While browsing the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences last month, I noticed a commentary that bears the intriguing title “The science in social science.” Although the author, anthropologist Russell Bernard of the University of Florida, does indeed discuss the science behind economics, psychology, and other disciplines, the commentary’s main target was the public’s low appreciation of the benefits of social sciences. As Bernard puts it in his abstract:
A recent poll showed that most people think of science as technology and engineering—life-saving drugs, computers, space exploration, and so on. This was, in fact, the promise of the founders of modern science in the 17th century. It is less commonly understood that social and behavioral sciences have also produced technologies and engineering that dominate our everyday lives. These include polling, marketing, management, insurance, and public health programs.
At first, Bernard’s defensive tone led me to believe he had succumbed to a condition known as physics envy, the feeling of inferiority among some social scientists that their disciplines lack the mathematical and empirical rigor of physics. Lest you think that physics envy is an imagined malady, consider the opinion piece by two political scientists, Kevin Clarke and David Primo of the University of Rochester, that appeared last March in the New York Times. It’s entitled “Overcoming ‘physics envy.’”
But rather than argue, as Clarke and Primo do, that social scientists shouldn’t strive to frame their ideas as testable theories, Bernard convincingly recounts how the fruits of the social sciences pervade and enrich our daily lives.
Sicinius Velutus and Henry V
Although I doubt physicists will contract anything that might be called social sciences envy, there is evidence here and there that physicists and their professional relatives increasingly recognize the benefits of greater exposure to the arts and humanities.
Writing for the Sacramento Bee, Marisa Agha reported recently that a small and growing number of Caltech undergraduates are choosing majors like English and history and coupling them with a science or math major. At the university where I did my bachelor’s degree, Imperial College London, the undergraduate curriculum features an expanded range of optional classes in the humanities, including the delightfully titled Global History of Twentieth Century Things.
The benefits of studying humanities extend beyond the traditional goal of creating well-rounded graduates through a balanced curriculum. If you’ve cavorted about a stage in Elizabethan dress reciting Shakespeare, then giving a talk at a meeting of the American Physical Society will be as easy as setting dogs on sheep (Sicinius Velutus in Coriolanus). If you’ve argued in ten pages for—or against—the case that the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s inherent instability was the principal cause of World War I, then writing a three-page paper in Applied Physics Letters will be as easy as conquering France or speaking French (if you’re Henry V in Henry V, that is).
When scientists study humanities, society wins. Dealing with climate change, taming terrorism, and ending hunger are big, important problems whose ultimate solutions are unlikely to be wholly technical. Knowledge of human behavior and history, and the ability to understand and communicate with people, will be needed too.
Although Steve Jobs was talking about a tablet computer, the iPad2, when he made the following remarks, their sentiment is profound and apt for 21st-century scientists and engineers:
Technology alone is not enough . . . It’s technology married with the liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the results that make our hearts sing.