Monday, November 21, 2005

Bigger than the Next Big Thing?

In discussing education, this forum has focused mainly on science education, and its impact on our national competitiveness. However, the importance of education goes far beyond that. Knowledge of, and appreciation for, art, history, literature, and all the other fields we call “humanities” and “social sciences”, are vital to our existence as human beings. Without the arts, without history, without imagination, we are no more than big termites. Our ability to ask questions of our place in the universe, to be curious about our own nature, to imagine “what if”, to find beauty in our surroundings, to ask whether there is a higher being responsible for all of this--these are the things that make us different, as far as we know, from termites.

Pure science, motivated by curiosity and the sense of beauty in nature, falls into this category. But it happens that science is very closely linked with the primary instrumentality by which we deal with the world: technology. In a world dominated by western rationality, whose cornerstone is Baconian reductionism, this is natural. While there are other systems of thought, that lead to different concepts of how to cope with our environment, reliance on physical technology has established itself as the dominant paradigm. This is now true even in cultures, such as those of India and China, in which the dominant paradigm for millennia was spiritual or metaphysical. Yet there is no evidence that technology per se fulfills us in any fundamental way.

Since technology is derived from science, the two often become blurred in peoples’ minds. However, science, like art, arises from the human hunger for beauty and understanding, and has value unto itself, regardless of its practical implications. The urge to understand is part of what makes us human. Technology enables us to get by; science, art, and all the other “impractical’ pursuits are what make “getting by” worthwhile.

Why raise this? Part of the great culture war going on in this country is not just about the teaching of science. It is about the broader issue of teaching everything. The debate has reached a critical phase as we struggle with budget shortfalls and the pressure to focus on “essentials”. And when we discuss essentials, certain things such as the arts, cultural history, the social sciences, do not make the cut. (The study of other cultures is seen as worse than “impractical”: it is seen as an attack on American culture, or as rampant PC’ness.) And science is not exempt, even among those who support neither radical christianity, nor the theory that science is part of some sinister corporate scheme. There is a growing, mainstream, bipartisan consensus, which demands that science, and the teaching of science, be more “directed”, or goal-oriented. This demand reflects a profound misunderstanding of how the imagination works, as any scientist would tell us if they had the soapbox.

Some of the greatest technological solutions arose from work being done by people who were thinking about completely different questions. Examples include germ theory (the microscope started off as a toy for looking at small things); cures for most infectious diseases (antibiotics were discovered by accident); modeling of weather, aerodynamics and other metastable phenomena (chaos theory was an obscure branch of mathematics), scaling of complex systems and modeling of networks (fractal geometry was the even more obscure obsession of one maverick scientist who loved the patterns of seashells and coastlines; its best-known application is in computer graphics); and biotechnology (restriction enzymes are the reason some bacteria are immune to infection by foreign DNA).

If our leaders had studied the history of the Enlightenment, they would not be so eager to force scientists to justify their existence with specific goals and timelines. And if we teach science merely as another instrumentality toward some practical end, we will kill the proverbial goose that lays the golden eggs. Even more important, in doing so we will diminish ourselves in ways that cannot be measured or quantified at all.


Anonymous eric selvin said...

I agree, much of science is just trivia and could very well lead to nothing practical. Even that science can be mind-opening. If we could tell which science would lead to something practical to use we should fund that more, over science that isn't useful for us.

November 21, 2005 11:32 PM  
Blogger Carlos Zapato said...

I do not agree with what you are saying you agree with---I really meant to say the opposite. If we focus only on funding science that we think will lead to practical results, we will miss most of the ideas that actually do lead to benefits to society.

November 23, 2005 1:58 AM  
Anonymous murgie said...

I agree with the spirit of the post but there is one overarching practical constraint that does not allow us the luxury of not setting priorities: there are resource constraints so some choices have to be made. Even if we do not pick them on the basis of what we think will be the most practical or fruitful, you still need some criterion. This is not an easy nut to crack. All one can assert is that we must not become the prisoner of one person's priorities; there must be decentralized choice. But this idea that we need to specify not particular choices but particular ways of making choices is also a little flawed: some choices of how to use science budgets involve larger sums of money and there are not many easy decentralized ways of making such choices.

November 24, 2005 5:49 AM  
Blogger Carlos Zapato said...

I agree with your point; However, the current moves to make science finding goal-based are being led by people who do not understand science and would probably put these decisions in the wrong hands. The principle of peer-review, while itself flawed in execution, has worked pretty well historically. It is when other forces (poliical ones) intrude, that peer-review can become problematic.

November 27, 2005 7:14 AM  

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