The Scientific Activist (Archives)


May 15, 2006

Is Science Overrated?

In a recent post at Pharyngula, P.Z. Myers explores the question of whether science is overrated. Although it’s a response to a more or less incoherent rant on another site, Myers makes several important points.

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.


  • Although I see your point on geology/oceanography, I'd argue that if taught rigorously, both subjects are potentially a good route into understanding basic science: they cover aspects of physics, chemistry and biology, and perhaps provide more 'relevent' (I use that word advisedly, and I mean from the perspective of a non-scientist) examples of how science has enabled us to better understand the world around us.

    I'm biased, of course...

    By Blogger CJR, at Mon May 15, 02:47:00 PM  

  • CJR,

    You definitely have a point, and I think that geology and oceanography would help someone understand science in general, but I would still argue that it can't really get at some of the most fundamental ideas in science, at least not in an introductory course. In addition, although the practical applications of oceanography and geology would probably be more apparent, they are also more specific, and not as widely applicable as biology, chemistry, or physics, which are so fundamental to a basic understanding of how the world works. If students are gaining a basic understanding of and appreciation for science from these courses, I think that's great, although I would argue that every student at a university should have to take at least one fundamental science course.

    By Blogger Nick Anthis, at Mon May 15, 05:10:00 PM  

  • As a liberal arts major who also went to Texas A&M, I have to admit that I did steer toward the "easier" course of botany. Of course, this was in reaction to the fact that I took Chem 101 as a freshman and spent more time on that class than my other 13 hours combined, because I did not understand a single word my elderly, monotonal, heavily-accented prof said. I grant your point, though, as the botany class was somewhat of a walk. I do tend to remember more of what I learned there, however, than in the Chem class from hell. Maybe if the interesting and interested profs taught more of the basic classes, it wouldn't be so hard to convince non-science majors that biology, chemistry, and physics aren't so terrible. Of course, that could be said for any field of study at most major universities.

    By Anonymous Pamela, at Wed May 17, 11:42:00 PM  

  • Thanks for your post, Pamela. I actually had an interesting conversation about this with a friend yesterday, and he also stressed the general inaccessibility of college-level science courses. I think that if basic sciences are going to be required for everyone at a university, that aspect needs to be taken into account. Interestingly enough, engineering majors at A&M took a "watered down" version of introductory chemistry (given the nickname "cowboy chemistry"), and if engineering students aren't expected to take a full rigorous chemistry course, it would be pretty crazy to expect that of an English major. I think the community of university science professors needs to step up and more forcefully advocate for a general science requirement while also developing the types of courses and recruiting the types of professors needed to make these subjects accessible.

    The other point my friend brought up was the idea that science tends to be much more sequential than the liberal arts and to take something that might sound really interesting, like astrophysics, one would have to work through several lower level courses that might not seem as exciting. I think he had a good point, although I would be surprised if that wasn't at least partially true for the liberal arts. Superficially, the liberal arts definitely seem more accessible, but I wonder whether anyone can get the true benefit out of an advanced history or English literature course without having taken the appropriate prerequisites as well.

    By Blogger Nick Anthis, at Thu May 18, 12:01:00 AM  

  • It figures that you would delete my post. I guess anything that doesn't conform to the academic culture of being a phony asshole is censored here.

    Corporate stooges, academic stooges. Same lame people, different work environment.

    By the way, our society wants people (commoners) who are educated only enough to to their jobs; learning anything more only makes them harder to control, and that my friend is the bottom line to this arguement. But I still the story about my penis was more interesting.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at Mon May 22, 10:15:00 AM  

  • As interested as, I'm sure, everyone is in your penis, your comment wasn't really on topic, or very funny or clever for that matter.

    By Blogger Nick Anthis, at Mon May 22, 11:34:00 AM  

  • To me, the word penis is very funny anytime it makes its way into a "serious" conversation. Anyway I will bother you know more. There is some lesbian bio grad student blog who refuses to post anything I write, and I must focus my efforts there.

    "When I was young I made prank phone calls, now that I am older and everyone has caller ID, I use the internet!"

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at Mon May 22, 03:07:00 PM  

  • I believe science is vital, especially if you are curious about the world around you and need to try to understand the universe we live in. I agree that arts and music are important, but I really believe science is just as or even more important.

    Hey Nick are you Greek too? Great site on science.

    See our related science site molecular biology

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at Tue Sep 19, 02:32:00 AM  

  • Nope. Anthis is actually a German name, although every Greek person I meet insists that I'm Greek!

    By Blogger Nick Anthis, at Tue Sep 19, 02:42:00 AM  

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