Art vs science

A facile and dangerous debate.

In an increasingly technological world, the primacy of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (the so-called STEM disciplines) is a common narrative. As a student, you will inevitably come across a discussion where STEM degrees are held above others. STEM is usually elevated above the rest of the pack based on things like earning potential, job security, and (perhaps most hubristically) its cumulative contribution to society. The question implied, and often explicitly asked, is what value does a non-STEM degree have in the modern age? Often, it’s the Arts or Humanities that serve as the point of comparison:

“What value is an Art History degree compared to an Engineering one? You earn less, and there are far less relevant jobs. Meanwhile, engineers make a good living, and can find jobs building bridges, artificial limbs, planes, and countless other things that actually benefit society. Why would you study that?”

There are many good answers to this kind of question and this line of reasoning. Firstly, it is important to stress the dangers of binary thinking. The “Art vs. Science” debate is based on a fallacy. Known as a “false dichotomy,” this fallacy pretends that we must decide between the two – that there is only space for one discipline.

Of course, this isn’t the case – it’s like offering someone a glass of water and telling them to only drink the hydrogen atoms. STEM and Humanities are inseparable components of something larger – human knowledge – and have co-existed, often complimenting each other in profound ways, all throughout the course of our history. In the early days there wasn’t even a distinction between the two. The Ancient Greeks, for example, saw scientific and artistic pursuits as two sides of the same coin.

Another good defence of the Arts draws on its incredible ability to reach us, touch us, and change us in ways that STEM sometimes struggles to. To me, there is no better example of this than music, and no better words said on this matter than those of Karl Paulnack, pianist and director of music at the Boston Conservatory.

Delivering a welcome address to first year students and their parents, Paulnack’s speech is the finest defence of music’s importance that I’ve ever read, and one of my all-time favourite speeches. With great passion and humanity, Paulnack argues convincingly that musicians have jobs as relevant and important as paramedics.

So many sustainability challenges may present as ecological or environmental problems, and yet they are also driven by cultural forces.

“If we were a medical school, and you were here as a med student practicing appendectomies, you’d take your work very seriously because you would imagine that some night at 2 AM someone is going to waltz into your emergency room and you’re going to have to save their life. Well, my friends, someday at 8 PM someone is going to walk into your concert hall and bring you a mind that is confused, a heart that is overwhelmed, a soul that is weary. Whether they go out whole again will depend partly on how well you do your craft.”

This is an unusual, perhaps even contentious, notion. Paulnack believes that the Arts, and music specifically, has the power to save humanity, and indeed, to save the planet itself.

Can the Arts help save the planet?

It just so happens that I study sustainability, which is all about saving the planet and its inhabitants. A good part of that study involves scientific and mathematical observations of environmental problems, often paired technology and engineering solutions – the full STEM experience. The relevance of STEM in this kind of work is so fundamental and pervasive that it doesn’t really need to be stated. It is necessary at a very basic level.  

To my surprise, however, I’ve discovered just how right Paulnack and others making his arguments are. So many sustainability challenges may present as ecological or environmental problems, and yet they are also driven by cultural forces.

Increasingly, we are seeing these challenges taken on by multidisciplinary teams that bring environmental scientists together with historians, sociologists, and experts from other disciplines that can help us navigate the more abstract and unquantifiable; ideas like culture, heritage, equality, justice, and so on.

Take Kosciuszko National Park, for example. We have what presents as an environmental problem: there are too many feral horses in the park, and they are causing widespread, unsustainable damage. Environmental scientists have already identified the most effective solutions, such as shooting the horses from helicopters (aerial culling) but are met with resistance to that idea largely for cultural reasons.

… it’s important for the Arts and Humanities students to accept humility at times, and recognise that for many problems, STEM represents our brightest hope of a solution.

The feral horse, as you might know, is also known as the Brumby. The idea of the noble, wild Brumby has been enshrined into the Australian national identity through historically important works like Banjo Patterson’s “The Man from Snowy River”. The Australian ten-dollar note, for example, features scenes from the poem.

To address this ecological problem, we also need to address cultural issues. We can’t just murder every single horse from a helicopter, even if that might be the most ecologically responsible thing to do. The horses are deeply associated with this region. They have become a beloved icon to many people, and at times even a source of interest to some tourists.  

Recognising this, the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service takes an approach that goes beyond purely environmental considerations and STEM solutions. Many sections of their wild horse management plans deal extensively with issues like cultural heritage. This is not a problem STEM can solve on its own. To put it overly simply, if a poet helped cause this problem, perhaps another poet can help fix it.

This example also shows something else of importance: as stated earlier, the relevance of STEM to many issues is abundantly clear. The importance of culture and other abstract ideas, however, tends to be far more hidden and invisible. I often wonder if, perhaps, this dynamic doesn’t help explain this tension between the two. We have two fields of knowledge that can be equally useful, and equally relevant, yet the way that utility and relevance presents is vastly different.

Context is everything: Not all disciplines are equal all the time.

Of course, that issue of relevance and utility depends on context to a massive degree. We can’t use poets, or music for that matter, to directly fix some problems. A song won’t help us physically remove pollution from the environment. STEM isn’t just fundamentally important to sustainability challenges, sometimes it’s literally all we have. Additionally, it’s important for the Arts and Humanities students to accept humility at times, and recognise that for many problems, STEM represents our brightest hope of a solution.  

An example of STEM’s dominance at times could be the issue of meat consumption. Attempts to shift culture away from meat consumption are perhaps successful at smaller scales, but the global upward trend in consumption has not abated. Veganism, for example, represents an individual change within a structure that perpetuates norms around meat consumption. Although the individual may change, the structural forces largely do not, making change difficult, slow, and low-impact / low-scale (exactly what veganism has been historically).

By contrast, cellular agriculture – the growing of “lab made meat” – promises to change the system around the individual, making change far more likely, far more rapid, and with a far greater scale and impact. I suspect within just ten years the global culture around meat consumption will have been dramatically transformed by the widespread adoption of lab-grown meat.

STEM can, quite obviously, save the planet too. The transformational power of STEM is evidenced throughout human history; the telephone, the radio, the television, and the internet are all STEM advancements that profoundly reshaped human culture.

Two sides of the same coin

When it comes to sustainability, it becomes hard to disentangle the cultural from the ecological, or as the Ancient Greeks framed it, the scientific from the artistic. They really are two sides of the same coin. When looking at future challenges and opportunities for our species, potentially any discipline is relevant. One key challenge therefore lies in finding as many ideas as possible, and then prioritising them. Under this kind of approach, you become far more hesitant to disregard contributions, regardless of the discipline they originate from.

So long as it doesn’t lead to narrow thinking when it comes to humanity’s biggest challenges, I don’t care too much about the broader STEM vs. Humanities debate. Some competition between the two may even be healthy. At the same time, however, I hope that in a world increasingly filled with narratives of STEM’s dominance, that people will see those narratives for what they are: fallacious, facile, and even dangerous to our species’ continued survival.

Nick Blood studies a Bachelor of Interdisciplinary Studies (Sustainability) Advanced (Honours) at Australian National University.

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