Saturday, December 10, 2005

Looking For Villains In All The Wrong Places


Recently, Nicholas Kristof wrote a column, The Hubris of the Humanities, in which he quite rightly pointed out that the U.S. is losing ground in maths and sciences.
But put aside the evolution debate for a moment. It's only a symptom of something much deeper and more serious: a profound illiteracy about science and math as a whole.

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.
In this society, which for generations has venerated the high school athlete and demeans studious ("geek", "egghead", "nerd", etc.), who is to blame for this?
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.
Now I admit to having a liberal arts education, which (as you would expect) included extensive study of the natural sciences and math. Kristof conflates the liberal arts with the humanities.

Leaving aside his careless choice of words, I can agree with Kristof's overall argument that our society would benefit from greater scientific literacy. Kristof's examples, though, seem designed to advance his notion that it is experts in the humanities who are somehow at fault for this nation's poor grasp of science:
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.

* * *

In terms of the skills we need for the 21st century, we're Shakespeare-quoting Philistines. A year ago, I wanted to ornament a column with a complex equation, so, as a math ninny myself, I looked around the Times newsroom for anyone who could verify that it was correct. Now you can't turn around in the Times newsroom without bumping into polyglots who come and go talking of Michelangelo. But it took forever to turn up someone confident in his calculus - in the science section.
Apparently, those Times employees confident in their calculus did not include Kristof, hence his need for verification. Which isn't a surprise as, "math ninny" or no, if you don't exercise your calculus skills they become rusty. And Kristof concludes,
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.
This isn't the first time that Kristof has invented a soft target at which to aim his barbs. I am wondering - can he identify even one person who believes "that a person can become sophisticated on a diet of poetry, philosophy and history, unleavened by statistics or chromosomes"? And upon what basis could he possibly suggest that this fictitious faction poses a greater danger to scientific literacy than anti-intellectualism? Perhaps it's all the sports dads suddenly pulling their kids off of the football team to study Monet and Michelangelo.

Kristof perhaps takes his call for scientific literacy beyond what I would deem necessary. I could devote the necessary time to refresh my math, calculus, physics, and other science knowledge and skills, or even to expand them. But realistically, there is not much call for calculus in my daily activities, and when there is I find it more efficient to refresh my memory in relation to the specific need. My knowledge of science and statistics provides a framework which I attempt to use when processing information, even as some of the specifics become hazy. I would like to see our society embrace the maths and sciences as an important part of all levels of education, and to provide both opportunity and encouragement to kids who are inclined toward the maths and sciences.

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