole point, Tim. Scientists are only human like the rest of us (except Grandmère Mimi who is part she-wolf). Unfortunately, all the peer review stuff and hallowed scientific method leads to many of them forgetting this from time to time. Of course, so do artists. But somebody being wrong about the underlying themes in “Pride and Prejudice” is not as worrying for humankind as somebody being wrong about the side effects of thalidomide or the safety of DDT.

  6. “We need to return to the golden age of universities when the hallowed halls were truly places of universal knowledge…”

    Right you are. I count myself very fortunate that, even though my undergraduate work was in music, my college required a liberal arts education for everyone regardless of major. But then I began university in 1967. I don’t think the requirement is true any more at my alma mater.

    And I completely agree with you about Newman’s Idea of a University.

  7. The US system does not force specialization at an early age. You know how Oxbridge gives students an MA for 50 quid, 5 years after matriculation? they really DO have the equivalent of a Master’s compared to US students. On the other hand, we have space for more breadth. I was able to do a double BA degree in science and literature at a top US university before doing my PhD in science. I do bridge those “two cultures”, very happily.

    Maddy, you are focused on evolution with a “why” type question; that’s philosophy. But most science isn’t those Big Questions, it’s littler questions, like how cells repair their DNA, or something like that. So your generalizations I don’t think work for people like me.

    From the article: But science happens to be the closed world with one of the most effective forms of self-regulation: the peer review process. It is also intensely competitive, and the competition consists of seeking to knock each other down.

    At the highest levels, this is true. I could write an entire essay on the structure of science, which is a tournament model of success: one winner, the rest losers. I started my career at a Very Famous Place and was intensely miserable amidst the who-can-pee-highest mentality of my colleagues. The struggle to be well-regarded amongst a small group of largely very unpleasant people wore me out. there was no reward for caring for PhD and postdoctoral students and educating them, just a relentless “if you don’t publish in Cell Science and Nature you are worthless scum” message.

    Thankfully I met and fell in love with BP so life got something to it other than science. And then I changed institutions.

    I do solid work, but it’s not flashy enough for the Big Three journals. I sometimes regret that, in a “I coulda beena contenda” way. My name will never wind up in a textbook and my only legacy will be the students I trained.

    Sigh.

  8. No, it’s not a “why” question, IT.

    It’s a question about the mechanics of evolution. I think there is another, important component in the mechanics of how things change (and not just in evolution) that scientists are refusing to even look for. I think this might be a really big thing that is part of why the universe is as it is in the same way as the Higgs Boson might be.

  9. The mechanics of how things change–well, the awesome fidelity of DNA replication is not perfect. It creates random mutations at a low but detectable rate (about 1 in 10^6 per base pair). many of these mutations are silent; some a deleterious, a few are beneficial.

    What’s so hard about that?

  10. I’m on about something extra. Not something that replaces what we have already discovered. I just think that what we have discovered is not enough when we are talking about major change in a small number over a short period of time (like 50 million years for example). The problem is that scientists never ask more questions than they think they need to and will too often accept what possibly could be only a partial answer as a complete answer.

  11. We need to return to the golden age of universities when the hallowed halls were truly places of universal knowledge, but within the more egalitarian context of our modern world. We need to encourage a new renaissance thinking among our students and in ourselves, whatever our natural academic bias.

    Hear, hear!

    …but much of the first part of your essay left me going “Who pee’d in Crazy Arse’s wheetabix [or whatever Brits eat for breakfast cereal] NOW?”

    It is also very unlikely that an evolutionary scientist would perceive, like I do, that there is something obviously missing from current theories, especially in respect of evolution through natural selection.

    Oh, MP, that ain’t your Artsy-Fartsy-Godly-Schmodly side (all of which I can exceed you in, thank you ;-/). No, that’s your irrascibility: what’s “missing”, is the “Copyright, MadPriest of Newcastle.”

    I turn one little piece of metal inside another little piece of metal . . . and in mere seconds, I’m traveling 60 mph (and on 4 cylinders, no more)! THAT is hard to understand—like there’s “something missing”, like magic, that could make it happen.

    But Evolution Through Natural Selection?! Come (the f@ck) on, man! THAT has SO much proof, is SO “Duh!” at this point (like the humorist at ChinWag recounted ;-p).

    You’ve made this personal: Dickie Dorkins sez “God doesn’t exist”, and suddenly there’s this Big Conspiracy called “SCIENCE!” out to take your job, and ALL clerics’ jobs away. While all clerics’ jobs may, in fact, be taken away (alas: recall that the jury’s still out on whether *I* am called—by God—to be amongst your number), it won’t have been by “SCIENCE!” . . . but will have had a LOT more to do w/ pin-headed clerics who’ve not only denounced “SCIENCE!”, but also things they impute to Science, like “Dey Sez Teh Gay is Born In ‘Em” (when in fact that’s just 99% due to queers like me saying so).

    Dawkins doesn’t equal “Science”, OK? Dawkins doesn’t equal Evolution (which I should hardly have to re-iterate! ;-D). It’s perfectly FINE to go on hating Dawkins (well—except from a Christian POV, of course ;-/), w/o dumping on Science, collectively (which is nothing more, nor less, than all the human brains who’ve ever thought Scientifically. Esp. the half the time, or more, those brains thought incorrectly about something).

    Now MP, get back to curing souls (Dawkins’, IT’s, everybody’s).

    IT, get back to curing cancer.

    Me, I’ll get back reading more (because my Knowing-It-All has to be replenished from time to time!)

    Yes, Xena is Our Hero . . . but recall Gabrielle was her Hero. Here endeth the lesson.

  12. JCF. As usual you underestimate my intelligence and the length of time I’ve been reading stuff on science. It is possible for funny people to have serious thoughts. It’s just that I don’t like to burden my readers with them too often.

    Anyway, you’re risking a lot. When I’m proved right, which I will be, you will have to apologise and that could finish you off at your age.

    And in the last year it has been shown that the standard model of Darwinian evolutionary theory is only a part of how evolution works. I am merely saying that they will discover other things are missing and they will do that a lot quicker if they stop listening to Dorkins and start listening to me.

  13. ” It’s just that I don’t like to burden my readers with them too often.”

    It’s so nice that I don’t have to worry my pretty little head about such things.

  14. And in the last year it has been shown that the standard model of Darwinian evolutionary theory is only a part of how evolution works.

    “it has been shown”: love it.

    Um, *who* did the “showing”, Crazy Arse?

    Now, much as *I* would prefer to meditate in a cave, than titrate DNA samples (yes, I pulled that last clause out of you-know-where), it ain’t the former that was responsible for that which “has been shown.”

    It was SCIENTISTS, using Scientific Method, who showed, yada-yada-yada.

    Every time scientists fill in another blank—a blank that you claim to have intuited was “missing”—that doesn’t mean that YOU, w/ your superior grasp of Biblical theology (we may posit), were the one to have “shown”.

    As far as listening to Dorkins?

    I don’t—and I suspect few working scientists do. Just leave the nutter be, ‘kay? (Quit listening to him, yourself!) He really doesn’t matter a toss.

    [And tell your frenemy Giles Fraser that, too. His latest in the Church Times re “patronizing Lefties” sounds like he’s been listening to YOU too much! ;-p]

  15. Someone tipped me about the CP Snow Two Cultures lecture when I was at high school. I think that their idea was to reassure me that it was fine to be involved in both, and indeed I considered “combination” careers – at one point I was making inquiries about combined graduate degrees in analytical chemistry / materials science, and in art history and art conservation. (I decided I wasn’t politically tough enough for the top flight careers in art conservation and authentication – as museum employee, arse-licking of super-wealthy donors is a major duty – but then another part of the job is telling collectors and museums that they just spent X million on a fake.)

    What I have observed, at an academic medical center, is that a significant percentage of research-minded M.D.s and at least some Ph.D.s are passionate about some “arts” area, whether as an amateur practitioner or as a reader and thinker. Most of these interested people had put aside their interests for several years or decades while learning the basics of the trade, and revisit their interests in mid-career.

    I think that the problem in the US is that education has become so expensive that most students are taking courses that they believe will look good to employers, and are reluctant to take chances with their GPA /ranking by taking courses in disciplines for which they may not have much preparation or known talent. Science majors are reluctant to take history courses, history majors aiming for law school are reluctant to take science courses. Meanwhile the science and engineering-literate patent lawyer is on the way to the bank…

  16. I haven’t mentioned the divine once in this conversation. And I’m fully aware that it was scientists who discovered different ways of evolution. In fact, I haven’t got the foggiest idea what you are ranting on about this time, JCF. You are so far off thread that you appear to have left the planet.

    May I suggest that to avoid making a complete prat of yourself so often, you read the piece you’re commenting on before you comment. And if there are words and/or concepts you don’t understand, why not ask Skittles to explain them to you….. slowly and clearly.