In which I get a little rant-y about yet another proud display of ignorance from the Washington Post’s education blog.
Some time back, I teed off on a school board member who couldn’t pass a simple math test, who proudly told the world about his ignorance via a post at the Washington Post‘s education blog. Bragging about ignorance is apparently a Thing for that blog, which recently offered another fine example, with a parent complaining about his son being forced to take chemistry. The author, “nonprofit executive” David Bernstein, is a former philosophy major, who evidently didn’t retain much from that, either, because his weak attempt at an argument is treated with a good deal more intellectual rigor and charity than he showed toward chemistry by professional chemist Derek Lowe and chemist-turned-philosopher Janet Stemwedel.
If you want to read a detailed point-by-point response, read Janet’s post. I don’t have the time or the energy to go through it in that sort of detail. Rather, I would like to offer a different sort of refutation of the central point. The key to Bernstein’s argument is that he “knows” his son will never be a scientist:
It doesn’t take a chemist to know that my son is not going to be a chemist. He’s 15, not 7. It’s really that obvious.
(That’s one of several repetitions of the same basic claim.)
This is a specific form of a general claim I hear a lot. A form of this is in near the top of the list of responses I get when I tell people I’m a physicist: “Oh, I could never do that. My brain doesn’t work that way.” For the sake of politeness, I generally let that pass, but it’s a bunch of malarkey, to lift a phrase from Joe Biden. Your brain can work that way, you just choose not to use it.
As evidence, I offer the photo at the top of this post (taken from Wikimedia), showing a collection of stone tools, and a block of red ochre with a diamond pattern scratched on one side. These were taken from the Blombos cave in South Africa, and have been dated to 77,000 years ago. Most of the stories about this talk about it as an example of ancient art, but it’s also a dramatic demonstration of science. Not on the part of the researchers, but on the part of our ancestors.
Why do I say that? Because the ochre in question doesn’t come from the cave, but was dug up in another location some distance away. Which means some ancient human deliberately picked that rock, for a reason. And other excavations at the same cave show that these rocks were being used to manufacture pigments as long as 100,000 years ago. So the early humans living there knew which rocks they needed to make different pigments, and how to mix them with other substances to achieve a desired effect.
That knowledge demonstrates the existence of science among our distant ancestors. Somebody had to figure out which rocks made useful colors, what other substances to mix them with, and how to organize the whole process. That’s knowledge that comes from scientific thinking: it needs to be worked out by a process of trial and error, testing different sorts of rocks and different mixtures, determining what works best, and passing that information on to others. That’s the process of science, right there.
So, our very distant ancestors, 100,000 years ago, were capable of thinking scientifically. And nothing in the several thousand generations since those days has happened to render modern people incapable of thinking scientifically. Any human alive today is the product of thousands of years of ancestors who thought like scientists.
Which is why I find it intensely frustrating when people– often successful professionals in their own fields– claim that they just can’t think in a scientific manner. Our species was thinking scientifically back when we were just a few steps up from chimpanzees.
What people really mean when they say they can’t think like a scientist, and thus shouldn’t be expected to learn anything about science, is that they don’t particular enjoy thinking scientifically, which is a much different argument. And it’s one that I don’t have all that much sympathy for, because few if any of those people would question the standard requirement that high school and college students take English classes.
The usual justification of this is an appeal to the universality of literature, which is held to address something fundamental in our natures. To choose an example not at all at random:
Writers engage the mind and the heart in search of answers to some of life’s toughest questions. Who am I, and what shaped me? How should I live my life? What gives life meaning? What is love? What is justice? What is evil? What is wrong with society — and can it be changed? Like painting, photography, sculpture, music, dance, and philosophy, literature confronts and expresses the most fundamental quandary of all: what it means to be human.
My response to this sort of soaring vagueness is simple: there is nothing more fundamental to humanity than science. Everything that we are as a species, everything that we can be, is a result of our ability to think scientifically: to study the world, make models to predict the future, and test those models against our experience. That process is the reason why despite our lack of fur or feathers, we can be found in every climate on the Earth, and off it (barely, sometimes). That ability is why, despite our modest teeth and lack of claws, we’re the dominant species on the planet, and have driven some more naturally fearsome predators into extinction. It’s science that, for good or ill, allows us to bend nature to our will, and produce enough surplus food an energy to allow people to create literature and ponder “life’s toughest questions.”
We require everyone to study literature at some level, because we believe that literary culture is in some sense essential to humanity. We ask this even of students who know that they will not be literary scholars just as surely as Mr. Bernstein knows his son will not be a scientist, who will hate their English classes just as passionately as the younger Bernstein hates chemistry: because failing to engage with literature and the questions it asks is, in some sense, letting down the side of humanity.
The same ought to be true of science. Forget the practical arguments about jobs and skills and critical thinking. The reason we ask students to study science ought to be the same as the reason we ask them to study literature– because it is part of the essential core of what makes us human. Because our just-barely-above-apes ancestors umpteen thousand generations ago would be ashamed to have descendants who didn’t use their brains that way.
Now, of course, I may be misattributing an argument to Mr. Bernstein that he wouldn’t make. It could be that he wouldn’t push for students to take literature classes, either, focusing instead on solely “practical” skills, with no more dabbling in high culture than puttering in the science lab. In which case, well, I will happily join with my colleagues in the humanities in thinking that he has a sad and cramped conception of what it means to be human.
(Of course, having looked up that explanation of our literature requirement, I probably need to see if I can do something about the pathetic justification of our science requirement. In my copious free time. Sigh.)