Do scientists and artists think differently? Fifty years ago, novelist/physicist C.P. Snow famously fretted that the two disciplines were drifting apart, and subsequent research suggested he was onto something. Science students tended to excel at logical, analytical thinking, while budding artists scored highest in tests measuring imagination and creativity.
But a newly published study of seniors at one British university reports that distinction has virtually vanished over the past five decades. Writing in the journal Thinking Skills and Creativity, Peter K. Williamson of the University of Derby reports “no differences were found in the problem-solving skills of arts and science students.”
For Williamson’s study, 116 final-year undergraduates — 51 focused on the arts and 65 on science — took a series of tests measuring their skill at convergent (logical) thinking and divergent (creative) thinking. These experiments, which asked the participants to solve “novel and imperfectly defined problems in the fields of management and public policy,” gauged their ability to come up with imaginative solutions and revealed their preferred learning styles.
“The findings of this study were in marked contrast to earlier published results, in that no differences were found in the problem-solving skills of arts and science students,” Williamson reports. “Differences were found in preferred learning styles, but these were much smaller than reported previously.
“This research indicates that modern graduates are likely to have a more balanced educational profile than their specialized predecessors.”
How do we account for this shift? Williamson points to a number of U.K.-specific reasons, including a 1990 requirement that all students study science up to age 16. This means "it is now not possible in the U.K. for a student to be a pure artist studying only arts and humanities subjects," which is hardly an issue in most U.S. school districts.
But he also notes some wider changes in educational policy, such as an increase in interdisciplinary studies and a move away from formal lectures to a more flexible teaching style.
In follow-up interviews with 13 of the study participants, Williamson found clichés about the professions remain surprisingly potent, even if the differences they describe are no longer valid. “Students mainly supported the traditional stereotypes of analytical, logical, detached and formal scientists, and emotional and imaginative artists,” he reports.
This is somewhat surprising, given such recent high-profile collaborations as the conference/concert featuring physicist Stephen Hawking and cellist Yo-Yo Ma. As Williamson notes, success in either discipline usually requires “an imaginative leap, as well as the careful use of the available data or materials.” If this study is any indication, that combination of thinking styles is rapidly becoming the norm in both the lab and the practice studio.