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~生まれた町で夢見てきた...~
"In the city of my birth, I had a dream..."
A fascinating take on the "Intelligent Design" debate... 
7th-Dec-2005 04:25 pm
Accordion
For, instead of slamming fundamentalists, Kristof focuses the blame on proponents of the liberal arts:

The Hubris of the Humanities

By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF
The New York Times
December 6, 2005

The best argument against "intelligent design" has always been humanity itself. At a time when only 40 percent of Americans believe in evolution, and only 13 percent know what a molecule is, we're an argument at best for "mediocre design."

But put aside the evolution debate for a moment. It's only a symptom of something much deeper and more serious: a profound illiteracy about science and math as a whole.

One-fifth of Americans still believe that the Sun goes around the Earth, instead of the other way around. And only about half know that humans did not live at the same time as dinosaurs.

The problem isn't just inadequate science (and math) teaching in the schools, however. A larger problem is the arrogance of the liberal arts, the cultural snootiness of, of ... well, of people like me - and probably you.

What do I mean by that? In the U.S. and most of the Western world, it's considered barbaric in educated circles to be unfamiliar with Plato or Monet or Dickens, but quite natural to be oblivious of quarks and chi-squares. A century ago, Einstein published his first paper on relativity - making 1905 as important a milestone for world history as 1066 or 1789 - but relativity has yet to filter into the consciousness of otherwise educated people.

"The great edifice of modern physics goes up, and the majority of the cleverest people in the Western world have about as much insight into it as their neolithic ancestors would have had," C. P. Snow wrote in his classic essay, "The Two Cultures."

The counterargument is that we can always hire technicians in Bangalore, while it's Shakespeare and Goethe who teach us the values we need to harness science for humanity. There's something to that. If President Bush were about to attack Iraq all over again, he would be better off reading Sophocles - to appreciate the dangers of hubris - than studying the science of explosives.

But don't pin too much faith on the civilizing influence of a liberal education: the officers of the Third Reich were steeped in Kant and Goethe. And similar arguments were used in past centuries to assert that all a student needed was Greek, Latin and familiarity with the Bible - or, in China, to argue that all the elites needed were the Confucian classics.

Without some fluency in science and math, we'll simply be left behind in the same way that Ming Dynasty Chinese scholars were. Increasingly, we face public policy issues - avian flu, stem cells - that require some knowledge of scientific methods, yet the present Congress contains 218 lawyers, and just 12 doctors and 3 biologists. In terms of the skills we need for the 21st century, we're Shakespeare-quoting Philistines.

A year ago, I wanted to ornament a column with a complex equation, so, as a math ninny myself, I looked around the Times newsroom for anyone who could verify that it was correct. Now, you can't turn around in the Times newsroom without bumping into polyglots who come and go talking of Michelangelo. But it took forever to turn up someone confident in his calculus - in the science section.

So Pogo was right.

This disregard for science already hurts us. The U.S. has bungled research on stem cells, perhaps partly because Mr. Bush didn't realize how restrictive his curb on research funds would be. And we're risking our planet's future because our leaders are frozen in the headlights of climate change.

In this century, one of the most complex choices we will make will be what tinkering to allow with human genes, to "improve" the human species. How can our leaders decide that issue if they barely know what DNA is?

Intellectuals have focused on the challenge from the right, which has led to a drop in the public acceptance of evolution in the U.S. over the last 20 years, to 40 percent from 45 percent. Jon Miller, a professor at the Northwestern University medical school who has tracked attitudes toward evolution in 34 countries, says Turkey is the only one with less support for evolution than the U.S.

It's true that antagonism to science seems peculiarly American. The European right, for example, frets about taxes and immigration, but not about evolution.

But there's an even larger challenge than anti-intellectualism. And that's the skewed intellectualism of those who believe that a person can become sophisticated on a diet of poetry, philosophy and history, unleavened by statistics or chromosomes. That's the hubris of the humanities.

END

You know, there was a time that I wanted to be a scientist. Three years of biology, three years of chemistry, one year of physics, one year of pyschology, and math through the first year of college calculus--all in high school. But, at a certain point I realized that what I loved about science was not DOING it, not watching hot plates boil off or countless hours crunching numbers for a conclusion that can be expressed in a single sentence or running horny crickets through mazes (Yes, I did actually do this!), but READING and LEARNING about it.

However, that doesn't mean I forgot about it. While stubbornly making my way through college without taking a single math or science course, I subscribed to Discover and Scientific American. Empirical ways of knowing continue to be an important part of my sense of knowledge and self, and I never find myself at a loss when discussing the science that impacts our lives today or trying to interpret the information so readily available everywhere these days.

So, yes. Even if you don't use it in your career, there's no excuse whatsoever for not LEARNING it in the first place! But then, I always thought a true liberal arts education meant being conversant in all areas of learning--humanities AND sciences--and I never thought it meant anything otherwise. Heck, in my experience, scientific ways of knowing are definitely privileged over philosophical ways of knowing. Or am I just having another one of my flights of fancy?
Comments 
7th-Dec-2005 09:48 pm (UTC)
One-fifth of Americans still believe that the Sun goes around the Earth, instead of the other way around. And only about half know that humans did not live at the same time as dinosaurs.

*groans*

I think I learned that stuff in preschool....

or countless hours crunching numbers for a conclusion that can be expressed in a single sentence

With SPSS it only takes seconds ^_^ And lemme tell ya, it's a rush when all those calculations show something unexpected...
8th-Dec-2005 12:40 am (UTC)
With SPSS it only takes seconds ^_^

What is SPSS? A shortcut, I take it...? (But you can't use shortcuts unless you know the long way around, too! :P )
8th-Dec-2005 12:57 am (UTC)
Statistical Package for the Social Sciences, or something to that effect.. The big statistics program I used ^_^ Once you get your numbers entered, the statistical tests you can do are just incredible, and fast...
8th-Dec-2005 01:22 am (UTC)
Ah. Did you have to check your numbers at all, though, after putting them into the program? I know a lot of engineers and science types like to check their computer results longhand... ^^;;;
8th-Dec-2005 01:33 am (UTC)
Nah, you can't really... In college I would; I would even do spreadsheets by hand, or do calculations to check the computer results... But this stuff is far too complicated for that, and there are far too many data sets. It would literally take me weeks to do what the computer did in under a minute; and I would run multiple tests, subtracting a variable here and there or something...
Anymore, you just have to make sure you know what the test actually tells you, and make sure you understand your variables.. And then you have to rely on the statistics experts who wrote and tested the software..
8th-Dec-2005 01:42 am (UTC)
And then you have to rely on the statistics experts who wrote and tested the software..

And pray that they program better than the people who did Grammar Check for Microsoft Office. ^^;;;;

I've heard that people on spaceships and submarines check all of their computer data and coordinates longhand, though.
8th-Dec-2005 01:58 am (UTC)
*grins*

I'm sure they're working with less data and simpler equations....
And really, grammar is far more difficult for a computer to do than statistics. Statistics is just math, what computers do best..

I took one course during my masters where we did univariate statistics longhand.. It was a bitch, and those were relatively simple equations and not too much data to plug in.. No one does this stuff by hand anymore, unless you're the stats person developing new methods, etc.. Research studies have gotten increasingly complicated, just because the automated systems allow you do the analysis without having to do the math yourself. It's the same with business; financial analysis and accounting stuff is all done by computer.. Realistically, doing it by hand would be more prone to errors and less reliable..
8th-Dec-2005 02:01 am (UTC)
I'm sure they're working with less data and simpler equations....

*chuckles* And MUCH higher stakes. Don't wanna go soaring straight into the sun because the computer was having a bad day, now do we? :P

And really, grammar is far more difficult for a computer to do than statistics.

*nods* I know. Just pointing out that computer programs are only as perfect as the people that write them (aka not always so). ^^;

I'm still waiting for the day that someone figures out GOOD speech recognition technology. But as far as I can tell, no one's even close to accomplishing that.
8th-Dec-2005 02:13 am (UTC)
Did you know the space shuttle actually uses five computers doing exactly the same thing? For each decision, all five computers actually submit their decisions and the majority rules.. The idea is that if you used one computer and it malfunctioned and made a wrong decision, then the wrong decision would be used.. But, the chances of a majority of five malfunctioning in just the right way to let the wrong decision to be adopted are incredibly low.. I just think that's neat ^_^

I'm still waiting for the day that someone figures out GOOD speech recognition technology. But as far as I can tell, no one's even close to accomplishing that

Most people don't seem to have very good speech recognition ^^;
8th-Dec-2005 02:17 am (UTC)
Did you know the space shuttle actually uses five computers doing exactly the same thing?

Sounds like Minority Report. ^^;;;;

Most people don't seem to have very good speech recognition ^^;

Way better than a computer. If a stenographer were a voice recognition program, he'd be fired on the first day. (If he even somehow got hired in the first place.)
8th-Dec-2005 02:24 am (UTC)
Although... If you call Bell South on your cell after your landline has been out for a week in the wake of a storm, and you yell into the phone that you don't want to talk to a God Damn Machine, their computer actually will recognize that you desire to talk with (yell at) a human customer representative ^^;;
8th-Dec-2005 02:30 am (UTC)
*dies laughing* Are you sure that it doesn't just wire you by default to a representative whenever you say something that it doesn't understand?
8th-Dec-2005 02:36 am (UTC)
After I said that, there was a pause, followed by the computer voice: "You have indicated you wish to speak to a customer representative, please hold." ^^;; My guess is, that computer pisses off a lot of people!
8th-Dec-2005 02:57 am (UTC)
*chuckles* Yep. Must be the default. You should see me using the voice activation on my cellphone. It's like playing a guessing game. :P
7th-Dec-2005 10:20 pm (UTC)
Mmm...very interesting article. It's interesting, actually, because we were talking about how humanities majors were dropping in number in colleges, while the sciences, engineering, and business have been on the rise. The antagonism between the sciences and humanities is always particularly troubling...I am always surprised that there are so few people (at least, of those I've met) who find it possible to take an enjoyment in both.

With regards to the staggering amount of ignorance, I am reminded of a montage of interview clips I saw in high school astronomy, where a reporter went around and asked everyone from elementary school students to Harvard alums some basic questions about the cycles of the moon, eclipses, etc...and got the most bizarrely wrong answers. There really needs to be a better basic awareness of the physical environment >_>.

I forget exactly when it was that the first real division between humanities and sciences arose. I guess one of the problems with such specialized knowledge these days is that it's difficult to be a ah...what do you call well-rounded people conversant in a variety of areas...anyway, it's difficult to be that while still taking care of practical matters and focusing your own field. But still, not an excuse for the kind of ignorance those statistics show.
8th-Dec-2005 12:49 am (UTC)
There really needs to be a better basic awareness of the physical environment >_>.

I guess I've had a rather unusual education (even though it was a public school) in that learning how to process and interpret knowledge, not just it's acquisition, was stressed. Our teachers rationalized that, nowadays, if you need the answer to something, you can just look it up online or in the library--we've got so much information at our fingertips--but we need to know how to USE that information and evaluate it's accuracy. To be honest, basic ignorance about when dinosaurs ruled the Earth worries me less than people's inability to tell the epistemological difference between science and religion.

I guess one of the problems with such specialized knowledge these days is that it's difficult to be a ah...what do you call well-rounded people conversant in a variety of areas...anyway, it's difficult to be that while still taking care of practical matters and focusing your own field.

Renaissance man. ^_^

*nods* That excess of information is why a liberal education in the way that it was defined in the schools that I attended is so important. We're not ever going to memorize every fact about the world, and the time spent making the attempt could be better used elsewhere, but learning how to think critically is crucial.
7th-Dec-2005 10:46 pm (UTC)
But...but...science is so neat! And so are the humanities. Why can't we be Renaissance people today, when we have so much more available to us to study?

But I'm forced to admit that my math sucks badly.
8th-Dec-2005 12:43 am (UTC)
Why can't we be Renaissance people today, when we have so much more available to us to study?

Maybe that's the problem. That there's so much information these days that there's too much for any one person to master? *sighs*

Just thinking about how much more I have to learn even within chosen, narrow fields of inquiry--it's daunting.
8th-Dec-2005 08:08 am (UTC)
You know, that was me too. When I was a kid, the stories I loved were about the scientists and the historians, the people who dug around and found things out, but I couldn't do it myself. I'm not techincally inclined at all, but I still love reading about it.

Oh! If you're ever in the mood: Fermat's Enigma by Simon Singh is an excellent read.
8th-Dec-2005 12:45 pm (UTC)
Oh! If you're ever in the mood: Fermat's Enigma by Simon Singh is an excellent read.

What's it about? ^_^
9th-Dec-2005 06:44 am (UTC)
It's non-fiction, a sort of real-life detective story about the discovery of the answer to Fermat's Last Theorem, one of the millennium problems which the Wolf Institute offers one million dollars for the discovery of. It's vastly entertaining and the ease of the writing allows even a complete mathematical ignoramus like myself to follow along. It's a story not only of the man who solved it, but the men and women who tried to solve it, and how very human mathematics can be. Duels, arguments, the search for knowledge, and all because over 350 years ago, a man scribbled:

There are no non-zero integers x, y, and z such that xn + yn = zn in which n is an integer greater than 2.

"I have a truly marvelous proof of this proposition which this margin is too narrow to contain."


in his copy of Claude-Gaspar Bachet's translation of the famous Arithmetica of Diophantus.

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