Archive for May 4, 2010

Science for Non-Scientists: The “Two Cultures” debate continues

Bard College is taking on the challenges outlined in C.P. Snow’s The Two Cultures. Rather than only require students to do a reading program in their first year of College, Bard will now also require students to take a similar overview course in Science.

Next January, Bard’s science and math faculty – along with postdoctoral students and faculty from other institutions — will try to change all that with the Citizen Science Program, three weeks of science learning modeled on the success of Language and Thinking. Also required of all 500 of the college’s freshmen, and ungraded, Botstein hopes it will become similarly entrenched as a landmark of students’ first year at Bard.

“We’ll give young people in their first year of college a real understanding of what science does, what it’s about,” he says, “rather than waiting for the senior year for students to fulfill a requirement.”

He adds: “The trouble is, you can teach a scientist to read Plato and Aristotle but taking a humanist or a person who wants to be a service provider — social worker, social sciences, even economics — and you want them to understand science.… It’s very hard.”

via News: Science for Non-Scientists – Inside Higher Ed.

C.P. Snow argued in his book that Western culture was splitting into two parts — a scientific part, and a humanities part that saw science as only “one way of knowing.”  He decried the humanists’ lack of respect for evidence and experiment. Scientific American last September suggested that a lack of science knowledge was a “badge of honor”:

Good reasons exist for this phenomenon. In the first place, while we bemoan the lack of good science teaching in our public schools (the vast majority of middle school physical science and math teachers, for example, do not have a science degree), scientific illiteracy is not a major impediment to success in business, politics and the arts. At the university level, science is too often seen as something needed merely to fulfill a requirement and then to be dispensed with. To be fair, the same is often the case for humanities courses for science and engineering majors, but the big difference is that these students cannot help but be bombarded by literature, music and art elsewhere as a part of the pop culture that permeates daily life. And what’s more, individuals often proudly proclaim that science isn’t their thing, almost as a badge of honor to indicate their cultural bent.

A new book is coming out in the UK: ‘From Two Cultures to No Culture: C P Snow’s “Two Cultures” lecture 50 years on.’ The author of the introduction to the book of essays, Robert Whelan, has an excerpt in today’s Telegraph:

Snow compared Britain unfavourably with the US and USSR, in terms of numbers of young people who remained in education to the age of 18 and above. The British system, he argued, forced children to specialise at an unusually early age, with snobbery dictating that the children would be pushed towards the “traditional culture” and the professions, rather than science and industry…As late as my own childhood in the Sixties, the bright boys were expected to read classics at Oxford, and the less bright steered towards the labs. The Nobel Prize-winning scientist Sir Andrew Huxley recounts that, when he switched from classics to physics, the headmaster of Westminster School accused him of “forsaking virtue for pleasure”.

The perspective of the critics of C.P. Snow’s argument is so foreign to me.  Physics is “pleasure” compared to the “virtue” of reading classical literature?  Huxley must not be familiar with “E-Mag” (Electromagnetism) courses at places like Georgia Tech, where the course is nicknamed “Three-Mag” for the number of times one might take it to pass!  To me, studying science is a necessity, a requirement for living in a technological society.  Perhaps I’m as guilty as the humanists, in not seeing why it is acceptable to dismiss science.

In his essay, Whelan highlights why C.P. Snow’s argument is so relevant today:

More importantly, the gentlemanly disdain for science that irritated Huxley and Snow was as nothing to the extraordinary suspicion of science that has more recently emerged. Science now faces the charge that it is only one way of understanding the world, not necessarily superior to rival conceptions – and moreover, that it is to blame, among other things, for a potential environmental holocaust in the shape of global warming, because it has enabled more human beings to live on the planet.

I’m not sure that I believe that people blame scientists for “enabling” more human beings to live on the planet, but I do believe that there is a distrust of science.  This fear of science is crippling for individuals and our society.  I recommend this recent TED lecture appearing on CNN on why the modern distaste for science is so troubling.  How do we get the higher-levels of science education (including computing, of course), and more ubiquitous STEM education, if people fear science or believe it is “yet another way of knowing” with no special power or insight?

May 4, 2010 at 11:38 pm 10 comments


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