Friday, June 29, 2012

Science, Humanities: Can't We All Get Along?

See image credits below*
The image at right has been wandering around the interwebz lately, and I must admit, on first glance, I kinda liked it.  Many of us humanities types are feeling a bit beleaguered lately, what with stagnant salaries; and an increasing tendency to equate "contributing to the mission of the university" with bringing in outside grants, and rumors that Teresa Sullivan was fired (before she was rehired) for not eliminating "obscure programs such as Classics and German" (these rumors may or may not be true, just as it may or may not be true that such programs, even if lightly enrolled, cost the university any substantial amount of money, since they're cheap to teach, and, what's more, at least in the case of UVA, include some endowed chairs; the main point here is that the rumors sounded all too plausible to many humanists).  From that point of view, anything that points out that the humanities can have value, even for those who major in science, is welcome.

But I also realize that there are major problems with the assumptions underlying the image's message, starting with the implications that scientists could not  figure out by themselves whether a particular project would be a good idea, and would not, left to themselves, be inclined to do so.  It seems to me that many scientists do very good modeling/predictive work, and have pretty well-functioning ethical/moral compasses to boot, with or without formal training in ethics, philosophy, or the like.  At the same time, I'm pretty sure that formal ethical/philosophical thinking can inform decisions about what scientific research is and isn't appropriate, and why, and that a knowledge of history (Nazi Germany, Tuskegee, the (literal) fallout from early atomic experiments, etc.), literature (a wonderful playground for tossing around "what if"s,, and understanding the vagaries of human nature), psychology, sociology, etc., etc. can be useful for scientists of various sorts.  Besides, as Luke Maciak (from whom I borrowed this copy of the image, and who provides some useful additional critique of it) points out, cloning a dinosaur might not even be a bad, or at least not a disastrous, idea, under the right conditions. 

Honestly, I don't think the sciences and humanities are at war.  In fact, the competition between the two disciplines (broadly defined)  that this image reflects, and helps to perpetuate, may be a sign that we're fighting with each other while our aspiring corporate overlords (who have no more respect for science that has no immediate profit-making purpose than they have for humanists who are not currently engaged in writing press releases, ad copy, and/or incomprehensible legal disclaimers) rub their hands in glee.

So, I dunno. Maybe this is sort of a late thirsty, or maybe it's just a reflection.  At least where I am, it's way too hot to fight, and, as I point out above, I think we'd be stupid to do so anyway.  But further reflections, comments, etc., are welcome below.

*Original image created by Rachel Leiker for the University of Utah College of Humanities. Color shift for CM courtesy of Leslie K.

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