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.