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  1. #1
    dizzcity is offline Senior Member Long Time Member
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    Default Relative Importance of different fields of study?

    Just thought of something which might prove to be an interesting discussion topic: Of all the major fields of study currently being pursued by the human race, which ones do you think are most important (to yourself or to society at large), and of least importance? Or how would you rank them?

    Here's a tentative list of the major branches of knowledge, by my definition (open to change if you want):

    • Physical sciences - Studies of how the physical world of matter and energy interact. (Physics, Chemistry, some forms of Engineering, etc.)
    • Life / Biological sciences - Studies of living organisms and their biological processes. (Biology, Medicine, Pharmacy, some forms of Engineering, etc.)
    • Computational sciences - Studies of numbers, calculation, and information processes. (Math, IT and Computer Science, etc.)
    • Social sciences - Studies on the patterns of behaviour that emerge out of human interaction and societal groups. (Economics, Psychology, Anthropology, Media studies)
    • Humanities - Studies on the nature of humans and our relationship with the world around us. (Philosophy, History, Literature, Religious Studies, etc.)
    • Organizational studies - Studies on the methods needed to effectively run a group of people, whether an enterprise or a society. (Law, Business, Political Science, Civics)
    • Fine Arts - Studies on creative techniques to express truths or opinions through a particular medium. (Art, Music, Drama, Creative Writing, etc.)


    I'm sure I missed a few, and perhaps your groupings of specific subjects might be different from mine (feel free to state your own). But out of these, which ones do you think are most useful to society, or to your own life, and which ones can you (or we) do without?

    -Dizzy-
    Last edited by dizzcity; 04-14-2009 at 11:19 AM. Reason: Added Computational Sciences
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  2. #2
    Stuyvesant is offline Senior Member Always Around
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    I think certain additional things should be compulsory learning at school:
    Basic accountancy - too many people can't even do a budget or understand their finances. I suppose basic financial management would be a better bet.
    Contract law - it ain't that easy to get screwed, but people don't know that. They just accept 'small print'.

    On the topic of importance, too many of the subjects are inter-related. With every major jump in one field, there are knock on effects. I know that certain economic models are used nowdays becuase we have the computing power that they require. Genetic algorithims are used in optimisation techniques everywhere. Hell, even the fine arts are evolving - from CG to blogging.

    Anyways, my opinion on relative importance is that Genetics, Computer Science and Economics are the most important ones right now. Fine arts should always be important, but considering that I think we are in a decline, I don't see them re-emerging near the top for a while.

  3. #3
    Saizou is offline Senior Member Always Around
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    Before the subject can be discussed on any meaningful level, we need to define what we mean when we call a field of science important.

    Obviously we cannot simply mean the fields we personally find interesting, because that would degenerate into presentation of personal opinions without any common objective standard to measure our arguments against. We also must take into account that many of these fields are interconnected, e.g. math is required for physics, and so on. But we can't simply use that either, because if we did, we'd end up with math being the most important science, simply because of how many other sciences would disappear if math didn't exist. But then again, pure math in itself is useless for real-world problems.

    So what I would use as an yardstick is the effect that the field of science has had on the development of human standards of living, because it gives us a relatively simple criteria to measure the impact of the differing fields of science against. Additionally, I would say that higher standards of living is a somewhat uncontroversial yardstick, as almost everyone can agree that this is a good thing.

    Using this as a definition, it becomes obvious that the natural sciences are the most important, especially physics and chemistry. The reason for this becomes apparent if we look at the development of western Europe. Simply put, before physics and chemistry really took off, western Europe was a virtual cesspit wallowing in the ignorance and poverty of the middle ages. However, after these fields were developed, economic growth took off, and Europe quickly attained the greatest standard of living and the greatest technological sophistication in the entire world.

    And it is perhaps rendundant to mention this, but as physics and chemistry obviously have produced the greatest innovations in history, and as they deal with physical reality, the increasing standard of living can be directly traced to these sciences.

    Now, it is obvious that other sciences were crucial for this process, such as the aforementioned math as well as advances in philosophy and economics. Yet none of these fields alone has ever managed to create a process such as the one that transformed medieval Europe into the modern world.

    And naturally, other fields are important as well. But to be completely frank, all the advances in, say history or the fine arts, don't amount to even a fraction of the impact of the natural sciences. In a way they could be regarded as luxuries, nice to have, but not necessary.

    Therefore, to make a prediction about the future, I can't see anything that would topple the natural sciences from their lofty preeminence among the fields of science.

  4. #4
    Digital_Eon's Avatar
    Digital_Eon is offline Super Moderator Community Builder
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    I agree with everything Saizou has said, naturally.

    However, I would consider the social sciences (okay, psychology - and not just because that's my area of study! It's because I'm studying it, however, that I'm aware of what it entails) to be of great importance as well. I'm not sure psychology can be placed on the same level as, say, anthropology, because that's only one aspect of psychology. Other sections of psychology relate to how humans think, or even neuroscience. While psychology is still a relatively recent field of study, just over a hundred years old, I think it holds equally great importance in improving the quality of human life, although perhaps that is only possible thanks to the level we are at now.

    Understanding how humans think is certainly important for improving the quality of life at this point. How can we possibly maximize our potentials if we cannot understand how to do things in the best possible way we can - to learn skills at an early age, to fix diseases that currently might have no cure, to minimize the weaknesses we might have as fallible humans? It's certainly still too early to tell, but I think this field has important implications for many of the non-natural science fields... and even for those, as it is we who will end up making advances in them.

    Psychology probably isn't on the level of the natural sciences, no, in terms of the advancements that can be made in the quality of life. Not only is there a far bigger gap between the Europes in Saizou's example than in the world today and in the future due to psychological advances alone, but we also cannot tell since that world has not yet come. However, from what I have studied so far, I think it's a mistake to consider psychology as a science of behavioural patterns alone. Unless you're referring to social psychology in particular, there is so much more to the science (that I have learned) than that one narrow field. =)

    Hey, there's a reason it's taught as a life science at my school.
    ~Digital_Eon~




  5. #5
    Henchy432 is offline Senior Member Community Builder
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    I think if you don't have art. You can't have understanding.

  6. #6
    echoblaze is offline Senior Member Community Builder
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    ... perfect time to insert some xkcd

    http://www.xkcd.com/435/

    i'd like to mention economy has to take some credit too, though it's more of a motivating factor than a means for advancement. in which case, i'd agree physics and chemistry takes the cake. and eats it.

    yum, cake.

  7. #7
    dizzcity is offline Senior Member Long Time Member
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    I'm going to play devil's advocate here for a bit...

    So far, it seems that a lot of people are agreeing that the physical / natural sciences are important because they contribute to a higher standard of living. But what exactly do you mean by living standards, or quality of life? Isn't it basically the greatest amount of human happiness and well-being? Or are you thinking more of material wealth and technological development?

    The physical sciences have greatly increased humanity's productivity and technological development, true. And that has led to material progress. But does that really contribute towards the sum of human happiness and well-being - the good of society? Using your example of Europe in the renaissance and industrial ages, economic productivity did definitely increase, and so "living standards" were "improved" for some, but what about the lives of the factory workers? The ones who lived in the neighbourhoods covered in factory smoke and who drank polluted waters? The "progress" and wealth built upon slavery and colonialism? Advances in weaponry (based upon physics and chemistry) that enabled the mass-slaughter of the American Indians and the near-extinction of the bison?

    Do the natural sciences really contribute towards the good of society, or are they merely developments of power (either technological or economic), which can be used for good or evil? It seems to me that power, in and of itself, cannot be equated with importance to society.

    What really raises the well-being of society as a whole? The right to life (medicinal sciences), liberty (development of democracy as a political structure), and the pursuit of happiness (philosophy or religious studies)? If we take that phrase from the US Declaration of Independence as a guide, it seems that the most important sciences are first:
    - the life sciences (after all, without them, the Black Plague would have wiped out most of Europe's population even before the Renaissance really got started)
    - the organizational sciences (all great scientific endeavours need to be funded by developments in business, popularized by governmental structures)
    - the humanities (without meaning or purpose to life, what use is progress or power?)


    Or if you look back in human history and trace its' development, what came first? The three oldest disciplines are surely the Fine Arts (caveman drawings and tribal music), the physical sciences (discovery of fire and the wheel), and the life sciences (development of agriculture and basic herbal remedies). Heck, the development of a written language alone transformed human society on a much larger scale than anything the physical sciences did since the discovery of fire and the wheel. Without the arts, there would be no transmission of cultural values or information across generations. And without transmission of cultural messages, civilization itself (as we know it) would not exist.

    Just a thought.

    -Dizzy-

    EDIT: @ Digi... yeah, psychology sort of straddles multiple fields of study. I wasn't too sure where to put it myself, but since my university classifies it as a social science, I put it there.
    Last edited by dizzcity; 04-14-2009 at 11:55 PM.
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  8. #8
    Stuyvesant is offline Senior Member Always Around
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    All fine and good. Although I have trouble viewing the development of language (written and spoken) as 'fine arts', I'm willing to go along with that. Sure it may have been important 2000 years ago, but we're a little past that now. I don't think socio-linguistics is serving much purpose in increasing the general happiness of people.

    On the topic of the humanities, doesn't it seem to people that these fields are given far less importance now? How many people do you know who are artists/poets/authors/actors ? Compare that to the number of doctors/lawyers/computer programmers/general salarymen. It's kinda sad.

  9. #9
    dizzcity is offline Senior Member Long Time Member
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    Okay, well... to give a more modern perspective on things:

    It seems to me that the answer to racial and religious conflicts in the Middle East must come from the humanities and political scientists, particularly ones who are familiar with the cultures, history and languages of that region. Solving that problem has a direct benefit of raising the happiness of people living in that region, and I can't see any of the other sciences playing much of a part in that.

    I agree with you that genetics is the next big step in the life sciences today (well, that and stem cell research), and probably would contribute significantly to human happiness - particularly with regards to inheritable diseases, cures for cancer, regeneration of lost tissue and organ transplants.

    Admittedly, the number of people in the fine arts are much smaller (in absolute terms) than the number of people in a lot of other industries. But what makes it weird is that the influence these people have is all out of proportion to their percentage of the population. Just look at the effect of the music, fashion and entertainment industries on our world today. Can you really say that they're not important? Better yet, look at how Obama used Youtube as a way to connect with the younger generation and gather funding for his political campaign. A channel created for the dissemination of creative arts by common people directly affected the Presidency of the United States.

    As for sociolinguistics... admittedly, the study of languages and literature has deteriorated in recent decades. It's changed from the development of new languages to the learning and translation of existing languages. This is useful in international diplomacy, as well as a lot of humanitarian efforts in Third World countries. Disaster relief, food and medicine distribution, all the work that the UN and other charitable or religious organizations are doing... all would be significantly hampered without knowledge of the local language and/or a decent translator. Imagine what kind of effect a Universal Language Translator would have upon our world (apart from the fact that fansubbers would cease to exist).

    -Dizzy-
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  10. #10
    Saizou is offline Senior Member Always Around
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    @digi: Psychology is actually damn interesting. At my University we have Computer Science people and Biophysicists who are developing computational models of human thought, with the ultimate goal of making a comprehensive model of the human brain.

    Which actually is somewhat relevant to my point. By applying the physical sciences we can get results directly applicable to entirely unrelated fields of study. However, it's kinda hard for a historian to influence the development of, say, Astrophysics.


    Quote Originally Posted by dizzcity View Post
    I'm going to play devil's advocate here for a bit...

    So far, it seems that a lot of people are agreeing that the physical / natural sciences are important because they contribute to a higher standard of living. But what exactly do you mean by living standards, or quality of life? Isn't it basically the greatest amount of human happiness and well-being? Or are you thinking more of material wealth and technological development?
    The standard of living involves many factors, but the best indicator is actually the average lifespan, because it's inversely proportional to a lot of bad stuff. Starvation? Average lifespan goes down. War? Average lifespan goes down. Bad (or no) healthcare, hard labour and poverty? Average lifespan goes down.

    Additionally one could attempt to measure the general happiness, but that would require a lot of time and resources, and even then you could get skewed results because the question of happiness is an inherently subjective one. One can, on the other hand, logically deduce that the vast majority of people wouldn't be happy if they had to live in poverty and hardship, which means that material wealth on some level does produce happiness.

    Quote Originally Posted by dizzcity
    The physical sciences have greatly increased humanity's productivity and technological development, true. And that has led to material progress. But does that really contribute towards the sum of human happiness and well-being - the good of society?.
    I addressed this above. Material progress does lead to happiness, if by no other reason, then because it removes some of the causes of unhappiness.

    Quote Originally Posted by dizzcity
    Using your example of Europe in the renaissance and industrial ages, economic productivity did definitely increase, and so "living standards" were "improved" for some, but what about the lives of the factory workers? The ones who lived in the neighbourhoods covered in factory smoke and who drank polluted waters? The "progress" and wealth built upon slavery and colonialism? Advances in weaponry (based upon physics and chemistry) that enabled the mass-slaughter of the American Indians and the near-extinction of the bison?
    It is hardly reasonable to blame this on physics and chemistry. The mistreatement of factory workers was hardly anything new when we consider how the old aristocracy treated the peasants during the earlier eras, and all the advances in weaponry only gave the old aristocracy more sophisticated tools to enact their agenda. Warfare and atrocities have unfortunately been the norm for as long as humanity has existed. The fact that the west developed the best tools for this can be attributed to the natural sciences, but the will to use them for evil ends can clearly not be ascribed to them.

    In fact, this is actually an example of the dark side of human nature and society. While it may sound callous, the hard truth is you have to take the good with the bad. Nearly every advance can be used for good and for evil, but that doesn't change the fact that the natural sciences have contributed far more good than bad advances.

    Quote Originally Posted by dizzcity
    Do the natural sciences really contribute towards the good of society, or are they merely developments of power (either technological or economic), which can be used for good or evil? It seems to me that power, in and of itself, cannot be equated with importance to society.
    Power, defined as the ability to transform society, can clearly be equated with importance to society.

    Quote Originally Posted by dizzcity
    What really raises the well-being of society as a whole? The right to life (medicinal sciences), liberty (development of democracy as a political structure), and the pursuit of happiness (philosophy or religious studies)? If we take that phrase from the US Declaration of Independence as a guide, it seems that the most important sciences are first:
    Why should we take the US Declaration of Independence as a guide? In fact, going a bit further, all of these rights are merely the means to an end, i.e. a greater net amount of happiness in society. They are not ends in themselves, so why should we treat them as if they were?

    Quote Originally Posted by dizzcity
    - the life sciences (after all, without them, the Black Plague would have wiped out most of Europe's population even before the Renaissance really got started)
    The weakness of this argument is that none of the life sciences would be meaningful without chemistry. As an example, it's the biochemists who develop all our drugs, no?

    EDIT: Oh, and by the way, the Black Death did wipe out about a third of Europe's population before the Renaissance really got started. Because in the middle ages, there was no chemistry and thus no life sciences.

    Quote Originally Posted by dizzcity
    - the organizational sciences (all great scientific endeavours need to be funded by developments in business, popularized by governmental structures)
    And yet the organizational sciences would be crippled without the natural sciences, because of the lack of fast and reliable communications. During the middle ages, communication and organzation consisted of writing a letter and hoping that it reaches its destination. Hell, even in the far more sophisticated Roman Empire, communications still were slow (though more reliable).

    The natural sciences have given us modern shipbuilding, the telegraph, the telephone, radio, aeroplanes, rairoads, etc. etc. The modern economy is directly built on the foundation of physical knowledge, from the greatest skyscraper to the tiniest microchip. Without the physical sciences, there would be no business at all.

    Quote Originally Posted by dizzcity
    - the humanities (without meaning or purpose to life, what use is progress or power?)
    Here you are assuming that the humanities actually give some meaning or purpose to life. Why is this the case?

    Furthermore, you're implying that nothing but the humanities can give meaning or purpose to life. Why is this the case?

    Quote Originally Posted by dizzcity
    Or if you look back in human history and trace its' development, what came first? The three oldest disciplines are surely the Fine Arts (caveman drawings and tribal music), the physical sciences (discovery of fire and the wheel), and the life sciences (development of agriculture and basic herbal remedies). Heck, the development of a written language alone transformed human society on a much larger scale than anything the physical sciences did since the discovery of fire and the wheel. Without the arts, there would be no transmission of cultural values or information across generations. And without transmission of cultural messages, civilization itself (as we know it) would not exist.
    Now this opens up a whole other can of worms. Because if we go back into antiquity, I would argue that the dicoveries made then were not scientific in nature. Science in itself implies that some sort of scientific methodology is used, and as the earlies attempts at formulating such theories date back to the ancient greeks, I'd say that you can't really speak of science before that.

    Rather we are left with trial and error and lucky guesses. As another example, I doubt that some guy in Sumeria circa 3000 B.C sat down and started to work out a written language from basic rules of grammar.

 

 
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