Science slighted

November 27, 2014

As a science academic, I found Sarah Churchwell’s essay rather depressing (“Humanities: why the study of human culture still matters”, 13 November).

The article conflates the enjoyment of culture and the study of it. No one has said that humanities do not matter; rather, the question being asked is how much do we as taxpayers wish to spend on the study (not the production) of culture. Merely to pose the question is considered by the writer to reveal someone who despises humanity or wants people to remain stunted as humans.

As a scientist, I laughed out loud on reading of the alleged contempt for humanities in the public sphere. This from a culture in which people boast about being hopeless with fractions, confounded by chemistry and physics and so on. I have yet to meet a scientist or technologist who boasts about hating literature, not understanding music or “not getting” painting. People love culture: cinemas are booming; bookshops and Amazon do a roaring trade; most theatre shows I go to are sold out; art galleries have attracted huge investments across the country.

I do meet people who wonder whether the UK invests too much in or overvalues the study of 18th-century Romantic literature; but most of them keep their mouths shut for fear of being labelled philistines.

Science is utterly marginalised in public debate, even where it has much to say (climate change, genetically modified crops, nuclear power, renewable energy and the like). Times Higher Education each week has essays and book reviews from humanities scholars. Very good they are, but hardly evidence of a field under threat of eradication. In Parliament, there are single figures of people with any knowledge of or training in science beyond school. Journalists are almost exclusively humanities graduates. At the state school my children attend, there has for years been a shortage of physics teachers.

I believe that culture is a defining aspect of humanity without which life would be intolerable. But I also believe that culture and technology are inextricably linked. By making survival easier, technology allows humans to devote more time to the life of the mind. We now live in a society in which women do not die routinely in childbirth; where one does not expect that some of one’s children will die before the age of five; where a killer virus, HIV, has been tamed (albeit not cured) in 20 years; where the outbreak of another killer virus, Ebola, can be halted (albeit after tragic deaths); and where one can listen on headphones to entertainment held on a device the size of a matchbox. Is it perfect? Not by a long, long way, but the preening in arrogating to humanities a role as the sole yardstick of our humanity is annoying and, to my mind, wrong.


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