What has art ever done for science?

There’s a good post under this title at the Wellcome Trust blog—thanks Chris Fremantle—describing some of the ways that art and science collaborations have advanced scientific knowledge. Several commentators have added their own ideas and experiences in the same vein. It’s certainly a valid answer to the question: there is a growing body of collaborations between artists and scientists, many of which have produced knowledge of different kinds.

But I’m interested in the question itself, and the oddly blinkered assertion that prompted it. According to Lewis Wolpert,

‘Art has contributed zero to science, historically’.

Where to start with such a statement?

Perhaps by challenging the assumption that we know and agree what is meant by ‘art’ and ‘science’ or that those meanings have stayed the same ‘historically’. Isn’t it a basic principle of scientific method to be precise about terms when proposing hypotheses?

Or I might observe that the statement seems to conceive art and science as singular, self-contained activities when in fact human beings are infinitely more complex than that. Whatever else one might say about them, neither art nor science exists in the physical world. They are human constructs that help us engage with the extraordinary, incomprehensible experience of existence. They are not real. They do not have clear boundaries. They exist in human minds (whatever they are).

Then there is the question of what constitutes a contribution: is it really limited to helping science answer its own questions? If so, very few human activities can have contributed much to science, whose task is precisely to answer questions that cannot be answered through other means. To say that art doesn’t answer scientific questions is the equivalent of saying that baking doesn’t solve gardening problems. It’s evidently so: they are different systems of knowledge.


Art’s contribution to science can only be dismissed if we imagine scientists as robots, unaffected by emotion, other people or the vagaries of their own minds. But scientists are just people who do science, as artists are people who do art. They come in every shape and size. Some are passionately interested in and influenced by art. Would Einstein have been the scientist he was without his love of music? Who can say? Not science, at any rate.

Underlying all this is a false belief that to value one branch of human knowledge or endeavour or imagination, you must dismiss all others as inferior. That actually does seem to be Professor Wolpert’s view, as he told the Guardian a few years ago that:

Science is the best way to understand the world, and that for any set of observations, there is only one correct explanation

This seems an extraordinary statement from someone who has written so sensitively about ageing and depression. It certainly does not account for any world that includes love, jealousy or music: to understand those we might need such inadequate scientists as Tolstoy, Proust or Schubert.

Until we get over the idea that to be valuable at all we must be better than everything else, we will stay trapped in our ignorant little silos.



  1. Well said! And I would go a step further. Science and art both seem inextricably linked to creativity and curiosity, and both have marched in lockstep throughout human experience. I think that, without the creative inspiration of art, it would be impossible for us to even contemplate scientific ideas. Developing science demands a heck of a lot more imagination than Wolpert gives credit for.

    1. Thanks – you’re right about imagination, which is the starting point of both curiosity and creativity, whether we are drawn to art, science or both as methods of exploration.

  2. What I don’t understand is that artists and the arts sector as a whole show no interest in what climate scientists are telling us is going to happen to this planet soon. Musicians have been seen campaigning against the Vietnam war and the draughts in Ethiopia and Sudan, and many other good causes – but for some reason only a tiny little minority of artists has found it relevant to engage themselves in the Greatest Drama of All Time, the ‘climatecopcalypse’ which science is telling us is building up fast in the horizon because of our inaction.

    Take for instance the coming 5th IMC World Forum on Music which will roll off on 21-24 November 2013 where over 1,000 music professionals from all over the world will fly to Australia to “discuss, plan, perform and experience the future of music on this planet” under the conference theme ‘Sustaining music, engaging communities’.

    Eh… did they say “Sustaining music?”
    What kind of climate science denial bubble is musicians are living in?
    Seriously, what good is it to “sustain music”, when there is no liveable planet left to sustain it on?

    This will be “the most comprehensive and unconventional event about the future of music that Australia has ever hosted,” according to Music Council of Australia chairman professor Huib Schippers, and on their website I cannot see a single word or thoughts about the environmental issues which are threatening the future of not only our music, but arts and livelihood. Everything we have dear. Everything we have fought for and struggled for.

    No. Artists pretend it is all good, and there is no science out there desperately trying to tell them something.

    Scientists have failed communicating their messages, and politicians along with the media are to entangled with the fossil fuel industry and economy to be interested in showing leadership and responsibility.

    So everyone continues to live as if there is no tomorrow, and in Brisbane on 21-24 November, when they talk about the future, they will be talking about “the future of our wonderful music.” “The thrilling developments.” “Music’s enriching qualities.” “Creation of new works, engaging in traditions, ensuring that traditions can continue and that cultural diversity flourishes.” “Challenges within cultural policies.” “How new music will continue to flourish, and to engage communities.” (www.worldforumonmusic.org).

    Not ALL musicians are as disconnected from reality as the IMC members, luckily. Thom Yorke, lead singer in Radiohead, for instance, was recently quoted as saying:

    “We’re at a time when we are being presented with undeniable changes in the global climate and fundamental issues that affect every single one of us, and it’s the time we’re listening to the most hokey shite on the radio and watching vacuous bullshit celebrities being vacuous bullshit celebrities and desperately trying to forget about everything. Which is fine, you know, but personally speaking, I can’t do that.”

    And there are musicians such as these: http://climatesafety.info/?p=3132
    And artists such as these: http://climatesafety.info/?p=2648

    What would it take, I wonder, to get the arts world to wake up and engage in the biggest challenge humanity has ever faced? What would it take to make artists engage with climate scientists and possibly help these (currently very miserable and isolated) scientists with creating that broad mind-shift we need to see evolve very very fast now in order to get off our addiction to fossil fuels and cut carbon emissions? If artists were into it and leading the way, so much good could happen over night.

    “Where is the cultural pathos of climate change?,” asks Brian Merchant in an article in Motherboard.
    “Even novelists have been late to the game, and have largely neglected the crisis until rather recently. The ’90s and much of the ’00s passed without a lot of climate-centric fiction. The lack of cultural support for the climate is further evidence that the public simply hasn’t adequately absorbed the climate crisis yet: we’re not afraid. The reasons for this are myriad, too.”

    (Motherboard – 10 October 2013:
    How Disaster-Hungry Pop Culture Ignored the Biggest Disaster of All
    “We’re torching the planet, and hardly anyone is telling stories about it. Hollywood’s not making movies about it, pop stars aren’t writing songs about it. Few authors or artists have addressed it head on.”
    By Brian Merchant
    http://motherboard.vice.com/blog/pop-culture-and-climate-change )

    To round off on a more positive note, it’s great to see what Julie’s Bicycle has been able to push through in the UK. These are the kind of initiatives the arts sector all over the world can take inspiration from. http://www.juliesbicycle.com

    I’ve collected / compiled a few ideas to artists and arts institutions on this page:

    It is time to stand up for our children and grandchildren and get into the fight.

    1. Wow – thanks for these thoughts and links Mik,. I admire your passion and commitment. I’m glad too that you’ve come across the work of Julie’s Bicycle: there are many others working in the arts to bring about change. Just this morning there were a posts on my sister site from people active in this way: Chris Fremantle and Tim Collins and Reiko Goto. On a completely different scale, I just watched an interview with Bong Joon-ho about his post-apocalyptic film ‘Snowpiercer‘.

      I recognise your frustration, especially in the context of the limited horizons of the Brisbane meeting you describe. But I think it’s unrealistic to expect artists to be better than other people: less egoistical, more altruistic, more willing to take risks and accept uncomfortable change. Some of people act admirably, but because of their character, not their artistic talent. It is widely believed that artists are special people because they have special talents: but I don’t think it’s true.

      On the other hand, I do agree that those of us who have the opportunity to be heard – and that does include many artists – need to take responsibility for how we use the platforms that others don’t have. I hear your challenge.

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