Science and the Humanities
Science, per Google, is defined as “the study of the structure and behavior of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment.” And I would wager that some form of this definition is the one most of you are familiar with, especially with worlds like “experiment”. Because when you think about science, you think about experiments, and hypotheses and the scientific method.
But I want to trace the word science back to its roots for a minute. Science comes from the Latin scire which means “know”.
Here’s where things get interesting to me. What does it mean to know? How do we know things? And are the things we know real? Do they reveal some ultimate truth or something else?
I know I’m getting pretty philosophical here, so bear with me. I don’t mean is that chair your sitting on really there, or anything like that – you’re sitting on it aren’t you. You’re empirically aware it is real – but how do we know it’s a chair, what it is for, and what color it is?
Because we’ve interpreted our environment, and assigned it these meanings and have come to agree upon them.
So what does that mean for science? Is science the ultimate truth about the world? Or is science the collectively assigned meanings for phenomena we can experience, we can test?
I believe the later. And I want to explore this concept of science, this collective of beliefs that we use to explain the behavior of the natural world—that we develop through observation and experimentation, and through storytelling, further.
“Because science projects are civics projects; they remake citizens” -Donna Haraway. Because we use the tools and stories of science to shape our world as much as we use it to describe it. Because science isn’t ideologically neutral.
Science is a subjective sport. It isn’t objectively free of human interpretation and belief systems. As we’ve already defined, science is what we know, and knowing is a collection of beliefs. So science can’t untangle itself from beliefs, from interpretation, from politics and culture.
To paraphrase Shay Akil McLean, Twitter user @Hood_Biologist: Science is a method made by humans, practiced by humans; designed by and for humans. And human problems are political and so are their solutions. Science is a dynamic institution, industry, idea machine.
Science is what we know. And what we know is always changing.
Xain HS (@xain_hs on Twitter) tweeted a succession of tweets which included this thought on science: “The scientific method (that natural scientists use) begins with using preexisting observations to develop a theory about nature. Then, you further observe and start forming an experimental method to test that theory. The theory is either wrong (so you adjust), or right. …Forming a theory and experimenting in order to prove it is a subjective endeavor.”
Now, I’m going to kind of gloss over the wrong and right part…because there is no right in science – it’s either wrong or not yet wrong… but that it is getting to into the weeds right now. The things to take away from Xain HS’ tweets are that science is the repeated testing of theories. And in doing such, we are doing something subjective.
Theories are constructed. Arguments are constructed. To quote Donna Haraway again, “Evidence is always a question of interpretation; theories are accounts of and for specific kinds of lives.”
So what does that mean for science education? Not just in formal spaces, but in the informal reading of the latest scientific breakthrough or discovery… What does that mean for how we conceive of science, and share science with those around us?
I’m here to argue that science, at its heart, is a narrative. It is a story we tell that represents our experience and interpretation of evidence.
In this way science and the humanities are one in the same. Science is an expression of the human experience.
And we need to teach and share it as such, encourage people to make their own theories and interpretations based on the available evidence, and to always be searching for more.