Is Science Overrated?
In response to the charge that science is more highly valued than the liberal arts, he writes:
Like I said, I'm at a liberal arts university—I spend my advising sessions telling pre-meds that they really ought to go take courses in poetry, music, and drama. (Seriously, it's practically my stereotypical advising meeting. Really smart, hot-shot student comes in with her carefully worked out plan to graduate in 3 years by mainlining lab courses every term; I try to explain that she shouldn't do that, that we really, truly want her to leave the science building now and then and throw a pot or read a poem.) I don't know any scientists who don't think that there's more to being a well-rounded person than knowing chemistry or physics or biology.
I'm afraid the problem actually goes the opposite way. There are a lot of non-scientists who think you can be a well-rounded person without ever studying any math or science at all. Is there any curriculum at any serious university in this country in which you can graduate without taking some courses in writing or literature or art or a foreign language? No. Yet there are plenty in which math and science are left to those weirdo science majors.
A trend I noticed when I was at Texas A&M University, for example, was that even when non-science majors were required to take science courses, they rarely took classes in the fundamental sciences (physics, chemistry, and biology) because the alternatives were considered “easier”. Although I would never argue that geology and oceanography, two of the most popular alternatives at A&M, aren’t important, I believe one would be hard-pressed to argue that a student wouldn’t benefit more from the more basic knowledge gained in an introductory course in physics, chemistry, or biology. Regardless, one can’t gain a full understanding of other scientific fields without understanding the basic physical, chemical, and biological concepts that underlie the complex phenomena in those fields. In terms of ability to help one understand the world around him or her, surely the fundamental sciences are at the very least on par with the general liberal arts requirements—language, history, philosophy, political science, etc.—and could, in some ways, be considered more even powerful. A comprehensive education needs a strong foundation in the sciences and the arts, and currently the sciences seem to be underrepresented, not the other way around.
Possibly serving as an example of the need for more and better science education is this statement from the anti-science rant:
The reason for [science’s position of prestige in our society] is because of Science can be "applied." That's the reason. Science has not been cultivated in this country out of a love of learning. Its primary job is to make Stealth Bombers and Nuclear Weapons. This accounts for its funding. (By the way, this is perhaps a good time to mention that I have no figures on this and have done no research, so if I'm wrong, please do let me know.)
Putting aside the obvious lack of a scientific approach in forming this conclusion, this quote demonstrates a general lack of understanding of and familiarity with the sciences. It’s also a tired old argument that I’ve heard several times before. Saying that the “primary job” of science is to make military equipment makes no more sense than arguing that the purpose of English literature is to produce Stephen King novels or the purpose of religion is to consolidate power in the hands of a few (well, OK, there might be some truth in that last one…).
Fundamentally, the quote also confuses science with its applications, something that happens increasingly frequently as the applications of scientific discoveries become more prominent in society, but scientific education has not advanced enough for the general public to understand the relationship and, more importantly, the differences between science and technology. With that said, though, this confusion is probably one of the largest threats to science as a whole, and one that receives a relatively small amount of attention. As scientists constantly bow to the pressure to stress the potential applications of their work in grants and papers, though, they are just as guilty as anyone else of exacerbating this problem.
The question of whether science is actually overrated, though, is a valid one on which there should be an open discussion in any society, especially within a free democracy. Here’s P.Z. Myers’ initial reaction to the idea that science could be overrated and that “it's not the end of the world that fewer and fewer American students are going into the sciences”:
I read that first bit, and you may be shocked to learn that I'm willing to agree. There are some really good arguments to support the position. Science is hard, and it's true that the majority of people aren't going to be able to grasp it. We're oversubscribed and overextended right now, too: more students are going through the science mill than can ever acquire jobs doing science. If every PI is taking on one new graduate student and one new postdoc every year over a career spanning 30-40 years…well, that's a situation that is rather ruthlessly Malthusian. It is definitely not a practical career, either—the excessively long training period and relatively low salaries mean that, in a purely economic sense, it would be more profitable to plunge into a blue-collar job straight out of high school. It's also not as if science is the only rewarding career of value out there, and no other work can possibly be as satisfying or productive. My own kids are all going on into non-science careers, and I say, good for them.
Whether you agree or not, it’s definitely something to consider.