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

May 4, 2010 at 11:38 pm 10 comments

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?

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  • […] is the original post: Science for Non-Scientists: The “Two Cultures” debate continues … // along-with, and-math, faculty-from, learning-modeled, modeled-on-the, students-and, […]

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  • 2. Alan Kay  |  May 5, 2010 at 6:25 am

    Hi Mark,

    The Bard College piece seemed “much too little, much too late” — it is really a proposal to add just 3 weeks of what can’t be much more than “science appreciation” in a very narrow topic.

    I found the UK Telegraph piece on the other hand well worth reading, especially for choosing to point out that the rapid advent of “no thought” is making the former distinction between “Letters” and “Science” irrelevant. (Reminiscent of Neil Postman’s comment that censorship is only to be worried about if people still read.)

    This article doesn’t mention Bard, but it could use the Bard gesture as an example of its criticism of “Science Literacy” in the UK as a substitute for real learning of science.

    Cheers,

    Alan

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  • […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by San Lorenzo Squires. San Lorenzo Squires said: Science for Non-Scientists: The “Two Cultures” debate continues …: Bard College is taking on the challenges outl… http://bit.ly/d5hK7H […]

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  • 4. Alan Kay  |  May 5, 2010 at 9:29 am

    I forgot to add that — in my opinion anyway — the same parallels exist between “real computer science” and various kinds of “computer literacy” in both K-12 and university. I think this issue — of organizations watering down goals in order to have seemed to achieve them when the opposite is the case — is the one that has to be carefully scrutinized in any attempts to “improve” real education.

    Cheers,

    Alan

    Reply
  • 5. Robert Talbert  |  May 5, 2010 at 1:58 pm

    The issue here is rooted in culture and will not be fixed by any single curricular initiative, no matter how well-intentioned. People in the US above the age of, say, 12 are conditioned by culture to believe that science and math (and computing, by extension) are “hard” and are therefore the domain only of an elite few. This conditioning comes through popular culture (especially TV) and especially through teachers in the middle grades and above who themselves fear science and math and are poorly trained in those subjects. So as kids grow up, the trifecta of influences on their thinking — culture, teachers, and parents (= products of previous culture and teachers) — are uniformly fearful of science and math and see it as something other than something essential, beautiful, and fun.

    (Oddly, kids in the elementary grades seem not to have this cultural problem.)

    So while I appreciate what Bard College is trying to do here, I think that by the time students get to Bard it may be too late to change their minds about science and math fundamentally, even if their initiative were not a 3-week program but a full-on four-year integration of science into the core curriculum. I think if you want to see progress in this area you have to start a LOT younger and persist with it for a lot longer.

    PS: There are some hopeful signs on the pop culture front, like the appearance of science/nerd friendly TV shows (Big Bang Theory, Numb3rs) and science/math oriented kid shows (Team Umizoomi, Sid the Science Kid).

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  • 7. Mark Urban-Lurain  |  May 5, 2010 at 4:24 pm

    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?

    This statement seems to be a bit of an over-generalization. While some people fear science (perhaps irrationally) there are pretty good philosophical arguments about the risks of trying to extend scientific epistemology into areas where it is inappropriate (e.g., values, ethics, morality) and assuming that because of the power of science as a way of knowing in SOME areas, it must be useful/appropriate in ALL areas.

    Ken Wilber uses the term category error to refer to the problems that arise when we try to use one epistemology (science) to address questions for which it is not appropriate. To the man with a hammer (science) everything looks like a nail (empirical problem).

    Of course, the rhetoric can get heated as the dominant paradigm (science) seems to be overrunning all other epistemologies.

    Best,
    Mark

    Reply
    • 8. Mark Miller  |  May 6, 2010 at 3:36 am

      Hi Mark.

      You make an interesting point. This idea has been creeping into my head that “there are things science cannot tell us”. One example that relates to what you’re talking about is an interesting (to me) discussion I got into with some atheists. Even though this is going to sound theological, that’s not what I’m getting at. I’m not trying to assert that one narrative or “theory of everything” is true or not. That would be missing the point. It’s more a discussion about how we convince ourselves that one belief is scientific and others are not.

      My “atheist friends”, as I’ll call them, said they based their belief (that there is no god) on the scientific theory of evolution. I tried putting my “scientific thinking cap” on and looked at a couple assertions relating to whether there is a god or not (unrelated to evolution), and found that science can’t assess them, except from a literary standpoint, which doesn’t make a lot of sense. You could take stories out of the Bible and compare them to archeological findings and come to some conclusions about whether the scientific evidence matches the narrative, but that doesn’t really get to the central question. Even if the evidence ran contrary to the Bible, does that answer once and for all that there is no god; that there are, or are not, multiple gods? Outside of a narrative the assertions are untestable, given the ways that we currently know how to test. If it’s not testable, it’s not science, and I’d hardly call a religious narrative a good basis for a scientific theory, outside of archeology.

      On a related note, we don’t have good scientific theories on intelligence, so I think the study of Intelligent Design is problematic. However, my guess is there are good theories on design, hence the reason that modern engineering is able to build structures that work within expected tolerances.

      Regardless, people can believe one way or the other on theological questions, but it doesn’t make sense from the scientific perspective to say one theological belief is “based on science” and the other is not, because neither of them are. The best answer the scientific perspective can give is the agnostic, “I don’t know.”

      I shared this with my “atheist friends” and they didn’t like me very much for it…

      I first started entertaining this idea that “there are things that science cannot tell us” (it started as, “what science can no longer tell us”) when I was trying to find a succinct way of saying that a good part of what our schools teach as science is not science. For example, a science curriculum is not being scientific in the instance when it explains that “the Earth is spheroid.” This is using a narrative method of explaining scientifically derived knowledge, but it is not teaching science, that is, scientific thinking. We knew that the Earth is a sphere because of science long before we went into space. When we went into space we didn’t need science anymore to tell us that the Earth is a sphere. We could see it from the photographs. Plus we’ve had plenty of stories of people traveling all the way around the world. What science can still answer for us is questions like, “How round is it?”

      A way of teaching science, and that the Earth is spheroid (at the same time), would be to have students measure the curvature, using a method with some instruments, and then to explore notions of measurement and time. They could even do the same experiment that the ancient Greeks did to find this out.

      The part where the whole thing tends to get spoiled is when, because of the scientific curriculum’s requirement that students learn scientific knowledge, the teacher reveals that because of the advanced scientific research that we have, the Earth’s size and shape has been measured very precisely, and the correct answer is X, falling back into a narrative method of explaining it. I think there would be a way of revealing what’s been learned scientifically using modern measurement without spoiling the learning of the scientific perspective, but I think it would involve more scientific exploration first of some “basics” of Nature, and how space and time work.

      The first 10 minutes of Carl Sagan’s last interview on Charlie Rose in May 1996, where he talks about his book, “The Demon-Haunted World”, keeps coming up for me when I get into the importance and relevance of science, because he touches on all the bases, and makes some important connections between science and other matters of importance. He situates science in the broader scheme of things, better than he did in his book, IMO. His book was good for its description of what science really is, but I thought his vision for the problem of science vs. society was too small in scope. For whatever reason he explained this issue better in the interview.

      Reply
  • 9. Aaron Lanterman  |  May 8, 2010 at 1:12 am

    The anti-science trend is part of a broader anti-intellectualism trend that’s sweeping America. Without trying to get too political, when Joe the Plumber gives commentary on foreign policy and it makes the news, we’re in deep, deep trouble.

    Reply
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