Science Is Our Human Heritage

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.)


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By Jo in OKC (not verified) on 18 Oct 2012 #permalink

I think you've given an argument for taking a systematic approach to problems through data gathering and processing/theorizing, rather than for Science per se, or, at least, I think a non-scientist could reasonably so respond. Aside from that, not that the distinction necessarily matters, but are the pigments Engineering or Science? How much a matter of chance does something have to be for it to be dumb luck rather than Science? I think you are stepping on questions of the Demarcation of Science that were never adequately answered in the 20th Century.

The judgement call is more about how much detailed Chemistry knowledge is desirable for a well-rounded member of society, rather than whether Chemistry is a good thing. This guy disagrees with his kid's school's decision, so he can take his kid and put him in a different school (presuming he has enough income or determination to make that choice, and that he can find a school that will let his kid skip Chemistry at his grade level; perhaps his kid's current school would happily give him letters of recommendation for another school).

Although it's somewhat OT, too much data gathering can be a not good strategy. Our choices of what data we gather and seek to understand partly defines us and our chances of survival, etc.

By Peter Morgan (not verified) on 18 Oct 2012 #permalink

Peter Morgan: One misconception about science is that chance or dumb luck (or as I euphemistically prefer: serendipity) disqualifies something from being science. Perhaps finding the pigment once is chance, but determining its uses and limitations, its properties upon mixing with other pigments, how to acquire it regularly, etc. - these things are science.

The point in taking chemistry, biology, and physics in high school is not to acquire knowledge or memorize factoids of each subject. It's to provide a framework for thinking about concepts and experiences that the student may not have encountered before. If some of the knowledge sticks with students and helps them by informing their decisions on nutrition, health, or any other topic beneficial to their non-scientist life, all the better.

@Peter: Your counterargument is a distinction without a difference. Data gathering and processing/theorizing are exactly what science is all about. It's true that these things come up in contexts that most people don't think of a science (e.g., cooking), but that makes it all the more important for students to take classes that teach this way of thinking. I'm sure that, unless Mr. Bernstein is both a male chauvinist pig and a candidate for Upper Class Twit of the Year, he would want his son to be able to cook for himself (even if not very well). Eating out all of the time gets expensive really fast.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 19 Oct 2012 #permalink

Andre, Eric, I think because we have found that we can't easily formally demarcate Science from not-Science, we have rolled back Science to be defined in almost empty ways such as systematic data gathering and theorizing. The meat is in the multitude of examples of what is Science (here, specific though still ultimately vague definitions such as Chemistry, Physics, ...) and what is not Science (astrology, phrenology, say -- both of which have lots of data gathering and theorizing, and ruled people's ways of thinking for many years, but there *is* something missing that isn't all that easy to explain to a skeptical teenager, and that Philosophers definitely find difficult, granted that Scientists will say that the difference is obvious, and, with lots of experience, I agree).

What matters for Scientists is not what *I* think Science is or is not, but whether kids en masse decide that what they're being taught as "this is Science, that other stuff is not", isn't useful. If 20% of kids decide that Science is boring (or is in some other way bad, ...), we can live with that, but if 95% of kids decide that Science is boring, perhaps that's a problem. It has seemed to me that there are ways of pontificating about Science that can seem too self-serving, and hence off-putting both to kids and to wider society, where there are other, subtler discussions of what Science is or is not that accept the merits or otherwise of various parts of the methodology. The subtler approach doesn't work real well with many kids, AFAICT, but I think many adults and politicians mostly get it when it's presented right (which, IMO, includes a little humility in with the enthusiasm for something that works for me).

I have a 9th-grade daughter who is focused pretty much completely on not-Science. She will learn some but not much Chemistry in high school, which won't take her much further than she was already taken in middle school, with little enthusiasm. From what I can tell, the syllabus has too much to learn in too little time for there to be much engagement with what I think you both rightly single out as important, ways of tackling problems in the abstract and in the concrete (my very inadequate summary). So, perhaps my daughter would be better learning how to tackle problems in the abstract and in the concrete in some other subject than in Chemistry, where she would engage with enthusiasm with the need to be systematic, self-critical, theoretical but data-driven, etc., when tackling stuff in her later life. If she ever needs to know enough about Chemistry to run a research laboratory, perhaps she'll have learned enough about how to do stuff to be able to get up to speed in her forties in about a decade. Although I'm definitely a Mathematical Physicist in outlook and I think of myself as a Scientist, my feelings on the particular example of Chemistry are unfortunately colored by the fact that only one of my four or five Chemistry teachers was good for me, and one of them actively killed my interest because it was inconvenient that I was two years ahead of the syllabus.

By Peter Morgan (not verified) on 19 Oct 2012 #permalink

How do you know that it wasn't a subgroup that was 'scientific' in the ancient cultures? That would be consistent with what we observe today.

I work with local politicians and some of them really can't think scientifically.

From what I can tell, the syllabus has too much to learn in too little time for there to be much engagement with what I think you both rightly single out as important, ways of tackling problems in the abstract and in the concrete (my very inadequate summary).

Whether high school chemistry (or biology or physics) courses actually achieve the intended goal is a legitimate question, so we are in reasonable agreement here. But this is not the argument Bernstein raises in the original post.

You are also correct that I omitted a piece of what science is about, namely falsifiability. But that, too, has its place in cooking or in art. As the saying goes, the proof of the pudding is in the eating, so if the food you cooked doesn't taste all that good, you will discard your theory that it should taste good. Similarly, pigments which decay in a matter of days don't get used for permanent art displays (although they may still be used for body decoration). As for your examples of pseudoscience: Phrenology was consistent with what was known at the time it was first developed, but its predictions have since been falsified, and that is why it is not considered a science today. Astrology as practiced in the US today is not falsifiable, because the people who write horoscopes tend to make them sufficiently vague that almost any outcome can be interpreted to fit the prediction.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 19 Oct 2012 #permalink

Falsifiability is a good handle to begin a discussion of what is or is not Science, and it might do pretty well as a demarcation principle for discussion at school level. The possibility of falsification has at least one --I think fundamental-- flaw, however, that one does not know which of one's theoretical assumptions has been falsified by a given experimental result (Basically the Quine-Duhem argument). Many is the theory that has been falsified, only to be rejuvenated by an adjustment that no-one had previously thought of. Mightn't we say that phrenology, with a sophisticated extension of what constitutes "shape" that includes the details of MMR and other 3D or 4D scans, has made a comeback (albeit only on a generous definition of "phrenology" that makes it practically synonymous with neuroscience)? Again, I believe the demarcation problem is still considered unsolved amongst philosophers.

By Peter Morgan (not verified) on 19 Oct 2012 #permalink

In reply to by Eric Lund (not verified)

Peter: your argument seems to boil down to "if the kids don't like it, it shouldn't be required in schools" (from quotes like: "if 95% of kids decide that Science is boring, perhaps that’s a problem").

We have to look at science the same way we look at English, history, and foreign language. We don't expect only people planning on being writers to take English in high school. Not all the students taking history are planning on going to be historians (is anyone?). But for some reason, a large number of people think that only students interested as teenagers in STEM fields should have to take science and upper-level math (beyond or even including(!!!) algebra) in high school because these subjects are "too hard" or "boring".

I can't disagree that science, alongside literature and the humanities, is crucial to educating a complete human being. But what you're calling "science" here seems a bit too all encompassing. What you're talking about going back to early homo sapiens is just practical intelligence, plain and simple. If I were to try to define science based on what you've said in this article, there'd be no difference between, say, Aristotle's classificatory form of science and Galileo's mathematical form of science. Also, I think its a fallacy to project a modern scientific way of thinking about nature back to people who lived 100,000 years ago. There's clearly been an evolution of consciousness since that time which has fundamentally altered both the way we perceive and think about the universe. Earlier magic and mythic modes of consciousness are not just primitive science; they represent gestalt shifts in our whole way of organizing experience.

By Matthew David Segall (not verified) on 19 Oct 2012 #permalink

You make many good points, which needed to be said!

The only problem I have with this piece is the somewhat dismissive attitude towards the Union College humanities statement. I'm all for extolling the virtues of the sciences, but stating that "there is nothing more fundamental to humanity than science" seems over the top. The sciences and the arts do not compete with each other. They are equally essential to us - a point which I must acknowledge you made later on in your post, but which I thought was sadly diluted a little by triumphalist language of the preceding paragraph.

In the ancient and medieval periods, "science" had a much broader meaning than it does today, and simply meant "knowledge", meaning any kind of organised, rational enquiry. The idea of separated "arts" and "sciences" only began to develop during the Renaissance period.

On the older viewpoint, history and literature, insofar as they make use of rational thought to analyse texts and evidence, are just as much a part of science as chemistry or physics. Using this older, broader definition would remove any justifications for the kind of ignorance you rightly criticise.

By Immunophilosopher (not verified) on 19 Oct 2012 #permalink

More critically, science has a naturalistic component to it. That is, it seeks explanations for natural phenomena that are based on constant natural laws and specifically rule out supernatural intervention. Without naturalism you *cannot* have scientific thinking. For example, their logic may have been "Blood is red. If I make this tip red, it is more likely to find blood." Whatever that is, it isn't science.

Hence science is a recent invention, and it seems highly unlikely that people have been thinking scientifically for 100,000 years. At the very least, the tips do not constitute evidence that people were thinking scientifically.

Practical science (how to do something) is exciting, provided it isn't too overloaded with math. But metaphysical or philosophical science--i.e. junk science--the science that tries to explain the origin of the universe or of life, is just boring--and useless to boot.

The problem with science education in the US (everyone is always sayings its horrendous) is that all they teach in "Science" is evolution. The whole focus is "lets stick it to them redneck religious folk and beat their heads in with evolutionary theory until they confess that we all came from monkeys." So, you ruin science for everyone by focusing on the junk, the useless, the place where science is usurping the role of philosophy. Science cannot answer how the laws of nature were put in place. It can only speak of how the laws of nature work and how we can use them to our advantage. Every evolutionists, but especially cosmologists, have forgotten this and gone off into alien territory, some of them literally, since they assert that life on earth was seeded by aliens! They engage in science fiction, like the first cell being spontaneously generated by lightning striking 'primordial soup' or by particles piggybacking on the backs of crystals! A total waste of time in science education! Why can't you teach the young skulls full of mush physics? or cheimstry? or just talk about real biology, like explaining what various organs do and how they work, maybe even get into a bit of medical training. But no, all the time in science education has to be wasted on evolutionary propaganda, wasted on a subject with NO, ABSOLUTELY ZERO, practical value whatsoever.

I agree with some other commentators that Chad is defining science a little too liberally with his example. That being said, his point still stands, that humans have been doing science for a long time, and thinking scientifically is a fundamental part of human nature.

@Eric - I believe cooking is a very scientific endeavor. Or at least many cooks, as you rightly point out, apply the scientific principle in cooking.

@Rey - So your solution to teaching science is to remove math from kids' education? SMH.

And this is the first time I have heard anyone suggest that too much time is spent teaching evolution. Most schools AFAICT are trying to minimize evolution teaching in order to avoid any controversies.

Evolution is to biology what quantum mechanics is to physics, what you have to know after the stamp collecting phase in order to have a clue as to what is going on.

By Eli Rabett (not verified) on 30 Oct 2012 #permalink