The World Needs More Humanists

Speaking from personal experience, one of the big questions in public outreach for the Sciences is: How do we get more students into STEM? 

The question which seems, unfortunately, to be left unasked is: how many scientists, technologists, engineers and mathematicians do we, as a society, actually need? In relation to the numbers of people in other fields, I mean.

Don’t get me wrong here: I most certainly think that society should have a higher degree of scientific literacy; that 41% of Canadians do not accept the reality of common descent, for example, is a national disgrace on the level of 41% of Canadians being incapable of reading, and I have written before about the intellectual and civic necessity of mathematics education. I also think that it is greatly desirable to increase the overall diversity of the students who choose to go into STEM fields. But in terms of gross numbers of people who choose to become STEM professionals, surely there must be an upper limit somewhere.

Now of course, it’s tempting to answer this question by asking: how many STEM professionals can the market support? Which, I suppose, is a tidy answer, except that it overlooks the fact that, to some extent, we as a society choose the sort of economy that we want. What I’m saying is that scientists, like other Humans, need to eat. As such, most of us will end up researching the things that we can be paid to research*, and since those things are driven by economic considerations, we eventually and inevitably return to the questions of culture; and these are questions which scientists, in general, are not trained to answer–or even to ask. When science is valued exclusively as a hand-maiden of the marketplace, as we see now in Harper’s Canada, scientists become nothing more than techies and functionaries, to the detriment of Science itselfand ultimately, I would argue, to the detriment of society in general. Who will ask the ask the great questions about energy, matter, life and time when we are all expected to work in corporate labs, conducting commercializable research?

It is tempting for scientists to accept the relatively privileged (and lucrative) position that neoliberal ideology has granted us, but it is a trap–and one from which the scientific community is incapable of extricating ourselves. Thankfully, it just so happens that there is an entire community of scholars who are well-trained in asking and answering tough questions about society and culture: I refer, of course, to the Social Sciences and Academic Humanities. That’s right: I am arguing that only the Humanists–people whom my peers have spent decades unjustly maligning–are capable of saving the Sciences.

Our current unhappy situation is the sad result of a society out of balance. In the past few decades, our culture has prioritized commercialism over all other pursuits; as such, Sciences have been elevated–but only as servants of industry–while Humanities (the only ones capable of effectively critiquing the situation) have been devalued. This needs to change. If we as scientists hope ultimately to be anything more than corporate functionaries, we must start appreciating the value of colleagues in the Humanities.


*As has become brutally apparent during the course of my job hunt.

About thevenerablecorvex

I have the heart of a poet, the brain of a theoretical physicist, and the wingspan of an albatross. I am also notable for my humility.
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2 Responses to The World Needs More Humanists

  1. Lindsay says:

    Another post I wish I could “love” rather than merely “like.”

    It’s also important to think about how we could make it easier for scientists to refuse to be part of something they think is unethical — the Manhattan Project is one obvious instance of Science for Evil Ends, and from closer to my own discipline, the US and Russia maintain live cultures of smallpox for no good reason at all. I have a tentative idea that if we were more independent, had an organization of our own and weren’t dependent on whatever corporate or government entity ends up employing us for our livelihoods, that we might find it easier to think critically about whether a given avenue of research ought to be pursued or not. Changing the nature of our governments would help too — if they cared less about maximizing profits and making war, and more about sustainability and quality of life, they wouldn’t always be putting us in positions where we are asked to do things that are morally suspect.

    • A sort of a Scientists’ Guild. I like the idea, but it seems to me that there are enough scientists out there who legitimately consider ethics to be a boring distraction that I’m not really sure that it would work (I’ve met a lot of weapons manufacturers in my day, for example, and while most of them would probably be doing something else if there was money elsewhere, most of them are really just super gung-ho about blowing stuff up, and some of them have even internalized militarist ideologies). I’m also not sure how such a body would be funded.

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