01/11/2012 11:20 am ET Updated Mar 12, 2012

More Science or More Arts & Humanities?

I am sitting at a dinner party full of lawyers, scientists and artists. An interesting debate breaks out between the "arts and letters" of academia and science. One charismatic lawyer starts it.

"We really need more scientists in the United States. Everything is better with science and we really lack the number of scientists we need for us to have a good, healthy strong society. Our country is suffering because we need more science."

Interestingly enough, a physicist disagrees. "That's not true. We don't live properly with the science we do have. We could have a huge impact on our society by making some major changes in the way we live. To that end, what we lack is motivation on a soul level. The impact of a good song or poetry can change a country."

The lawyer laughs. "You actually think that? The impact of a poet or artist doesn't compare to the impact of a scientist. A society can function without the arts, but we depend so much on science that we need more of it. Society is most impacted by science."

The physicist contradicts her. "We actually have all the science we need at the moment. The problems in the world are due to the fact that we don't know how to properly use it. We don't live sustainably and we've lost our connection to the world. Poets and artists can make just as big of an impact (and even bigger) than science. You just don't realize it."

I decide not to partake in the argument as I learn more by listening to both sides, but it seems to me that one version of the question is whether science is inherently good or bad. I was reminded of this again while scouring the Templeton Foundation site for possible grant opportunities and happened upon a current grant award made to a Danish institute exploring the question "How is knowledge about science a good thing for religious practice or theology?" The Danish National Church's Institute for Theological Education seems to understand the importance of a scientific understanding for those in religious studies and theology. Through science we learn critical thinking and logical, analytical reasoning (important to religious studies), as we are informed about the natural order of the world and what is currently explicable according to natural laws. But what if it is equally important for those in science to study the humanities including religion?

This is what my friend, Ross, said to me on an arduous hike in a South African mountain range one morning. "Scientists need to study the humanities," my friend told me, "otherwise, you end up with things like the atomic bomb." That is when I realized that, just like religion, science has produced good and bad. As someone who has worked to detect and stop chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, and explosive weapons, I have seen the bad. So I know science is not enough. "Science gives man knowledge that is power," Martin Luther King, Jr. once said. "Religion gives man wisdom that is control." Whether you get that wisdom from religion or elsewhere, it seems clear to me that perhaps we do need wisdom in the application of science. Perhaps scientists should study the humanities.

Scientists should study language to better communicate scientific results and implications especially to non-scientists. Such work naturally leads to the social science of communication studies. Science communication helps include all of society in the scientific dialogue and aids the inclusion of science in the societal dialogue. Scientists should study history to learn of the past uses of sciences. Through such studies, hopefully, lessons are learned to prevent or at least dissuade the misuse of science to bad ends. Though judging a particular use of science as good or bad depends on the adjudicator, scientists should study philosophy, law, and religion to learn of the different ideas and concurrence of goodness, justice, law, and truth. This guides and directs the use of science. Scientists should also study religion to learn about how to be relevant to communities of faith especially in areas such as international development when so much use of science in development involves rebuilding communities in which religious groups form the foundation. (History, law, and philosophy are also considered social sciences as well as humanities, but their importance is still relevant.)

With the plethora of both good and bad products of science, I can throw away dualistic thinking and realize that science is neither good nor bad. Science is neutral. It is the application of science that is good or bad. One definition of wisdom is the proper application of knowledge, and we need wisdom in the application of scientific knowledge. A study of the humanities (including religion) towards the purpose of good applications of science is a good thing. Back to our dinner party question: maybe we need both -- more science but always accompanied by even more arts and letters.