When Art And Science Collide

As a student of design, I am often intrigued when scientific disciplines face pressure for not being sufficiently scientific. There is a great deal of prestige for professions and fields of inquiry to be thought of as scientific, and a corresponding lack of prestige when areas of study that seek to be viewed as a science are instead viewed as being art. In one sense, all science depends on interpretation (whether it is considered analysis or viewed as interpretation), and all science depends on art, the skill of designing experiments or methods and verifying results and the skill of separating signal from noise. No doubt these are unpopular conclusions, as there are strong elements within many fields (including fields like history) that desire the respectability and reputation that come from being thought of as scientific, and do not wish to be slandered as forms of art.

In many ways, art gets a bad name. While I am not a particular fan of artifice and guile, probably since I’m not well suited to the arts of guile and deception by either temperament or belief system, art itself has always been synonymous with the sort of skill that takes time to develop. Whether we are talking about the skill of working with paints or words or materials that provides not only for utilitarian purposes but also for adornment and beauty, or we are talking about the skill that is necessary for something to work elegantly and efficiently rather than merely get the job done at a minimal level, there is an art involved in all human activities. Why not simply admire art and appreciate it, rather than seek to deny its importance or insist that everything must be viewed strictly as a science with no appreciation of the role or importance of art whatsoever.

As a undergraduate who minored in history (along with majoring in civil engineering), one of the more humorous and consistent issues I found in history was the fact that so many professors sought the legitimacy of history by painting it as a science. The thinking of many in history is that through the careful examination of statistics and other forms of data that the viewpoint of history as mere art and narrative (mere story, that is) could be replaced with history being seen as prestigious on mathematical grounds. As much as I appreciate science on its own terms and within its own limits and boundaries, I am deeply troubled by the scientism that suggests that only science and fields that are conducted in scientific ways are worthy of respect and honor. Science is but one small part of the world in which we live, and not even the central or most important part, but merely a technical handmaiden of more serious and more weighty concerns of truth and morality and ethics.

Even fields like forensics often find that their prestige depends on the scientific rigor that they are conducted in. Despite the serious interpretive skill that it takes to do a job like forensics well, all too often the art that is necessary to engage in forensics is ignored by people seeking to use technology to bypass human decision-making processes. However, that technology and its use merely requires a greater form of art (i.e. skill), and still requires human beings to make decisions and inferences and judgments. As long as human beings will be drawing conclusions, art and interpretation will be involved and will be inescapable. We may as well seek to educate people to judge and infer wisely rather than unwisely, instead of seeking to denigrate all interpretations and judgments (which forces people to engage in intellectual dishonesty when presenting their own judgments and inferences as being scientific in nature when it is no more privileged than the rest of humanity, except insofar as it is based on better information, often a dubious matter).

Better yet, we ought to cease pitting art and science as opposites as if one could be separate from another. Art itself depends on scientific matters, whether we are dealing with the laws of physics or the properties of materials, and art can be improved with a sound knowledge of the mediums of sound or color or light or material, depending on one’s artistic endeavors. We ought to celebrate the advances on art that can be attained through science and technology, especially insofar as they help us to create and appreciate beauty. Likewise, we ought to understand that every aspect of science depends also on art, whether it is the skill to design experiments and methods of information gathering or the skill to properly interpret the data and results one gets from one’s investigations. We ought to be able to appreciate the elegance of well-made computer code, or of rhetorical excellence in a scientific paper, or of beauty expressed in the truths of mathematics. Instead of seeing art and science as rivals or opponents, or even entirely separate areas of study, we ought to recognize the role of both in making our world a better place, and appreciating the value that all areas of human inquiry and activity provide to our quality of life.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in History, Musings and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to When Art And Science Collide

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