Don Gale: Balance between science and humanities is skewed

We try to impose scientific certainty on social reality.

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I spent four years studying science in college. It was straightforward. Everything could be measured. Every problem had solutions, or paths toward solutions.

Then, after two years as an army draftee, the birth of our first child and a pressing need for steady income, I switched to the study of humanities. It was indefinite. Few things could be measured. Few problems had solutions. And even when solutions appeared, they were ambiguous, to say the least.

Sadly, on most college campuses today, the real complexities of humanities and social sciences have been co-opted by the perceived simplicities of science. Instead of celebrating the infinite differences in human beings, students search for commonalities that may or may not exist. Instead of joyfully accepting the complex nature of love – an emotion that changes from year to year as couples grow old together – students try to define it in static, simplistic terms. Instead of embracing the power of faith (whether in self or something more), students dismiss it as some sort of fantasy.

If you doubt this conclusion, compare salaries of faculty members teaching “science” with those of faculty members teaching humanities, arts and social sciences. Compare teaching loads. Compare campus prestige. Compare research grant money (without which most universities could not survive). Compare administrative support. Compare core curricula requirements.

The emphasis is so clearly tilted toward science that most students never learn about the rewards of classical music, the power of literature or the infinite promise of social interaction.

The study of journalism paid a heavy price because of this miscalculation. On many campuses, journalism was subverted into departments of communication. That’s like moving the study of surgery into the department of suturology. The challenging effort of surgery comes before the physician finishes by closing the wound with sutures. So, too, does the hard work of journalism – research, contacts, interviews – come long before the final step of communicating.

And in journalism, as in all social studies, there is never a single scientific conclusion. There are always two sides to every story – more often three sides, four sides, or more.

The attempt to impose scientific certainty upon social reality has now escaped from campus into the political and social complexities of modern life. By their very nature, interpersonal relationships are complex. The challenge always is to find some sort of compromise that works to strengthen a relationship rather than weaken it.

The same is true whether the relationship is between husband and wife, parent and child, employer and worker, teacher and student, citizen and government or rule-making body and constituents.

Leaders who impose what they consider the single best scientific answer are called dictators or tyrants. Societies that seek acceptable compromise among competing ideas are called democracies.

We live in a well-designed democracy that has fallen victim to simple-minded, anti-compromise, delusional, pseudo-science partisanship and clannishness. The path forward requires wise women and men to resist imposing the “scientific method” on human nature, social interaction, politics and individual development.

There is nothing wrong with not being able to “measure” love, or wisdom, or happiness, or hope, or social maturation. There is plenty wrong with the illusion that those things – and other human traits – can or should be measured.

Hope, belief, faith – whatever you want to call it – cannot be scientifically defined, and yet it is indispensable to the peace, happiness and social comfort of the human race. It is also the trait most likely to generate both scientific achievement and human development.

Don Gale.

Don Gale is thankful for his extensive background in science. And for the social realism that grew out of similar exposure to the humanities.