Science’s Need for Humanities

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Recently, renowned astrophysicist and science educator Neil deGrasse Tyson wondered out loud — in 120 characters — how partisan politics could easily transform “skepticism into obstinance.” Tyson’s diagnosis was that schools have failed to teach students critical thinking skills, which, in part, has created our world of alternative facts and echo chambers.

Was Tyson dismissing the academic departments that teach exactly the skills he bemoaned in his tweet: Anthropology, Political Science, English, History — most, if not all, of the humanities programs out there?

If he was, Tyson is hardly the first person to diss the humanities. An overused argument against pursuing a humanities degree is to “do the math” and consider the economic outlook, even though graduates of commonly-perceived low-paying fields end up doing pretty well in the long run. Politicians have also long paddled the narrative that somehow there is a dichotomy between science and the humanities. Who could forget Marco Rubio’s infamous quib, “we need more welders and less philosophers,” or recall the time Justin Trudeau showed off his education degree — when he’s not flexing his brain on quantum computing?

And why not? Smartphones today are more powerful than the room-sized supercomputers of the 90s. We sequenced the entire human genome, the source code for life, a decade and half ago. Artificial intelligence is present in everyday life, curating your Facebook feed and making autonomous vehicles a reality. There certainly seems to be a strong case to ditch the humanities and push full STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) ahead, at least on the surface.

The humanities, in its slower and more deliberative approach, seeks to explain the human and societal impact — the “why” in an equation

But it’s precisely because science has advanced so rapidly that we need the humanities more now than ever. I know — being a student of biology and engineering — how many ethical and moral questions remained unanswered with the advent of gene editing tools such as CRISPR 9, not to mention the economic inequality this technology would unleash.

Or imagine if we were told, as psychologist Jean Twenge astutely observed in her September piece for the Atlantic magazine, that smartphones would lead to a skyrocketing of rates of depression and suicide, bringing upon “the worst mental-health crisis in decades.” Would we have so readily embraced the iPhone back in 2007?

It is becoming increasingly clear that when technology advances drastically faster than our understanding of the human experience, the consequences can be devastating. This is because science is in the business of knowing how the process works, whereas the humanities, in its slower and more deliberative approach, seeks to explain the human and societal impact — the “why” in an equation.

If Tyson was making a broader critique on how our education system has divided us into seemingly mutually exclusive camps, he’s right. At McGill’s engineering program, students can only afford to take one or two electives in the humanities, which should immediately raise alarm. Imagine civil engineers, who are tasked with designing and maintaining tomorrow’s infrastructure, with no idea on how gentrification might affect the neighbourhood they’re building in, or scientists doing animal experimentation without reading the works of Peter Singer.

Our technological advancements would not be possible without the element of creativity

Lastly, our technological advancements would not be possible without the element of creativity. Science education, which emphasizes linear and computational thinking, could learn a thing or two in this respect from humanities.

German author Johann Wolfgang von Goethe once wrote that “he who cannot draw on three thousand years is living from hand to mouth”. Scientists and mathematicians who have made modern technology possible — Archimedes, Pythagoras, Pascal, Leibniz, LaPlace, to name a few — would be rolling in their graves if they were told to focus solely on the sciences and ignore the arts. Maybe it’s time we once again learn from them.

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