Humanities versus STEM: The forced dichotomy where no one wins

Can philosophy and literature ever have a place in the tech sector?

Last autumn, following a difficult six months of redundancies and furloughs that hit the arts and culture sector particularly hard, a governmental campaign encouraging people to retrain to work in the tech industry was met with heavy criticism from the public. The ad showed a young dancer named Fatima tying up her ballet shoes, likely in preparation for rehearsal, with the message “Fatima’s next job could be in cyber. (she just doesn’t know it yet)” overlaid on the left of the image. In the end, the campaign became so unpopular (not to mention thoroughly ridiculed) that it was ultimately scrapped and the government forced to apologise.

Although it was probably not the main intention by design, the ad became a symbol of the way the arts and culture sectors are seen as frivolous, held in less respect than the supposedly more responsible and important STEM subjects. Last year, arts and design, which could well have been the course studied by the person hired by the government to create the infamous campaign, was ranked ninth out of the ten most popular university subjects, according to QS World University Rankings by Subject. Computer science and information systems and engineering and technology topped the list, while humanities subjects such as history, languages, literature, and philosophy, were nowhere to be seen. This shouldn't come as a surprise: Many young people considering studying Arts & Humanities are advised not to pursue this path, as it’s stereotypically seen as a fast track to unemployment or redundancy, as seen during the pandemic. In fact, if you imagine a hypothetical usefulness spectrum dictated by the economy, humanities are going to be on the opposite end from subjects such as maths, computer science, and chemistry.

Two Cultures

Long-time NASA engineer Peter Scott uses a metaphor of driving a car to illustrate the divide between those who are in the tech industry and those who aren’t. 

“The fact is that it's a matter of perspective, and this perspective came to me after driving my children everywhere. They have to sit in the back seat all the time and when one of them gets old enough, and they get to ride in the front seat once in a while, it's like: ‘Oh, you can see so much more here’.”

In a world that is rapidly progressing with new technologies, being “outside” of STEM is a bit like being driven around in a car while being forced to sit in the back seat.

“There are insiders and outsiders in every industry, but the tech industry is the one that's doing the most to reshape where we're going,” he says. “For everyone else, it's like: We don't know where we're going’. [The driver] seems to think you know where you're going, but you're not giving us a good enough picture of it.”

After three decades at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), Scott decided to embark on a more human-facing career of public speaking, which he describes as “scarier and less likely to happen than jumping out of a plane”. However, he also notes that he managed to achieve both. Nowadays, he blends being a business coach and successful TEDx speaker with contracting for NASA. 

“I'm balancing both of these worlds because I want and need to be able to see both sides at the same time. Engineers and scientists, we tend to get locked into a certain view of the world that's driven by the equations and the principles that we know and the natural laws that explain everything. And you can't say that it doesn't, because that's the principle of science,” he says. 

However, while science may be the vanguard of change, if taken in isolation it “leaves out a whole perspective that's driven by poetry, emotion, and artistic values”, notes Scott.

“Because they're not quantifiable and measurable, they get not so much disdained as just ignored by scientists and tech people. It doesn't get you where you need to go as a tech person, so you can't afford to spend time on that. So these worlds are like C P Snow’s Two Cultures – they’re growing, if anything, further apart,” he warns.

From Philosophy to Data Science

The gap between the two separate cultures of humanities and STEM is especially visible in the evolving technology of artificial intelligence, which is becoming more present in everyday life in our phones, workplaces, and even supermarkets.

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“Our journey with AI especially is one that requires a common understanding,” says Scott. “We can't advance this technological agenda that upends everyone's life – in a largely, and hopefully, positive way – without understanding both sides, without finding the bridge between those two cultures.”

Although AI is treated as inherently technological, last year’s events have proven that it’s also a major ethical issue. Nevertheless, despite University of Oxford physicist David Deutsch predicting in 2012 that “philosophy will be the key that unlocks artificial intelligence”, the New College of the Humanities (NCH) is so far the only university in the UK to offer a joint degree in philosophy and artificial intelligence. Dr Brian Ball, who is the head of NCH’s philosophy faculty and an associate professor, tells IT Pro that the degree was launched after the school partnered with the Boston-based Northeastern University.

“We are quite proud of our MA in Philosophy and Artificial Intelligence, and some of our related degrees, such as our MSc AI with a Human Face, and our various bachelor's degrees with humanities majors and data science minors,” he says. “They are prompted in part by our joining the global network of Northeastern University, where interdisciplinarity and the cultivation of human, data, and technological literacies are central to higher education, and partly by the intrinsic merits of studying these subjects together.” 

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AI can benefit from at least two of these merits, according to Ball, with philosophy able to provide the technology with ethicality as well as explainability. This is particularly crucial at a time when facial recognition is increasingly under fire for being prone to unethical usage.

However, AI isn’t the only field where philosophy might be useful. Over the last five years, Exasol chief data and analytics officer Peter Jackson recruited plenty of data scientists, but not all of them come from a traditional IT or data science background. In fact, he says the best data scientist to ever be a part of one of his teams, who was creative, curious, and could turn insights into compelling arguments, didn't hold a degree in computing or data science, but in philosophy. Jackson says that, when recruiting, he doesn’t only look at candidates’ technical skills and their ability to understand data, but also their storytelling skills. This specific ability can be found in “somebody who's done English literature, who is very good at writing poems and stories, and building a coherent argument,” Jackson says. 

“I need them to be able to interpret the output of that piece of work, either to me, or the rest of the team, or to stakeholders,” he tells IT Pro. “If they can only go so far, and they have to hand [it] over to somebody else to tell the story, you can get a disconnect. The person who's telling the story might not be able to answer some of the technical questions that may arise: ‘What training set did you use?’ or ‘Where did that data come from?’. So I try to recruit data scientists who are able to at least tell the first part of the story of their work.”

However, Jackson notes that finding people with both data science and storytelling skills is “very hard”.

“Sometimes, because of particular skills that you need from the data science point of view, you quite often compromise on that. And that's where you do need the professional storytellers, professional writers who can support it,” he adds.

Asked about his thoughts on the split between STEM sciences and humanities, Jackson says that he doesn’t see it as a dichotomy. 

“I don’t think there should be a divide. I think as a society, as an economy, we need smart, educated people – and I think that is the priority.”

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