A new interdisciplinary literacy is the only hope for finding a way to square our current arrangement of life with the continuation of human and planetary life as such. Scientists, philosophers, anthropologists, politicians, political theorists, historians, writers, and artists must gather their wisdom, develop a level of mutual literacy, and cross-pollinate their severed lineages.
I think there’s a lot of merit in Beth Povinelli’s words about science and the arts and different ways of knowing.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot as momentum builds for this October’s Fun Palaces, the international community-led celebration of arts and sciences.
Fun Palaces can look like cuddly fluffy things, but they’re also events which are serious about acknowledging the talents and understanding which local communities already have. They’re very serious, too, about exploring what it means to say, as their motto does, “everyone an artist, everyone a scientist.”
Those two terms can seem intimidating sometimes. “Artists” and “scientists” sound like privileged, elevated folk compared to you and I – so the way I always put it is this:
If a two-year-old ever handed you an imaginary phone and said “Ring ring”, and you answered it, you’re an artist – because you joined in their creative play.
And if you ever made soup from a recipe, tasted it, and said “needs more salt”, then added some, you’re a scientist – because you revised your belief in the face of evidence.
I think it’s true to say, as Beth Povinelli does, that science needs to find ways of working across disciplinary lines, collaborating with other ways of knowing. We see that in medicine, where attempts merely to heal the next thing that’s wrong with a body can neglect the patient as a whole, and where the practicalities of information management sometimes let healthcare workers down. Medics could benefit greatly from closer collaboration with arts and information professionals.
When I presented to healthcare workers earlier this year, encouraging them to think creatively and come up with pitches for a new community outreach innovation fund, many of them were cautious because, they told me, their work had to come from an evidence base – but I pointed out you only gather an evidence base by coming up with new hypotheses to test.
In countries like Australia, we’re also faced with the fact that science is an imported way of understanding the world, which arrived on the back of an invasion which heedlessly trampled Indigenous communities’ forms of knowledge and wisdom. Science is always a social practice, with a real history, done by actual, imperfect people, and this is something that can’t be excluded from our understanding.
I also think it’s true to say, as the Fun Palaces manifesto does, that we are all scientists or potential scientists. We’ve had some interesting conversations with the FP directors about what this means.
For me, the key is revising your beliefs in the face of evidence. This is what protects us from the bad science of people like Andrew Wakefield, who advocated against the MMR vaccine. This is what ultimately undermines pseudoscience with an agenda, like Hans Eysenck’s dubious tobacco-company funded research into cancer.
Science still requires a lot of faith – faith that practitioners in scientific fields other than your own are also focussing on the truth; faith that the truth will out and good science will eventually oust bad or mistaken science – but that faith can never be blind.
The challenge I see is working out how we preserve this vital part of scientific truth-making and truth-finding when we devise interdisciplinary encounters: between science and art, between Western science and Indigenous ways of knowing.
How do we make sure, in a community event or an art event, we’re genuinely engaging with the scientific process and not just saying that “things happen this way because science tells us so”, much as people could say, “because the wizard tells us so”?
Truth is the thing we can’t get away from, the stuff we can never quite re-write or erase to suit our own interests, and science is one of the most powerful ways of creating and detecting truth that humans have ever devised.
As we try to move towards a fairer world where we listen ever more respectfully – to our fellow human beings and living creatures, to the world around us in every aspect, to the stories and histories we have neglected – how do we make sure that we don’t fumble science’s uniquely valuable relationship to the truth?