Time to let off some STEAM

Last week, the psychologist and author Steven Pinker published a lengthy article in The Chronicle of Higher Education called ‘The Intellectual War on Science’. In it, he discusses at some length the vilification of science in the popular press, and indeed in university training (he’s primarily talking about the USA, as far as I can tell), and then sets out his ideal of the future: the humanities disciplines becoming more infused with scientific modelling and thinking in order to enrich them, drag them out of their post-modern slump, and forge a future in which the ‘two cultures’ (as C.P. Snow famously described them in the late 1950s) become one.

I found out about this piece as a result of someone shouting loudly, and very angrily, about it on Twitter. Of course, he said, of course the scientists think the arts should be more like them. Because they think they’re the best and arts are wishy-washy nonsense. And whilst I’ve never spoken to a scientist who has put this argument to me in those terms, the way in which certain branches of science and certain branches of humanities are treated by the press, government and big business can seem to reinforce that perspective. Now, I can only really comment on the situation in the UK. But as far as I understand it, and from my own experience in HE, it goes something like this:

  1. Research must be measured in all subjects. Thus there must be something to measure: in terms of quality, output, reach, impact of research, etc. Also, metrics could be employed here. These are all devices which are more applicable to scientific research than humanities research.
  2. A number of scholars rightly point out that ‘good’ research is not the same as ‘research that is widely shared’ because that is the equivalent of saying that something is high quality only if it is utilitarian.
  3. The system of research assessment – on which university funding depends – comes up with various systems of measuring research outputs which still contains elements of impact, citations, etc. which, even if they do not overall act as biased against humanities subjects, have not been persuasively proven not to be so biased.
  4. Scientists turn up offering to collaborate with humanities departments and, since humanities departments already feel like their researchers are being kicked in the teeth for just being humanities departments, are left feeling even more bereft when science-art funding seems to appear with far greater ease, and brings far more prestige, than the straightforward humanities research they’ve previously been doing. Not entirely surprisingly, this lowers morale yet further within humanities departments.

Now, this all goes back to the question, really, of why we do research, what research counts as ‘valid’ (not to mention what we classify as ‘research’ in the first place), and then what research we can give money to. It is far easier to come up with a sales pitch for funding a new medicine than it is for producing a critical edition of a Josquin mass, because the former has far more obvious benefit to far more people than the latter – which is a utilitarian approach to doling out funding. If, however, you are a professional singer who regularly performs Josquin masses, the latter will also be pretty handy. It is, I would suggest, due to this kind of thinking that humanities research (broadly speaking) finds itself increasingly under threat whilst scientific research (broadly speaking) can track available funders more easily.

A scientist in a lab creating a smoke clouad

But I said ‘broadly speaking’ for a reason. I would imagine that the extreme edge of theoretical physics or mathematics struggle to find funders in comparison with their counterparts in Alzheimers research. Similarly, there are bound to be cases of humanities research which are well-funded in comparison with Josquin editing. Making broad statements about entire categories of knowledge in this way is not particularly helpful and has led to the kind of ‘us’ and ‘them’ culture that Pinker describes. According to Pinker and those he’s spoken to, it’s the politicians, lawyers and arts majors who are causing trouble by being in charge… as if someone who did an arts major is somehow incapable of appreciating scientific thought. Similarly, Ben Goldacre takes several potshots in his brilliant Bad Science at humanities majors working as journalists. The humanities people are ignorant, the scientists maligned. That is an argument which helps no one.

I’d also question whether or not school education ever involved the kind of critical debate and problem solving skills that Pinker quite rightly (in my opinion, anyway) thinks that all young people should learn. I learned how to think in such ways at university – on a music degree, gasp! – though I’d argue that this sort of thinking needs to affect school policies as much as changes at degree level. Similarly, British schooling is miles behind on incorporating up-to-date IT and programming skills into its syllabuses. On the other hand, its government is so hell-bent on getting kids to do well in STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) that it is consequently killing interest in, and funding for, humanities.

What we need is a conversation. Lots of conversations, in fact. Lots of conversations between the group we like to call scientists, and those we call humanities researchers. They are both doing valuable things, and occasionally they are both doing baffling and apparently pointless things. They are both trying to understand the world. They are both able to offer valuable approaches, methods, information to the next generation. STEAM, therefore – all that stuff I spelled out above with ‘Arts’ in the mix as well – is what we could all do with. If we had that – if we actually collaborated – we could sort out the funding models across subjects. We could persuade the people who help set up what Pinker rightly praises, those wonderful Digital Humanities projects, that funding models need to be sustainable and not simply cover the set-up and then expect the things to magically run themselves for free. And we could even treat the lessons of history with the kind of subtle, nuanced approach that Pinker also advocates in all subjects and discussions. Even though he then draws a direct line from Wagner to Hitler, as if no one else in the nineteenth century but Wagner was anti-Semitic, and correlation/causation is that simple. It seems we still have a lot to teach each other.

A little girl in goggles painting a volcano model

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