Artists vs. Techies III: Where do scientists fit in?
First, I don't know that it is correct to characterize computer usage/programming as science. In my opinion, it has more in common with fine arts (you're using a tool to create something). Learning C+ and trying to understand quantum mechanics or modern physics aren't all that similar. I'm also not sure if your remarks were confined deliberately to engineering (as opposed to chemistry or physics or biology, which are very different) or it was shorthand for "science." Because again, I think the mindset is going to be different. "I need to make something useful by a deadline" is a very different starting point from "why is DNA based on furanose sugars instead of pyranose" -- the former probably has a flowchart describing how to proceed (I would imagine that building a workable bridge isn't terribly mysterious, for example); the latter is a different sort of question. What is the real question, the testable question? Or at least, what do we think is the testable question? Is "furanose based nucleic acid chains have a particular melting temperature " a satisfactory answer? Is the geometry of the chains important? Maybe the reason is chance and a six-membered ring would work as well. Regardless, you're not done until you've made some of the pyranose material, probably via chemistry you had to invent, and run an experiment or two, which you also had to invent. This is a better representation, I think, of science.
Also, scientists love good writers. Science is a story. A good lecture/paper should have a plot. I have to care about why you did what you did, after all. And I won't care if I'm asleep or bored. "1000 reactions I ran" is a boring talk, even if they all worked, hell especially if they all worked. A good talk will have a certain amount of drama -- this step in the synthesis was really tricky/gave us an unexpected byproduct/led us away from our initial goal. It has to have a conclusion. It has to provide a why not just a how.
As for arrogance, I think one difference might be that the sciences have right answers, or at least wrong ones. "Why did Rembrandt do so many self portraits" can't really be answered definitively. He was a narcissist might be a perfectly adequate answer, who knows. "No definite answer" might translate to "well then, I'm right" in certain minds, especially aggressive ones. Or the lack of a clear answer one way or the other might just be irritating, which manifests as frustration disguised as anger. Just a guess.
Thanks for the response, Brian. Your thoughts are very interesting and challenging.
First, yes, I was
referring specifically to engineers (and threw in business majors later when I realized that I saw some of the same mindset in them), and no, I didn't mean that as "shorthand" for science (I try to be more precise about language than that, although God knows I don't always succeed.) I think -- and this came out more in the letters I got, I'm not sure if you read them -- that scientists and humanists actually have a great deal in common. It's not a common interest that either one often recognizes, and it defies stereotypes. We're still stuck in that "brainy" scientist vs. "emotional" artist notion. (Artists and humanists often get lumped together, and though there are people -- like me -- who straddle the two, they can be quite different, as different as biologists and engineers. I know there's an enormous difference in my mental processes between when I am thinking like a humanist/academic and when I'm thinking like an artist.) But the fact is, education in both lab science and humanities involves learning to think at least as much as it does acquiring a given set of facts.
One of the letter writers, who taught history, mentioned that some of his best students were biology majors. I didn't get many science majors when I was teaching. The few I had were pre-med, but pre-med majors tended to be among my better students, although they were often frustrated by the fact that they didn't get easy A's -- they assumed humanities classes were easier than science classes and therefore an A ought to be automatic. (My response was, "You're acing Chem 1A and struggling for a B in Humanities 1A. Do you think you might want to revise that thesis about 'easy' humanities classes?") Nevertheless, many of them had an appreciation of alternate ways of approaching things that I suspect their science studies had nurtured. Or perhaps it was an innate interest in different ways of approaching problems that led them to study science. I find, even today, as I write on this site, that some of my most interesting and thoughtful letters come from scientists. They appreciate the way I think. I appreciate the way they think. (Although I'm not sure they understand how hard I have to work to understand some of the things they tell me. But I do make the effort, because it always turns out to be worthwhile once the mental effort is done.)
It's interesting to me, though, that so many people seem to have misread what I said in that way. I think the science vs. the arts clash is so firm in people's heads that they see that, even when it's not there. It's an old problem: People quickly plug into the story they think they know and have a hard time even perceiving that the story has changed.
My problem was with the emphasis on technical education, which I think does not ask students to look at things from many points of view, or re-think assumptions. It's a time-consuming and difficult education, without being a challenging one.
As for the idea that humanities doesn't have "wrong" answers -- I think that's a little bit of a cliche. It's true up to a point, but humanities aren't as relativistic as most non-humanists think. "Why did Rembrandt paint so many self-portraits?" isn't the kind of question I'd expect an art historian to ask. I have only a minor in art history, so don't expect a sophisticated analysis, but I can give you some indication of the kinds of things art historians would consider.
My interest is more in Italian art, so I'll switch from Rembrandt to questions that fascinated me when I was studying medieval Italian art: Giotto
began painting in the early 14th century using techniques that we associate with the Renaissance -- perspective, convincing use of space, three-dimensionality, greater attention to natural detail, close observation of facial expression, individualized faces, etc. And yet no one continued with Giotto's work. The art of the 14th century, after Giotto, appears to be simply a reworking of medieval themes, styles and iconography? Why? Why did the Renaissance "begin" with Giotto and then stop -- with no artist picking up on his innovations for another hundred years?
How do you answer a question like that? I think people without strong backgrounds in humanities think that art historians sit around throwing out any answer that comes to mind -- maybe fourteenth century artists just weren't very talented -- and since this is "squishy" liberal arts, anything goes and all answers are equal. But that's silly. First you have to look at the works created in the fourteenth century and decide if it is true that artistic development went on hold after Giotto. It's a testable thesis. And when you look closely -- and looking closely at a painting is something you have to be taught how to do -- you see that, despite first appearances, it did not. No one truly captured the spirit Giotto began, but artists used some of his innovations here and there. It's provable. You can point to the influence. So now you've got new questions. Why did artist's pick up some innovations and not others? And why, when artists clearly caught on to some of the new techniques, were they not able to build on that understanding? Why did they use them for different, more conservative purposes?
Once again, you're forced back on the work, and there are answers that are definitely "wrong." Answers that just won't hold.
I could go on and on about this, and the questions get more and more complicated. They involve history (social changes wrought by the Black Plague may have played a role, for instance) as much as unfathomables. Does "progress" in the arts come in spurts, with geniuses emerging that no one can understand for generations? That's a possibility, and a "testable" one (you'd have to look at a broad span of when and under what circumstances enormous changes have taken place in art) but there are better, simpler explanations. Just like in science -- there are explanations that cover what's known better than other explanations. And, just as in science, answered questions don't settle things forever. They just lead to newer questions.
I won't dwell on this any more -- even though I'd love to -- because I doubt many people find Trecento painting or the Bubonic Plague as fascinating as I do. But I hope you see how similar, in many ways, science and humanites are.
I realize that in technical fields you have to "test" whether something works, but, as you suggest, "how do I get this to work" is a fairly limited question compared to the kinds of questions scientists and humanists ask. I love your idea that "science is a story" and believe it absolutely because the description you give of putting together a good science lecture/paper sounds very much like the way I think when I'm putting together a story.
And that, really, was what I was trying to get at. The old science vs. the arts division isn't terribly useful. What we do is different, but not as different as the stereotype would have it. But people with straight technical and practical educations -- and nothing more -- are the new piece of the puzzle. And I think what they study asks very little of them as complete human beings, or as thinkers. That worries me. Especially because I see them more and more defining the way we as a society view things.
The current administration is composed mostly of MBAs, not engineers. And yet I notice enormous similarities between the way they speak and perceive things and the way my old engineering students thought and perceived. I just have a hunch that there is some connection between that simplistic mode of thought and the "practical" education they received.
Eh, the Rembrandt question is one I remember being frustrating in an art history class I took. Frustrating because I was coming at it from a studio art perspective -- most of my free electives were drawing or painting classes. "Why do a self-portrait" is a very different question to the painter/drawer than to the non "artist." Or at least, it seemed that way to me. Why would I do a self portrait? I want to play with technique with no worries/expectations about how it should turn out. I got funny looks when I argued that particular point with the non-painter/non-drawer art historian in one class. And "the no wrong answers" is probably confined to studio arts, where you don't want to squash the next Shiele or Pollack or Picasso. "Did you mean/want to do that" is often the way the question is phrased. Also, you look at art in a different way in a drawing class than in an appreciation class, I think.
I'm really surprised by the Rembrandt question. I can't remember ever hearing such a silly and unanswerable question posed in a humanities class of any kind. You characterize the class you took as an "appreciation" class, and I wonder if that had anything to do with it. Every university has its set of classes that exist for the sole purpose of getting people through their general education requirements as painlessly and mindlessly as possible. Usually they're not very good, and they sometimes confirm the silliest cliches about the field.
One of the classes I took to get through my science requirement in college, for instance, was an Introduction to Astronomy that simply asked me to memorize an enormous number of facts, all of which I forgot as soon as the class was over. If I hadn't known better already, the class wouldn't have served much purpose except to confirm a popular notion of science: that it's simply a huge body of facts, and that great scientists are "smart" because they know more of those facts than the rest of us dummies. Here was one of the few science classes many liberal arts majors would take, and it "taught" a hackneyed and utterly false notion of science. I suspect your "art appreciation" class might have served the same purpose.
But you raise another issue as well, and that is the difference between people who "do" art and people who study it. And you're right, people who write about the arts can be mind-bogglingly off-base about how they're produced, and about the kinds of questions artists ask themselves. But I think that's beyond the scope of what I've been talking about.
If there's a "no wrong answers" approach in studio classes, however, I doubt it has anything to do with not wanting to squash budding artists. Condescension probably has more to do with it -- a belief that "these fools will never be real artists, so just let them be." I took a couple of drawing classes too, and was encouraged by my teachers, and, believe me, no one could mistake me for the next Picasso. But once you get into "real" art practice classes, it's a different matter. I don't know anything about studio art classes beyond the basic level, but writer's workshops -- which you have to be selected for, based on a portfolio of your work, and everyone assumes that you are seriously trying to become a writer -- are famously brutal. You go back week after week to have your heart torn out and roasted, and your work savaged. I can not imagine a writer's workshop -- and I'm not talking about lower division or community "creative writing" classes -- in which anyone gave a damn about the writers' feelings, or believed that there were "no wrong answers."