Science and arts; the imaginary war i.e. I took the Bob Jones click bait

Edmund is saddened

Edmund is saddened

I do not, as a general rule, agree with Sir Bob Jones which makes me reluctant to comment on his most recent opinion piece criticising the preferential treatment science and engineering faculties receive in New Zealand over the liberal arts. He marks out Steven Joyce specifically for his comments relating the government’s shifting funding from arts and economics towards sciences and engineering.

Sir Jones argues that there has never been a greater need for liberal arts graduates, suggesting that such members of society act as an ethical rein and bridle to the bucking bronco that is technological and scientific advancement.

I am obviously a fan of the liberal arts, having spent several grand to study them on top of the biology degree and it saddens me to think that arts departments are down-sizing and that enrollments are down for those degree programs. If I had the means, I would expand the university campus to include downtown Auckland; I’d put in a flying fox to the marine lab on Princes Wharf; I would purchase The Quadrant so that biology students could grow and husband (is that the verb for ‘husbandry’?) their plants, bugs and miscellaneous life forms in different rooms; and I would shift the audiovisual library down into the IMAX centre. But I can’t. The main point that I’m trying to make here is that I want the university to have all the moneys but I realise that ‘all the moneys’ is not a real thing and that someone generally has to lose out. Having said that, I don’t know how justified the shift in funding is and I’ve already dedicated enough time to excusing myself from having an opinion about something which I don’t know enough about.

So the main reason that I wanted to comment on Jone’s opinion piece is because it propagates a problematic stereotype about the nature of sciences and scientists and distracts attention from more pressing problems with a centuries old false dichotomy and with auguries of a nigh juvenile dystopic future.

My direct response would be: liberal arts graduates are not the stewards of ‘knowledge’, ‘wisdom’ and ‘vision’ just as much as scientists are not inherently ‘single-minded’ automatons who unthinkingly facilitate the production of bigger and worser weapons and tinker with the sacred, holistic bundle of fairy dust glued together with hazy white light that is the human body. Scientists and engineers are people who go home at night (or during the day) and watch the news (or read it on their tablets) and lie awake at night thinking about death and about how their cholesterol is too high.

In addition, three further points: a) the arts and the sciences are not in some sort of turf war and b) eternal life is down the road, not on the door step, and c) there are bigger things to worry about. There have been books, lectures, everything agonising over the unbridgeable gap between the sciences and the liberal arts. The issue is second only to the gap between science and religion in my list of false dichotomies. We do not have the means to fully reject the idea that some sentient force exists somewhere beyond the universe perhaps and liberal arts and science do mix. I know because I did a course on the history of science last year and I studied a Science and literature course in my undergrad and I have a friend who studied philosophy of science. While I would argue that science education at a tertiary level could afford to provide a little more historical context to the development of the scientific process itself and there is a need for more science communicators like Dr Siouxsie Wiles, to demarcate sciences over here and humanities over there betrays a failure to understand either.

Both an example of liberal arts, creative arts and science intersecting but also generally great

Both an example of liberal arts, creative arts and science intersecting but also generally great

As a final note – and this is a nitpick – worrying about the difficulties in picking up ladies who look 26 but are in their 80s (oh no an old woman horrors of horrors truly there is nothing worse) is not an issue yet (indeed if it ever will be). More important right now: thugs like Montsanto. That corporation and their patented GMOs and indentured farmers are a real example of business and intellectual property savvy folks taking advantage of scientific developments while the media argues about whether GMOs are ethical at all. Regardless of whether we’re ready for GMO crops, they exist and we need science communicators who can translate jargon to the public now and we need policy makers to get science literate now. Science is a method of thinking, it’s not a fire starter – that would be greed.

And did I just get sucked into reacting to a Herald correspondent who is possibly only kept on because of his ability to divide readers with his inconsequential opinions?

Week 5 – Intensive workshops; portal fantasies of the modern age in that I honestly believe that foods I eat while away on them don’t count in the real world.

Last week I was in Wellington for a workshop in which 27 ‘young people’ were brought in my the McGuinness Institute to be a sounding-board for the Treasury’s new(ish) Living Standards framework – a policy analysis tool used to ensure that non-economic factors are considered (e.g. social infrastructure, sustainability, equity, risk-management) when discussing and making decisions around public policy.

And that is the most boring sentence I have written for zero academic credit.

Living standards are now my friends. And they live in Wellington.

A week ago, I was dreading going down even though it was entirely funded by the McGuinness institute – flights, taxis, meals, accomodation, ice blocks and pomegranate cordial – everything. But I was also aware that, in spite of studying a wide range of subjects, my understanding of the economy is about on par with my understanding of the Higgs Boson in that I suspect that they both exist.

Basically, I expected to be asked to apply myself to a task outside of my area of general knowledge let alone my area of expertise, to feel completely out of my depth, and to be  surrounded by young people who were younger and better acquainted with every aspect of what we were doing. I also expected that, given the strength my fears and how often things tend to work out this way, it would probably be an amazing experience which would augment my own knowledge, connect me with interesting, intelligent and motivated people and help me shake off the creeping vine of stagnation called ‘2013’.

Ergo – it was everything I intellectually expected but was personally unprepared for.

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This is what awed learning looks like.

I feel a little bad actually. I was the only person from a science background there so I actually had the most to learn from the experience and from my peers. I literally hovered on the edges of conversation just to listen to discussions with zero intention of participating. Once I got brave enough I would bring up topics which I had only the smallest amount of understanding of and would then let the group take off while I poached the fruits of their education.

I was completely out of my depth. But the fact that I had the opportunity to learn from New Zealand and international economists and from my peers while not being shunned as a leper or greasy lab rat who never does work which directly benefits people and pours over insect naughty bits late into the…wait…

The point is, I did get voluntary facebook friend invites so they at least thought I deserved the common courtesy of being categorised into the awkward online acquaintance basket.

So. I now know the difference between macro-economics and micro-economics, what ‘externalities’ are, what ‘social infrastructure’ is and I have met a wide range of highly intelligent young people whom I might never have met because their primary areas of interest differ so significantly from my own.

On the first day of the workshop, we attended an annual economics conference and, while I didn’t quite understand all of the vocabulary, the similarities to biology were undeniable. Seriously. Economics is awesome and is literally ecology dedicated to humans. Probably explains the shared etymology. Game theory, cost/benefit analyses, behavioural economics, regression and statistics – from what I can tell as a layperson, economics is the study of human behaviour in which money is the guiding measure of ‘value’, taking the place of reproductive output in biology.

It makes a lot of sense even though I never thought of it that way.

In practical news. In the next two weeks before the university shuts down for Christmas and New Years, I’m aiming to get in contact with relevant iwi for sampling up North, to get some locusts in to feed my specimens under the house and to get familiar with some of the spider families by keying up some pitfall-trap by-catch and comparing my guesses with pre-keyed specimens.

I’m also going to get my hair dyed green. And on the day that I got back from the workshop I watched 16 episodes of Parks and Recreation because midnight burger king (cf. title) and Courtenay Place tend to kill the Friday afternoon PhD vibe.

edited livingstandards

I was born in March 1990. I don’t know what that means.

Natural history: out of fashion and out of time?

To my fellow natural history students/natural historians: I’m sorry, but we’re not cool anymore. Yes I know that we think we’re cool because we alone know the truth, that we are cool. But no one else in the science world thinks we’re cool even though the stuff we study is just as cool as the cool stuff  anyone else studies. But if every thing that scientists study is cool then suddenly the playing field is level again and we’re back to having our coolness defined by other people’s perceptions. And I’m sorry to say that they tend to think that we focus a little too much on how things have sex.

Most whole organism biologists I know don’t even call themselves ‘naturalists’. It’s a little too close to ‘naturist’ and has airy fairy, non-intellectual connotations. Then, when a visiting mite scientist from Alberta makes an offhand comment about how little natural history is practised nowadays, it seems a natural state of affairs even if it’s not apparent why it should be. Then, at least once a year in my university life, I’ve been asked ‘when are you going to change to a real degree?’ or ‘does this have any commercial application’? In order to see how natural history became a slightly embarrassing branch of academia with little societal ‘value’ and how the field has actually started shrinking, apparently without our notice, one has to take a look at the pursuit’s history which saw it see-saw in and out of vogue.

Now, ‘natural history’ is a slippery concept. ‘Natural’ is easy enough: animals, plants, geography, geology, plus chemistry (back before physics invaded it). Then a ‘history’, back when the term was first coined, meant more of a description or a systematic account (Herman, 2002). Therefore, natural history is a descriptive and analytical science tasked with providing a systematic account of the natural world be it biological, chemical or geological .

240px-Carl_von_Linné

Carl (1707-1778)

Natural history has ancient origins –Aristotle level ancient (Llana, 2000). But it’s modern heyday probably began in the 1700s with the discovery of new flora and fauna in the New World. The printing press provided the means to accumulate and disseminate information quickly and, consequently, scientists were flooded with information from around the world and forced to create systems and diagrams simply to deal with the information overload. This epoch generated the taxonomic work of Swede Carl Linnaeus as well as a wealth of texts by others including the famed Encyclopédie, a significant Enlightenment era work published in France in which natural history – particularly botany – featured heavily (Llana, 2000; Müller-Willer & Charmantier, 2012).

By comparison, the world of natural history is a lot quieter now. There is even concern that it will go extinct altogether (Wilcove & Eisner, 2000). As early as the beginning of the twentieth century, key scientists had already side-lined natural history as an amateur’s pursuit in their unwavering adherence to Karl Popper’s ruling that, in order to be a true capital-‘S’ Science, a field’s theories must

220px-Karl_Popper

K-Pop (1902-1994)

be falsifiable. Natural history, which generates qualitative descriptions, does not quality (Schmidly, 2005). Even though Popper’s emphasis on falsification has been shown to be limited and overly simplistic historically, a distrust of inferential and descriptive analysis persists (Chalmers, 1999). Furthermore, with the pressure during World War II and the Cold War to fund science which generates ‘results’ (Pyle, 2001); a persistent focus on medical sciences; the growth of urban populations producing generations with little experience in the ‘natural’ world (Weigl, 2009); and a degree of technophilia with the rise of molecular biology  (Schmidly, 2005), it’s easy to see why ‘faddism’ developed in universities. In short, the big biology bandwagon is parked outside molecular science’s door.

Consequently, many American natural history departments are down-sizing as the number of students who have interest in the natural world decreases and as universities scramble for funding which inevitably goes towards sure-fire, rapidly generated, high impact publications (i.e. non-ecological studies). Many natural history courses are discontinued after the co-ordinating professor leaves and some departments sell their natural history collections (Schmidly, 2005).

The effects are less keenly felt in New Zealand because, more so than in other places, experience with and respect for the natural environment is coded into our national identity (whether we really deserve this ‘greenie’ image is another matter altogether). Beach-goers are still treated to orcas in the harbour and if you’re lucky then a kereru he size of a rugby ball will alight on your puriri tree with all the grace of a small helicopter. That is to say nothing of our dependence on primary industries.

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Yet the gloom’s starting to gain traction here. When people ask ‘Oh animal biology? So not real science then?’, that’s the internalised, 100-year old notion of natural history as an irrelevant science talking. But I still think ‘extinction’ is a little dire. After all:

1)       Our ever expanding world still has unknown frontiers which require analysis whether it be the surface of Mars or the deep sea. Where ever there are new species being discovered or borders being extended, there is a need for the descriptive quality of natural history. After all, for many years, the first issues of the Transactions and Proceedings of the Royal Society of New Zealand, begun in 1868, were wholly dominated by natural history as settler-scientists began to roam about exploring the country.

2)       In addition, the naturalists’ deep abiding enthusiasm for the world has historically made them successful communicators to the public and this tradition continues today with the likes of David Attenborough (Schmidt, 1946) and this success

3)       Inspires amateurs to continue the practice.

4)       Furthermore, due to relatively low operating costs (like, the cost of a ruler, a pencil and petrol), natural history is an ideal field for developing universities or developing nations to establish academic profiles within (Schmidly, 2005).

5)       Finally, natural history’s extinction has been predicted before but it made like a species and adapted.

What I’m referring to is remediation of the ‘dichotomy’ between naturalists and experimentalists at the beginning of the twentieth century. As the split widened, scientific leaders called for a ‘synthesis of purpose and aims’ (Allen, 1979). The result was ‘Modern Synthesis’ which argues that all evolutionary phenomena can be explained in genetic terms which are consistent with observations by naturalists (Mayr, 2004). This theory is hailed by biologists and science historians as the ‘primary integrative event’ of twentieth century biology (Schmidly, 2005).

So while natural history is certainly not the hotshot of the science playground at the moment, an understanding of the pursuit’s history emphasises that its wane in estimation is the product of historical shifts in priorities and an adherence to debatable yet persistent science philosophies. This state of affairs may cause funding headaches and make employment difficult for people – which is bad – but we’re not witnessing a protracted extinction because it would be foolish to think that we have so completely explored our world to make natural history wholly redundant. At the very least, natural history imbues the world with detail and majesty. People like that.

References (APA)

Allen, G.E. (1979). Naturalists and experimentalists: the genotype and the phenotype. Studies in the History of Biology, 3, 179-209.

Chalmers, A.F. (1999). What is this thing called Science? United Kingdom: Open University Press.

Herman, S.G. (2002). Wildlife biology and natural history: time for a reunion. Journal of wildlife management, 66, 933-946.

Llana, J. (2000). Natural history and the “Encyclopédie”. Journal of the History of Biology, 33(1), 1-25.

Mayr, E. (2004). What makes biology unique? Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.

Müller-Willer, S. & Charmantier, I. (2012). Natural history and information overload: The case of Linnaeus. Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical sciences, 43, 4-15.

Pyle, R.M. (2001). The rise and fall of natural history, Orion Autumn 2001, 16-23.

Schmidly, D.J. (2005). What it means to be a naturalist and the future of natural history at American universities. Journal of Mammology, 86(3), 449-456.

Schmidt, K.P. (1946). The new systematics, the new anatomy, and the new natural history. Copeia 1946, 57-63.

Weigl, P.D. (2009). The Natural History Conundrum Revisited: Mammalogy Begins at Home. Journal of Mammalogy, 90(2), 265-269.

Wilcove, D.S. & Eisner, T. (2000). The impending extinction of natural history. Chronicle of Higher Education,

47(3), B24.