Put a little science in your life

Brian Greene has an excellent op-ed in the NYTimes — read it!


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Yes. It's excellent. Then there'll be some inane preacher spewing propaganda next Sunday we'll be another 60-minutes stupider. Maybe a few break from the collective, but...

Whew. I don't know. It gets depressing at times. And even if I can see the long-term trends, the current wreck just wears me out.

Science can be a way of life, but I think it too much to say "Science is a way of life". It's more like intellectual honesty is a way of life (yes, it has to be learned), and science is a part of honest intellection.

Nitpicking, I suppose--the trouble being that science's opponents will nitpick it. It's a good commentary, only it could be seen as promoting scientism and possibly denial of that which does not (normally) reduce down to science. Thus I would not wish to promote it as a way of life, rather a part of general intellectual integrity.

That way no one can claim to simply "disbelieve science". You can't, not if you're honest.

Glen D

He says: "Science is the process that takes us from confusion to understanding ..." I've seen the same idea expressed as going from serendipity to certainty.

It's kind of funny, this blogpost more or less says that science is not elitist, or at least not very much so.

The next one, which doesn't allow comments at the time I'm writing, takes up the "elitist bastard" cudgel.

Sure, it's humor, but I wonder if it's a very productive tactic. The beauty of science is that it's generally accessible and open, and ideally most anybody can become some kind of expert.

That's what we're fighting over in the evo-creo debates, democratization of science. Too many wish to keep the serfs ignorant, the science popularizers want to inform the masses.

So it's not that I'm against the "elitist bastards" piece, it's that generally we don't wish to let the anti-democratizers of science, the anti-scientists, to decide the terms of this debate. We'll lose if we accept the term "elitist" for anything other than humor.

Glen D

Excellent essay. I think he has a very good point when he talks of how science is taught in schools. I am not that familiar with what happens in the US, but I do not imagine it is much different than in the UK, and here I sometimes get the impression that the science syllabus has been designed to remove any sense of wonder at the universe from the kids. It also does not seem to explain how science works. Sure you get taught Newton's laws, but most people forget them not long after the exam I imagine. I did them, I am interested in science but I am not sure I could tell you which each of them was with any certainty. What I think it more important is to teach what science is, how it works, what it can do and what it can't do, and how it impacts our lives. And yes, the majot theories in science should be covered. As has been said before no one who is educated in the English language can be considered truly educated unless they know about Shakespeare, no one can be considered truly educated unless they know about evolution, relativity, atomic theory and quantum theory: not the details, does any single person know all of those, but the outline and the importance of them.

By Matt Penfold (not verified) on 01 Jun 2008 #permalink

Brian Greene wrote this to accompany the amazing World Science Festival that we just had in NYC. I saw him speak several times, introducing lectures and conversations among scientists and other culture-makers (artists, athletes, policy wonks and activists). The focus of each lecture that I saw was how science and understanding science is part and parcel of a full life.

One of the events was about called "Illuminating Creativity" or something along those lines. It paired three neurologists with three artists. What was fascinating to me was how well versed the scientists were in the arts, but how little versed some of the artists were in science. One wouldn't expect a choreographer to necessarily understand neurology, but the striking thing was his attitude toward it and the goals of science. At first, he was quite hostile to the whole endeavor, expressing the fear that by understanding the creative process, scientists want to somehow (I kid you not, this was the claim) create a robot or computer program that would replace or make obsolete human creativity. Now I'm probably a little better read than most of my peers, but my sources are those that one can buy in your local chain bookstore, so perhaps I don't fear the scientists who bother to write for the public. However, I believe that kind of thinking permeates our culture--that somehow understanding something leads, inevitably, to sinister control or dehumanizing mechanization. Fortunately, by the end of the event, the dancer (Bill T. Jones), seemed somewhat relieved to discover that the scientists possessed just as advanced a sense of joy and wonder in the universe as the artists do.

My brain is still buzzing from the ideas and most of all the humanity of the scientists featured. I hope that more cities across the country organize such festivals.

By TheWireMonkey (not verified) on 01 Jun 2008 #permalink

Read it. Loved it. Brian Greene is my hero.

I loved this essay. It reminded me a lot of Carl Sagan's writing, in that he makes many of the same points Sagan did a decade or more ago. I just finished an article on it.

As for the point that TheWireMonkey is making, which is that there is a prejudice against understanding too much about our world, yes, it exists. I think, though, that there is at least as much to fear from the superstition that inevitably takes the place of knowledge. Knowledge that is incomplete or wrong can often be reasoned away. I'm pretty sure the same can't be said for superstition.

I'm going to read the essay in a moment. But first, elsewhere in the NYT, the Book Review contains a section called "Truth to Power" in which writers give presidential candidates reading suggestions. It's an interesting feature, containing this from Steven Pinker:

Obama has dibs on Sam Harris's 'Letter to a Christian Nation'. Some have criticized the uncompromising tone of this atheist best seller, but it's mild stuff compared with the acid you guys have been flinging around. The book will put you in touch with the fastest-growing religious minority in this country, help you understand why our European allies consider us so backward and encourage you to keep your distance from kooks who call themselves spiritual leaders.

(my bold) OK, citation needed, and other issues. But still.

Sure, it's humor, but I wonder if it's a very productive tactic. The beauty of science is that it's generally accessible and open, and ideally most anybody can become some kind of expert.

I agree. I can't get to the "elitist bastards" post here, but I saw the site recently, and it left me cold.

Like a life without music, art or literature, a life without science is bereft of something that gives experience a rich and otherwise inaccessible dimension.

Oh, lordie, did this speak to me. College undergraduate days: 3 1/2 years as a chemical engineering degree (ended up just not being happy) but graduated in music. I've lived in both worlds. The scientists were always at orchestra concerts. The musicians (other than the few interested in such things as acoustics) couldn't give two shits about the scientific stuff.

I'm often amazed by the accusations toward scientists, but I've often found artists to be more bereft of any intellectual or ethical grounding. Because of the "mysticism" of the arts, actual human connections, or the production of actual knowledge are denigrated next to mystical connections that are usually reducable to making social connections but being intellectually vacuous enough--a vacuousness spurred on by some in those fields--to discount anything that actually happens in the world.

By MAJeff, OM (not verified) on 01 Jun 2008 #permalink

I'm often amazed by the accusations toward scientists, but I've often found artists to be more bereft of any intellectual or ethical grounding. Because of the "mysticism" of the arts, actual human connections, or the production of actual knowledge are denigrated next to mystical connections that are usually reducable to making social connections but being intellectually vacuous enough--a vacuousness spurred on by some in those fields--to discount anything that actually happens in the world.

Not a few hard-core alties, too. I was at a party sitting with my friend, who was chatting with another guest who happened to be a chiropractor. My friend, who's proud of what his dad accomplished, mentioned that his father was a physician who did research, and before he could even finish the sentence, the chiropractor interrupted to say "I'm sorry to hear that." That remark hurt my friend's feelings way out of all proportion to the importance I'd give some random dumb-ass's opinion, but he's a much kinder, gentler person than I am.

And yet to hear the chiropractor go on to tell it, at some length (/eyeroll), it's the scientists and the physicians who are rude, arrogant, and out of touch with humanity. It's a common trope among those hard-core alties whose judgmentalism trumps their compassion when it really comes right down to it. It would be funny if it weren't so destructive,

(word of how he had treated our mutual friend got back to the hostess somehow *whistles innocently*, and that particular chiropractor hasn't been invited back to any more parties)


Your comment made me think of Dava Sobel's Galileo's Daughter (a wonderful book - I cried at the end). I took note of the parts at the beginning in which she talked about Galileo's - and his father's, IIRC - coming to science from a math-music interest. I found this interesting, as (in the end) I majored in Art History, but was always drawn to those artists, like Piero della Francesca, who joined math and art or science and art.

The big picture of science. This is Greene's takeaway message; a message not just addressing a social ill, but one pervasive among even scientists, who should know better.

If there are so many scientists ignoring the forest for the trees, is it any surprise that the general public does the same?

Why are people hesitant or unwilling to embrace science, internalize and follow it to its logical conclusions?

TheWireMonkey @ #7,

Just read your comment. Thank you for the report. I'm jealous - wish I could've attended that event :(.


I would be remiss if I didn't thank you for turning me on to "grok"

My family and I spent the better part of this weekend discussing, researching and reading from Heinlein's book.

Considering my "problem", it was time well spent.

"No man is an island, entire of itself;
every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less,
as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were:
any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind,
and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
it tolls for thee.

Regards, as always, Charlie

Good suff. A few of Greene's remarks kinda reminded me of this.

Re: #16 (thalarctos)

FWIW: One of my dad's musical colleagues used to be on the editorial staff at NEJM. I once heard him say that the only thing more arrogant and dismissive than the medical establishment's attitude towards homeopathic medicine was the homeopathic establishment's attitude towards "allopathic" medicine.


I haven't read it, but will have to take a look.

I honestly love the fact that I've worked in the physical sciences, the humanities, and the social sciences. I adore the arts. But, I was at a staged reading last night--a play that has potential--and as a social scientist I sat there in the first scene going, "If that was a student of mine working on a thesis, she never would have passed an intro methods course, much less passed on to a graduate thesis level" and I simply couldn't get to that suspension of disbelief. (I was chatting with the playwright's wife later and mentioned that a first-year L1 in working in something like an innocence project would have been much more believable.)

We're all engaged in trying to explore, explain, and understand existence. Sure, there are times when we might come to conclusions that differ, but the point is to make sense of those conclusions. I get a little fussy with the occasional scientist who discounts the humanities and the occasional "hard" scientists who discount the humanities and human meaning-making activity.

Having lived in all of these areas, my understanding of the world is richer and fuller for having worked in all of them.

By MAJeff, OM (not verified) on 01 Jun 2008 #permalink

We're all engaged in trying to explore, explain, and understand existence. Sure, there are times when we might come to conclusions that differ, but the point is to make sense of those conclusions. I get a little fussy with the occasional scientist who discounts the humanities and the occasional "hard" scientists who discount the humanities and human meaning-making activity.

Shit, I just re-read this. No more writing while in the middle of three phone calls--just trying to say that the artists and humanities folks who discount the sciences as nothing more than "master narratives" are annoying as shit, but so are the "hard" scientists who discount the arts (and entertainment) as useless endeavors. I love understanding the science of sound and why a 2-1 suspension drives us insane but also produces an amazing physical release on resolution--while also appreciating a friend who called Mahler an "hour-long 2-1 suspension" and bawling when the resolution finally comes.

back to TV and the enjoyment and analysis of popular culture. Or, just watching people and laughing.

By MAJeff, OM (not verified) on 01 Jun 2008 #permalink

Another review of a part of the World Science Festival in NYC is here: Science!

By DustPuppyOI (not verified) on 01 Jun 2008 #permalink

DustPuppyOI @ #26,

Phucking phantastic photo. Thank you for the link.

I've always been a fan of Brian Greene. Somehow with two best-selling books (my favorite popular science books) and clearly being an atheist (though never stated directly as far as I know), he remarkably stays out of controversy in these religion-science battles, and at the same time is absolutely uncompromising in communicating science.

He was on Letterman in 2005, and Letterman asked a few good questions from the point of view of non-scientists. One of which was "Is it likely that the more you know and the more you don't understand about the beginning of the universe, the more that that builds a case for it being created by an all-powerful being?"

To which he replied that "science can never rule out that there was [emphasis his] an all-powerful being, a god, if you will, that created the universe [...], but it's not a very satisfying explanation from the point of view of a scientist because we want an explanation that really understands the nuts and bolts of how the universe began. You can ask any questions and say 'Oh, god made it that way' [...] but we have learned that if we look deeply, you can get more deep explanations, and we're hoping the deepest one will tell us how the universe began."

Then Letterman said "And is it possible that if you solved the question you can then say 'yes, here is how this powerful being created the universe'? That would satisfy everybody, wouldn't it?"

Greene said "You could phrase it that way, and if that makes you happy that is perfectly fine with me [audience laughs, probably not getting what he actually meant], but what I would say is I don't know that you're gonna need the all-powerful being. You can't rule it out, but we may have laws that in it of themselves may explain everything it's possible."

It's the only time I've seen Greene discussing religion in public, he doesn't even care for deism it seems.

Oh, should have googled before transcribing. Here's the full interview, courtesy of good Norm of Onegoodmove.org.

oops! Forgot to add, the animation by itself is here

While The Inner Life of a Cell animation is indeed beautiful and awe-inspiring, it's important to clarify some issues surrounding it.

First of all, it is overly-simplified. As PZ explains here,


a huge amount of complicated molecular interactions and behaviors is simply not depicted.

(continued in next post to avoid being held for moderation due to excessive links)

By Owlmirror (not verified) on 01 Jun 2008 #permalink

He is totally unaware of what is being taught in schools. All of those things he mentions are being taught. That stuff is talked about, sometimes passionately. Not every student is interested! Sometimes kids are going through such a rough time in their life, school isn't important. Sometimes school is not very important at home. I talk about the big bang and dark matter in my 9th grade Earth Science class. I even talk about relativity and other modern physics topics.
As a science teacher in High school who loves to try to get students to see the big picture and to love science, I sometimes get my panties in a bunch when people say any particular way is how you should teach. There is no magic way to teach that will reach all kids at all times. Even the best teachers don't reach all the students. Everybody learns differently and is ready to learn at different times. Science teachers try very hard and excite some students and don't excite others in the very same class. If there was a magic bullet, it would be used.
Besides as a scientist, he should know better than just using anecdotal evidence to support his argument.

(The Inner Life of a Cell, continued)

Secondly, because of its beauty and simplicity, that which it depicts — cellular mechanisms operating smoothly and spontaneously — has been hijacked by the "Intelligent Design" faction of the Creationist crowd, so much so that they have used the video outright without permission:


And when called on this, they had scenes copied from the video, changing the appearance slightly:


Anyway. These are things to be aware of.

By Owlmirror (not verified) on 01 Jun 2008 #permalink

Firstly, i understand that the animation is oversimplified. However, when you know that it is to be used as an educational tool to help students visualise certain happenings in the cell , it really does need to be simplified to a certain degree, then the lecturer or teacher can describe some of the simplicity of certain aspects of the animation. Simplification is used in many visual aids to help students understand the specific processes. Here's the educational version of the animation: http://multimedia.mcb.harvard.edu/media.html
I remember that in Secondary School (High School), we were "lied to" about the the number of electrons in shells (that the highest number of electrons in a shell was 8). Now this was to help pupils understand the syllabus and the other things we were being taught. also, as David Bolinsky said himself, "An initial foundational decision process of our creative vision, consisted of editing out 95% of the contents of our cell in order to gain, for our virtual camera, a vista to visualize what elements we left in." In a letter to Richard Dawkins about the hijacking of the animation by the ID crowd, found here: http://richarddawkins.net/article,2460,Expelled-ripped-off-Harvards-Inn…

By Cloudwork (not verified) on 02 Jun 2008 #permalink

They say that some find a cup half empty and others find it half full.

There are some who need to feel that "their Bible has *all* the answers" and then there are others who can see that the world around them whilst quite complex explains itself to those who understand the truth of science, biblical fokelore included.

By marc buhler (not verified) on 02 Jun 2008 #permalink

"PCR, whan you wanna detect mutations...
PCR, when you wanna know who the daddy is..."

DAMN! That song is going to be rattling around in my head for the rest of the day! Oh well, I suppose it could be worse.......

By themadlolscientist (not verified) on 03 Jun 2008 #permalink

DOUBLE DAMN! I misquoted the lyrics. So sue me...

...and that video is a freeking commercial! OTOH, if I must have a commercial rattling around in my head all day.....

By themadlolscientist (not verified) on 03 Jun 2008 #permalink