Science, Arts, and Community Engagement: Not Just For Wizards

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.

Beth Povinelli, Interview for The Signal In Transition

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.

Eating soup!

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.

Peter DInklage with the catchphrase, "That Wizard Came From The Moon"

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?

4 thoughts on “Science, Arts, and Community Engagement: Not Just For Wizards

  • The thing about science is that a great number of people tend to see it as an obscure and arcane academic discipline rather than as a way of navigating the world. Everyone uses science always, every day, in a great number of ways, sometimes poorly and sometimes well – only they don’t recognise it as science.

    As you’ve pointed out, people seem to make a separation between themselves and artists or scientists because we mostly don’t consciously integrate them into our daily navigation of life. As long as ‘art’ is a thing you see in art galleries, and ‘science’ is a thing men in white coats do in labs (and yes, mostly men according to the media cliché), then we will continue to distrust those things in some fundamental way.

    “How do we make sure that we don’t fumble science’s uniquely valuable relationship to the truth?”

    I think the solution is hugely difficult – first we need to teach everyone to think rationally. This bit is not so hard to do, but to implement it you need to achieve something much more difficult: you need to get people to accept that rational thinking is important. That is really, really hard, because as evolutionarily formed beings, we are almost programmed in the wrong way for it. We tend to accept our senses, rather than logic, even though we know our senses are so easily fooled. We tend to accept the opinions of those in authority, rather than logic, because they tell us things we want to hear. And we tend to accept religious thought, rather than logic, because it gives us comfort.

    The problem of what to ‘do’ about this occupies a great part of my thinking, because I fear it is the only way we will survive our ape ancestry and all the animalistic baggage that comes with that. If we truly respected one another and our planet, we would listen a lot more to the artists and scientists, and a lot less to the businessmen and fearmongers.

  • Reblogged this on Ree Kimberley and commented:
    The intersections between art and science are so important. From the growing medical humanities field to the fantastic work of bio-tech artists like those in the Symbiotica lab, the conversations and collaborations between art and science create new ways of thinking, learning and discovering so vital to a better understanding of the world and our place in it.

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