Guest post: Science needs the humanities

Posted By TEU on Mar 1, 2017 |


One week after the TEU’s #lovehumanities day of action, Professor Jack Heinemann from the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Canterbury shares his thoughts on the value humanities add to the sciences.

What is a University? It is the place where a ‘universe of ideas’ lives. If it were a place where only scientists could be found, then I suppose we’d call it a Galaxy. I’d tell my neighbours that I’m a professor at the Galaxy. My friend in Philosophy might work at another Galaxy where only philosophy ideas were found.

Society already has lots of galaxies. The public and private sector are carved into specialist units with highly defined boundaries. You can be a scientist at one of these. There, you will mainly speak with other scientists, and probably seek to find common ways to view and measure the world. That isn’t to say that scientists aren’t diverse. They are just as diverse as people in any other profession.

In the Galaxies, however, they don’t have to be as diverse as they do in the University. Here the expectation is on scholarship. That scholarship should be challenged and informed by those with entirely different points of view, founded in alien professional cultures.

That is why I’ve always wanted to work at a university. While I am a scientist, before that I’m an academic. My whānau is Science, and my hapū is Academia.

I orbit the disciplines of the Humanities (and Arts in general). I can’t escape their intellectual gravity. It pulls at me to achieve higher standards of thought and service to those I teach.

These disciplines not just inspire and stimulate me, they cause me to perceive things differently. I can ask a different kind of question in my science than I otherwise could have asked. I understand my objective measurements in ways that others, with different influences, would not.

And this works the other way around, too. We scientists export ‘science’ and the Humanities respond. It is absorbed, molded. It might become something unrecognisable to the scientist. It might be closer to truth. It might be closer to people. And it might come back more humble than it left.

Whatever happens, it’s a journey each idea takes in the universe of ideas. And the smallest distance between thought and understanding may not be a straight line.

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