Sunday, January 8, 2017

[Yasmin_discussions] What arguments might there be against the STEAM agenda?


It occurs to me to ask an interesting questions. Everyone on this list favors the STEAM agenda. So do I. But I also recognize that a significant number of the projects I see are open to debate. As Roger noted, I would like to see greater clarity — conceptual, metaphorical, epistemological, and terminological.

As a journal editor and as a reviewer for several journals that welcome research from people who are on our side of the STEAM argument, I am more often disappointed than rewarded. Many people who line up on the creative side of STEAM research can't seem to write a proper research article. In many cases, I find they can't even manage an article in which they form robust, logical argumentation supported by correct citations.

When this happens, I ask myself a simple, serious question: a text sits still. It does not move. While any text is open to interpretation and argument, there is some kind of hermeneutic responsibility that the authors of an article have with respect to the author, content, and context of the cited text. When I find that an author cannot form an accurate citation or a responsible quote, summary, or paraphrase of a cited source document, I wonder whether I can trust that author to report on phenomena that only he or she has observed. Cited sources sit still. Many of the phenomena we report in STEAM research, much like the phenomena of social science, move and change. If a researcher can't accurately report something that sits still on a printed page, can we trust what that researcher says about moving, changing issues?

Following a post by Ghislaine Boddington, I downloaded the report, A New STEAM Age: Challenging the STEM Agenda in Research. There is some interesting material in this report. Physicist David Berman writes an interesting article titled, "One Culture, Not Two." He opens with a quote by Henri Poincaré, the greatest mathematician of the early twentieth century. (Poincaré almost developed the ideas that became the Theory of Relativity. He was a far better mathematician than Einstein, so he had the skills. As it happened, Einstein had the great physical intuition, so Einstein did what Poincaré did not.) Berman's opening quote from Poincaré's Science and Method is this:

"The scientist does not study nature because it is useful ... He studies it because he takes pleasure in it, and he takes pleasure in it because it is beautiful … What I mean is not that beauty which strikes the senses but that intimate beauty which comes from the harmonious order of its parts."

This is a lovely quote, and I agree with this. Many scientists make similar statements, and they are both serious and correct. But is this an argument for STEAM? Or is it, rather, an acknowledgement that there is some kind of deep beauty underlying nature? The physicist Richard Feynman said something quite similar:

"Poets say science takes away from the beauty of the stars - mere globs of gas atoms. I, too, can see the stars on a desert night and feel them. But do I see less or more? The vastness of the heavens stretches my imagination - stuck on this little carousel, my little eye can catch one-million-year-old light. A vast pattern - of which I am part... What is the pattern, or the meaning, or the why? It does not do harm to the mystery to know a little about it. For far more marvelous is the truth than any artists of the past imagined it. Why do poets of the present not speak of it? What men are poets who can speak of Jupiter if he were a man, but if he is an immense spinning sphere of methane must be silent?" (quoted in Gleick 1993, p. 373).

Feynman himself was quite skeptical toward artists. It's interesting to read the chapter titled "But Is It Art" in Feynman's (1997) famous book, Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman.

Feynman is clearly arguing that the hardcore STEM agenda discloses just as much beauty as the STEAM agenda. And he is quite skeptical toward many of the claims made by artists for art and its role in society — or its role in the life of the mind. As I read Feynman, he is occasionally skeptical toward the claim that artists are creative in any deep way.

While I see Feynman's point, I argue that many artists are creative. But perhaps not the majority — a great deal of what people learn to do in art schools is to follow current trends. In contrast, I am always astonished at the deep creativity at play in great science. If you look at the five great papers that Albert Einstein (1998) published in 1905, you see a deep, profound creativity that does not require art for its greatness. In the 1998 book Einstein's Miraculous Year, editor John Stachel describes each of these papers in an introduction that makes clear why they are profound, creative, and beautiful.

When a group of people like us gather to talk about STEAM, I occasionally feel like I'm in church. Many of us are involved with Leonardo, we obviously subscribe to the Yasmin list, and we all have something to do with art. Everyone supports STEAM.

But let's think this through with a bit of scientific inquiry. What if STEAM is simply the flavor of the day? What if artists like STEAM because it offers a new playground? Could one reason to support STEAM simply involve cash? (Science is funded by government agencies that have more money for science than for art.) As Morgan Freeman's character often said in the movie Thick as Thieves, "I'm just saying, is all."

Perhaps STEAM is only hot air, as the title of Roger's first post suggested.

What arguments might there be against the STEAM agenda?


Ken Friedman, PhD, DSc (hc), FDRS | Editor-in-Chief | 设计 She Ji. The Journal of Design, Economics, and Innovation | Published by Tongji University in Cooperation with Elsevier | URL:

Chair Professor of Design Innovation Studies | College of Design and Innovation | Tongji University | Shanghai, China ||| University Distinguished Professor | Centre for Design Innovation | Swinburne University of Technology | Melbourne, Australia


Einstein, Albert. 1998 [1905]. Einstein's Miraculous Year. Five Papers that Changed the Face of Physics. Edited and introduced by John Stachel. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Feynman, Richard. 1997. Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman! (Adventures of a Curious Character). New York: W. W. Norton.

Gleick, James. 1993. Genius: Richard P. Feynman and Modern Physics. London: Abacus.

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