Can’t we all just get along?

Astute readers of my blogular warblings over the past decade or so may have some hunches on why things have been so quiet on my public soapbox. Relative newcomers might point to social media and the allure of sharing short form blogs through the various sites that facilitate sharing quickly. You may all draw your own conclusions.

I noticed some friction recently between “arts and humanities people” and “STEM people” (which I had to look up, since I didn’t realise scientists, technologicians, engineers, and mathematicians had all been herded into one acronym). It feels similar to the animosity between some knitters and some crocheters, which I will never understand and take a certain offense to. As someone who does both, it means I occasionally get crap from one side or another. The STEM/arts debate hurts everyone, and it prevents people from having productive conversations. Not all scientists are antisocial autists. Not all arts people are innumerate. This is a boring debate.

Both artsy and sciencey people value creativity. Devising creative solutions to a problem, whether that problem be a blank canvas or a molecule that hasn’t ever been made, moves humanity forward. If something has been done it’s easy enough to do again; these days you can ask a computer or a robot to do it in many cases. The movers and shakers in any field are the ones who are the most creative. Arts and STEM people should be able to talk to one another about this, as both camps do a lot of thinking about how to facilitate creative work.

All this came to mind when I stumbled over a line from J. J. Thomson (who you may remember from your secondary school chemistry class, if you had one). He was talking about science, but you could easily replace the word “research” with “art” and get an equally salient point:

If you pay a man a salary for doing research, he and you will want to have something to point to at the end of the year to show that the money has not been wasted. In promising work of the highest class, however, results do not come in this regular fashion, in fact years may pass without any tangible results being obtained, and the position of the paid worker would be very embarrassing and he would naturally take to work on a lower, or at any rate, different plane where he could be sure of getting year by year tangible results which would justify his salary. The position is this: You want this kind of research, but if you pay a man to do it, it will drive him to research of a different kind. The only thing to do is pay him for doing something else and give him enough leisure to do research for the love of it.

People know that artists need to be supported but not necessarily pressured to create art, and I think it’s the case for creative work in fields less commonly associated with creativity as well.

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