A triumph for science

March 1, 1996

The finale of our great balloon debate was last week. In it, the faculties of science, social science and humanities argued about which should survive. The other two have to be ejected from an overloaded hot air balloon. Today we announce the winner: science. Science scored 300 votes, social science 128 and humanities 123. There were 1,600 votes for the full debate.

The finale raised very different issues from the preceding three weeks, in which different disciplines within each faculty competed against each other. The first round was about the building block subjects. Most of the debaters were postgraduates who had only recently chosen and then graduated in one of these subjects. Why did they choose them, and what contribution could they make on their own or within interdisciplinary enterprises? We have thriving interdisciplinary research, but many academics say that there is still a gestalt switch between different ways of studying the world, and interdisciplinary efforts must take this into account.

During the finale the debate switched to an exploration of the art-science divide.

In the first round particle physics bombarded the voting system, often with long and enthusiastic entries. In the finale, scientists of many disciplines did the same. Perhaps this kind of rhetoric is more of a novel activity for scientists? A less cynical explanation comes from one voter who claimed that scientists "feel strongly that our subject is very worthwhile - perhaps more so than other people think of their subjects".

Many science voters used cultural rather than practical arguments: "Interest in science is the mark of a civilised society"; science gives us the "cleanest and most expressive form of art"; "science challenges our beliefs"; "science is our only defence against relativism".

Several argued that "science must flourish so it can build a bigger balloon and go and rescue the others".

Some scientists were cutting about social science. They seemed either ignorant of its achievements ("only more science can help us understand the impact of science") or fearful of its "sinister" power. Perhaps social science needs a public relations campaign like the one that science has set up for itself. Where it was possible to detect people voting outside their faculty we witnessed science and engineering professors voting for the humanities and philosophers voting for science. An engineer told us that "all that makes life enjoyable and worth living is from the humanities".

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