humanities, math, medicine, death

So I was on this panel last night about the Humanities and STEM, sponsored by the UF Center for the Humanities and the Public Sphere.  From the description:

This panel and audience discussion will explore the relationship of research inquiry and teaching in the humanities disciplines and Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM). Participants in the round-table will describe various ways in which advances in history, literature, and philosophy inform and are informed by work in computer engineering, biomedicine, neuroscience, and mathematics.

What did I talk about?  Well, I tend to be shocked by the general level of innumeracy among our citizens and I gave a couple of examples where a well-rounded education in humanities, social sciences, and mathematics might help people understand things better.  Example 1:  the election of Jesse "The Body" Ventura to the governorship of Minnesota in 1998.  Jesse won with just under 37% of the vote and the punditry proclaimed that Minnesotans voted for an "outsider."  Except they didn't.  Not really.  In fact, 62% of the citizens voted for a seasoned politician (Republican Norm Coleman and Democrat Hubert Humphrey III), but that's not what the talking heads would have us believe.

Example 2: I was watching Real Time last Friday and there was a segment where a filmmaker went to a Tea Party anti-spending rally and asked people what should be cut from the federal budget.  Defense?  No.  Social Security?  No.  Medicare?  No.  Education?  No.  Veterans benefits?  No.  Then what?  A popular answer was Congressional salaries, which at $700,000,000 (including staffers) comprises 0.02% of the federal budget.  So cutting that is like asking someone making $100,000 per year to take a $20 pay cut.  Another popular answer was foreign aid, which is bigger at $56.1B, but still a drop in the bucket.  But that guy on TV says we should cut them to save money, so we should, right?  This gets to the heart of the matter--many people don't really understand orders of magnitude, especially when they get to be as big as the federal budget $3.5 \( \times 10^{12} \).

But that's not what really intrigued me about this panel.  One of my fellow panelists is a physician who studies imaging data to determine if doctors order too many diagnostic tests.  The short answer:  yes, way too many.  And he talked about the advances that have increased life expectancy:  if the average human lived to be 40 in the Middle Ages and lives to 80 now, how did we get there?  About 10-15 years comes from clean water (separating drinking water from sewage), another 10 or so from vaccinations and similar public health measures, and another 10 or so from the use of antibiotics to treat infectious diseases.  So that gets us to around 75 years of age.  The rest comes from ever more expensive treatments for diseases we really don't know much about (cancer and various degenerative diseases, mostly). 

The question for society is how we deal with these, and frankly, Americans simply don't.  That is, we do not, as a culture, know how to deal with death very well.  We'll take every possible measure, spend any amount of money, to stave it off.  That's mostly what drives our rapidly expanding health care budget--end of life care that only extends life for a year or two.  Is this worth the cost to society?  These are the sorts of questions that are difficult to answer, and lately our strategy as a nation has been to not answer, hoping that they will either go away or that some new way of extending life expectancy that doesn't cost so much will come along.

All of which got me to thinking about my father, who died of lung cancer about a year ago.  I went to see him near the end when he had entered hospice and was on morphine for the pain.  I'm not sure he knew I was there.  I don't want to write some maudlin tale about fathers and sons, but I will say this:  he had been sick for over a year and he was suffering.  I couldn't help thinking that surely we can do better as a society to help terminal patients end their suffering.  There can be many ways to go about it, but we at least have to begin the conversation.  And that's one of the many places the humanities can help.  These sorts of questions can only really be answered by philosophy, religion, maybe literature.  Data helps, but it can't answer ethical questions.

So, I hope politicians will stop demonizing the humanities and social sciences as "useless."  Not holding my breath, but hoping nevertheless.