The My-Stery: Why STEM Fields Need an A(rt)…


Picture from boxset of science films of Jean Painlevé

A few days ago I witnessed a twitter battle between astrologist Sam F. Reynolds and Science Nerd/Blogger Rai Elise on November 5th (click on view conversation to read her tweets) over the legitimacy of astrology and the conversation highlighted some important and common conflicts between art fields and science/math/technology fields. Reynolds says some key things in his argument that I wanted to spotlight (I rearranged the tweets):

“Science is only as good as its tools, like everything else…The tools of science have their limits like anything else. People seek astrology for meaning. Science may do that less for ppl.”

“I don’t have a hope of an objective reality. Even with our scientific tools, we see the cosmos as we are…It’s not objective reality we’re talking about. It’s consensual reality…We’re not talking about tools of science, but what inspires them and the net meaning derived from them”

About electricity: “That’s still a consensual use of a force that most of animal kingdom has no use for. Not free of subjectivity”

“You say it’s not true, but do we have independent & known perceptions of things from other species on this planet?”

“Astrology ultimately comments on behavior using planets as references…Astrology isn’t about studying nature, but the study of human nature as symbolized by celestial phenomena…The natural world has its motions, but how we assign meaning is the province of all other arts. Are they less important? …Astrology is poetry applied to celestial events. What’s to prove with poetry?”

Reading his tweets, I could not help but find agreement with Reynolds, not that I wholeheartedly believe in all of or study astrology (although I do love having a sun in leo and know I have an aquarius moon and cancer rising 🙂 ), but I do agree there is a kind of arrogance from some in STEM fields. As you may know we live in societies that are emphasizing STEM education and fields, but often at the expense of art education and fields. Art is more and more seen as expendable, probably because it is not as rigid and structured on the basis of accuracy and traditional science and math. It is part of why art is going down the drain because some use science and technology as a way to reduce human experience and not expand it.

Often science and art are detached from one another and many today ignore the connections between art (and other cultural productions like myth, mysticism, religion, etc. I see them a cultural/psycho-social stories). Historically, science has come out of or coincided with of artforms. For example, artist Joshua Mays said “creative ideas that are presented by the artists end up inspiring the explorers, the scientists, the future…Leonardo Da Vinci would draw a picture or plan of flying machines because he had these dreams of human beings taking flight. Reynolds mentions in his tweets that scientists and mathematicians like Alhazen and Pythagoras were also mystics/religious and philosophers. In ways, we need art to be scientists; artists go beyond convention and question that idea of reality or what’s normal since actual objective reality barely exists in the human imagination.

Artwork from Karin Ronmark

Science is not completely objective and in a vacuum; it is filled with bias and socio-cultural perceptions, or as Reynolds said our “consensual reality.” It is not how the universe actually is, but how we describe it through out cultural symbols and languages. The word science itself is a socio-cultural creation. Who said it should be called science; who said that the scientific words we use should be that or why should we use Latin and Greek words for scientific terms? Those humans in power decide those things, not the natural laws. Science is not just observation of nature, but worlds we create through our symbolism and language, and we have used the access of the knowledge of science to create things that do not exist in the world naturally. We give meaning to it. And we do that with art, too. They are both bodies of knowledge and information that can be applied to our lives and used for various purposes.

Science can tell me what compounds a bowl is made of or what it looks like, but it cannot tell me its name or how it should be used, that is culture, that is art. Science can explain some things, it can break down the matter or how something works, but it is difficult for it to give a purpose or why. How does this apply to my life? What is the essence of this thing. That is often a mystery that we bridge with art and mysticism. People like a sense of a story, a sense of meaning; it is actually how our brain works, how it remembers. Stories provide a sense of grounding and connection.

But a lot of how we think about science and art comes from this Western view of rational thought and a desperate need for historical and scientific accuracy as well as physical evidence of everything. That thought pattern can lead to objectification, where everything becomes just a thing to be studied. As Roger Bonair-Agard tweeted, “[Western] Empiricism is a system for verification, not inherent in the nature of the matter being questioned.” Reynolds later tweeted about older cultures that combined religion and science and it was not until Enlightenment that that idea mostly changed. Humans have approached science in different ways, through art, through spirituality, etc. Our stories, our symbols, our languages are sciences of possibility, sciences of not as Sun Ra would describe in his myth-science. They do not exist in a physical, provable manner; they are worlds created through words, poetry, visual, music, etc. Art is not solely based on ideas of proof or absolute truth and accuracy. It is meant to give a sense of meaning to life, to understand human psyche. Science can do that in some ways, but sometimes it falls short in doing so too. Our societies have detached some of the awe, wonder, mystery, storytelling, and applicability to everyday life (like Einstein said) in separating science and art. Through the normalization of science as more important than art and not as a companion of it, it comes off as cold, as snobby; it does not speak to the soul. It is why some of the tweets from Rai Elise about science were troubling for me, like:

“It teaches us more about the world around us than pseudoscience ever could.” (disparaging astrology)

“I didn’t say arts are unimportant just not good sources of information on how the world works. Science is better for that.”

“But imagination and subjective reality do not enhance our understanding of objective reality. Science has… As flawed as it is”

Science is shaped by our socio-cultural perceptions and imaginations. We can observe how the universe works, but the knowledge does not determine how we use it; our societies and cultures do. In of itself because it is amoral, it does not determine how to ethically and healthily apply it to our lives; culture does that. We as humans shape that knowledge. As Rasheedah Phillips of Afrofuturist Affair puts it, “science is fiction” and maybe we should start seeing it more as that or putting the two worlds together (Examples: Nettrice Gaskin and Scientific American on STEAM, Ron Eglash’s African Fractals, Teaching science through rap).

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