Advocates of the arts often talk about their transformative potential—for both the individual learner or practitioner and society at large. This is especially true in the context of improving scientific and critical thinking skills. Approaches employed in the arts can enable scientists, science communicators, and the general public to critically examine questions of method (scientific and otherwise), knowledge, and power. In doing so, the arts not only demystify aspects of the scientific method but can also inspire more young, keen minds to take up science.
Formal interdisciplinary training is one of the best ways to bridge the gap between the arts and the sciences. Today, “the Arts” and “the Humanities” are used interchangeably, and they are extremely wide-ranging in terms of their scope and concerns. In addition, most good Arts/Humanities programs today actively aim to bring the arts and the sciences closer. Many interdisciplinary modules are organized to this end. These modules would be a great way for scientists and science communicators to explore different ways of examining the scientific method.For instance, though relatively unknown outside of the humanities, Feminist Standpoint Theory (FST) is one of the approaches employed to directly examine questions of method, power, and knowledge. By doing so, the approach enables researchers to better understand what it means to adopt a scientific approach. In essence, FST highlights that the arts represent modes of critical inquiry and scrutiny without which the sociocultural dimensions of the human condition, including scientific undertakings, cannot be fully appreciated. In addition, interdisciplinary training is a two-way road: it enables scientists and science communicators to enrich the arts as well.
At the same time, it’s necessary to remember the following. First, approaches aimed at bridging the gap between the arts and sciences are inevitably interdisciplinary. Disciplinary perspectives such as “Philosophy of Science” and “Sociology of Science” are especially noteworthy in this context. Indeed, one of the main aims of these disciplines is to demystify not just crucial aspects of the scientific method but also popular claims about the nature of the method.
Second, qualities such as critical thinking and exemplary reasoning are associated more with the sciences. The arts are often seen as a collection of lesser disciplines, ones that don’t value incisive thinking as much, or even as a set of disciplines with little requirement for incisive thinking. As a result, interdisciplinary education is considered superfluous in some quarters. Nonetheless, studies have shown that interdisciplinary approaches enable learners to “recognize bias, think critically, tolerate ambiguity, and acknowledge and appreciate ethical concerns.” Incidentally, aspects such as “ambiguity” and “ethical concerns” are not especially associated with the scientific method, or with the doing of science.
Though the scientific method is partly based on eliminating ambiguity wherever possible, young students and scientists alike are not especially trained to cultivate the ability to tolerate ambiguity and assess ethical concerns. This is one area that can be improved by interdisciplinary training and better science communication. Though the elimination of ambiguity has undoubtedly been one of the main reasons for the method’s rampant success, it must be remembered that the sciences are routinely harnessed to address human affairs, which, as is well known, are deeply ambiguous and complex. In other words, ambiguity necessitates ethical and sociological consideration.
This is of course not to say that students and practitioners of the sciences cannot develop the aforementioned qualities without interdisciplinary training. In fact, many earnest practitioners develop these traits without additional help. This is merely to point out that the sciences, too, can benefit from interdisciplinary training. In other words, interdisciplinary training can accomplish the following: it can make scientists and science communicators more aware of their biases, standpoints, and innate preferences (if any), which is an important step toward presenting a more accurate picture of the scientific method and the nuances of doing science—both to oneself and to the general public.How Exactly Can The Arts Improve or Complement the Sciences?
Feminist Standpoint Theory is only one way to understand what an “arts education” means. FST argues that the pursuit of objectivity, value neutrality, and falsifiability does not automatically ensure science’s transcendence from the realm of human affairs. Indeed, some philosophers and sociologists of science argue that science itself is a deeply human affair. Which means science, too, involves ambiguity and uncertainty, and must therefore be necessarily subjected to scrutiny.
Accordingly, it has been argued that science, much like human affairs, should be examined from ethical, philosophical, anthropological, and sociological perspectives. This is of course not to say that all scientific findings are ambiguous or questionable. Rather, it is to shed light on the need to scrutinize claims about science’s “universal objectivity” and its capacity to usher in continuous, irreversible progress: another role science communicators are especially suited for.
Besides, key aspects of the scientific method (such as systematization, falsifiability, and the ability to be communicated intersubjectively) are not limited to science; they are essential for any type of critical inquiry. In addition, the scientific method concerns “the presentation” of scientific results or findings more than the “doing of science” itself.
It is also important to ask if science really does engender continuous, irreversible progress. If it does, is it at all tenable to pursue continuous progress? What are the impacts (negative and positive) of this pursuit, and how do we deal with the various, sometimes competing, conceptions of progress?
In this context, FST not only examines aspects such as objectivity and methodology but also deals with the more basic question of knowledge. The theory is not anti-science: it has influenced contemporary debates about both the sciences and the arts, and its focus on the question of method has enriched both disciplines.
FST is a very rich body of work, one that cannot be adequately probed in this article. But it remains one of the best examples of how the arts—especially philosophically and sociologically oriented approaches—can reframe debates and produce new insights.
In essence, FST shows that “the arts” stands for modes of inquiry and scrutiny, and these modes are typically multidisciplinary. The arts employ many perspectives, ranging from the philosophical, sociological, historical, to the scientific.
Sociology, Anthropology, and Economics are excellent examples in this regard. They are all disciplines with one foot in the sciences and the other in the arts. Sub-disciplines such as Biological Anthropology and Physical Anthropology draw heavily from the natural sciences. Cultural Anthropology, on the other hand, relies more on what anthropologists call “thick description,” a way of understanding how humans ascribe meaning to their lives and the contexts that surround them. In essence, it is a way of enabling outsiders to understand how people in specific societies or cultures make and seek meaning.
If this sounds abstract, think of how scientific and technological innovations are perceived by different cultures. For instance, some cultures may reject a technology widely considered positive and game-changing. Understanding how these cultures perceive this technology is essential not only for anthropologists but also for scientists and developers involved in the production of the technology. In other words, anthropological research findings are invaluable feedback for scientists. This is not all that far-fetched a concept. After all, beta versions of software also accomplish similar ends.
Today, as Earl Babbie argues, “social research” necessarily requires multiple disciplinary perspectives. In fact, an essential characteristic of “the social” is that it cannot be reduced to a single, all-encompassing perspective. Social research draws from the scientific method, from anthropological and economic perspectives among many others, and employs quantitative and qualitative approaches.
FST—and indeed interdisciplinary approaches, in general—brings scientists, science communicators, and researchers affiliated with other disciplines together. By doing so, it enables them to work in concert and develop a better understanding of “method” and also enable the general public to enhance their critical thinking and scientific skills.