The balloon debate finale

February 23, 1996

Which academic faculty is the most vital? Advocates for science, social science and humanities put their case

Plunging to earth in a hot air balloon, as our groups of academics have been doing for the past three weeks, leads to an extraordinary variety of survival techniques. They range from back-stabbing to co-operation. So far we have had three balloon debates: first between scientists, then social scientists and then within the humanities. You voted in your hundreds on who should be the lone survivor of each group.

Particle physicists raced to victory in the science debate possibly because they are sensitive to criticisms of the sky-high costs of their experiments and used their experience of the Internet born of international collaboration. We also enjoyed their many long soliloquies.

The social science debate was much closer but just as opinionated. Lighter proposals included the notion that no one but a geographer could single-handedly fly a balloon; and no one but a sociologist would produce enough hot air to stay afloat. If economics had been useful, argued one voter, there would be no need for a debate. The geographer won.

Last week, in the humanities debate, the religious studies lobby bombarded us with votes from around the world. But they were just beaten by philosophy. So now we have our spokespeople for the final balloon debate, between three faculties.

Vote and comment by fax on 0171 782 3300; by email on; or through THESIS, our Internet service on Vote quickly - the deadline is February .

Social science Everything we are, do, believe in, and use is socially constructed. Even our bodies cannot be understood without understanding the society that gives meaning to our sex and abilities and that shapes the way we dress, make up and even reconstruct ourselves.

The most important faculty therefore is the one which enables us to understand human societies and their relationships with the planet - social science. Economics is the foundation for our global system of wealth-generation and distribution. Sociology addresses contemporary urban and rural problems. Politics explains the way we organise our societies and their relationships with each other, offering our best hope of solving the human disputes which threaten our survival. And geography is concerned with the environment, tackling it in social terms, through the study of the impact of humans on the earth, and through science in the form of physical geography, for example through research on climatic change. And we still know how to have fun - do any other disciplines produce theses on Madonna and Neighbours?

While scientists are responsible for medical and technological advances, science is also responsible for the atom bomb. For every creative act of science - the car, nuclear power - we have usually paid a price - pollution, radiation. Scientists rarely stop to ponder the social implications of their discoveries in their linear quest for "progress". Yet the pursuit of scientific advancement threatens to destroy the planet. We cannot risk leaving science unchecked by the social sciences. Better to have social science without science rather than science without social science.

The humanities meanwhile are nothing but an expensive luxury, rendered redundant by developments in the social sciences - subjects such as cultural geography now include the study of cultural texts, from photography and art to literature and music. Social scientists have already reaped the best from philosophy, employing the likes of Derrida and Foucault in their theorising. And who needs modern languages when geographers and anthropologists can pick up languages quicker in the field than linguistic students can in the classroom?

If you are still in doubt remember market forces. Every year the sciences are forced to drop their entry grades and trawl the globe to find students. But the social sciences are oversubscribed by well-qualified applicants. On financial grounds alone a university cannot survive without us!

Gill Valentine, geography, University of Sheffield.

Humanities Let us get it straight: the social and natural sciences are useful fields of enquiry. They provide technological advance, social cohesion and long, comfortable lives.

However, these fine works provide no more than the platform from which we can make the most of our human potential. To experience to the utmost what a person can feel, to make the most of what it is to be human, entails a study of the humanities.

What makes us humans, of all the chemical interactions in the universe, so special? We have the capacity for hope, love, passion, and extreme joy. The humanities show us what it is to love and how to find love; how to perceive people's inner lives. A natural scientist can build you a house; a social scientist can make it safe from thieves - but what have you gained if you sit in it, lonely, because you have not been shown by the words and pictures of the humanities how to love or be loved.

The humanities also have their practical uses. Modern languages break down the xenophobic barriers erected by ideological social scientists.

History helps us to learn from our predecessors' mistakes. Mrs Thatcher's rhetoric might have led us to accept her call for Victorian values if we had not learned from the past that such values result in the workhouse, child labour and mass hypocrisy.

The next generation would be much the poorer if we could not offer it the heroic role-models of the classics: would you rather your offspring emulated the Argonauts or Oasis?

Philosophy provides an overview of all human enquiry, ensuring it has meaning and can be trusted.

The theologians have much to give. Scientists might calculate how long the universe has to run, but it is of higher priority to discover whether and why one is going to spend those remaining billions of years in bliss, in nothingness or in unending judicial agony.

But these instrumental benefits are nothing compared to the benefits of exposure to the twin keys to humanity - literature and the fine arts.

There is an element in us which makes humans special - it is this element that the sciences cannot feed. To deny us the opportunity to access this element simply to safeguard more practical fields of endeavour, would be to harm ourselves forever.

Michael Pockley, philosophy, Institute of Education.

Science is the quest for knowledge and the path to development and the enrichment of our daily lives.

The search for knowledge, understanding and truth is a human need, essential for a healthy, vibrant society. Who has not felt a sense of awe at the mystique and beauty of creation? How did the universe come into being, what is it made of, how will it end? Who has not marvelled at the diversity and complexity of nature? How does the earth breathe and evolve, supporting a myriad of life? Turning to humans, it is scientists who seek to understand the workings of the mind. Science is not a destroyer of mystery - understanding increases the magic, enriching the imagination of society. Each new discovery brings us more into harmony with the world around us.

But science does more than enhance the intangible and invaluable. It also gives us our improved quality of life. If it was not for science you would not be aware of this debate, let alone be able to vote. Yet thanks to the IT revolution, global communication is possible, linking humanity.

Only scientists are addressing the urgent priorities our society faces. Who is working to reduce the pain of disease by decoding the puzzle? - scientists. As the human race multiplies and draws even more extensively on the earth's resources it is scientists that must "fuel" our future - without energy our civilisation will cease to exist as we know it. At the same time we must preserve the earth's balance - it is scientists who are committed to doing so, from marine biologists gathering data on our oceans to those developing models of global warming.

Science has enriched our world, and it always will if it is used wisely. What human right is more basic than the freedom to understand, to create and improve? Vote for a future of development, both spiritual and concrete.

Gavin Davies, particle physics, Imperial College

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