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If only people knew more science . . .

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Concerning Nicholas Kristof’s NYTimes Op-Ed that appeared yesterday:

[From a colleague:] It is ironic that Mr. Kristoff chose to convey his disdain for the humanities by employing language rather than statistics or flow charts.

He writes that the officers of the Third Reich were steeped in Kant and Goethe,” but they were also whizzes in mathematics, the medical science, natural gas, and the technology of efficient transportation, for without
those four the Holocaust would have had far fewer victims. It is not the latter four that impart to Mr. Kistof his belief that the Third Reich was wrong. In fact, his notion that the humanities are less important than the
sciences is not a scientific judgment, but a philosophical claim about the order of things. Mr. Kristof must rely on that which he despises. If he had studied the humanities well, he would have not made such a freshman
philosophy student mistake. But then again, he writes for the New York Times.

Mr. Kristof writes that “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.” That’s exactly how the Goethe-Kant reading Nazis would have put it if confronted with criticisms of their use of human subjects to find cures for the powerful. Anti-science in the German 1940s meant you were against fewer lampshades made out of people with names like Goldberg and Einstein. This is what happens when we take the “human” out of humanities and let the cultural barbarians dictate to us what is right and wrong.

[And from another colleague:] Leading Nazis were also steeped in Darwinism and leading scientists (including Darwinian biologists) in Nazi Germany supported the Nazis, so apparently accepting Darwinism doesn’t reduce barbarism. Kristof is probably right that the study of humanities doesn’t protect against atrocities, but just adding science to the mix will not magically produce moral behavior.

==========Here’s Kristof’s Article===========

The Hubris of the Humanities
By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF

[Yesterday’s NYTimes Select]

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.

10 Replies to “If only people knew more science . . .

  1. 1
    Josh Bozeman says:

    More liberal arrogance and conservative bashing from Kristof. What a complete surprise.

    I’m not sure how he decided it would be a nifty idea to throw in the subject of nazis, but I don’t expect much sense from the Times.

  2. 2
    taciturnus says:

    Kristof’s first paragraph has the virtue of taking Darwinian circular thinking to a whole new level. If everyone believes in evolution, then there is nothing to argue about, is there? But if people don’t believe in evolution, then this merely proves that they are stupid and therefore evolved rather than designed, and so proves evolution! What a great theory! If you deny it, you prove it!

    And I guess ID is falsifiable as well, since IDers falsify it by the mere fact of believing it. This is science at its best.

  3. 3
    TomG says:

    He’s partly right; a complete education should include some knowledge of chi-square, quarks, and DNA. This being a science-oriented blog, I doubt there’d be much disagreement there. (Is it safe to suppose the mathematician who hosts this blog has a clue about chi-square?)

    He’s also almost completely wrong, for it takes a liberal education to be able to evaluate anything one knows about science–questions of meaning, utility, purpose, ethics, and so on. It’s also useful for detecting simple errors in thought committed by columnists. But I need not repeat what’s already been said about that here.

  4. 4

    If only people knew more science . . .

    Concerning Nicholas Kristof’s NYTimes Op-Ed that appeared yesterday: [From a colleague:] “It is ironic that Mr. Kristoff chose to convey his disdain for the humanities by employing language rather than statistics or flow charts.”

  5. 5
    Red Reader says:

    Has anyone EVER seen evidence to support this claim?
    “One-fifth of Americans still believe that the Sun goes around the Earth,
    instead of the other way around.”

    Unless he is talking about Americans who are under the age of three, I do not believe this is a true statement.

    This is pernicious dishonesty in the service of prejudice.

  6. 6
    chaosengineer says:

    “Has anyone EVER seen evidence to support this claim?”

    I googled it and saw a lot of people making the “one-fifth” claim, but I got bored before I was able to trace it back to the source document.

    I *did* find a 2001 NSF survey that says that 25% (one-fourth) of adult Americans believe that the Sun goes around the Earth. One-fourth is even more than one-fifth, but at least we did better than Europe…33% of Europeans got it wrong.

    The chart is here, and the “source data” link takes you to a spreadsheet with the exact percentages:
    http://www.nsf.gov/statistics/.....g07-06.htm

    “This is pernicious dishonesty in the service of prejudice.”

    Dishonesty is such an ugly word. How do you know it wasn’t simple carelessness?

  7. 7
    DaveScot says:

    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.

    This was the unkindest cut of all!

  8. 8
    Josh Bozeman says:

    Few would argue that policy makers have to, themselves, be experts in the issues they’re dealing with…at least not ALL of them or anywhere near all of them. This is why congress holds committee meetings and the like with experts in various fields to discuss the topics at hand. These guys and gals often know little of the specific fields related to the issues at hand.

    It’s much less likely biologists will go into politics- legal professionals work in a field much closer to politics and are much more likely to go into the field of politics itself- so this is no surprise, and it’s unlikely to change. It hardly equals a problem at all, and it surely doesn’t mean that we’re doomed in any manner, let alone as an entire nation- somehow doomed to destruction because members of congress aren’t experts on avian flu or stem cells.

  9. 9
    keiths says:

    DaveScot writes:
    “This was the unkindest cut of all!”

    Thou doth protest too much, methinks.

  10. 10

    Actually, the Earth and Sun both orbit around their common center of gravity, or barycenter. 🙂

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