Pharyngula

Captain Fishsticks is one of our local conservative nutjobs who haunts the pages of the St Paul Pioneer Press—he’s a free market freak who wants to privatize everything, especially the schools, and yet everything he writes reveals a painful ignorance of anything academic. This week he’s written a response to an article that left him distraught: Peter Pitman advocated more and better science education for Minnesotans, especially on the subject of climate change. Fishsticks, to whom all education is a zero-sum game because every time he has to learn another phone number a whole ‘nother column of the times table drops out of his brain, objects to this threat. He starts off by agreeing with Pitman’s argument, but does so by tying it to some of his lunatic obsessions—he’s a pro-smoking anti-vaccination guy.

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 approval will not last. The rest of his column is a weird paean to excusing ignorance of science. You see, if people learn more math and physics, they’ll get the idea that we live in a “clockwork universe”, and then they won’t like music or poetry anymore. Seriously.

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.

I’m a big fan of a liberal arts education, as you might guess from my place of employment. Somehow, though, in the minds of too many people, that broad, diverse form of education gets translated into “less math”. Wrong. A liberal arts education should mean that the student gets exposed to the breadth of learning, and that includes math. Science is an exceptionally human endeavor already—it’s always the ignorant who assume that learning algebra or the scientific method is dehumanizing.

Fishsticks seems quite taken with this “clockwork” stuff—it’s a bit bizarre. His logic is a mess, too: students who learn more physics may learn that the universe is lawful like clockwork, but it isn’t (says Fishsticks), and the physicists explain that his simplistic analogy is wrong. So…maybe they should learn something from the physicists, who seem to have a more nuanced understanding of the universe than he does?

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?

He goes on and on about this “clockwork universe”, and finally ‘fesses up to the source of his analogy: Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange, in which a young man was strapped down by a police state and conditioned against violence, but also against music. It suddenly makes sense: Captain Fishsticks imagines that the way students at the university learn math and physics is that they are strapped down in a dark room, injected with drugs, get their eyelids braced open, and then are forced to view horrific scenes of polynomials being expanded and equations being derived, and the whole experience is so ghastly that ever after they hate Beethoven.

(The man does have a point that that might be a good way to finally get students to master those basics.)

Just to explain Burgess’s work of literature to poor Fishsticks, though, I need to point out a few things. A Clockwork Orange is a work of fiction. It is not the basis for modern pedagogy. The terrible techniques used in the novel were intended to make the subject averse to violence; believe it or not, our calculus instructors would like to encourage students to enjoy math—these classes are not exercises in aversion therapy. Beethoven is not piped into the physics classrooms, so even if a student hates physics, there is no opportunity to make the association between music and science. And finally, the book is a statement against totalitarianism and fascism, not science, and is a testimonial to the importance of individuality, something training in science does not ask you to sacrifice. Well, not any more so than in-depth training in any specific field, that is.

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?

Yes.

Are we done now?

I would just suggest that I hope no one ever takes advice on education and education policy from a man like Captain Fishsticks, whose knowledge of scholars and the intelligentsia seems to consist entirely of random, erroneous, and silly pop-culture associations.

Comments

  1. #1 Bronze Dog
    December 29, 2006

    Great. I was listening to some remixes of Mega Man game music while reading this guys stuff. Now I’ll get sick whenever anyone so much as mentions the Blue Bomber.

  2. #2 J-Dog
    December 29, 2006

    Captain Fishsticks has been driven crazy by the movie portrayal of the hero getting some hot 3-Way action, something which I suspect, he has never experienced. His writing is so inane he probably can’t even get any 2-way action!

  3. #3 Mrs Tilton
    December 29, 2006

    You see, if people learn more math and physics, they’ll get the idea that we live in a “clockwork universe”, and then they won’t like music or poetry anymore.

    He’s right you know, because music and poetry have nothing to do with metre and prosody and rhythm and form and other essentially mathematical concepts.

  4. #4 Steve_C
    December 29, 2006

    Yup. A metronome is nothing like clock. Oh no it isn’t!

  5. #5 Warren
    December 29, 2006

    Beethoven is not piped into the physics classrooms, so even if a student hates physics, there is no opportunity to make the association between music and science.

    Bach would be a better choice.

  6. #6 afterthought
    December 29, 2006

    You seem to have different type of loon up your way, but I guess all regions have their unique loonies.
    It is nice to hear about the different varieties as the local loons get boring after a while.

  7. #7 jeffw
    December 29, 2006

    Bach would be a better choice.

    Or maybe Pink Floyd – “We don’t need no education. We don’t need no thought control…”

  8. #8 Blake Stacey
    December 29, 2006

    Galileo, Pasteur and Darwin created more knowledgeable human beings, but what did mankind give up?

    Death by germ infection before age thirty-five?

  9. #9 Craig O.
    December 29, 2006

    Somehow, though, in the minds of too many people, that broad, diverse form of education gets translated into “less math”. Wrong. A liberal arts education should mean that the student gets exposed to the breadth of learning, and that includes math.

    As a professional mathematician, I get amused when I point out that of the seven traditional liberal arts, three (logic, arithmetic, and geometry) are pretty much pure mathematics and a fourth (astronomy) requires quite a lot of mathematics.

    And by the way, I listen to Beethoven while work because I like it, not because I was forced to listen to it while being tied down while learning science.

  10. #10 George
    December 29, 2006

    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.

    No, it will be a computer animator. The animation in An Inconvenient Truth, of a swimming polar bear continually trying to grab hold of a small piece of floating ice, only to have it split in two, was very effective.

    No poets needed.

  11. #11 Blake Stacey
    December 29, 2006

    Craig O. wrote, insightfully:

    As a professional mathematician, I get amused when I point out that of the seven traditional liberal arts, three (logic, arithmetic, and geometry) are pretty much pure mathematics and a fourth (astronomy) requires quite a lot of mathematics.

    God bless you, Martianus Capella. A quotation from James Burke’s The Day the Universe Changed (1985) follows.

    The reaction of the Carthaginian proconsul Martianus Capella to the fall of Rome was more pragmatic [than that of Augustine]. He saw that the expansive, public life of the Empire was gone for good. If the Romans were to survive at all, it would be in a very different world, with everything on a much smaller scale. Without the centralising influence of Rome, the Empire would be fragmented into tiny states and cities that would have to exist autonomously on limited resources. They would need condensed versions of Roman knowledge to help them.

    Such a condensation was Capella’s packaged version, in nine volumes, of the imperial school curriculum. That course had been divided into two sections, the first of which contained all the rules for the teaching of the primary subjects of rhetoric, grammar and argument [dialectic, logic]. These had been the staple of early instruction in an expanding Roman imperialist society with a need to win over conquered tribes with oratory, teach them Latin, and formulate complex legislation to hold everything together.

    To these three early subjects Capella added four more from the Empire’s later years. As Rome grew it had become necessary to expand the school curriculum with more practical subjects relevant to the day to day organisation of sophisticated urban life. Music, geometry, arithmetic and astronomy were added. These subjects formed the advanced studies. Capella’s book detailed these seven subjects, which were known as the seven liberal arts, together with an encyclopedic anthology of all the facts relating to them. His work was to become the standard reference for education for the next six centuries.

  12. #12 Bobryuu
    December 29, 2006

    I learned to love math so much more when I got a non-conservative math professor who helped me realize that Calculus was one of humanity’s greatest achievement

  13. #13 DiscordianStooge
    December 29, 2006

    Bach would be a better choice.

    I assume PZ was continuing the “Clockwork Orange” theme here by promoting the immortal Ludwig Van…

  14. #14 Rey Fox
    December 29, 2006

    So there ain’t beauty in clockwork? Don’t tell the steampunk fans.

  15. #15 MJ Memphis
    December 29, 2006

    Ok, I guess I will have to be the one to break the code of silence. Captain Fishsticks has it all wrong; actually, the universities play insipid “Christian rock” music continuously in calculus classrooms to turn budding young scientists and engineers into cold-hearted atheists. Any aversion to Beethoven or Bach is strictly collateral damage.

    Only those fortunate students (such as Bill Dembski) who never take off their headphones during class manage to avoid this insidious aversion therapy; this explains both their resistance to the atheist agenda, and their general ignorance.

  16. #16 Nerull
    December 29, 2006

    Geology may not be the subject of this blog, but you should still get a kick out of this:

    “Grand Canyon National Park is not permitted to give an official estimate of the geologic age of its principal feature, due to pressure from Bush administration appointees.”

    “Despite promising a prompt review of its approval for a book claiming the Grand Canyon was created by Noah’s flood rather than by geologic forces, more than three years later no review has ever been done and the book remains on sale at the park”

    http://www.peer.org/news/news_id.php?row_id=801

  17. #17 Sean Foley
    December 29, 2006

    Beethoven is not piped into the physics classrooms, so even if a student hates physics, there is no opportunity to make the association between music and science.

    In one of my undergraduate “Astrophysics for Humanities-studying Ignoramuses” courses, the professor did begin and end each lecture by playing some piece of classical music. He’d tie it into the lecture material (admittedly, sometimes it was a stretch) to help us appreciate both the subject we were studying in an interdisciplinary light.

    The only drawback was that one day two of my former classmates beat the crap out of me and tried to drown me in the campus’s ornamental pool.

  18. #18 Julie Stahlhut
    December 29, 2006

    “Natasha, Fearless Leader wants to know age of Grand Canyon.”

    “But Boris, dahlink, age of Grand Canyon is state secret.”

    “Don’t worry, Natasha. We have picture taken by squirrel. Age of Grand Canyon is written on moose’s foot.”

  19. #19 Phil
    December 29, 2006

    And finally, the book is a statement against totalitarianism and fascism, not science, and is a testimonial to the importance of individuality, something training in science does not ask you to sacrifice.

    More importantly to Anthony Burgess, it was an examination of the critical role of free will in human behavior, even if people will choose evil over good.

  20. #20 Blake Stacey
    December 29, 2006

    Sean Foley wrote:

    In one of my undergraduate “Astrophysics for Humanities-studying Ignoramuses” courses, the professor did begin and end each lecture by playing some piece of classical music. He’d tie it into the lecture material (admittedly, sometimes it was a stretch) to help us appreciate both the subject we were studying in an interdisciplinary light.

    My “materials science for non-majors” professor did the same thing. He also held a contest for the best mnemonic device to remember the lanthanide elements, the prize being a Tom Lehrer CD which included “The Elements”. I won by thinking, “Hey, that’s fourteen elements, not counting lanthanum”, and writing a Shakespearean sonnet.

  21. #21 Jim in STL
    December 29, 2006

    “Don’t worry, Natasha. We have picture taken by squirrel. Age of Grand Canyon is written on moose’s foot.”

    Good news. There’s also science-based information regarding the age of the Grand Canyon and it’s rocks in the 2006-2007 visitor’s guide (link in URL below). Moose and squirrel win again. Bwahahahahahahaha.

  22. #22 n3rdchik
    December 29, 2006

    at the university learn math and physics is that they are strapped down in a dark room, injected with drugs, get their eyelids braced open, and then are forced to view horrific scenes of polynomials being expanded and equations being derived, and the whole experience is so ghastly that ever after they hate Beethoven.

    LOL! Best. Quote. Ever. I am going to try that on my kids – Share with your brother or I am going to make you watch geometric proofs! Capt’n Fishsticks must have talked to Barbie (of “Math is hard!” fame.)

  23. #23 khan
    December 29, 2006

    Captain Fishsticks imagines that the way students at the university learn math and physics is that they are strapped down in a dark room, injected with drugs, get their eyelids braced open, and then are forced to view horrific scenes of polynomials being expanded and equations being derived, and the whole experience is so ghastly that ever after they hate Beethoven.
    —————
    No Gaussian Elimination?

  24. #24 Zombie
    December 29, 2006

    I don’t think I know a single scientist, engineer, programmer or anyone educated in any technical or mathematical field that *lacks* an interest in music, or poetry or literature. Certainly, interest and depth of exposure varies, everybody has their thing, but in my experience intelligent, educated people tend to be interested in a little of everything.

    Whereas there are a depressing number of people who avoid, ignore, or disparage anything of a technical or mathematical nature, whether they’re interested in music or literature or whatever or not.

    The idea of the culturally out of touch expert is a stereotype and a slander.

    We need to stop treating logic, math, and science as “optional” when we use the term “educated”…

  25. #25 Bronze Dog
    December 29, 2006

    So there ain’t beauty in clockwork? Don’t tell the steampunk fans.

    And don’t tell the Doctor:

    [On unmasking a clockwork robot and seeing the mechanism inside its head]
    The Doctor: Ohhh, you are beautiful! No, really, you are, you’re gorgeous! Look at that! Space-age clockwork, I love it, I’ve got chills! Listen, seriously, I mean this from the heart – and by the way, count those – it would be…a crime, it would be…an act of vandalism to disassemble you.
    [holds up sonic screwdriver]
    The Doctor: But that won’t stop me.

  26. #26 Sarah G.
    December 29, 2006

    Blake, I would absolutely love to see that sonnet on lanthanides.

    Seriously, that would be truly awesome.

    Or I might be forced to write my own.

  27. #27 Tyler DiPietro
    December 29, 2006

    We need to stop treating logic, math, and science as “optional” when we use the term “educated”…

    Indeed, and it is probably the optional nature of any understanding of such things that puts us in our current sorry situation. For the longest time, people weren’t considered “intellectuals” unless they were able to discuss the prominent scientific issues of the day. Now of days it’s not surprising to find an article in Harper’s or The New Yorker that boils down to “this may have been fascinating, but I didn’t understand it. Science blows.”

  28. #28 Chris
    December 29, 2006

    If we put our faith exclusively in scientific certainty, is there room for Beethoven?

    No such thing. Certainty is religion’s stock in trade; science does not pretend to it. Furthermore, science neither asks for nor requires faith; the evidence is available to anyone who wants to look at it, anytime. Again, it’s religion that burns people at the stake for asking inconvenient questions.

    Can we please drop the “science is just another religion” bullshit once and for all? Or is that too much to ask?

    Some people seem to have a really hard time with the idea that a belief system can exist *without* total cosmic arrogance; that it can embrace the idea that you *might be wrong*. I suppose it’s pointless to ask them to look at the evidence that such a system *does* exist, when they’ve been trained from early childhood to reject evidence that conflicts with their preconceived notions.

  29. #29 Tyler DiPietro
    December 29, 2006

    Correction: “An article” should be “a science-related article”. Lazy commenting is the bane of a good blog.

  30. #30 Mat
    December 29, 2006

    Anyone who thinks that knowledge or appreciation of mathematics and science and knowledge or appreciation of art and music have a deleterious effect on each other doesn’t know anything about either.

    (You know I’m an artist ’cause I get pseudo-intellectual and start raping the poor thesaurus when I get mildly ticked.)

  31. #31 Phoenician in a time of Romans
    December 29, 2006

    A Clockwork Orange is a work of fiction. It is not the basis for modern pedagogy.

    On the other hand The Lord of the Flies has a great deal of relevance to modern schooling…

  32. #32 Brian X
    December 29, 2006

    I forget where I saw it, but I’d love to read more about it — apparently a lot of conservatives consider science little more than glorified toolsmithing, and they take a rather Jansenist attitude towards study of origins — something along the lines of “science is meant to tell us how to have dominion over the world, not to figure out how it began”. I’ve rarely seen it stated that baldly, but although those weren’t the exact words, they were a reasonable approximation.

    It is interesting that the divide between science and the humanities seems to be of recent origin. It makes people like Mortimer Adler look rather foolish; too bad he’s dead, it would be interesting to see what he has to say on the subject. He was very much pro-humanities, so-what about science.

  33. #33 AC
    December 29, 2006

    The idea of the culturally out of touch expert is a stereotype and a slander.

    I’ve found that many people who advance that stereotype do so because they have a very…anemic concept of culture.

  34. #34 Jonathan Badger
    December 29, 2006

    As a professional mathematician, I get amused when I point out that of the seven traditional liberal arts, three (logic, arithmetic, and geometry) are pretty much pure mathematics and a fourth (astronomy) requires quite a lot of mathematics.

    Yes, traditionally. But not in the modern US. My brother studied the “liberal arts”, and he mostly studied English and history with two token science classes (of the “physics for poets” variety in which all scary equations were hid) and no required math classes. He did take a statistics course, but only because some graduate programs he was considering required it.

  35. #35 Crudely Wrott
    December 29, 2006

    I’ve frequently been impressed by the high interest that people in science routinely show for the arts. For many years I have seen that there is a very basic and strong relationship between our comprehension of a fugue, a waltz, a haiku, or the sound of laughter and the apprehension of mitosis, the motion of heliotropes, the path of a falling of a leaf, or the acoustics of a stream.

    Because there is such a fundamental, and emotionally charged, similarity, I am daily renewed in my trust of the human mind. I am often deeply moved when read the old essays of Isaac Asimov and recall his delight in and adept creation of racy limericks. Such low humor from such deep knowledge!

  36. #36 Daniel Martin
    December 30, 2006

    We need to stop treating logic, math, and science as “optional” when we use the term “educated”…

    I have a problem with this statement. That is, I’m not sure at all that it’s true, or who the “we” are that would make it true.

    I’ll admit, I feel somewhere in my gut that it is true, but that’s the same part of my gut that’s always telling me where I left my keys, and is wrong more than half the time. At the same time, although I feel irritated at this attitude (“math is optional to appear educated”) as though I’d encountered it, I can’t actually remember an incident in which I actually did. I can remember hearing people express relief to be finished the calculus sequence, but I remember hearing similar expressions over finishing the notoriously paper-heavy “Intro. to Shakespeare” course. This is not the same.

    All of which is to say that I’m not sure that this math-is-optional attitude is really out there, but that the attitude that this math-is-optional attitude is out there is out there.

  37. #37 Don't kill me, prof!
    December 30, 2006

    Captain Fishsticks imagines that the way students at the university learn math and physics is that they are strapped down in a dark room, injected with drugs, get their eyelids braced open, and then are forced to view horrific scenes of polynomials being expanded and equations being derived…

    You haven’t been to my intermediate-level undergraduate Electricity and Magnetism class. And you should stay far away.

  38. #38 Keith Douglas
    December 30, 2006

    Craig O. : Quite true, and mathematics would be part of a modernized liberal arts, along with computer science (an idea I’ve held for a while now), which also requires mathematics.

    Come to think of it, what should be the modern trivium and quadrium?

    khan: When I learned g.e. I thought – why don’t we spend our time working on good computer programs for this instead?

    Zombie: I say that all the time, and I have primarily philosophy degrees. I regard philosophy as a good “bridge” discipline between everything intellectual, so that’s not surprising.

    Don’t kill me, prof: I just started reading Maxwell’s own treatise on your subject. Ouch. I knew from the intro course I did that there would be more line (surface, volume) integrals than you can shake a stick at, but …

  39. #39 Flex
    January 2, 2007

    As usual I’m a little late in commenting.

    The automotive industry mainly shuts down between Christmas and New Years. (Thanks to the labor unions. Yay unions!) And I’m usually too busy myself during that time to read blogs.

    But you do realize that there are really 3 different versions of A Clockwork Orange?

    The original novel printed in England concluded with Alex growing up and losing interest in his adolescent hi-jinks. It just wasn’t fun any more.

    The American edition left out the last chapter of the novel, effectively changing the meaning from a tale about the lack of defined social customs for adolescents in a rapidly changing society to one of fragmentation of society in general.

    Kubrick apparently based his movie on the American edition, but he made an important change. It’s a subtle one, but it’s probably the most terrifying.

    The Alex who fornicates in public at the end of the movie to general applause of the on-lookers is not the same Alex who brings a couple of girls back to his room early in the movie.

    Kubrick’s point, as I see it, was that behavioral conditioning can alter behavior. But that we know so little of human behavior that the bludgen of conditioning destroys nuances within a personality.

    Kubrick’s Alex was a very complex, if a bit troubled, youth who was conditioned to abhor violence and also lost his enjoyment of Ludwig von. The additional conditioning to ‘restore’ Alex didn’t make him the same person he was before the original conditioning. The additional conditioning made Alex into the person the records said he was, a little sadistic monster with a perverted enjoyment of Beethovan.

    Alex was not restored, he was made to match the records society had of him.

    To me, Kubrick’s version is by far the most terrifying.

  40. #40 Rick Schauer
    January 2, 2007

    Nice blog!
    I suggest a look at this history of education written by a former Teacher of the Year from New York:

    http://www.johntaylorgatto.com/chapters/index.htm

    It’s a nice historical survey of education in the USA, he advocates a return to the trivium and quadrivium.

    Additionally, Richard Dawkins in his book, “Unweaving the Rainbow” does a masterful job of putting poetry to science as Dawkins answers Keat’s lament that Newton’s science (a prism)destroys the beauty of the rainbow.

  41. #41 Nancy Hokkanen
    January 3, 2007

    Craig Westover does not deserve the pejorative “anti-vaccination.” If you’ve read his previous columns, you’ll see that he believes vaccines have contributed greatly to public health. However much as Ralph Nader questions auto safety, Westover is questioning vaccine safety — other journalists have, and many more should. Vaccines are an ongoing experiment, with many in production and few, if any, long-term studies of their combined effects on infants, pregnant women and the general population. Consider the intrusion of market forces plus humankind’s intrinsic fear of error, then ask at what percentage of physical damage bureaucrats decide that vaccine risks outweigh benefits. When you live with a permanently injured child or veteran, the utilitarian ethic loses its luster.

    Vaccine A: The Covert Government Experiment that’s Kililng Our Soldiers
    by Gary Matsumoto (former NBC war correspondent)
    http://www.vaccine-a.com/

    The River: A Journey to the Source of HIV and AIDS
    by Edward Hooper (former UN official and BBC correspondent)
    http://www.aidsorigins.com/

    Evidence Of Harm: Mercury in Vaccines and the Autism Epidemic: A Medical Controversy
    by David Kirby (former New York Times contributor, won 2006 IRE award for investigative journalism)
    http://www.EvidenceOfHarm.com

    The Virus and the Vaccine: The True Story of a Cancer-Causing Monkey Virus, Contaminated Polio Vaccine, and the Millions of Americans Expose
    by Debbie Bookchin and Jim Schumacher (investigative journalists)
    http://www.thevirusandthevaccine.com/reviews.html

  42. #42 Bronze Dog
    January 3, 2007

    [Derail]

    Think before you reference Kirby.

    [/Derail]

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