I am a biologist, and for much of my life my preoccupation was solely learning about the natural world. I had very little interest in the world of people or politics. Feeling young and powerless, I was more concerned with playing the existing game well than changing the rules. Then I became a parent. I began to realize the powerful influence politics has on the lives of children and families, and my attention was particularly drawn to policies that seemed to me absurd, that others were prepared to defend and implement. I began to question why it was that people, particularly people of influence like politicians and religious leaders, could hold beliefs that so contradicted my own, often in the face of strong evidence to the contrary.

My background is not in the humanities at all; it is in the sciences. Not all of science is about solving practical problems, but all science proceeds on the basis that there is a correct description of the universe and its mechanisms out there for us to discover, and that having an accurate understanding of those things gives us the best chance of solving problems. Either humans are causing atmospheric warming, or they are not. Either a human embryo gains a soul at conception, or it does not. Either increasing the wealth of the rich increases the well-being of the poor, or it does not. Adopting inaccurate beliefs, as these examples will immediately tell you, hinders our ability to recognize problems and solve them. And the problems are often very serious.

The adoption of inaccurate beliefs amongst people of influence does not wholly seem to be explained by intelligence. Many of the most influential people I am thinking about above have degrees from respectable universities, and smart people are often found to disagree over some of the issues above. Somehow though, a university education does not seem to have significantly improved many people’s ability to adopt accurate beliefs, and this worries me. What is it about our education system that allows people to graduate with a degree but without the tools to construct accurate beliefs and hence make ethical choices?

People with an education in the humanities, arts and social sciences dominate the corridors of power: a 2012 study showed that backgrounds in STEM subjects only accounted 15% of UK leaders. Is there something different about STEM subjects and the humanities/social sciences that might affect a person’s ability to adopt accurate beliefs? On the face of it, both encourage attention to evidence and critical thinking, two of the prerequisites for arriving at truth. My intuition as to what might be different comes from my relatively few experiences and conversations with people working in the humanities. I have for example heard statements like “What is truth though? What is true for me might not be true for you”. “I don’t really believe in truth; there are just stories”. And “I expect my students to first adopt a position, and then support it with evidence”. Statements like these are very alien, and indeed anathema to people working in the sciences where the universe is objective rather than subjective; where students are encouraged to explore the range of evidence and alternative possible explanations before deciding which, if any, can be better supported; and where appropriate equivocation is a position of merit, even the default. In short, I wonder if an education in the humanities and social sciences sometimes encourages people to relax their responsibility to find truth, to adopt positions at an early stage in enquiry, and to rely more on linguistic tools and tricks than evidence to defend their case.

There are many jobs where success relies more on such powers of persuasion rather than the adoption of accurate beliefs per se, and people educated in the humanities are surely better trained for such roles. People often extrapolate techniques from work to the rest of their life; I know I do. Maybe the problem comes after graduation, after they are in those roles, rather than before. But maybe it is encouraged at university, or more could be done to discourage it. Becoming committed to adopting accurate beliefs requires that people feel able to change their beliefs in the face of the evidence, rather than keeping their beliefs and arguing their existing position harder. The former is sometimes psychologically traumatic, and can feel like a defeat. It requires training; it requires discipline, openness and skepticism.

What I have outlined is currently no more than an hypothesis about the relative effects of the humanities and the sciences, and I feel obliged to outline what I am not saying. I am not saying that the humanities and social sciences are unworthy subjects; on the contrary I consider them vital to the greater good and the betterment of society. I am also not saying that people in the humanities are all ill-equipped to find truth; clearly, many are. What I do wonder is whether processes and attitudes adopted in certain subjects might make certain outcomes more or less likely, something that, when you say it, seems highly plausible. The ability to defend an inaccurate position by powerful linguistic tricks might be wonderful for the personal career of a politician or a barrister. But I wonder if it is in the best interests of society as a whole if one of the outcomes is also that we are less able to solve the grand challenges society faces.

If what I suggest is true, can we imagine a world in which more humanities students felt a greater responsibility to the truth, who understood the universe as an objective thing, who adopted positions at a late stage of inquiry, and were more concerned about arriving at accurate beliefs eventually than their ability to successfully defend their current position, and carried this attitude through life. What would we have to do to make that happen? I don’t work in the humanities and have little comprehension of their current methods. One possibility might be to make the humanities more like the sciences (and there might also be benefits to the reciprocal process). Another possibility might be to force every student to do a bit of both: in short a broader education, where humanities students had exposure to science and how it works. The reciprocal process might also help increase the number of STEM students going on to be societal leaders, and I think that might bring equal benefits. I am not the first person to imagine the benefits such changes might bring. I wonder if it’s past time to make it happen.

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