Saturday, December 30, 2006

COLUMN -- Science, certainly, but leave space for the liberal arts

Posted by Craig Westover | 1:05 PM |  

Thursday, December 28, 2006

In his opinion piece ("As discoveries multiply, popular understanding of science must deepen," Dec. 22), science teacher Peter Pitman argues that policymakers ought to better understand fundamental principles of science and math on which policy is based; specifically, that judges and lawmakers should understand the science of global climate change.

I've made much the same argument relative to policymakers who unscientifically exaggerate the dangers of secondhand smoke and bureaucrats who ignore scientific evidence about the dangers of universal vaccination.

This is, however, not a column on global warming, secondhand smoke or childhood vaccines. It is not a column questioning Pitman's premise of the need to deepen our understanding of scientific principles, which I wholeheartedly agree with. It is a caution that in the popular rush to promote science and math we don't automatically assume a "clockwork universe" where physical laws are waiting to be discovered and acted upon.

Science can always teach us how we might do something; it can never determine for us whether that "something" is something we ought to do. That is the realm of the liberal arts education, without which science loses most of its humanity and much of its usefulness.

Pitman cites three historical examples, from the scientist's perspective, of the dangers of the "I was never very good at science" rationale too often heard from policymakers. In his words:

• "Hey, Galileo, I was never very good at science, so recant everything you've said about Earth revolving around the sun and we will spare your life."

• "Sacre bleu, Monsieur Pasteur, I was never very good at science but your claim that invisible microbes can kill me is absurd."

• "Say, Charlie Darwin. I was never very good at science, but you'll never make a monkey out of me."

Common to each of Pitman's conflicts is more than dispute over the truth or falsity of a scientific fact. Each of these scientific theories radically challenged man's concept of his place in the universe and his humanity.

• Galileo did not simply draw a new chart of the solar system; he said, "Man, you are no longer at the center of God's creation."

• Pasteur did not simply discover a cause of disease; he said, "Man, your suffering is not a punishment or a test from God — virtue and righteousness cannot spare you."

• Darwin did not simply provide man a view of his past; he said, "Man, you are not a unique creation among the birds of the air or the beasts of the field."

In a "clockwork universe" governed by self-evident physical laws, such distinctions would not matter. But do we really live in a clockwork universe when even physicists tell us, however unbiased our observation might be, by observing we affect what we observe in ways we can never know? In our quest for security have we cast off the pseudo-certainty of our ancestors' superstitions or merely traded up to a more sophisticated mythology?

"A Clockwork Orange," a book by British author Anthony Burgess and a film by Stanley Kubrick, tells the story of Alex, a teenage gang leader into gratuitous violence and Beethoven. He's caught, imprisoned and "rehabilitated" using modern scientific conditioning — he's given a drug that nauseates him and forced to watch violent films scored (unintentionally) with Beethoven's symphonic music. Science triumphs over nature — Alex cannot even think violent thoughts without becoming nauseated. Beethoven also makes him ill.

Science does not immunize man from trade-offs. The "clockwork" Alex was nonviolent, but he also lost his love of Beethoven; eventually he attempts suicide. Galileo, Pasteur and Darwin created more knowledgeable human beings, but what did mankind give up? If we put our faith exclusively in scientific certainty, is there room for Beethoven?

Science can teach us the dangers of secondhand smoke; it cannot teach us the value of liberty and freedom. Science can provide pro and con arguments for national immunization; it cannot tell us whether ignoring evidence of harm to some children is better than jeopardizing a program that is doing much good for many children. Science can indicate the world is getting warmer; it cannot value the human consequences of the myriad policy trade-offs doing "something" might entail.

Education that helps us sort through the values that make good trade-offs is as important, if not more so, as the scientific training that provides data to support our decisions. A scientist may convince us the polar ice caps are melting, but it will be a poet who makes us weep for the polar bear.

Update: PZ Myers, a biologist and associate professor at the University of Minnesota, Morris, rapes this column here. In his first sentence he reflects his intellectual bent by using the objective term “conservative nutjob,” so I would guess I’m on safe ground deducing Mr. Myers viewed the column not as a scientist or a thinker, but as a liberal; that is, not objectively, but as a personal insult, the way a feminist views someone with the audacity to hold open a door.

It’s an interesting critique, and I’d really like to read the article it is based on, because it is not this one. Mr. Myers finds much to criticize me for, most of which is not what I said or implied. However, I do not object to his reference of me as a “kook,” a term that in the vernacular of many eras was often applied to the greatest scientific minds by those whose ideology neutered their minds, robbing them of the cajones to think for themselves.

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