Drawing Conclusions: Is There A Divide Between Art and Science?

The phrase ‘science policy’ often evokes some sort of loosely applicable exchange between scientists, as providers of the basic research driving social, economic, and environmental change, and the government, which in turn supplies the funding. Characterizing science policy as such, however, conspicuously ignores the primary aspect of the interface between science and society– the grade school classroom.

It would be no stretch to say that, long before any National Science Foundation grant or other government support has been doled out to a given research project, our society has already selected the starring actors, outfitted the lab with fundamental ideas and preconceptions, and thus, to a certain extent, strongly influenced the success of the project; all of this with nothing more formidable that a standard textbook. In developing our ‘science policy,’ it would hence be foolish to ignore the fact that the way we think about and present science to the uninitiated profoundly impacts not only those few who grow up to be scientists but also, crucially, those whose votes will decide the place of science in society.

But there’s a problem. To vast portions of the public, science is not the richly creative and intrinsically human endeavor that it is to most researchers but rather a body of knowledge that has been strangled, doused with formaldehyde, and ignominiously displayed for the passing delight (or not) of every student in the country. The cumulative consequences of this crevasse between researchers and the public are tremendous; beyond the fact that the typical American science class has been so diluted and processed as to be as meaningful as a Twinkie is nutritious, much needed funding and talent is diverted from pure scientific pursuits and allocated instead to more economically “useful” projects.

My contention is not merely that science “can be made to be” fun or interesting, but indeed that science, in its purest state, naturally lends itself to being both understood and genuinely appreciated by everyone. This argument rests on a fundamental reinterpretation of science as a form of creative expression, a discipline that, like the ‘traditional’ artistic fields, seeks not to coldly dissect reality but rather enter into a discussion about the meaning of existence, structure, and humanity.

The rhetoric of reform-oriented educational politics is replete with demands for a more formal and uniform incorporation of artistic endeavors into the standard grade and high school curricula. This is a promising development, but certainly not one without flaws; these proponents of art do a fine job extolling the value of art in a well-rounded education, lamenting moreover how the demands of the global economy have skewed our schools’ focuses towards math and science, which allegedly stifle student creativity and imagination.

Unfortunately, they seem to be right on both counts; the way we currently teach math and science decidedly does not foster creativity and independent thinking, which are sorely missing in many sectors of our society. Art education moreover could indeed be used to promote these very ends. Nevertheless, in taking these two considerations alone as motivation to espouse improved art education as the panacea to the woes of our school system, adherents to this line of reasoning have thereby trodden into a gaping non sequitur: there is no a priori reason to posit that math and science are intrinsically uncreative.

That is to say, since these “demands of the global economy” aren’t going anywhere anytime soon, what if there were a way to incorporate the benefits of art education into the science classroom?

It would not be difficult to show not simply that there exists a way to do so, but indeed that if we teach math and science as we should, as these disciplines really are, we will unavoidably be teaching pupils the very same skills of expression, imagination, independent thinking, and creativity that we see as the primary value of art education.

What Went Wrong

The equations and models underlying science can often be complex, sometimes even prohibitively so. There is no one on the planet for instance who can describe, to an arbitrary detail, the inner workings of the human body, and then of course how could one forget that eternal truth that “no one understands Quantum Mechanics” (Feynman). In the interest of simplifying things, at some point along the line of the development of our science curricula someone recognized that this intricate and nuanced structure takes the form of a sort of tree, with sub-models and sub-equations branching out of a handful of basic starting models by refining them or explaining their underlying mechanics. The idea was that these rough starting points would be of use to those not intending to pursue a career in science while simultaneously preparing the foundations for the rest of the students.

And on the surface it wasn’t perhaps that bad of an idea; these starting points typically have a greater scope of applicability both to everyday life and to further study in the field.

The problem was that at some point the school system lost perspective; it espoused this hierarchical knowledge structure – the cumulative results of our scientific endeavors – that had been extracted from science as science itself. These static bits of knowledge provide the student with a nice set of tactics useful for approaching reality and the questions it poses, but they provide no insight into the deeper strategies for comprehending reality.

Granted, the strategies come in time, but for most students only far too late. A scientist would be sunk without the ability to think critically and creatively about a problem or to pose novel approaches to or ideas about reality. But yet somehow, regardless of how crucial they are both to scientific work and arguably to any productive career, these skills pass under the radar of our curricula and are not cultivated until graduate school in most cases.

It is crucial to keep in mind that the problem described above is in no way unique to science; one could imagine a similar situation in a hypothetical universe in which, for some reason, artistic skills are particularly highly valued. The analog in this universe to our school system would be one in which students are taught in great detail how to hold a paintbrush or violin, forced to memorize the outcomes of various color mixtures, or lectured at interminably about the western artistic canon, but all the while restricted from actually practicing art. Simple minded politicians in this universe might at some point stumble upon the idea of advocating the inclusion of science in schools, promoting it as expedient to fostering independent critical thinking and even creative problem solving.

The parallels here are undeniable, and they strongly suggest that there is no fundamental asymmetry between art and science, but indeed that the problem correctly identified by reformers in our universe lies not necessarily in science itself but in the way in which it is taught.

The art of science and the science of art

We have as yet neglected to more rigorously define science, which we must undertake now. It should be immediately apparent that we cannot rely on material factors for this; science does indeed attempt to understand reality, but then again don’t art or philosophy aim at this as well? We could instead try to segregate the inputs to science, but here again we run up against more ambiguities than we should like to have; science studies elements, but then again don’t many other disciplines try to reduce reality into its basic units? The fact that science has a higher resolution than most disciplines seems to be irrelevant.

Almost all academic disciplines seem to converge or at least overlap in that they all take reality as an input and spit out models, interpretations, or predictions in turn. This is certainly not to say, however, that all disciplines are identical; we have not yet addressed what exactly is doing the processing in the middle!

It is perhaps not insignificant that ‘art’ comes from an Anglo-Norman word for “means, method, or knowledge employed to gain a certain result,” while science similarly comes from a Latin word for knowledge [1], as it is the unique set of bits of knowledge or methods that distinguish the two fields from each other and from other disciplines.  A fitting way to prescriptively describe any field would indeed be with respect to the distinct methods and bits of knowledge utilized therein. This skill differentiation itself generates what we perceive as a descriptive variation of inputs and outputs across academic disciplines; for instance, a historian, who works with a skill set designed to assess the veracity and implications of historic documents, would be quite useless in the field of literature, where ‘validity’ or ‘historical implications’ are rarely, if ever, relevant.

But are these basic methods and facts the only constituents of a given discipline? To answer this question, let us build up an abstracted academic discipline from scratch. We should certainly start with some sort of knowledge base or a set of algorithmic processes. If we leave it at that, we would be presupposing that computers would indeed be the best academics. Two more crucial elements are required; the scholar of this discipline must first be capable of original creative thought, as without this the field would necessarily stagnate. In other words, we don’t remember great artists for painting a flower particularly well but indeed for painting it in a way no one else has before, and we likewise don’t praise scientists who are proficient but not creative in their individual domains. The second ingredient is the capacity for analytic thought; with out this the scholar would be unable to interpret new data or results (or even his own presumably novel ideas). It is clear that this is central to both art and science, as it is what allows artists to attempt to understand and hence be able to comment on reality, society, or beauty, while it similarly empowers scientists to internalize or else adapt to new data. Without these two critical skills of independent analysis and creativity, a discipline would be incapable both of reacting to and producing novelty, and hence would likely stagnate as a discipline.

In his “triarchic theory of intelligence,” psychologist Robert J. Sternberg of Yale University raises an argument for the above three ways of thinking – a field-specific logic (tactics) for implementing and processing knowledge, independent analysis, and creativity – alone constitute human intelligence as applied to any given human endeavor [2].

But even in the absence of the above arguments, the above construction makes it apparent that creativity and independent analysis, the very skills which were supposedly unique to art, play a critical role in any discipline, which removes any theoretical barriers to teaching science like we currently teach art.

This might all seem like an overgeneralization; couldn’t someone, for instance, raise the argument that the extent of creativity is fundamentally different in art than in science?  It is apparent that inventions in both domains are subjected to some constraint – in science this is some sort of logical validity or empirical consistency assessment, while in art this might be a ‘good art/bad art’ judgment. To say that art is definitively less constrained than science is quite a stretch, especially at the cutting edges of science where data might not yet exist to make such validity/consistence judgments. Suppose you’re not convinced, though, and contend further that science is still subject to more constraints than art is; even that wouldn’t necessitate a creativity differential between the two disciplines! Recent research [3] suggests that certain types of constraints, applied in to specific reasonable degrees, can actually facilitate the application of creative thinking to a problem or the novelty of the outcome. To undertake a comprehensive discussion of the nature of creativity and whether it comes in different forms is, naturally beyond the scope of this investigation, but nevertheless it is clear that an argument against creativity in science based solely on the existence of more constraints (if we can concede that after all) doesn’t hold up to data.

Strategic efficacy

We’ve seen thus that science can indeed be at least thought of like art, but is there any reason, other than the nice but dispensable argument that science should be taught as it really is, to include these creative and analytic strategies? That is, taking resources into consideration, would reuniting tactic and strategy in science education be a more productive and efficient paradigm for teaching science both to the laity and to future researchers?

Certainly doing so would better prepare students for careers in science (or indeed academia in general by the above analysis), and it would as well illuminate the process of science to the laity, but neither of these contentions really advances a compelling reason to expose all students to strategy as well as tactic.

But the question now is not whether we ought to teach everyone the strategies of science – arguing for this would parallel many arguments raised in favor of liberal education – but indeed whether doing so is better than teaching them mere tactics. And it’s hard to avoid answering this in the affirmative; domain-specific knowledge and procedures are useful to the pupil only to the extent that that discipline somehow intersects with his life, whereas the “strategies” of analytic and creative thinking, as fundamental thought processes, have a much wider scope of applicability.

Sternberg raises the further compelling argument that, since students tend to be naturally disposed towards different thinking styles, a school system focusing on memorizing knowledge as ours does inexorably and shamelessly alienate the learners favoring other thinking styles [4]. Teaching science as a sum of both the ‘pragmatic’ tactics and the both analytic and creative ‘strategies’ as argued for above would ensure that this alienation does not take place. And if the schools can teach in a manner compatible to all students’ learning styles, it is only reasonable that they would be expanding understanding of well as interest in science.

Drawing the desired conclusions?

Given the definitions of art and science as based on tactical considerations, it is inevitable that any serious program in either must include a hefty introduction to the tactics of the respective domain. Conceding, as we have argued for above, the necessity of the inclusion of strategic instruction presents two major questions; how would these actually be taught, and how would schools assess student (and thus teacher) performance?

Creativity and independent analysis are, by their very natures, inherently difficult to be taught directly in the sense that facts or algorithms can. Nonetheless, it is quite possible for teachers to create environments that foster the development of creativity and independent thinking.

What would such an environment look like? The most immediate solution is to shift time away from lecturing and more towards allowing the students to attempt to derive the now commonly accepted scientific models and equations themselves. Emphasis should be placed not necessarily on producing the ‘desired’ result, but rather for sensitivity to the strengths and weaknesses of the possible alternatives, which should make the ‘desirability’ of the expected result apparent to the student. Collaboration, either during the ideation process or as a form of critique, could be effectively implemented to further the student’s analytical abilities.

Getting more specific than this would require a thorough investigation of how analytic thought and creativity actually function and what factors impede or promote them. Our list of the latter factors cannot be exhaustive due to space constraints, but we present the following examples as illustrative:

  • Encourage a multiplicity of approaches to any given problem
  • Reduce the insistence on the ‘right’ answer so as to promote more fluent ideation (a ‘flat associative hierarchy’ [5]) as well as a critical orientation to the world
  • Select activities that require a variety of different thought processes so as to achieve a balance [4]
  • Implement a grading system that rewards rather than punishes; anything below an A is currently seen as doing ‘poorly,’ whereas realistically an A should indicate superior performance.

The most significant hurdle standing in the way of implementing such ideas is the drive for assessment both of students and teachers. Regardless of whether one agrees with the need for such testing, it would be hard to ignore how prevalent and deeply-rooted the testing culture is in our current system and thus the necessity that any serious reform be at least somehow compatible with it.

Despite the fact that both analysis and creativity have more or less commonly accepted definitions, it is customary to hear the complaint that they are inherently subjective and thus impossible to test. This is a contradiction; if teachers judge performance based on parameters specified in these definitions, the student’s overall ability should be apparent when averaged over the assessments of many different teachers. Moreover, research indicates that teachers will grade fairly consistently with each other if the given parameters for grading are the same [4].

A true test of a student’s progress in a discipline should, naturally, be one which takes into account all of the variegated aspects of the field, which must include independent analysis of new data for its underlying meaning and consistency (or incompatibility) with accepted paradigms, recalling certain facts and implementing these in appropriate situations, and creatively solving problems or producing novel ideas relating to the field.

Recasting science as a discipline fundamentally similar to art and implementing concomitant pedagogical shifts will not only improve science literacy and awareness but perhaps more importantly ensure that our students are getting the most out of their engagement with science, whether it be over the course of a few years or a lifetime.

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  1. Oxford English Dictionary, accessed online at www.oed.com on November 10, 2010.
  2. Sternberg: Beyond IQ: a Triarchic Theory of Human Intelligence. Cambridge University press, 1985.
  3. Finke, Ronald A. et al.: Creative Cognition. Ch 4. MIT Press, 1996.
  4. Sternberg, Robert J.: “Applying the Triarchic Theory of Human Intelligence in the Classroom.” Printed in Intelligence, Instruction, and Assessment. Ed. Sternberg and Wendy M. Williams. Lawrence Earlbaum Associates, 1998.
  5. Colin Martindale: “Creativity and Connectionism.” Printed in The Creative Cognition Approach Ed. Steven M. Smith et al. MIT Press, 1995.

Tyler is a second-year at the University of Chicago majoring in physics and English.