Skip Navigation

2013 Winter Issue 8 (March 8, 2013)

Sorry Sciences, Humanities Are Where Innovation Is At

March 10, 2013
By Stuart Urback

Innovation is all the rage these days; it’s the buzzword that makes the money, gets the endorsements, and makes the world move forward.  It seems like anytime the economy gets brought up, innovation is not far behind. Which is why there are millions and millions of dollars pouring into the sciences and social sciences programs.  Because these are the programs that will get the data which will solve all our problems.  Pundits are out, quants are in as Nate Silver rather ably proved this last election period.  Data is in and theory is out.

I love science; I think we should be teaching all of our students how to understand the universe, think about animals and humans, and understand why soda fizzes.  I also love data, and I think it can give us answers to a number of different really important questions.  But let’s not pretend like these on their own solve problems.  They won’t tell us how to help a generation of students feel like the work they put in is worthwhile, they won’t solve climate change which requires a massive effort from a broad range of people.

These problems can’t be solved by simple solutions.  Creating equity within multicultural schools can’t be solved by simply developing a single test.  Solving global warming isn’t as simple as making more efficient vehicles.  These problems must be solved by asking questions, having serious, difficult discussions and creating solutions that do their best to respond to (if not resolve) the issues of all the parties involved.  That sure sounds like the humanities to me.

Science tells us how the world is, humanities tells us how we think about the world.  You’d think it be rather obvious, we are all people and we think, so therefore we should understand how all people think.  Right?  When put this way, it seems rather obvious, but that’s the current trend of society, towards more numbers, less thinking.  Just look at the job boards, no one’s looking for humanists, everyone’s looking for scientists, engineers, and gasp--analysts.   

But that’s not the whole story.  You see, the challenges our society faces aren’t going to go away by creating faster processors, smarter machines, or more powerful drugs.  They won’t go away by collecting data and running algorithms alone.  Moore’s law won’t solve global warming.  If the success of Apple or the recent moves by Google, Microsoft, and even Facebook, making things more friendly, easy to use, and, dare-I-say, human. 

The humanities offer an excellent perspective at understanding human agency within complex systems, understanding why people hold the often contradictory notions so dearly, and where traditions came from.  These types of ideas will help us resolve disputes between competing cultural conceptions, develop patterns of behavior that reinforce human agency, and create companies that responsibly solve the problems we face. 

Humanities offer the opportunity to ask questions, to think deeply about serious issues in a way that is fundamentally human. It doesn’t attempt to reduce the complexity of the world into straightforward problems, but respects that complexity as a fundamental challenge.  This type of perspective is important for developing solutions that work in context.  Heck, it’s even in the title of the new design paradigm that’s all the rage, Human Centered Design.

We live in an age of systems.  The processes that determine many of the important decisions in our lives are being made by individuals (and machines) that are often highly removed from the lived experiences of the people whose lives they are influencing. We need people who are willing to approach the complexity of the world at its fullest to make decisions that are equitable.

Steve Jobs said that if you pay close attention, the real change that happens is a long time coming, and you can see it a long ways off.  This statement seems anachronistic if you focus on the technology, the science, and the new developments.  Looking at the dizzying array of new stuff that comes out yearly makes the world seem like it is moving by at ever increasing speeds.  But if you look at the way people behave, at how they connect and interact with one another, how they position themselves within the world, how they understand themselves, the change is much slower and you can understand it in a more nuanced way.

When you want to understand why the world is the way it is, ask the sciences.  When you want to know how to change the world, talk to the humanities.

Add a comment

Please login to comment.