Here’s a controversial topic to discuss, especially for a science blogger.
Science is overrated. This is my contention.
Last night in chat I evidently hit a nerve by (perhaps not so) casually suggesting that maybe 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.
So I was willing to consider the argument, and was even predisposed to grant the idea considerable validity. Unfortunately, I should have stopped reading at the first couple of paragraphs, because the remainder of the article was just nonsense, clearly the views of someone who is outside of science and really doesn’t understand the subject.
None of the arguments I suggested above are brought up. Instead, we get some strange caricatures of science and the academy.
Premise Number One. Science already enjoys pride of place in our educational system. It already enjoys a great deal of prestige and if you follow the money, I believe you’ll see that practitioners are remunerated accordingly, as compared with their colleagues in the arts and humanities.
I’m sorry, what? I say, what? I remember high school, and I’ve worked with high school teachers since. I haven’t seen that science classes are especially well-supported, and in fact my gripe with high school classes in my discipline of biology is that the students are often short-changed because the subject is “controversial.” I’ve taught at a large state university and at a small liberal arts college, and while you might find some snooty individuals who look down on other disciplines, they aren’t unique to the sciences. I personally have a lot of respect for my colleagues in the arts and humanities and social sciences.
The sciences bring in lots of money to universities, because they get grants with lots of indirect costs that are scooped up by the university…but that’s because the operating expenses of the sciences are also high. Scientists in generally are not personally remunerated more, except where higher salaries are needed to retain faculty against the pull of industry. This is not a science thing, though: look at computer science, engineering, and business school faculties to see some real disparities.
There is another reason why some science faculty might get paid more: the extra training. We have this practice of the post-doctoral position, where after getting a Ph.D. you aren’t considered quite ready to actually apply for real jobs—instead, you go off and do one or two or three multi-year apprenticeships in other labs. It is increasingly uncommon for science faculty to get employed directly out of grad school, and the ABD phenomenon is even more rare.
So my first claim is that education in science is valued more highly than education in the arts and the humanities. I don’t think it’s possible to dispute that point, but of course, if you can, I’m all ears.
So the question is, why should this be? Who has decided that Science is more valuable than Poetry, Music, Drama?
Good question. Who has?
It sure wasn’t me. 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.
And now, unfortunately, our complainant gets insulting.
Premise Number Two. The reason for the status quo as articulated in Premise Number One 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.)
Science has not been cultivated in this country out of a love of learning. Yeah, we’re all soulless, venal hacks who went into this occupation because we want to get buckets of money for making Weapons. We don’t even get the benefit of that other stereotype, the ones who are in it to Cure Cancer.
Are you wrong? Yeah, you’re wrong.
Science is a field whose practitioners, like those in English literature or American history or philosophy, pursued it because of a love of knowledge. They work to understand, not because they’re out to blow up the world. To even suggest that science isn’t done out of a love of learning is offensive and ignorant. There’s an assumption here that science isn’t a matter of learning and wisdom and understanding that tells me right away that the author is one of those other academic types who hates and fears math and science, and avoided the subjects as much as she could during college. I recall talking to one of my colleagues who mentioned that one of the wearying things about his work was that when he talked about what he did at parties, he could count on someone saying that they hated his entire field. He was a mathematician.
I felt that same weariness reading that sad diatribe.
My reaction initially was to the revelation that Science education is on the decline. Maybe that’s ok? Maybe we don’t need any new Science right now but rather need to deal with the Just employment of the old Science?
Hmmm. Maybe we have enough Art right now. Can we just run off more copies of Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers,” reprint “Leaves of Grass,” and hey, there’s more music at iTunes than I can possibly listen to in a lifetime…so let’s all stop making more. After all, none of it is about creativity and the process and the human love of learning, it’s all about the product and what we can slap on walls and put on our iPods, so we’re done now.
Here’s something else that’s sad about it. I’m used to right-wing stupidity and ignorance, but that nonsense was from a left-wing site. While science may have a home right now in the policies of the Left, it’s clear that that could easily change; no one political party has a monopoly on foolishness, even if the Right has been working hard at acquiring one.