Science is not a frog

enjoy_scienceby Steven Paul Leiva

I am the author of a science fiction novel, Traveling in Space, and there is a bit of an irony in that. When I was in high school and college I was lucky to achieve even a D in science courses, and to this day any math beyond the four basics — addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division — puts me into a cold sweat. Even the four basics would bother me if some kind strangers had not invented the hand held electronic calculator.

Granted there is no hard science in my novel and the only math involved was the word count, but still — a science fiction novel? I mean, any dummy can write a mystery, just create an amateur sleuth who has the same profession you have (so you can “write what you know”) and throw a dead body in their path. But science fiction? Shouldn’t the writer at least know how to solve an equation?

Not necessarily, I have to say in self-defense, because although science in my formative years would often make me sick to my stomach (and not just because I was dissecting a frog), in my adult years the idea of science and its rational method, and the history of science and its incredible achievements in pushing upward the Homo sapiens species, have been the most delightful and important meme to joyfully meander in my mind. I date this conversion from watching Jacob Bronowski’s 1973 BBC series, The Ascent of Man (broadcast in America over PBS)

In this 13-part documentary series Dr. Bronowski presented his personal view of the flowering of human intelligence, especially through science, in an engaging and compelling manner that must have made his lectures in classrooms standing room only — as opposed to my science classes which were sleeping room only.

The Ascent of Man excited me about where humankind had come from and, more important, about where it might go. I began to understand the value of science and its method, not just in leading to technological toys we all enjoy and benefit from, but leading to an expansion of what we know and a maturation of our shared self. After Bronowski, I discovered Carl Sagan, especially his early books such as The Cosmic Connection, and went on from there to enjoy the great science writing we’ve had for the past forty years by such authors as Francis Crick, Paul Churchland, Robert Wright, Jonathan Weiner, Steven Pinker, Brian Green, Natalie Angier, Edward O. Wilson, Antonio Damasio, and, of course, Richard Dawkins, among others. Although the Ascent of Man and these books certainly include specific facts and data, what they really convey is the general personality of science, the overall thrust of what its method of inquiry can achieve, and the sense of wonder that the exploration and growing awareness of the universe around us — and within us — can engender.

I’ve been thinking about all this recently while listening to conversations about public school education, especially two of the more interesting ones. One is cultural, centering on the teaching of evolution and the proposed teaching of what I can only refer to as counter-evolution. The other concerns the pragmatic push to turn around our country’s poor performance in high school science and math scores, so we will have the required scientists, engineers, mathematicians, and technocrats to keep America competitive in the future.

Certain participants in the first conversation seem to propose that we teach little or no science to anyone as it may offend someone; contributors to the second feel we should require more science for everyone in the hope that we can create many someones who will brilliantly make America economically strong again. Neither, it seems to me, hits the mark. The first, not teaching science or teaching all “theoretical” comers — as if science were a democracy — is too absurd a debate to need a comment from me. The second, required, intense, heavy on the details, math and science courses, sounds fine but I believe such requirements turn more students off than on. Let’s face it, learning just the dry facts and details of a science is hard going and many students, indeed most, might spend their time in class experiencing the same cold sweats I did, or, worse, be led to a hateful rejection.

And yet, science education in this country needs improvement, not just so we can leap ahead of Europe and Asia in money making technology, but so we can have an informed population who, like it or not and for some time to come, will face ballot measures asking them to make general decisions on such subjects as abortion, stem cell research, sexual preferences (and the rights desired or denied in such preferences), genetic modification, climate change and energy issues, and a number of other subjects that are best considered by an electorate with some science literacy. They will also be asked to elect candidates who will be tasked to make many specific decisions requiring more than a basic understanding of science. But how can the electorate judge a candidate’s level of understanding if they have little or none of their own?

I would like to propose an idea. It comes not only from my own history of cold sweats in science classes, but from the warm glow I felt in classes in the arts. First, we should stop requiring for high school graduation courses in several of the major sciences, rigorously testing students on their understanding of very specific details and minutia of biology, physics, and chemistry. These classes should be elective and only for those students who truly want to study a particular science. I suggest this, though, only if what is required for graduation are two other courses: Science Appreciation and the History of Science. These should be taken within the first two years of high school, and maybe previewed in middle school. For what is the use of learning facts and data and details of individual sciences, and never learning what science, in its essence, truly is? Is it a philosophy, a modern religion, something only geeks care for, a mystical understanding of the fabric of the universe, or just a very boring set of dull facts?

Science should not be treated like a frog in formaldehyde — it should be understood and appreciated before you pull its guts out.

I have obviously taken this idea from long established art and music appreciation and history courses. Just as not everyone can draw or play music, not everyone is going to become a scientist, engineer or mathematician — no matter how badly the country might need them. And just as life is richer if you have an appreciation for art and music, our country and society would be richer if everyone had an appreciation of science — what it is and does and how it has spurred on, in Bronowski’s wonderful phrase, the Ascent of Man.

Science scares people. A knowledgeable understanding that science is simply a well-honed method of inquiry into, and discovery of, the laws of nature that discourages in its conclusions prejudices, biases, and subjectivity, and thus can better reveal — and revel in — the true awe and wonder of the universe, is the best way to alleviate the fear. Certainly far better than the thud-thud-thud of facts to be memorized. Good science appreciation and history courses taught by enthusiastic instructors could well open and inform minds among the majority of students, and inspire some of those students — maybe more than one might think — to pursue with vigor careers in science and its related fields. Those are the students for the specific science classes of details and facts. Well motivated, I am willing to bet, those students will not sit in those classes suffering cold sweats.

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Steven Paul Leiva is a novelist, essayist, and a refugee from Hollywood. His latest novel, Traveling in Space, a science fiction first contact novel written from the point-of-view of the aliens, is now available as an audiobook directed by the author.

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66 replies

  1. Hi Steven,

    What then would you or Massimo say much of science is about?

    Science is about describing and understanding nature. Part of that is discovering “laws of nature”, but that term is usually used to mean deep regularities in nature that are universal or close to universal. There is also a lot in nature that is local and contingent, deriving from historical accidents. This is particularly true in areas such as biology where things like what biochemical pathways evolution has ended up using and which species have arisen will depend on all sorts of historical contingency. Thus there is a lot more to science than “laws of nature”. However, all of this is still about describing and understanding the natural world.

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  2. Science is about a lot of things, discovering laws of nature being one of them. There’s also classification (e.g., of biological species), observation (e.g., of chimp behavior in the wild), explaining natural phenomena (why do earthquakes happen?), figuring out what things are made of (e.g., the composition of stars or Mars), figuring out the past (how old is the Earth? How old is the Sun? When did the dinosaurs go extinct and why?), and probably a whole lot of other stuff I haven’t even thought of (and this is leaving out what might be considered “engineering” rather than “natural science.”)

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  3. Hi Steven, you say that “science scares people”. I agree and wonder why it happens.

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  4. Coel — Thanks for that clear response, which, of course, I have no argument with. Just consider my sentence then to be a bit of shorthand. Blame the novelist in me.

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  5. Ciq Rvy — and thanks to you to for a great response giving a nice, precise explanation of all that science is. I stand not only corrected, I stand in deeper appreciation for science.

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  6. SciSal: Given the vague definition of natural history I would say I have done some lately. I also read that “It [NH] encompasses scientific research but is not limited to it, with articles nowadays more often published in magazines than in academic journals.” i. e. it leans toward literature (even belles lettres), particularly in the absence of statistics. There is no doubt that Thoreau was a scientist, who made considerably more original discoveries than your average labrat, in limnology and phenology in particular. So-called natural history (which sounds quaintly like alchemy) may a fine definitional test case for what constitutes any scientific discipline. Thoreau was deeply conscious of the epistemological conflict between science and other modes of apprehension (quoting Berger, Thoreau’s Late Career and ‘The Dispersion of Seeds’). I know bit about paleontology — it’s saturated with statistics and sophisticated measurement. And surely now with big data and computing math power it turns out that things that were not science are becoming so — including I dare say ‘natural history’. Not to mention the question of role rhetoric and metaphor in scientific thought.

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  7. Mark, I beg to differ. I know professional biologists who do entirely descriptive work. And so do many paleontologists. Yes, some paleontology uses statistics, but the field is hardly “saturated” with it.

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  8. Coel, you seem to be giving the ‘I was just following orders’ defense. Science is a thing that exists independently of people, of human responsibility? When a scientist acts in the role of a scientist s/he is not responsible for the consequences? Or more to the point, for the aims of her employers? I recall, often, Paul Valery’s remark: “There is no such thing as science, only scientists on their good days’. Part of the over-idealization of science is certainly due to the image of the classic discoverers, who explored for the love of it, driven solely by the desire to increase understanding of the world. This is certainly no longer the case. Scientists are almost always employees now.

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  9. SciSal: Interestingly, descriptive natural history, biologies and paleontologies all now converge on the rather recent ‘science’ of ecology, perhaps the breakthrough science in terms of acknowledging ethical positions.

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  10. “Of course, you have the pop theories of Popper and Kuhn, but those are really archaic now.”
    Kuhn and Popper were both salaried academics writing for an academic audience, they were hardly “pop” scholars.

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  11. Is paleontology in fact a science? It’s more of a type of history and archeology, perhaps. Many physicists I think would deny that it is. For that matter, some physicists deny that biology is a science, or better, that it will be a science when reduced to physics and chemistry. Must an accurate definition of science be ecumenical to common usages? Since it is so contested, perhaps a solution to the difficulty of defining science will require us to differ from common usages. Scary.

    I hope you’ll forgive me for yesterday’s crude rant. What I’m trying to express (without offense) is the alarmed sense that the word and concept Science has gradually taken on a salvific aspect. It is our best and only path to Truth. It also dispenses drugs, kills pain, wards off death, for which benefits suffering mankind is sufficiently beholden as to genuflect. We are grateful. We are far too emotionally dependent on it to really rationally assess it. It is the horse we are betting on, but a gamble society is perhaps addicted to? Is the Large Hadron Collider really defensible, or is it today’s Vatican? Recall the space program that was the glittering edge of human endeavor in the 60s and 70s and is now virtually defunct, ho-hum. How many muslims will we be forced to slaughter to prevent their extremists from applying e=mc^2? “What is Science, and how should it be taught, is not a question that can be abstracted away from People. (The questions of the human sciences is evaded.) The idea that Science is some sort of autonomously definable method or process or project that somehow unfolds or conducts itself or is available to us as simply as a tool is I think mistaken. No short answers will do considering the fix that Science has got us into. Can we define Science before defining Reason, Consciousness, Matter, Thought? What do we achieve by pretending that we can?

    I find Science to be a juggernaut of increasing strength. The trope of science-as-destructive has been smothered by giddy digitalization. I should stop.

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  12. Mark, you may be right that some physicists wouldn’t consider paleontology a science. But, frankly, that’s their problem.

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  13. If paleontology, then why not archeology? If human beings are part of nature than why not the study of human products, why not lit crit and history? Is it only because they have not caught up yet? Where does science stop? Certain music theorists have aspired to science in the university, that was their problem.

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  14. I don’t really have a problem in considering archeology a science.

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  15. Mark,
    Mary Midgley’s book ‘Science as Salvation’ might resonate with you. She writes:
    Any system of thought playing the huge part that science now plays in our lives must also shape our guiding myths and colour our imaginations profoundly. It is not just a useful tool. It is also a pattern that we follow at a deep level in trying to meet our imaginative needs.

    I think this is your point – that science strongly shapes attitudes and is thus much more than a tool of enquiry. The best evidence of that is the ideological fervour of the scientismists which has been on display in the last post about mathematics.

    Mary Midgley is a good philosopher with an entertaining writing style.

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  16. Hi Mark,

    Is paleontology in fact a science? It’s more of a type of history and archeology, perhaps. Many physicists I think would deny that it is. For that matter, some physicists deny that biology is a science, …

    I’ve never encountered a physicist denying that paleontology or biology, or indeed archeology, are sciences. The more usual complaint is that physicists have an overly broad conception of science, not an overly narrow one.

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