Sir Bob Jones

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Bob Jones: Without humanities, science could destroy us

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Understandably scientists are single-minded in their pursuits with no time to weigh the implications. Photo / Thinkstock
Understandably scientists are single-minded in their pursuits with no time to weigh the implications. Photo / Thinkstock

Increasingly it's become voguish for politicians to call for more science and engineering graduates, particularly computer science, medical research and other technologies.

These advocacies often include a veiled attack on humanities study, implying this is value-less academic indulgence. Steven Joyce, Minister for Tertiary Education, Science and Innovation and Economic Development periodically opines such sentiments.

But he's not alone. A prominent British politician even questioned why students "waste time" studying history a few years back, this despite history being the primary foundation for any perspective of the human condition.

Astonishing scientific discoveries and computer-based innovations have in a relatively short time brought about the greatest leap in living standards in human history, with developments in economic efficiency, medicine, communications and numerous other activities, all the stuff of science fiction a generation back.

I marvel at each discovery but what concerns me is the scorn applied to humanities study these developments have induced. In my view the need for humanities students has never been greater so as to make sense of it all.

That's not pie-in-the-sky; to the contrary, the need is pressing.

Consider this. Recently some Australian university scientists announced they had located the ageing element in human cells. Furthermore, they'd discovered how to neutralise it, albeit at a cost of $40,000 a day which puts it beyond utilisation. But that won't last and eventually, as with everything else, the cost will become negligible.

Imagine the implications. Humans stop growing around the age of 24. Thereafter begins the decline, initially insignificant but hastening with age. Hair drops out, breasts sag, joints wear out - you all know the story. Now imagine taking a daily pill which negates cell destruction. You can decide when to start, perhaps at the age of 30, and remain 30 for eternity. All sorts of issues arise. Death will only be through mishap and the population will explode. You meet a pretty girl and learn she's 83, albeit physically say 26. That certainly would be tricky. On the positive side, it will be the death of religion having removed its principal pillar of the fear of death.

And what of boredom which if one's been hanging about for 150 years, would surely set in? Readers can imagine the mind-boggling good and bad implications of eternal existence and a population likely comprising adults solely in their 20s.

This is not futuristic fantasy. It will happen. Numerous other scientific advances raise similar questions but the one certainty is that the existing order will be on its head.

This morning's newspaper's foreign page began with the news that the American Congress is about to legalise phone surveillance of everyone. The next item detailed China's new hypersonic warplane which allegedly will render every nation's current defence technology worthless, then came a story of British scientists' breakthrough curing a particular blindness.

All of which brings me back to my initial point, namely the overwhelming importance of encouraging thinkers capable of making sense of the future turmoil awaiting us. For that is the purpose of philosophy, history, economics and the like, namely to develop judgment and perspective through contemplation. The humanities problem is that unlike the scientists and engineers producing these marvels, their value is intangible.

Understandably scientists are single-minded in their pursuits with no time to weigh the implications. We've already been there. One of science's greatest achievements is nuclear energy. When its development was re-focused on weaponry, the result was Hiroshima. That decision was made by a shopkeeper who through energy and chance became the American President.

Afterwards, the bomb designers bemoaned their creation but the cat was out of the bag. So too the ability for a technician to feed data into a computer and zap someone in a mountain village half a globe away, or on a more mundane front, the rapid replacement of menial employment by technology.

With the exception of the Greens, politicians understandably have short-term outlooks, their decisions motivated solely by the pursuit of power and their fate hanging on the here and now. But they should recognise that science is racing ahead of our ability to cope and cease knocking the humanities. This field of study is now critically important in its promotion of knowledge, wisdom, vision and judgment and far from scoffing we need to promote its virtues. It's the absence of these qualities in leadership which have brought about every human disaster, such as warfare in particular.

Ultimately politicians are mere puppets, pulled this way and that, not simply by events but by bureaucrats, think tanks, lobbyists, interest groups, the media et al. It is these influential groups in which an enhancement in wisdom and judgment will be most needed, failing which technical innovation could well destroy us, for as Einstein warned, World War IV will be fought with clubs.

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- NZ Herald

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