Humanists and Scientists: More Alike than Different

I recently stumbled upon a 2013 column in the blog of Scientific American by John Maeda, president of Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), with the title “Artists and Scientists: More Alike Than Different“. The article describes the commonalities between artists and scientists based on Maeda’s personal experience. As opposed as they may look, Maeda argues that artists and scientists share more than we think in their workflows, and that they can help each other to a great extent in their respective crafts. Here, I’ll argue that these commonalities not only apply to the intersection between what artists and scientists do, but that they actually extend to the intersection between humanists (as in the Humanities) and scientists.

Let’s first recap the similarities between artists and scientists identified by Maeda. Essentially, both groups are highly skilled at walking into the unknown, enjoying being the first to think of a disruptive idea or to face a fresh problem not previously encountered. Also, both artists and scientists are good at proposing ‘plausible explanations’ (or hypotheses) to the phenomena they observe into that unknown. The workflows of both that follow from that initial hypothesis are, at an abstract level, almost identical: sequential iterations refine the initial plausible explanation more and more, until there is some certainty of truth (whatever than means in their worlds). In Maeda’s view, these commonalities explain the success of many projects at RISD. In these projects, artists have contributed to scientific works in two ways. First, thanks to their ability to generate plausible explanations, artists have helped scientists when stuck to propose brave, unexpected hypotheses. These hypotheses helped the scientists to widen their perspective beyond their local, detail-focused mindset, pushing them towards unplanned research paths. Second, artists have performed great scientific dissemination campaigns by using their unique communication skills. This has been useful to help scientific findings to reach society through Art in a more understandable fashion – something at which scientists have not been historically very effective. In the opposite direction, scientists have greatly contributed in artists’ work in “decades of advancement in computer graphics at SIGGRAPH; in the latest exhibitions at the Science Gallery in Dublin, or in the midst of groundbreaking scientific results with the Large Hadron Collider and more.

As I went through Maeda’s artists-scientists arguments, I deliberately thought whether these also apply to humanists-scientists more generally. In my biased view of the world, I tend to consider Art as one of the disciplines of the Humanities (together with Language, History, Theology, Philosophy and Law). Certainly, the ability to communicate abstract concepts by using visual and auditory artifacts is well developed amongst artists, but what skills do artists and other humanists share that could interact with scientific workflows? Moreover, how would the relationship studied by Maeda be affected if we consider humanists instead of artists?
The question is, obviously, not new. But I thought it would be an interesting (and playful) investigation to think about it in Maeda’s terms: are humanists and scientists more alike than different? If so, what do they share? What can humanists do for scientists, and what can scientists do for humanists?

Since, in my simplistic view of superclass-subclass relationships, all artists are humanists, chances are that humanists are also good at posing ‘plausible explanations’. In a New Trends in eHumanities meeting in Amsterdam last year, Jacqueline Hicks mentioned that “humanists are often more interested in the questions they ask, and give value to argumentation and vagueness instead of truth”. First, this supports Maeda’s thesis that artists and humanists might be at least as good as scientists –and perhaps in some cases better—at posing interesting questions and plausible explanations. Second, this appreciation for vagueness and uncertainty builds a daily practice of the humanist based on hermeneutics: the fine art of interpreting meaning behind texts. Considering this unique set of skills, I think the interaction between humanists and scientists has produced great outcomes –and has many to bring in the future. First, humanists can widen even more the role of artists as generators of hypotheses in scientific workflows. Beyond Art, the questions and plausible explanations that humanists have to offer in Law, Philosophy, Theology, Language and History are only starting to unveil. Second, humanists can have a key role as interpreters in multiple settings. For example, a humanist could bring in her fine skill of interpretation in producing scientific position papers. In position papers, scientists generally describe plausible research paths for a given field. With sufficient documentation, a humanist could contribute, even with scarce technical knowledge (which would be a feature, not a bug), at suggesting unexplored paths. Another example would be in current scientific research on causality, in which humanists, as plausible explanation generators, could suggest considerable amounts of example data. An example in the opposite direction would be on scientists trying to replicate this interpretation behaviour, by using Artificial Intelligence techniques and leveraging semantics.

Nevertheless, this generalisation of Maeda’s postulates is already contributing tangible outcomes in the Digital Humanities. Recent contributions of Natural Language Processing, like topic modelling, to process large quantities of humanities sources are revealing interesting research questions and answers. The variety of different types of source data in the humanities, like non-textual databases, poses fundamental scientific questions and is being addressed by many other research projects, often with a historical perspective, like CEDAR [1,2] and Elite Network Shifts.

[1] Albert Meroño-Peñuela, Ashkan Ashkpour, Marieke van Erp, Kees Mandemakers, Leen Breure, Andrea Scharnhorst, Stefan Schlobach, Frank van Harmelen. “Semantic Technologies for Historical Research: A Survey”. Semantic Web — Interoperability, Usability, Applicability, 6(6), pp. 539–564. IOS Press (2015).

[2] Albert Meroño-Peñuela, Ashkan Ashkpour, Christophe Guéret, Stefan Schlobach. “CEDAR: The Dutch Historical Censuses as Linked Open Data”. Semantic Web — Interoperability, Usability, Applicability (in press). IOS Press (2015).