Science versus humanities: What if Ruto was right?

Electrical experience in physics laboratory.

A couple of weeks ago, Deputy President William Ruto was on the receiving end of columnists and commentators in leading dailies. His sin was declaring social sciences “useless”.

To be objective, I went through some articles responding to his comments. Most of his attackers were social scientists; fellow scientists never came out to defend him.

That is not surprising. Scientists dislike controversy, which ironically is their staple. Think of how we reacted on ‘seeing’ our bones through x-rays. Think of the controversy over black holes, quantum mechanics or genetics. Or new drugs and their side effects.

Scientists by nature tend to be quiet but they still make great politicians. The best was Margaret Thatcher who studied chemistry at Oxford. German Chancellor Angela Merkel also earned a PhD in quantum chemistry. 

It is instructive that Kenya has never had a “science” president. It is likely that even governors in the colonial era were social scientists. That might explain why school drama and music festival winners go to State House to entertain the President while science congress winners go home. There is no fun in science? Curiously, universities have now joined the drama and music competition.

All our four presidents studied humanities or social sciences. Social science is a fancy term to make humanities look “tough” by using scientific methods in search of new knowledge. The use of the term is an indirect acknowledgement of humanities’ subordination to hard sciences like physics, chemistry and biology.

Jomo Kenyatta was an anthropologist, Daniel arap Moi was a teacher, who are usually generalists. Kibaki is an economist and so is Uhuru Kenyatta. If time and tide are on his side, DP Ruto would become Kenya’s first president with a science background and an earned PhD. He is a biologist. Surprisingly of the 45 USA presidents, only one ever had an earned PhD, Woodrow Wilson (1856 to 1924).

Enough digression. Did Ruto deserve that attack? Was he misunderstood? Could he have been right after all? The DP has a spokesman and I have no intention of pretending to be one. I will just try and defend common sense.

The debate over hard sciences vs humanities is old and we are not the first to confront it. In the past, social scientists held sway over our minds after wrestling control from religion. Remember reformation and renaissance? But in the 20th century, hard sciences started enjoying their golden age after coming up with ground-breaking discoveries from penicillin to atomic bomb and planes. They made our lives easier and longer.

In Kenya, hard scientists have never enjoyed that prestige, perhaps because they rarely come up with ground-breaking research or inventions. The fact that with money you can easily buy any product or service makes our hard scientists look dispensable. Even our most famous innovation, M-Pesa, has no inventor. Who was he or she?

Residue prestige

Medical doctors still enjoy residue prestige because they are few and deal with our mortality; we all want to live forever. It is not that way everywhere; Cuba has excess doctors even to export.

Let us be blunt, scientists rarely become stars like musicians or actors. They work in the background, though we enjoy the product of their creativity and ingenuity including the phone I am using and the Internet.

The prestige of scientists is however context sensitive. Scientists enjoyed lots of prestige in the communist countries and still enjoy it in China where you are more likely to be in the top echelons of the leadership if you are a scientist or engineer. Does that explain the industrialisation of China? 

Back to uselessness of social sciences. Let me be bold, DP Ruto was right from an economic point of view. The dream of every young person is to earn an honest living by getting a job. Truth be told, you are more likely to get a job if you have a science or technical background than humanities - sorry, social science. 

It is a market issue; supply and demand. Seventy-five per cent of university students in Kenya are studying social sciences. The oversupply means few jobs and the opposite for hard scientists and engineers or technicians. Think of the job options for an anthropology graduate compared with a maths graduate. Compare a CRE graduate with a physics or engineering graduate.

Let us be more down to earth. We rely on scientists or their relatives like plumbers, masons and painters to do something for us. We even proudly talk of “my doctor, my lawyer, my accountant” but not “my historian” or “my geographer”. The low demand in the market for such specialists in humanities might be the basis of “uselessness” the DP Ruto was referring to. Even the much venerated lawyers are threatened by blockchains. You saw them fight against the use of technology in land transfer?

The other big advantage of hard scientists is easy defection to social sciences later in life. Engineers can study business or even theology, a historian cannot become an engineer or chemist later in life. This flexibility more than anything else gives scientists and their cousins, engineers and technicians a head start in the job market.

The commentators who crucified Ruto are social scientists high up on the social ladder, they were not unemployed social science graduates. When it comes to self-employment or entrepreneurship, hard scientists have a head start too, though I am sure this will be contested.

Exit strategy

To be fair, social sciences are great subjects to study in the university if you are from an affluent background, having satisfied the basics. But if you are a poor boy or girl from Shamata or Shamakhokho and want an exit strategy from poverty, hard sciences might be the way to go. You could find the social sciences useless.

You are still not convinced? Visit Chiromo campus at the University of Nairobi and see the number of Asians studying science, medicine or computer sciences. Have you met any of them in your history classes?

Riding on science and technology, Asians have made their mark in the world, including Silicon Valley. They know that science, technology, engineering and mathematics are universal. Once you study these subjects, you can work anywhere in the world.

Kenya has for the last 55 years come up with great policy frameworks, from Vision 2030 to the Big Four now. But the implementation requires a science and technology base. The rise of Japan, Korea, USA and England before that was based on harnessing the power of science and technology. Even colonialism was more ab

That does not mean we should abolish social sciences, they are good in nourishing our emotions, inspiring us and helping us understand ourselves, our relationship and where we stand in the global scheme of things.

But you cannot tell a hungry man to read poetry or identify the constellations in the sky at night. Social sciences should be supporting actors in the economic theatre, not the key actors. We have reversed that in Kenya.

- The writer teaches at the University of Nairobi.  

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