The Divide Between the Liberal Arts and Science

It’s the 4th of July, and the Mad Biologist doesn’t work on yontif, so here’s something from the archives about scientific literacy (or illiteracy, actually). Surprisingly, I actually agree with Nicholas Kristof (originally published Dec. 8, 2005).

Nicholas Kristof actually made sense today. He described on the widespread ignorance of science and math, even among those typically considered well-educated. Says the Great Solon (italics mine):

One-fifth of Americans still believe that the Sun goes around the Earth, instead of the other way around. And only about half know that humans did not live at the same time as dinosaurs.

The problem isn’t just inadequate science (and math) teaching in the schools, however. A larger problem is the arrogance of the liberal arts, the cultural snootiness of, of … well, of people like me – and probably you [not the Mad Biologist!].

What do I mean by that? In the U.S. and most of the Western world, it’s considered barbaric in educated circles to be unfamiliar with Plato or Monet or Dickens, but quite natural to be oblivious of quarks and chi-squares. A century ago, Einstein published his first paper on relativity – making 1905 as important a milestone for world history as 1066 or 1789 – but relativity has yet to filter into the consciousness of otherwise educated people.

“The great edifice of modern physics goes up, and the majority of the cleverest people in the Western world have about as much insight into it as their neolithic ancestors would have had,” C. P. Snow wrote in his classic essay, “The Two Cultures.”…

Without some fluency in science and math, we’ll simply be left behind in the same way that Ming Dynasty Chinese scholars were. Increasingly, we face public policy issues – avian flu, stem cells – that require some knowledge of scientific methods, yet the present Congress contains 218 lawyers, and just 12 doctors and 3 biologists. In terms of the skills we need for the 21st century, we’re Shakespeare-quoting Philistines.

This disregard for science already hurts us. The U.S. has bungled research on stem cells, perhaps partly because Mr. Bush didn’t realize how restrictive his curb on research funds would be. And we’re risking our planet’s future because our leaders are frozen in the headlights of climate change.

In this century, one of the most complex choices we will make will be what tinkering to allow with human genes, to “improve” the human species. How can our leaders decide that issue if they barely know what DNA is?…..

But there’s an even larger challenge than anti-intellectualism. And that’s the skewed intellectualism of those who believe that a person can become sophisticated on a diet of poetry, philosophy and history, unleavened by statistics or chromosomes. That’s the hubris of the humanities.

Kristof is right that scientific ignorance is overwhelming. I’ve dealt with public health policy makers who really don’t understand the basics of biology (e.g., viruses versus bacteria). Many policy makers do not know enough biology (or other sciences, for that matter). These are not stupid people (well, some are…), and they have often been educated at ‘elite’ universities. This knowledge does matter: you can’t just get some good ‘folks’ with good values and build a light water nuclear reactor. Competency and expertise matter.
Anyone who has had to defend evolutionary biology is painfully familiar with this sort of ignorance. Here’s some examples:

  • a misunderstanding of the basics of mutation
  • not knowing the difference (or that there is a difference) between the theories of common descent and natural selection
  • confusing randomness with stochasticity
  • not understanding that mutation (and recombination) give rise to variation, and natural selection alters this variation
  • not realizing that evolution happens in populations (this confusion ultimately leads to a misunderstanding of what “macroevolution” actually means)
  • not realizing that historically contingent events can not be approximated with mathematics that assumes independent events (the “whirlwind in the junkyard” metaphor)

Now, it’s ok if you’re not familiar with some of the things on this list-the Mad Biologist is not familiar with a great many things too. However, if you are going to attack evolutionary biology, you have to know the basics; otherwise, when you argue from an ‘alternate’ (read: incorrect) biological reality, you’re just being an idiot.
While Kristof is right that scientific ignorance is acceptable, even among the educated, he ignores two other factors which are very important. First, many conservatives have waged an all-out assault on science (e.g., Mooney’s Republican War on Science). Second, Kristof ignores the role that Republicans have played in labelling scientists as elitists (as if somehow a bunch of college professors actually govern the U.S.).
Nonetheless, Kristof does point out that Americans, despite our love of technology, don’t understand it. Now if we can only fix our educational system

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5 Responses to The Divide Between the Liberal Arts and Science

  1. Chris says:

    I have a vague idea of the difference between stochasticity and randomness, but it would be difficult for me to express clearly. Can you point me to a good description or link that sums up the difference succinctly?
    (Hey, knowing 5 out of 6 isn’t bad…)

  2. Rob Knop says:

    My understanding (which may not be precisely correct) is that stochasticity is “randomness in bulk.”
    If you roll a die, it’s completely random whether you’ll get 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, or 6.
    If you roll 6,000 dice, you can be very sure that somewhere between 900 and 1,100 of them will come up showing 6.
    Stochastic processes are like rolling lots of dice. Each individual event may be random, but when you have lots of random events together you can make very firm predictions about what is going to happen.

  3. jepalmer says:

    I’m glad Chris asked that – I’m a biologist, and I have never before seen a distinction made between randomness and stochasticity. Live and learn. 🙂

  4. skunqesh says:

    Rock on Mike,
    My father was a physics professor and researcher for many years before retirement – the only thing he and some of his colleagues bemoan is NOT failing more of the squirrley bastards who passed exams with answers that were ‘close enough’. The pressure to deliver excellent scores to very unexcelling students has grown tremendously over the past few decades. Thus delivering a bonafide mess to the scientific community as a succeeding population of graduates get dumbed down to the dumbth degree and spreads the dumbness like a bad flu. (Heck, you can get a Ph.D online nowadays – ain’t that a kick in the jewels?)
    Any ways, I loved your post, and it’s kinda ironic in a way as I’m currently reading/scanning Kary Mullis’s biog (LSD crazed chemist who crafted PCR), talk about weird science!

  5. Alan mainwaring says:

    This issue regarding “random process” versus “stochastic process” has always confused me. Here is something that might help.One of my classic works on Probabilty theory is
    “An Introduction to Probability Theory and its Applications”
    by William Feller Vol 1. Vol 1 deals with discrete Random Variables or should I say Random Functions. (This issue regarding Random Variables versus Functions is another mute point with me as well). Anyway in the 1968 edition page 419 a footnote, footnote 28 says “The terms “stochastic process” and random process” are synonmyms and cover practically all of the theory of probability from coin tossing to harmonic analysis.
    In practise, the term “stochastic process” is used mostly when a TIME parameter is introduced”. In this book in Chapter 3 it talks about Random Walks using the tossing of a coin as a basis for gaining insight into Random and Stochastic process’s. At the beginning of this chapeter is a statement that really has puzzled me ever since I read it.
    In this statement may be the basic clue to tangling apart the distinction between Random and Stocahstic process where the time factor makes the distinction. Sorry about this but I quote from page 67 from this remarkable and very difficult book.
    “We shall encounter theoretical conclusions which are not only unexpected but actually come as a shock to intuition and common sense. They will reveal that commonly accepted notions concerning chance fluctuations are without foundation and that the implications of the law of large numbers are widley misconstrued. For example, in various applications it is assumed that observations on an individual coin-tossing game during a long time interval will yield the same statistical characteristics as the observation of the results of a huge number of independent games at ONE INSTANT. THIS IS NOT SO. Indeed using a currently popular jargon we reach the conclusion that in a population of normal coins the majority is necessarily maladjusted.” Feller then gives a long run simulation to illustrate this point.
    Perhaps as one blogger Rob Knopp has pointed out the stochastic process is the many indepedent trials done at one instant and then repeated over and over again, not a single trial repeated over and over again.
    By the way the author of this book worked along side the great mathematician Paul Erdos in laying foundations of many of the theorectical tools used in Biology today eg arcsin distribution used in surveys.
    Hope this helps Alan Mainwaring

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