Accounting for the Human Element: Science, Technology, and the National Humanities Center | National Humanities Center


Accounting for the Human Element: Science, Technology, and the National Humanities Center

young boy launching a glider into the sky

“Absent a humanities perspective, solutions to racial divides, environmental degradation, climate change, immigration, water rights and resources, food consumption, geopolitical cataclysms, and the implementation of new technologies will remain incomplete. Technology cannot assess the multiple masks of evil, the complicated ethics of choice, the pain of loss, the joys of love, or the frustrations and celebrations our yearning to be both human and more than human produce.”
—Robert D. Newman, “Humanities Moments and the Heroic,” October 22, 2015

Accounting for the Human Element

Science, Technology, and the National Humanities Center

In his first public address upon assuming leadership of the National Humanities Center in 2015, Robert D. Newman spoke of the absolute necessity of humanities thinking in an age when the promises and perils of technological innovation inflect nearly every aspect of our lives.

His remarks echo those of theologian Ian Barbour (NHC Fellow, 1980–81) who remarked upon receiving the Templeton Prize that “Science can tell us what is possible, but not what goals and values we should seek. Some segments of the population usually received most of the benefits of a new technology, and other groups carry the burden of risks and indirect costs, so questions of social justice are at stake. Moreover, new technologies give us new powers over nature and human nature, requiring choices which have never been faced before…”

The effort to help inform these choices, to contextualize and critique advances in science, technology, engineering, and medicine, has been the focus of over a hundred NHC Fellows, from those whose research combines humanistic and scientific methods to those who use a humanistic lens to examine technological change, scientific figures, or medical practice. Their work on projects in bioethics, medical humanities, the history and philosophy of science, and integrative work involving humanities and technology has shed light on scientific and medical endeavors encompassing everything from experiments in alchemy by Enlightenment scientists to the pivotal role of healthcare in the US Civil War. They have also helped raise serious concerns about the corporatization of genomic research and the ways that injustices are being replicated and exacerbated by artificial intelligence and internet algorithms.

Some of the Center’s notable Fellows working in these areas include Joni Adamson, a founding figure in environmental humanities; Leon R. Kass, physician, philosopher, and former chairman of the President’s Council on Bioethics; Ryan E. Emanuel, hydrologist and Lumbee historian; Nancy Tomes, pioneering medical historian and member of the US Medical Licensing Examination Board; Peter Galison, Harvard physicist and historian of science; and eight past presidents of the American Society for Environmental History.

Bridging the Two Cultures

The Center also provides educators with a rich assortment of professional development opportunities and resources focused on understanding science, technology, and medicine from the perspective of the humanities, including webinars on subjects that range from the atomic bomb to COVID-19; interactive lessons and primary source materials on the societal impact of technologies like the radio and the airplane; and courses on topics such as media literacy and GIS software.

Bioethics; History of Science; History of Technology; History of Medicine
Early use of spatial analysis by Dr. John Snow tracking London cholera cases in 1854

Similarly, the Center’s public engagement programs have highlighted the need for greater dialogue and partnering among humanists and scientists. Recent conferences organized by the NHC on medical humanities (A Crisis of Caring) and artificial intelligence (In Our Image) have featured scientists, healthcare providers, business leaders, artists, educators, and policymakers and brought them into conversation with humanists to help address complex challenges in health care and the rapid adoption of AI technologies.

Bioethics; History of Science; History of Technology; History of Medicine
University of Washington student Emma Linde interviews Jeanette Hungerford, a Certified Nurse Assistant at St. Luke Community Hospital in Ronan, Montana.

Another example of interdisciplinary public engagement work is the NHC’s COVID-19 Oral History Project, created to help health professionals articulate their own narratives around the shared experience of a pandemic. The project is unique among oral history collections arising out of the pandemic in that it is squarely grounded in scholarly work and includes training and research opportunities for humanities and pre-professional students from across the country who are preparing for careers in healthcare and other fields.