Humanities vs Science: is writing a dying art?

Science and humanities are often segregated in education and professional development. Even as a personal interest, the two disciplines are usually considered incompatible. In reality, they are complementary. Imagine if all science degrees included core humanities subjects in the first year? How would scientists, and science, benefit from a basic humanities perspective? This series looks for answers in some of the most common humanities disciplines.

Mentioning the word ‘humanities’ in a room full of scientists is pretty risky. For some scientists, there is a stigma attached to the study of ‘arty’ subjects. The process of research and inquiry in classics, history, literature and anthropology is very different to the scientific method. Yet neither approach is wrong, both are equally creative, and both have the ultimate goal of discovering and sharing knowledge. Having studied and worked in both disciplines, I can’t see any way that one is more rigorous than the other. But there is a huge difference in the way that most students are educated in each discipline. Humanities courses, in particular, are often better at teaching students how to write.

Science is about generating and sharing knowledge to build our collective wisdom. So communicating the results of scientific research is a core responsibility of a scientist…something that has become a bit of a topical issue. Experts of various disciplines have been sharing great ideas through blogs, popular science media and academic journals on how scientists can communicate more effectively. However, the majority of these pieces focus on communication as a practising scientist, i.e. after graduation. Far less attention is given to how communication skills can be enhanced prior to starting a science career by top-down initiatives at the education level. Continue reading

Artisan insects and scicomm

One of the positives of our modern dependence on technology and the Internet is their ability to allow us to connect and engage with more people. This is a common argument for open access publishing: because we now have the technology to make scientific articles freely available to all, we should embrace it and make it happen.

Does making information freely accessible online automatically make the material more accessible? Not necessarily. Scientific articles are not a ‘mainstream’ medium. They use language that only peer-group scientists and specialist science communicators can understand. Just making an article free to view doesn’t make it more accessible or useful to a general audience.

Take the Law, for example. Australia’s Commonwealth and State government legislation are online for everyone to access for free, whenever they want. But, seriously, when was the last time you sat down with a cup of tea to read the Albury-Wodonga Development Act 1973?

For science to have impact beyond its peer audience, it usually needs to be translated through a common language. So publishing open access is not a replacement for science communication, it is complementary to it.

I recently acquired the wonderful ‘Insect Artizans and their Work’ (1919) by Edward Step. Step was a naturalist who contributed a number of beautiful books to the natural history literature. His works were considered popular at the time, although his account of a mouse-eating grasshopper from the Congo in ‘Marvels of Insect Life’ may have subsequently blacklisted him with the scientific community. Continue reading

Ecosystem services: myth or reality?

Ever wondered how you get sucked into clicking on topical headlines (here are some great tips for creating those headlines)? Do you question how you know so much about Miley’s personal life, when you don’t even like her music? This is how journalists and entertainment media work – whether classy or tabloid, they know how to tap into human psyche and emotional values to get their story out.

This is a useful tool rarely taught in traditional science education: the key to effective public engagement and communication of research and evidence is in understanding what the public values and how they interpret things. (This can also help when doing research.) Continue reading

On the relativity of science and nature

This week, Science magazine published a piece listing the top 50 scientist ‘stars’ on Twitter. The list contained only 6 biologists and not a single ecologist. Although the authors acknowledge that their method of selection was not rigorous, this perpetuates a common misconception that ‘nature’ has nothing to do with ‘science’. Just like recent comments from our Minister for Industry (for international readers, we don’t have a Minister for Science), which implied that industry and technology are more relevant to our society than science.

So, are science, industry and technology the same thing? No. Continue reading

Data, not just for scientists

Early last year I wrote a post on ecology and mathematics that was inspired by an online discussion happening at the time. Although comprehensive advanced maths skills are not essential to being an influential or inspiring ecologist, a good level of mathematical knowledge and understanding of statistical analysis is definitely necessary to create honest science and communicate the importance of your work to others.

But it’s not just ecologists who need mathematical common sense. Anyone who deals with, or is interested in science needs to understand the ambiguity of an average, or the difference between a regression and a correlation. In fact, anyone who cares about the society they live in should be aware how deeply statistics and data now influence the way we live – policies and decisions on anything from what product choices you find in retail stores to how much tax you pay are all based on data.

Why does this matter to us? Well, if those data are a bit dodgy, or haven’t been analysed and presented appropriately, problems arise. And when these kinds of data misrepresentations are used to fuel public opinion or inform government policy, there can be serious impacts on communities, individuals and ecosystems. Continue reading

Exploring Nature in the blogosphere

Recently, I was kindly awarded a blog award from a blogger whose thoughts I also enjoy reading, the delightfully-named Snail of Happiness. Rather than ‘officially’ passing the award baton, I am just going to pass on the favour by reviewing a few of my great blog discoveries. Some of them I’ve been reading for a couple of years, some I’ve only discovered recently, but all of them are wonderful and have kept me inspired (and a little bit more sane) while I was orbiting The Thesis’ event horizon. I hope they will inspire you too. Continue reading