Why science needs the humanities


Foster in Contact, saying "They should have sent a poet"

Foster in Contact, saying “They should have sent a poet”

Earlier this year, Kentucky governor Matt Bevin declared that state colleges and universities should educate more electrical engineers and fewer French literature majors: “All the people in the world that want to study French literature can do so, they are just not going to be subsidized by the taxpayer.”

Other politicians have sounded a similar refrain. Governor Patrick McCroy of North Carolina suggested basing funding on post-graduate employment rather than enrollment, or, as he put it rather crudely, “It’s not based on butts in seats but on how many of those butts can get jobs.” During the primary presidential campaign, Marco Rubio called for more welders and fewer philosophers. Florida Governor Rick Scott proposed steering students (via tuition) to engineering, science, health care and technology, and away from history, philosophy, anthropology and English.

The value of arts and the humanities in today’s economy

It is undeniably true that graduates in STEM fields generally earn higher salaries. 2016 bachelor degrees averaged $64,900 in engineering, $61,300 in computer science, $55,100 in mathematics and other sciences, versus $46,100 in humanities and $34,900 in education. But does everything boil down to money?

In 2013 the Association of American Colleges and Universities issued the results of a survey of 318 employers. 93% of them agreed that “a candidate’s demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems is more important than their undergraduate major.”

More importantly, the skills typically taught in arts and the humanities are exactly those required for combining artistic design with engineering excellence, as needed to differentiate high-value cars, electronic devices and even fashion in today’s crowded marketplace. As Washington Post columnist Fareed Zakaria explains, “Consider America’s vast entertainment industry, built around stories, songs, design and creativity. All of this requires skills far beyond the offerings of a narrow STEM curriculum.”

Apple’s Steve Jobs understood this principle well. As he described it,

It’s in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough—that it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the result that makes our hearts sing.

Scientists need the arts and humanities

Mixing of math, science and the arts is hardly new. Observers have noted for some time that many mathematicians are also accomplished musicians, and persons of mathematical and scientific background are also counted among sculptors and artists.

Modern society today faces many serious challenges, among them poverty, hunger, inequality, climate change, terrorism, crime and racism. Given these tensions, we can no longer afford a three-way war between science, humanities and the general public. Scientists and engineers should study arts and humanities to better understand what it all means to society and humanity. Artists, musicians and writers should learn math, computing and science, not just to gain skills, but also to better participate in dialogue on emerging issues.

After all, in today’s troubled world, modern science and technology is one big bright spot:

  • Computer technology continues to advance at a dizzying pace.
  • We are on the verge of human travel to Mars and beyond.
  • Cures of many previously untreatable diseases and conditions are now within reach.
  • Advances in astronomy may one day soon answer the question of whether we are alone in the Milky Way.
  • We may be on the verge of finding the “final theory” — an elegant set of laws that describes how the universe operates from the big bang to the present day.

We can all share in these exciting developments, which give meaning to human existence and hope for a better future.

So amid all this excitement, why does the public distrust science so much? After all, 40% of Americans do not believe that the Earth (or even the entire universe) is more than a few thousand years old, and the same percentage does not believe in evolution, saying instead that humans have existed in their present form from the beginning of time (see Pew Research study). Similarly, 30% do not accept that the climate is changing, and 52% do not accept that human activity is a key factor in climate change.

Why the hostility? Many fear, with good reason, that advanced technology will steal their jobs. Some question science in the wake of several recent lapses in reproducibility. But for the most part, the public perceives scientists as out of touch with common people, due in part to scientists’ miserable failure to communicate the excitement of modern science to the public. This is one reason why scientists need the arts and humanities — to better communicate the wonder of science to the rest of the world.

Winning the battle, but losing the war

We mathematicians and scientists have been very successful in our battles to make discoveries, analyze data, write journal articles and obtain grants. But we are losing the war for the hearts and minds of the public. What can we do? Here are some suggestions:

  • Start a blog.
  • Visit schools.
  • Give public lectures.
  • Write articles for science news forums.
  • Study creative writing, arts and humanities to sharpen communication skills.
  • Recognize those who do reach out in hiring, promotion, tenure and research funding decisions.
  • Promote interdisciplinary coursework and studies at universities that combine the arts with science, working in synergy rather than in competition or opposition.

In one memorable scene from the movie Contact, Jodi Foster views a galaxy from her spacecraft, and is so overcome with awe that she exclaims, “They should have sent a poet. So beautiful. So beautiful… I had no idea.”

In a similar way, those of us involved in scientific research are often stunned by the beauty and elegance of science and the mathematics behind it, along with the remarkable (and quite mysterious) fact that we humans are able to comprehend these laws through diligent effort.

So why don’t we do more to share this wonder? Why don’t we write some poetry?

[This is reprinted from the Math Scholar blog.]

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