‘Science’ and ‘arts’: should we play in each other’s fields a bit more?

I find science and maths a real draw.  I often listen to The Life Scientific, Material World and More or Less podcasts ahead of more predictable favourites Making History, The Long View and History Today (though maybe not Friday Night Comedy…)

It was interesting to hear the recent  interview on TLS with Sunetra Gupta, novelist and professor of theoretical epidemiology, in which she refused to recognise a division between science and arts, only different ways to express ideas.

From this perspective, the early commitment of Hatfield Technical College to Liberal Studies seems ahead of its time.  All students were to have 10 per cent of teaching time allocated to subjects such as History, Economics, Politics, Geography and Modern Languages.  It was thought that educating the next generation of engineers and technologists in this balanced way would serve the national interest.  So it was rather fitting that C P Snow became the then Hatfield Polytechnic’s first Visitor in 1972.

The humanities have since come into their own as the institution broadened its scope and the model of reserving time for accessing another ‘culture’ did not survive.  Now it seems an unrealisable ideal – and student choice may be delivering a narrower range of experiences than was imposed in the 1950s.  Would we now be prepared to mandate that all students should take a module a year from different Schools or Departments?  What would be the demands on lecturers or the effects on the ‘home’ students?  What would be the implications for students’ grades?  Then again, if we did do it, what might be the returns?

While academics tend to have a strong sense of disciplinary identity, many of us also have an inclination for greater integration of different ways of expressing ideas.  And these may well currently be manifested only in podcast preferences.

But there is often more than unites than divides us.  I often find Alice Bell’s blog Through The Looking Glass setting off some mental sparks and work aligning scientific and historical method has proved hugely interesting and useful. The case for interdisciplinarity between ‘science’ and ‘arts’ in meeting some of the biggest challenges we face, such as climate change or an ageing society, is now being made in stronger terms. But how often do we actually bridge the divide? Or if we do, do we tend to contribute to the greater whole from our respective positions as specialists in our disciplines, rather than getting to ‘play in each other’s fields’?

Public philosophy 2: experts and climate change

Once we accept the expert authority of climate science, we have no basis for supporting the minority position.

So argues Gary Gutting, a professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, in ‘The Stone’, a forum within the New York Times Opinionator section for contemporary philosophy ‘on issues both timely and timeless’.  In essence, he’s doing some public philosophy, applying ‘critical thinking to information and events that have appeared in the news.’

His position is based on the ‘logic of appeals to the authority of experts’.  If we accept who the experts are on a particular topic, and that our own status as non-experts excludes us from adjudicating disputes among said experts, then we must also recognise that we have no basis for rejecting the truth of any claim that is backed by a strong consensus within that community.

In the case of climate change, neither the existence of an expert academic field of climate science nor that of a strong consensus that human activities are causing the planet to warm can be challenged.  So, argues Gutting, the only way a non-expert can legitimately challenge climate change is by proposing that climate science ‘lacks the scientific status needed to be taken seriously in our debates about public policy’.  In passing, he notes that such a critique – though unlikely to find much traction in the case of climate science – may well prove more promising for ‘various sub-disciplines of the social sciences’.

Let’s say we accept this, but we then arrive at a problem.  How does expert knowledge translate into policy?  What is its role?  As Gutting acknowledges, scientific conclusions don’t have absolute authority in democratic debates, though his reasoning is based on logic rather than questions of accountability, that is, the fact of global warming is exists separate from and therefore doesn’t imply any particular policy response to that fact.

This is a sequential model – the experts generate consensus then effectively turn the body of knowledge over to ‘us’ to make the value judgements their science cannot and formulate policy accordingly.  I’m not sure even in the so-called ‘hard’ sciences that it works like this, but even if it does, the process of policymaking is itself one that calls for forms of expertise.  Returning to climate change, the importance of people’s behaviour, their beliefs, practices and ways of making meaning of their lives, is being increasingly discussed.  Once we get into the humanities and social sciences, the disciplines with much to offer in this dimension, we get into highly contested debates, we lose the consensus to which Gutting refers.

But rather than seeing this as a problem (where a perceived lack of scientific status leads to a lesser status in policy debates), can we instead recognise a process to which these forms of expertise have distinctive and important contributions to make?  Can the lack of consensus be productive?  Policymaking involves reconciling interests, beliefs and evidence that sometimes overlap, sometimes conflict.  It involves holding in mind at the same time different levels of human organisation and considering how those levels interact, how policy might affect that interaction.  It’s conditioned by institutions, with all their complexity of structures and relationships.  It’s many other things besides, but as a process it could surely benefit from forms of expertise that fundamentally engage with those kind of issues.  A sequential model has its attractions, but the role of expertise in policymaking isn’t that simple, because policymaking isn’t simple.  Question is, can the humanities and social sciences turn complexity and lack of consensus into a strength?

Tackling belief is the key to overcoming climate change scepticism

Adam Corner’s great piece today on Guardian.co.uk (via @alicebell) highlights the importance of belief in determining people’s position on climate change.  For me, this opens up debate on a vital role for the humanities:

…we should not be looking to science to provide us with the answer to a problem that is social in nature. The challenge is to find a way of explaining why climate change matters using language and ideas that don’t alienate people. Simply repeating the scientific case for climate change is – unfortunately – not going to cut it.

In fact, the more we know, the less it seems that climate change scepticism has to do with climate science at all. Climate change provokes such visceral arguments because it allows ancient battles – about personal responsibility, state intervention, the regulation of industry, the distribution of resources and wealth, or the role of technologies in society – to be fought all over again.

The last sentence is particularly resonant :

It follows that the answer to overcoming climate change scepticism is to stop reiterating the science, and start engaging with what climate change scepticism is really about – competing visions of how people see the world, and what they want the future to be like.

Humanities and sciences: making common cause

In September, the first cohort of Master’s students in environmental sciences and humanities will be starting at the University of East Anglia.  According to Mike Hulme, Professor of climate change at UEA, the programme aims to ‘fulfil a need to move the environmental debate beyond science’, based on the recognition that ‘science alone cannot motivate social change’.

In emphasising interdisciplinarity and orienting itself around a central theme, such an innovation in programme design is a natural development from research strategies that have come to be configured around ‘grand challenges’.  UCL have four such challenge areas: global health, sustainable cities, intercultural interaction and human wellbeing.  Coventry identify 6 ‘challenges to change the world’: integrated transport and logistics, digital media, ageing community, low impact buildings, sustainable agriculture and food, and low carbon vehicles.  A quick Google search will reveal many other examples in the UK higher education sector and beyond.

It’s an intellectually exciting way of thinking about research and innovation.  It speaks well to audiences outside academe, including policymakers and politicians, and aligns with funding strategies that look for collaboration, cross-over and impact.

Responding to the grand challenges means bringing different discipline areas together.   Science, technology, engineering, design, psychology often have readily identifiable roles, but how far has the potential of the humanities been considered?  The recognition of the importance of people’s ‘stories and beliefs about their own lives and about the planet’ at the heart of the UEA programme is a welcome one, and suggests there is much as yet unrealised potential for integrating the humanities into how we approach the major issues of the modern world.

Low carbon pasts, low carbon futures is a project at the University of Hertfordshire that is looking to explore that potential.  This is what it’s about:

Climate change is a global issue by nature, but it is also a local one.  We may expect to be internationally connected – at least through the Internet and social media if not also through travel – but the quality of our lives is largely about the places in which we live and work.  We know that we need to find low carbon futures for those places, futures that combine economic health and social wellbeing.  But to do that, we need to start asking some different questions.  We need to ask about how communities actually work, bringing in the important insights of urbanism and place shaping.  And because credible responses to climate change adaptation and mitigation must involve changing human behaviour, we need to ask about how human beings interact with their places.  This means drawing on the rich evidence that history offers us of how we have shaped and re-shaped our material worlds, and our understandings of those worlds.  If we want to imagine low-carbon futures, we must first understand low-carbon pasts.

I set it up with Sarah Lloyd, Senior Lecturer in History, and Susan Parham, Head of Urbanism, with whom I’m also presenting a paper, Living heritage: Universities as anchor institutions in sustainable communities, at the Heritage 2012 conference in Porto.  This work is at an early stage so we’d welcome ideas and discussion on the ways in which history can contribute to debates around sustainability but also more broadly on the potential for humanities to inform and help shape inter- and multi-disciplinary approaches to research, development, innovation – and teaching.