When Science Is More Art than Science

Or how I learnt to start worrying and stop loving science
DEC 2019

Maybe climate change is a hoax and vaccinations cause autism. Maybe 9/11 was an inside job, the earth is as flat as my grandma’s pancake, pineapple belongs on a pizza, and you should switch to Geico. Just maybe. Being the curious species that we are, we have to entertain all possibilities, even if they sound absurd. But then, what makes the best choice?

Artistry That Drives Science

Given the vastness and complexity of the universe, we’ve never been in a position to completely understand its workings. Every day we ask new questions, learn something different, and alter our view of the world, thus making science a self-correcting enterprise. While it is often stated that rationality drives science, the limits to our rationality (questioning) are a product of our environment. This personalization of rationality is what I call artistry

Cambridge dictionary describes artistry as a great skill in creating or performing something in writing, music, sport. It is a word seldom encountered in the natural sciences where it is usually assumed that there is one ultimate truth. However, just as the Mona Lisa speaks differently to different people, the natural phenomenon of watching an apple fall or observing light could evoke different and sometimes incompatible scientific questions in different people. Such a method of questioning is personal. We cannot expect the answers to be the same. 

Any natural phenomenon in and of itself is inherently neutral and random. But artistry behind understanding the phenomenon scientifically could be driven by different things: free food, credit card points, Nobel prizes, the chorus to ‘Don’t Stop Believing’, and/or the greater good. A drunken scientist once remarked that sometimes science is more art than science. As science increasingly becomes the indicator for societal progress, previous experiences, ideologies, emotions, or biases driving science need to be held to a higher standard.

When Artistry Overpowers Science  

While it is impossible to decouple artistry from science for we are human, it is crucial to acknowledge the role of artistry in shaping science. Linus Pauling, a two-time Nobel Prize winner, famously commented on Dan Shechtman’s work on quasicrystals: “there are no quasicrystals, only quasi-scientists.” Despite several correspondences between the two scientists, Pauling remained a non-believer of quasicrystals’ existence until his death in 1994. Dan Shechtman would eventually go on to win the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for discovering quasicrystals in 2011. While it is in the spirit of science to debate new ideologies, dismissal of evidence opposed to the existing status quo is a triumph of human artistry

The stakes are much higher when artistry influences the tech industry. The rise (and eventual fall) of Theranos is one such case. Elizabeth Holmes, Theranos’ founder, claimed to have created immediate, on-site blood testing. She peddled the idea to several government and Silicon Valley heavyweights until the company reached a $10 billion valuation – despite having no evidence that her device actually worked, or even existed. Artistry driven by charisma and great marketing was enough to offset unproven technology and questionable ethical practices. The company kept running for 15 years before the scientific community eventually caught up. Regardless of whether Holmes always had sincere intentions of providing quick blood testing or if she was in it for the fame, the whole saga demonstrates how human artistry can steer scientific temper into unforeseen consequences. While Wall Street also gets a bad rap for such artistry, any field that involves humans is not immune.

Do We Need to Become Better Artists?

A fascinating aspect of these two examples is that they boil down to trust in our artistry: Trust in how we perceive our previous experiences, trust in new ideas presented to us, trust in powerful figures. With finite time and resources available to us, we might not be capable of gathering all the evidence. Communities across the world have historically turned to parents, teachers, friends or more recently, the Internet, for help. We would rather take suggestions from a friend about a restaurant rather than looking at the online reviews. As individuals or even smaller communities, we often fall into the comfort of the status quo. While staying loyal to the status quo is comforting, we have to recognize that a specific artistry led us there. Defenders of status quo, powerful artists like parents, brands, dictators or Nobel Prize winners, have their credibility at stake if they are held to a different standard overnight.

As Neil Diamond points it out, when you are a believer, you cannot leave even if you try.

There is nothing inherently sacrosanct about any worldview, but the best we can do is to collectively agree as to what that could be. A reasonable approach would be to expand our search space of perspectives by building diverse communities. These communities will share the burden of gathering more equitable evidence that will influence artistry to push us out of the status quo. The more artists that come into the picture, the better the odds of us getting out of the status quo.

Getting out of the status quo is a matter of artistry from a different perspective. This begs the question, what makes one perspective better than the other? What are we correcting for? Do we really need to continuously learn new things? Isn’t ignorance true bliss? Maybe god will set us free by telling what the ultimate truth is. Until then, we must figure it out in a free and open forum. Therein, artistry should be inspired by the axiom that all of us are primarily made up of oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, calcium, phosphorus, and a pinch of Genghis Khan. At least at the end of this negotiation exercise we’ll have a framework that all of us agree with. However, it should only be a matter of time before different artistry seeks to change this framework.

Change might not always be the best answer, but being open to the notion is.