Reclaiming Science as a Liberal Art

What do you think of when someone talks about the liberal arts? Many of you probably think of subjects like English and literature, history, classics, and philosophy. Those are all a good start for a liberal education, but those are only fields in the humanities. Perhaps you think of the social sciences, to help you understand the institutions and actors in our culture; fields like psychology, sociology, or economics. What about subjects like physics, biology, chemistry, or astronomy? Would you ever think of them as belonging to the liberal arts, or would you cordon them off into the STEM fields? I would argue that excluding the sciences from the liberal arts is both historically wrong and harms society.

First, let’s look at the original conception of the liberal arts. Your study would begin with the trivium, the three subjects of grammar, logic, and rhetoric. The trivium has been described as a progression of study into argument. Grammar is concerned with how things are symbolized. Logic is concerned with how things are understood. Rhetoric is concerned with how things are effectively communicated, because what good is it to understand things if you cannot properly share your understanding to other learned people? With its focus on language, the trivium does fit the common stereotype of the liberal arts as a humanistic writing education.

But it is important to understand that the trivium was considered only the beginning of a liberal arts education. It was followed by the supposedly more “serious” quadrivium of arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy. The quadrivium is focused on number and can also be viewed as a progression. Arithmetic teaches you about pure numbers. Geometry looks at number to describe space. Music, as it was taught in the quadrivium, focused on the ratios that produce notes and the description of notes in time. Astronomy comes last, as it builds on this knowledge to understand the mathematical patterns in space and time of bodies in the heavens. Only after completing the quadrivium, when one would have a knowledge of both language and numbers, would a student move on to philosophy or theology, the “queen of the liberal arts”.

7 Liberal Arts

The seven liberal arts surrounding philosophy.

Although this progression might seem strange to some, it makes a lot of sense when you consider that science developed out of “natural philosophy”. Understanding what data and observations mean, whether they are from a normal experiment or “big data”, is a philosophical activity. As my professors say, running an experiment without an understanding of what I was measured makes me a technician, not a scientist. Or consider alchemists, who included many great experimentalists who developed some important chemical insights, but are typically excluded from our conception of science because they worked with different philosophical assumptions. The findings of modern science also tie into major questions that define philosophy. What does it say about our place in the universe if there are 10 billion planets like Earth in our galaxy, or when we are connected to all other living things on Earth through chemistry and evolution?

We get the term liberal arts from Latin, artes liberales, the arts or skills that are befitting of a free person. The children of the privileged would pursue those fields. This was in contrast to the mechanical arts – fields like clothesmaking, agriculture, architecture, martial arts, trade, cooking, and metalworking. The mechanical arts were a decent way for someone without status to make a living, but still considered servile and unbecoming of a free (read “noble”) person. This distinction breaks down in modern life because we are no longer that elitist in our approach to liberal education. We think everyone should be “free”, not just an established elite.

More importantly, in a liberal democracy, we think everyone should have some say in how they are governed. Many major issues in modern society relate to scientific understanding and knowledge. To talk about vaccines, you need to have some understanding of the immune system. The discussion over chemicals is very different when you know that we are made up chemicals. It is hard to understand what is at stake in climate change without a knowledge of how Earth’s various geological and environmental systems work and it is hard to evaluate solutions if you don’t know where energy comes from. Or how can we talk about surveillance without understanding how information is obtained and how it is distributed? The Founding Fathers say they had to study politics and war to win freedom for their new nation. As part of a liberal education, Americans today need to learn to science in order to keep theirs.

(Note: This post is based off a speech I gave as part of a contest at UVA. It reflects a view I think is often unconsidered in education discussions, so I wanted to adapt it into a blog post.

As another aside, it’s incredibly interesting people now tend to unambiguously think of social sciences as part of the liberal arts while wavering more on the natural sciences since the idea of a “social” science wasn’t really developed until well after the conception of the liberal arts.)

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Quick Thoughts on Diversity in Physics

Earlier this month, during oral arguments for Fisher v. University of Texas, Chief Justice John Roberts asked what perspective an African-American student would offer in physics classrooms. The group Equity and Inclusion in Physics and Astronomy has written an open letter about why this line of questioning may miss the point about diversity in the classroom. But it also seems worth pointing out why culture does matter in physics (and science more broadly).

So nature is nature and people can develop theoretical understanding of it anywhere and it should be similar (I think. This is actually glossing over what I imagine is a deep philosophy of science question.) But nature is also incredibly vast. People approach studies of nature in ways that can reflect their culture. Someone may choose to study a phenomenon because it is one they see often in their lives. Or they may develop an analogy between theory and some aspect of culture that helps them better understand a concept. You can’t wax philosphical about Kekule thinking of ouroboros when he was studying the structure of benzene without admitting that culture has some influence on how people approach science. There are literally entire books and articles about Einstein and Poincare being influenced by sociotechnical issues of late 19th/early 20th century Europe as they developed concepts that would lead to Einstein’s theories of relativity. A physics community that is a monoculture then misses out on other influences and perspectives. So yes, physics should be diverse, and more importantly, physics should be welcoming to all kinds of people.

It’s also worth pointing out this becomes immensely important in engineering and technology, where the problems people choose to study are often immensely influenced by their life experiences. For instance, I have heard people say that India does a great deal of research on speech recognition as a user interface because India still has a large population that cannot read or write, and even then, they may not all use the same language.

What is the point of thesis/dissertation committees?

I ask this in all sincerity, because after talking to other students in other schools and other fields, I don’t seem any closer to an answer. Maybe it’s just because I think my department is weird, because we don’t assemble dissertation committees until we propose, and we propose fairly late (it’s pretty common for people to propose only a year before they plan on defending).

The closest thing to a consensus answer I can find is that committees exist to make sure advisors aren’t just handing out degrees. But if that is the case, it seems like there isn’t really a guarantee the average committee that doesn’t do much more than read the proposal and the dissertation would be effective at that. A group of less than half a dozen people who typically have two weeks to read a ~200 page summary of what is usually years of research can’t really independently verify the results that are presented. And if a professor really was intent on just handing out degrees to their lab, they could help make that data look more convincing. (I’m not saying this happens a lot. I don’t know for sure, but I don’t think so. My point is just that it seems easy to work around the supposed purpose of committees.)

I thought the point of a dissertation committee was to be a real committee, which in my mind means that at least part of it’s power comes from the fact that it is a group. Advisors can be great and all, but sometimes you need the perspective of other people to plan an experiment or help think through an interpretation of results. I thought the committee could help mediate part of the intellectual relationship between the advisor and student. Say a student wants to redo or alter some experiment but the advisor doesn’t think that it is worth the time; the student can try to convince the committee as a group of intellectual peers, and if they agree, they can essentially override the advisor’s wishes on behalf of the student. I think this is key because it can help diffuse some negative feelings in conflicts like this away from the student. (I don’t think the committee should take on issues that rise to the point of breaking up the advising relationship. Though if this works, I also think fewer issues should lead to the break up of the relationship.) I’m not sure if the converse matters as much because advisors do generally have a lot of control over what their students do, but if an advisor felt the student wasn’t doing something well, he or she could have the committee make it clearer.

So I’ll close with two questions I would love to hear answers from people in other graduate programs. First, when does you first assemble your committee? Second, what does your committee do?

 

 

“Cosmos” is allowed to have a narrative

Neil deGrasse Tyson’s sequel/reboot to Carl Sagan’s Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, premiered last week on Fox and there’s a multitude of reactions to it. One of the most common negative reactions focuses on the episode’s relatively long segment on Giordano Bruno. If you really want to learn more about Bruno and the various other figures people relate him to and see one of the clearest criticisms and replies to defenses of the show, I suggest you look at the Renaissance Mathematicus’ post on the issue. (And if you want to learn REAL history of science, I highly suggest you check out the rest of his blog.)

A very religious friend posted concerns from Catholic commentators that Cosmos is attacking religion here. I argue that both just seem to be taking offense and ignore Tyson’s actual narration during and around this segment. At no point does Tyson criticize faith. If anything, it’s a critique of institutions which both blog posts seem to also acknowledge by saying that structures and actors in the Church may be bad, but that doesn’t mean Catholicism itself is bad. I’d argue the bigger takeaway is that Bruno thought others’ God was too small.

Several people have asked why mention Bruno at all in the show. Because the entire point of this first episode was to establish the scale of the Universe and our place in it. Bruno was one of the first Western thinkers to propose a Universe where humanity and Earth and the Sun are all small and not particularly unique with respect to the rest of the cosmos. though he was still off on how that actually worked out, as detailed in the Renaissance Mathematicus link above. To Bruno, that had immense philosophical implications and he was willing to die for them (and the host of other heterodox beliefs he held). Why should we just ignore that? Tyson (and Sagan!) are both big on the idea that science can inform metaphysics, and Western culture seems to have a fear that science will leave life without meaning. It seems perfectly reasonable for the show to mention a person whose cosmology inspired a lot of his own religious and spiritual thought. 

Hank Campbell, founder of Science 2.0 and one of the co-authors of Science Left Behind, has different criticisms than most about the first episode, saying “Science is cool. Should we care if it’s accurate?” I want to quickly respond to these points, and I’ll go in more depth later. 

  1. The greenhouse effect is in fact different from the idea of global warming, but the greenhouse effect does play a part in the latter.
  2. I kind of cringed too at the reference to a multiverse but considering the language the episode used, I’d say the phrase “many of us suspect [a multiverse]” was chosen precisely because it isn’t an accepted theory.
  3. The first time I watched the episode, I didn’t notice the external sounds in space separate from the soundtrack. It struck me as kind of funny because Tyson would typically destroy any show that did it. He should be held accountable on his own.
  4. The episode did not claim Bruno was more important than contemporary natural philosophers and empiricists and definitely pointed out that he wasn’t a scientist. Bruno’s ideas, though, do fit in well with the idea of understanding our place in the universe, which was the entire point of the first episode, as stated in like the first five minutes.
  5. The age of the universe as 13.8 billion years old was given multiple times, and the introduction to every major historical landmark on the calendar involved Tyson giving both its date on the calendar and a conversion to how many millions or billions of years ago it actually was.

That Science Survey is More Complicated Than You Think… and it Has Some Good News

The Web has been abuzz with the results of the National Science Foundation’s latest Science and Engineering Indicators report. In particular, people are freaking out over the “Public Knowledge about S&T [Science and Technology]” section that goes over the results of a survey that looks at the Americans’ knowledge of science and technology as well as their perceptions on scientific and technological issues. One of the most popular headlines points out that 26% of American think the Sun goes around the Earth. And that’s… bad. There’s not a really good defense of that.  (Though consider that America had a school dropout rate of over 10% through the 90s to the early 2000s, so that probably explains  a good hunk of that.)

It’s also pointed out that less than half of respondents knew that human beings evolved from earlier animals.  But if the question is rephrased to say “according to the theory of evolution, human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals” (emphasis added), 72 percent of respondents answer true. Rephrasing also greatly changes the nature of responses to the Big Bang question. Only 39% answer true to “the universe began with a huge explosion” , but 60% say true to the statement “according to astronomers, the universe began with a huge explosion.” (It’s also worth pointing out that astronomers really wouldn’t call the Big Bang an explosion if they’re being technical.) So yeah, I don’t get why people don’t want to “believe” the science, but I’d give them credit for being familiar with the scientific theory.

I’m also surprised that there isn’t much criticism of the questions being asked. Science education reformers nearly always complain that current science education is too focused on memorization and not being able to apply the scientific process. But nearly all these questions are basically checking to see if a person knows the relevant fact to answer the question. I think the questions are fine, though, as I think they do reflect science literacy. And I tend to think science literacy is more important to the average person.

The other thing most people don’t mention is the comparison between Americans’ performance on the test and that of people in other countries (China, the EU, India, Japan, Malaysia, Russia, and South Korea) doing similar surveys. The EU average actually was even worse than the US on the heliocentrism question (only 66% knew the Earth went around the Sun). The US had the most correct responses to the question about whether all radioactivity is man-made (the correct answer is false). And we were the only country where a majority of respondents knew that electrons were smaller than atoms and that antibiotics cannot kill viruses. As a random, but interesting, aside, Japan was the worst of the rich countries in understanding that the father’s gene determines the sex of a baby and it makes me wonder if the “eating lots of meat while pregnant means you’ll have a boy” myth referenced in some anime really is super common in Japan.

Finally, there is some good news. Even if American’s don’t ace the science literacy questions, they do care about science. Over 70% of Americans say the benefits of scientific research outweigh the harms, and about another 20% say the harms and benefits are about equal. Only Canada, Denmark, Finland, and Norway had more people than the US disagree with the statement that “modern science does more harm than good”. Over 80% of Americans think the federal government should fund basic scientific research, and a third of Americans thought we need to increase science funding. The scientific community is nearly as trusted as the military, just shy of 90% confidence by members of the public. Nearly 90% of Americans think scientists and engineers work for the good of humanity and most disagree with the idea that scientists and engineers are odd or have narrow interests. So even if they might not have the best understanding of science and technology right now, I’m hopeful about Americans in the future. But the narrow reporting on this survey may not help.

A Neat Bit of UVA Engineering History

Consider this an incredibly belated addendum to my musing on what’s in a name in the professions of science and engineering. I pointed out that Purdue calls the academic unit devoted to studying materials a college of Materials Engineering, and doesn’t have science in the name. I learned from the professor I TA under this semester that my department is the reason UVA has a School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. The Department of Materials Science and Engineering at Virginia was founded in 1962. Evidently the school was only called the School of Engineering before that. When the MSE department was established, they added “Applied Sciences” (or maybe just the singular, I’m a bit unsure) to reflect the nature of research in the new department. Pretty cool.