Irony on NPR

By Mark Trodden | December 8, 2006 10:13 am

There was an interesting moment of irony on NPR this morning, in a segment discussing Harvard’s new proposed changes to the core curriculum. The changes are, broadly speaking, intended to make core courses more relevant, and to give students a background that is not guided by the traditional disciplines alone. For example, one might not have a history requirement, but might rather have a requirement to take a course from a category known as “The U.S.”, which would contain history courses, but also economics and other courses.

I have no interest in taking a side in this particular debate, not least because I haven’t fully studied Harvard’s plans. But what struck me about the NPR piece was what happened in the tiny part where science was discussed. One professor (not from the sciences) was defending the traditional approach (and again, I have no reason to agree or disagree with him personally) and, after all the talk about the humanities and obscure courses, he said something like (not a precise quote)

You would never ask a physicist, who is a world expert in, say, string theory, to teach a broad survey course to students and have to explain the difference between friction and impact [now in a softer voice] – if there is a difference between friction and impact.

This came from one of, as described by the presenter, the world’s most brilliant academics.

What I have to say here is not about Harvard, or about this particular professor, or about what a core curriculum should look like. However, I do think that this little exchange gets at the heart of what we often mean when we talk about the public perception of and proficiency in science. This person is clearly intelligent and well educated (in some agreed upon sense), and is defending the traditional approach as adequate, but in doing so betrays his clear ignorance of extremely basic science. Almost as importantly, in realizing that he didn’t quite understand what he had just said, he casually acknowledges that he doesn’t know the difference, like it is no big thing. Although this isn’t quite as egregious as not knowing the difference between Charles Dickens and John Grisham, it is in the ballpark, and I can imagine the look on my humanities friends’ faces if I expressed such a confusion.

I don’t know if Harvard should change its core curriculum, or what it will mean for the science part if they do. But one thing is clear, it is considered just fine, even among our most highly educated, to be scientifically illiterate. This is what we battle, in an age when an increasing proportion of important decisions depend on an appreciation of scientific issues. If there are academics who don’t have the tools to properly understand debates on global warming, the energy crisis, stem cells, evolution, genetic engineering, genetically-modified foods, nuclear power, and so on, what hope can we have that the correct decisions will be made by policy-makers, or that the public will understand enough to cast informed votes?

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Academia, Science and Society
  • Jeff Harvey

    If this professor was stopped dead in his tracks by his ignorance, that is
    an impact. If he only brushed up against it, slowed down, and then went on
    his way, that is friction.

    To me the most amazing part of the quote is the idea that a physicist who
    is a world expert in some subject should not teach a broad survey course.
    If you are on the physics faculty at Harvard you are presumably a world expert
    in some field of physics. Who is supposed to teach these courses if not the faculty?

  • Z

    Jeff said, “…Who is supposed to teach these courses if not the faculty?”

    Graduate students or pseudo-faculty lecturers if you don’t have enough experimentalists. It is rare to see big people (especially theory people) teach lower-level courses (Rocky Kolb and a few others are pleasant exceptions).

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/mark/ Mark

    Definitely the latter Jeff! I agree with your comment – it struck me as well.

    I think the implication was that survey classes shouldn’t exist and that students should get their exposure to a subject and the intellectual rigor required to study it through specialist courses. Definitely wouldn’t work in physics – I don’t think we can get most students to satisfy a science requirement by taking a course in quantum field theory.

  • http://www.twistedphysics.typepad.com Jennifer Ouellette

    Wow, I missed that particular interview; Harvard’s curriculum reform program is, admittedly, just a momentary blip on my radar these days. But even as a non-scientist/non-educator, I recognize that the sort of ignorance represented by the academic’s off-the-cuff comment is a major problem. A well-educated person — in order to be deemed so — should at least have passing familiarity with the most fundamental concepts of physics; it’s not the sort of thing that requires rigorously solving advanced equations, after all, just a bit of focused thought.

    I once had dinner with a highly educated, well-respected civil rights lawyer who had never heard of the Uncertainty Principle or of Schroedinger’s Cat… not even in passing, so he didn’t even have the usual MIS-conceptions about quantum mechanics that all us poor laypeople have to unlearn as our comprehension of the subject deepens over time. :) Perhaps this is the result of decades of over-specialization: people are so focused just on keeping up with their own fields of research that they let their knowledge of other areas lapse dreadfully. The gentleman mentioned above _was_ in his 70s, so it’s possible these topics weren’t covered in the “core curriculum” of his day. But mixing up “friction” and “impact”? That’s about as basic as it gets. I would like to give the Harvard academic the benefit of the doubt and say he was nervous and babbling a bit, because the alternative is just too disturbing.

    Change has to come from within, via a major shift in cultural attitudes in our society. I have no idea how to effect such a shift, unfortunately, since anti-intellectualism isn’t limited to the sciences… it’s just much more noticeable.

  • Adam S

    I agree with everything that’s been said, BUT I think that the professor in question may not have been as ignorant as he sounds. First of all, he picked the example, so he actually does know that there’s a difference between friction and impact (you don’t really need a physics class for that, anyway).
    After he said it, he realized that as you get more advanced in physics, basic notions take more nuanced forms, and he didn’t want to wind up technically incorrect.
    In fact, if you ask a friction theorist, she may even tell you that on a molecular level, friction is a form of impact. (or maybe not…I don’t know either)

  • George Musser

    …he casually acknowledges that he doesn’t know the difference, like it is no big thing. Although this isn’t quite as egregious as not knowing the difference between Charles Dickens and John Grisham, it is in the ballpark, and I can imagine the look on my humanities friends’ faces if I expressed such a confusion.

    I don’t know if Harvard should change its core curriculum, or what it will mean for the science part if they do. But one thing is clear, it is considered just fine, even among our most highly educated, to be scientifically illiterate….

    Very true, and well put. This syndrome goes back at least as far back as C.P. Snow’s time.

    To be sure, humanities scholars have complaints, too. One of the reasons that people parade their scientific ignorance is respect for scientists: they think science is way too hard for mere mortals, and they profess ignorance as a form of self-deprecation. For the humanities, the problem is the opposite: a lack of respect for scholars. Everyone thinks his opinion about a book, about language, or about society is as informed as that of someone who has studied it for 30 years. Students think novels are to be enjoyed on a beach rather than studied as insights into cultural history, and they resist being asked to think deeply about them.

    In the wave of outrage over the Sokol hoax, many scientists made grave pronouncements about science studies and literary theory without bothering to take the time to listen to what mainstream scholars in these areas really said. Say what you will about Lee Smolin, but he is one of the few physicists who actually seems to have read Feyerabend.

    George

  • Jeff Harvey

    Z,

    I only know what happens at the U of C, but in the winter quarter freshman
    physics courses are being taught by Sid Nagel and Philippe Cluzel. They
    are both “big people” in my opinion, and both straddle the worlds of experiment
    and theory quite effectively. I believe Jim Cronin has also taught
    freshman physics. Can’t get much bigger than that.

    It is true that theorists teach these courses less often, but I think this is mainly because they are needed to teach graduate QM, QFT, GR and so on.

    .

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    Here’s a link to the NPR story. It was historian Mark Kishlansky, who started by arguing something perfectly sensible (core courses should aim for some degree of timelessness, rather than being driven by ephemeral topical concerns), and then veered off into the woefully ill-informed bit about survey courses in the sciences.

    I’m very much in favor of survey courses, but I’d also be in favor of a dramatic overhaul of what physics we actually teach to non-majors. No reason why they can’t learn about some things we didn’t know a hundred years ago.

  • smm

    i know of another form of scientific illiteracy that we physicists should be even more concerned about: the willfull ignorance experimental work which some theorists are prone to bragg about. and just as bad is experimentalists excusing themselves from mathematical understanding claiming it’s for the theorists. it is apparently ok for physicist to give a colloquium full of qualifiers like, “i’m just an experimentalist.” dude…wtf? this seems just as bad as the harvard prof. on npr.

  • Douglas

    I doubt anyone has the time, but give a look at the Thematic Options Program at the University of Southern California (of Clifford Johnson fame). USC’s commitment to fostering a student body that is highly literate in both the humanities and the sciences deserves repeating. (As a physics student, I took courses in classics and linguistics taught by the leaders in their respective fields — a humanity and a science I would never have pursued with diligence without TO, most likely). I think it also fair to ask students to apply for these “advanced” core curricula, because it fosters pride, and such resources are scarce.

    Personally, though, I would refrain from reading too much into this quote. Who knows the context? The previous comments have provided a number of possibilities, but does it really matter which one I choose to have an opinion on? However, I do totally agree with the suggestion of this posting, that we need to get students (and their teachers) more involved in their core curricula and to cultivate an appreciation and fundamental knowledge of their academic counterparts, even if it won’t earn them extra respect in their careers.

  • BWare

    I was listening to this interview as well, and my thoughts were roughly the same. Friction and impact? OK, well, we all say stupid things sometimes, even on national radio, but then came the addendum “if there is a difference between friction and impact”, making it pretty clear that the interviewee is simply ignorant of basic physical concepts.

    The second thought was of the obvious counterexample. Perhaps one of the best basic physics books ever is the Feynman lectures. So at least sometimes physicists, world experts in say, QED, do teach broad survey courses to students. With excellent results.

  • Stanford Grad Student

    It is rare to see big people (especially theory people) teach lower-level courses (Rocky Kolb and a few others are pleasant exceptions).

    Lenny Susskind and Andrei Linde have both taught first-year physics for pre-meds in the last ~4 years.

  • michael

    If I remember correctly, when I was at Harvard, Cumrun Vafa taught an intro physics class.

  • http://propercourse.blogspot.com Tillerman

    Astounding. How can you even drive a car without some appreciation of the difference between friction and impact? They’re not just concepts in physics; they are everyday notions that we all use to make sense of the physical world.

  • Schrodinger

    Just to make everything clear:

    Impact means that for every action there is a reaction (at a distance) in which energy is lost, and friction means that for an action, there’ll be a reaction (also at a distance) in which energy is lost.

    So impact = friction = reaction = loss in energy.

    So, too much debate over insignificant issues = action/reaction = loss in energy = metaphysics

    As Feynman would’ve said, all this discussion is a bunch of B.S.

    The point is, there is no perfect curriculum, and even if there was, I don’t think that human beings would be able to come up with one, since they can’t even simply understand God.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    People understand concepts like “friction” and “impact” at an intuitive, pre-verbal level. That’s all you need to drive a car. One of the goals of a introductory physics course should be to get students to appreciate the way in which these fuzzy notions become precisely-defined concepts that can be extended to completely new circumstances.

    Kishlansky was just pulling some buzzwords out of the air, he wasn’t thinking about the underlying concepts at all.

  • http://nnyhav.blogspot.com nnyhav

    {Jakobson, Nabokov, Harvard, elephant}

  • http://namloc/typepad.com/muddlehead Richard Lubbock

    This gap between humanities and science, first publicised by C.P. Snow, appeared again in the recent British movie “The History Boys.” We were shown a few bright scholarship candidates at a Sheffield grammar school being prepped for certain Oxbridge entrace exams. The idea was to get these lads to display themselves as well-rounded human beings.

    At no point in the rather sentimental film, did either science or mathematics enter the discussion. I suspect that the writer, the revered Alan Bennett, did not hear about these topics while he was at Oxford.

  • http://vacua.blgospot.com Jim Harrison

    I’m sure there are real issues around here somewhere, but a lot of these discussion come pretty close to “Hooray for our side!” Sheesh, with the possible exception of economists, nobody is more arrogant than physicists!

    Sophisticated people are keenly aware of their own limitations. They know that there are depths in ordinary concepts that only serious students of the relevant disciplines comprehend. So it’s good manners to defer to the pros, which is what the Harvard prof apparently did. In this respect, he differs from many a physicist I’ve met, who not only betray a pristine ignorance of literature, history, law, and the social sciences—not to mention ballroom dancing—but are obviously unaare of their own one-dimensionality.

    Jay Leno likes to make fun of ordinary people by eliciting dumb answers to simple questions. The irony is, Leno’s audience is not exactly elite. Indeed, that’s why they get a kick out of humiliating individuals who are even more ignorant than themselves. Maybe Mark’s piece has a similar motivation.

  • Moshe

    Alright, clearly someone has to play contrarian here, I guess it will have to be me, sigh…

    I think the quote also highlights some of the reasons for the apparent ignorance of the basics: the difference between impact and friction (incidentally, what is the similarity?) is analogous in my mind to basic grammatical rules, one has to know them but maybe they are not precisely the highlight of one’s education. In comparison, I’d be amazed if an educated person did not know (or at least wanted to know) that the universe is expanding, the sun is fueled by nuclear reaction, about the uncertainty principle and the principles of special relativity etc.etc. Maybe those things should be considered to be the “basics”.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/mark/ Mark

    No Jim Harrison, you’ve missed the point entirely. This is not about celebrating how smart physicists are or about how dumb other people are, it is about a basic cultural norm regarding the nature of basic knowledge about science. It is a problem for scientists and society and is partly of our own making.

    The point is also not about getting at this particular professor, as I made clear. It is about how this comment highlighted something that one sees far more widely.

  • Lee

    I came through college in the mid-70s and seem to remember that I was required to take a certain number of language, science, and mathematics courses in order to graduate. I say “seem to remember” because although I knew I was going to be a history major, I’ve always had an interest in science, including a brief flirtation with the idea of majoring in astronomy and not history, so I may have taken some of these courses voluntarily.

    At that time, however, we were in the midst of a sea change regarding mandatory courses of study in a curriculum. We were moving more towards a self-directed approach that allowed students great choice in taking (or not taking) certain courses. A generation or so ahead of me, Latin and Greek had faded as mandatory subjects. I suspect a generation or two behind me, science and math have met the same fate. There is a common theme to all of these courses: except for those people who choose to follow a discipline of studies in one of those fields, most students, given the choice, will avoid languages, math, and science like the plague. Of course, some of those folks would now be in their mid-40s, well-established on university faculties in liberal arts departments. These are the kind of intellectuals who might not have any idea of the difference between impact and friction.

    I cannot recall the originator of this approach, but I’m aware that a college somewhere in New York started providing information about what each year’s freshman class would have known in their lifetimes–sort of a practical idea so that professors might stop using analogies or telling stories referencing people and events of which their students would have no idea. I’ve thought a similar approach might be beneficial on the back end though: what kind of knowledge should a rounded, well-educated person graduating from college expect to have at the end of four years of education? This has nothing to do with grades and has everything to do with assessing whether a university is meeting its educational mission.

    Unfortunately, I suspect that such a student graduating today would not be expected to have any knowledge of science. That might be fine except we see the dangers of it every day. The ID movement, often discussed here, has currency among a number of otherwise well-educated people simply because they have no knowledge of the basics of science. I was astounded when I read a number of letters to the editor of my university alumni magazine regarding a recent story about undergraduate proponents of the ID movement at my alma mater. To begin with, the story was hardly an attack on ID; nevertheless, I was even more shocked that of the approximately ten letters printed in response to the story, all of them supported the ID movement. Even accounting for a certain amount of recruitment by the ID movement to get these letters written, all of the letters were written by alumni of the school, and it was astounding to me that there were apparently not enough (or even any) letters denouncing ID as lacking any basis in science.

    It was enough to make me consider stopping my donations to my school, the University of Virginia. Then I realized, it was better to just make sure my donations are earmarked so that they are not contributed to any such group in the future.

  • Douglas

    Wow, and for a while there, I thought we were worried about the national ID card movement. ;)

  • macho

    As a physicist, but one who has spent far more time than most outside the ivory tower, and in particular interfacing between my colleagues and non-scientists, I am not at all surprised by either Mark’s blog or Jim H’s comments. Physicists are amazingly unaware of how they come across to non-scientists, and this discussion is an excellent example. The Harvard prof made a small slip — he was a little unsure of his wording in an interview situation. It’s not that big of a deal, nor does it reflect any great ignorance on his part. Give him time to think about it, and take away any threat of humiliation for misusing technical terms, and I’m sure he (or any other reasonably intelligent and thoughtful person) would do just fine in explaining the difference between the two.

    Physicists respond to his remarks (and he didn’t even say anything incorrect, just voiced some apprehension over his use of particular words) with much rolling of eyes, OMG, can you believe it, the ignorance is appalling, how can this be?

    From the outside this definitely reads as “what an idiot, what an incredible ignoramus, any fool would know the answer to this”. It looks like an attack by heavily armed intellectuals against a defenseless victim (and in this case the victim is someone who is a Harvard professor). Most people with a healthy sense of self-preservation who see this will choose to stay as far away from it (science) as possible.

    And it happens far too often — in our enthusiasm for the science and passion for getting the details right, we come across as arrogant (although there’s more than a little truth to this particular accusation) and terrifying. No one likes to be made to feel stupid. Jim didn’t miss the point — he just gave voice to a response that many non-scientists would have to this kind of discussion (and they’re often too intimidated to speak up and say so).

    What complicates this communication gap is that we usually don’t mean to make anyone feel this way — many of the physicists on this blog devote a lot of time to public outreach — and they’re very good at it. I agree that we need to work to increase science literacy — but we have to be careful at how we frame the discussion so that we don’t further alienate the public.

    We also need to realistic about what people already know. The vast majority of educated people do not know almost anything about the items on Moshe’s list. At best they have heard about a couple of them. (There are certainly non-physicists out there who know quite a bit about all of them, and who read science blogs, magazines and books, and attend public lectures. They’re just a very small percentage of those with a college education — or even professional degree). But rather than bemoan the ignorance of the general population (especially publicly) we should work to find better ways to invite them to learn more (especially in undergraduate survey courses).

  • http://divineafflatus.blogspot.com mark d

    When I taught intro geology labs years ago I was amazed at the lack of preparation of many students–and geology was considered the “easiest” science (well, at one school we had “natural science,” a course for the really hard-core ignorant ones). The problem, of course, was the lousy science education offered at many K-12 schools. As an undergraduate, I skipped some of the usual introductory humanities courses and took instead the higher-level courses because I figured they would be a lot more interesting (they would not be boring lectures in a large, dark auditorium). I could do that because I attended a public school system that had an excellent reputation for teaching all subjects well.

  • GP1

    I think the social science professor is making a legitimate point. Doctors of Philosophy who call themselves String Theorists have no idea about practical side of physics such as friction or impact. Obviously they do not consider themselves mere engineers. They are theorists who use to be called scholastics before that term got a bad name. What is interesting to note is the hidden assumptions in the original post: science = physics = string theory.

  • Yajnavalkya

    It is always interesting how these discussions ultimately peter out to two parallel monologues of the physicists and the non-physicists. As a Physics undergrad I would be as shocked as Mark is, by this display of ignorance, but experience has taught me to expect little from those outside the realm of active research.

    What saddens me (and probably Mark and the others too) is not so much the fact that a Harvard professor is unaware of these things, but the fact that usually non-scientists (yes, even academics and professors of other disciplines) are not just unaware of basic physics, but actually proud of it. It’s displayed as a kind of look-I-don’t-know-any-physics-ergo-I’m-not-a-geek label.

    I completely agree with George (#6), that social scientists face the opposite problem. The biggest reason for both of these is partially the inability to communicate their ideas on the part of research scholars, but also simply due to public apathy when it comes to anything that could not act as fodder for a tabloid.

    I think that although I agree with the opinions of most fellow Physicists that this ignorance of the lay people is quite sad and needs to be rectified, I think that it is very important to not give the impression of patronising them. It should be effectively communicated that some basic scientific & mathematical knowledge is as useful and intellectually rewarding as being able to quote Tennyson or Blake.

    How this

  • Yajnavalkya

    How this situation can be rectified is something that needs careful thought & deliberation.

    PS: Read this as a continuation of the previous comment. I don’t know why this part got snipped off there.

  • Analyzer

    Doctors of Philosophy who call themselves String Theorists have no idea about practical side of physics such as friction or impact.

    This is a bit of a stretch. I promise you that Ed Witten knows more about friction than you do.

  • http://arunsmusings.blogspot.com Arun

    Perhaps I may draw your attention to:
    http://www.people.ex.ac.uk/PErnest/pome11/art18.htm
    which argues

    “The state also does invest in the education of scientists, but only with the objective of reproducing the scientific labour power needed to produce innovation. It is well understood why, under conditions of industrial capitalism, there is systematically greater investment in production than in reproduction of the labour consumed in production. Hence, there is a systematic bias in the state support for science: more resources are invested in research facilities than in education. (In particular, the state is no longer interested in enabling people through education to understand the world around them. Not only has education been delinked from the needs of theology, but “understanding” is something that most scientists look down upon as “philosophy”, since it consumes the time that could be more actively spent in the process of engineering useful innovations.) As a result of this systemic bias against education, in the state support for science, most people are scientifically illiterate, even in the developed countries.”

    I did look up the Caltech budget. In 2001, 41% was spent on research, 36% on academic support and teaching (here). But Caltech is an unusually research-oriented school. On the other hand, the above is talking about what the State spends rather than what the schools spend.

    The main reason to bring up the above is that since scientific illiteracy is a long-term problem, maybe there are underlying economic structural problems rather than it being a matter of cultural attitudes.

  • http://www.pieterkok.com/index.html PK

    I think the problem is that most people are lazy, and thinking in general requires some effort. Unless people are actually interested in a subject, they are not keen on investing any brain power in thinking about it.

    This goes both ways: scholars can’t be bothered with the sciences, and most scientists I know can’t be bothered investing time in, say, philosophy (mainly because they think that it is largely irrelevant).

    By the way, I was taught special relativity in my first year by Gerard ‘t Hooft, and I remember that everybody thought that was terribly exciting.

  • Jim

    As a working engineer, I too am a bit saddened by the clumsiness (at best, ignorance at worst) of the Harvard professor’s analogy. It reminded me of being asked by a niece (a nice young lady who had recently graduated from a “bible college”) how electricity is produced (on hearing that I work in the power generation industry).

    I too had the reaction that basic scientific concepts ought to be part of the requirements for a four-year degree.

    As to ignorance of humanities topics such as languanges, linguistics, and ball-room dancing – guilty.

    It has always seemed to me that such things are, or are the study of, arbitrary rules made up by people, rather than fundamental laws of the universe, and as such, while perhaps interesting or even useful, are not as important as science. I think a glance around one’s surroundings, and thought as to which items would and would not exist without science and engineering, will support that view.

  • s.y.

    It seems to me that the Harvard professor’s remark quoted in the post does not necessarily reveal his ignorance about physics in general; it seems to reveal only his ignorance about what it is customary to teach in a college-level introductory physics course. He was probably reduced to using this strange example simply because he couldn’t think of topics that are actually dealt with in such a course.

  • s.y.

    By the way, Jim, linguistics is a scientific study of language, and the large part of it is not about arbitrary rules made up by people. I’d like to refer you to a book like Steven Pinker’s _The Language Instinct_.

  • Yajnavalkya

    Just a note to remind you that physics is so immense that you will remain for the rest of your career as ignorant of the 99.9 per cent of physics as the people you criticize as being ignorant. Soon, in your education, you will be asked to specialize in a narrow field. Your narrow field will take the majority of your time outside of your administrative and teaching duties. This will leave you no time to cure your ignorance about physics outside your specialization. You will read, when you get a chance, general publications such as Physics Today, to get a feeling of what is going on elsewhere. Eventually you will learn to repeat standard professional mythologies if you ever need to express an opinion outside your specialty. Please let me know if you disagree with this prognosis of your physics career. I would be very much interested in knowing if you claim to know the entire physics.

    @GP1(Commenter #33) : It seems that I am guilty of unintentionally and inadvertently giving the impression of arrogance. I did not mean to to come across like that. I do not claim to “know all of Physics” or even a large fraction of all Physics related knowledge that we posess today. My point is that there is a certain corpus of basic knowledge that everyon should know as part of undergraduate curriculum. What I am shocked by is that when an academic doesn’t know some basic Physics noone(or at least not enough people) is concerned. An equivalent statement would be a scientist saying that he or she doesn’t know whether Julius Ceaser & Chenghis Khan were contemporaries or not. That should shock anyone, but the other statement doesn’t, why?

    As you get wiser you will learn that it is not what you know that counts but what you don’t know. So value your ignorance not what you already know. You will learn to value people who say “I don’t know, but I can look it up.”

    I definitely value people who say that, but you do agree that there are some things that ideally everyone should know, to call themselves and intellectual, don’t you?

  • Yajnavalkya

    It has always seemed to me that such things are, or are the study of, arbitrary rules made up by people, rather than fundamental laws of the universe, and as such, while perhaps interesting or even useful, are not as important as science. I think a glance around one’s surroundings, and thought as to which items would and would not exist without science and engineering, will support that view.

    @ Jim(#34) : I wouldn’t say that. This whole claim of science being more fundamental, is a bit pointless. As s.y. rightly pointed out, Linguistics is a science, and there are parts of it where you consider propositional calculus and almost merge into correctness proofs and mathematics. But even for the non-sciences, like Art or Literature, I’m sure that as an educated person you should have the knowledge of at least one foreign language, a basic overview of world history, and some idea of important/famouse literarure & art movements etc.

  • http://www.aei.mpg.de/~jthorn Jonathan Thornburg

    GP1 wrote

    Just a note to remind you that physics is so immense that you will remain for the rest of your career as ignorant of the 99.9 per cent of physics as the people you criticize as being ignorant. Soon, in your education, you will be asked to specialize in a narrow field. Your narrow field will take the majority of your time outside of your administrative and teaching duties. This will leave you no time to cure your ignorance about physics outside your specialization. You will read, when you get a chance, general publications such as Physics Today, to get a feeling of what is going on elsewhere. Eventually you will learn to repeat standard professional mythologies if you ever need to express an opinion outside your specialty. Please let me know if you disagree with this prognosis of your physics career. I would be very much interested in knowing if you claim to know the entire physics.

    I strongly disagree with GP1′s prognosis. I certainly don’t claim to know everying about all of
    physics, but when I received my Ph.D, my understanding was (and still is)
    that I was (am) supposed to be qualified to teach any undergraduate course in my department.
    For example, I (an astrophysicist specializing in general relativity) should be able to (perhaps after
    a bit of review) teach the 4th-year-undergraduate course in solid-state physics or optics. I think
    I could meet that test, and I think most of my fellow astrophysicists could too. In terms of
    general knowledge (without studying), I’d like to hope that most of my fellow astrophysicists
    have at least a vague notion of what a valence band or a superfluid is, just like most solid-state physicsts have at least a vague notion of what a quasar or black hole is.

    Yes, this does require “continuing education” on all sides: I read Physics Today, Physics World, The American Journal of Physics, sci.physics.research, cosmicvariance.com, and assorted other journals and web sites. And I suspect most other physicists with PhDs read a similar variety of both “specialist” and “general” material. Now, where is C. P. Snow when we need him?

  • JMG3Y

    In this discussion, the following makes for interesting supplemental material.

    The General Population’s Ignorance of Science-Related Societal Issues: A Challenge for the University

    Re: SPECIAL REPORT: America’s Failure in Science Education (Business Week)

    Another point to consider is how economics drives higher ed choices. Higher education is driven by the dollar and he who brings in the gold rules and that is not teaching in research tier universities, private or state supported (really state-assisted these days). State support is now about a quarter of the cost of running higher tier state universities. Student rears will fill the chairs almost irrespective of how excellent or poor my teaching but if I bring in a million dollars of grant funding per year, $500K goes to the administration for libraries, lights and other costs of running the place. Hence, were I an administrator it is quite clear where I want my faculty’s emphasis when they are making decisions about where to allocate their time.

    In state institutions, football and basketball coaches are the highest paid state employees by far, probably an order of magnitude higher than the most elite physics professor, for a reason. Successful programs bring huge dollars to the institution.

  • http://michaeldunn.blogspot.com Michael D

    I think the notion of a ‘well-rounded’ individual is an interesting one, for if everyone ends up being, well rounded than i think there is always a danger that we end up with just a bland uniformity…

    While we can perhaps dream that everyone should live up to Moshe’s high standards:

    “I’d be amazed if an educated person did not know (or at least wanted to know) that the universe is expanding, the sun is fueled by nuclear reaction, about the uncertainty principle and the principles of special relativity etc.etc.”

    For the most part i’m happy if all Thom Yorke can do is write music I like, Kundera write books I find interesting and Shane Warne spin a cricket ball.

    And maybe it says something about my friends/university/country but I would say most of my non-science studying friends (who are doing law/politics/commerce and I classify as ‘educated’) would struggle to explain any of the above listed ‘basic concepts of physics’ let alone all!

    m

  • http://heideggerian.blogspot.com Kevin Winters

    In relation to Jim’s comment (#32), such a view is exactly what many of us find “disturbing” and “hubristic.” Philosophy is incredibly important for physics, not only because physics began as “natural philosophy,” but because even physics has an inherent metaphysic that informs its experiments, its concepts, etc. “Science without metaphysics” is meaningless as even science makes claims about the nature of reality and would be meaningless without such.

    Oh, and the next time you think that things like linguistics is worthless (or not as worthwhile as science), try doing science without words or symbols. Semiology/semiotics is essential for science’s work as science would be impossible without it (just like metaphysics).

  • http://www.livejournal.com/users/firezdog Alex

    Why does a person have to know about either Dickens or friction? Surely what a person ‘should’ know depends upon his or her context. I know of no plausible reason to believe that there is a list of facts that everybody ought to know. The very idea that such a list would constitute knowledge is based upon some rather questionable assumptions about what knowledge is. It’s more plausible to suppose that all knowledge is know-how — in which case what one needs to know is directly related to what one needs to do.

    Of course, it is popular to argue that knowledge of science is a must in a democratic society — because voters need to make informed decisions on funding and matters of public policy. Well, perhaps — but I would rather see a proposal as to what constitutes such “basic” scientific knowledge. And I think there are some special difficulties in coming up with such a proposal, because knowing about science is surely not just (or perhaps is not even) knowing about facts, but rather being able to think in a certain way. Who, on the other hand, will appreciate this method if he is never going to put it to use?

  • http://www.livejournal.com/users/firezdog Alex

    As I phrased it above, I didn’t get to the heart of what worries me. My question is this:

    What makes knowledge normative? i.e. When is knowledge of P obligatory? And is education the process whereby an individual fulfills his obligations in regards to knowledge?

    I feel a conflict between two different (intuitions?) about knowledge that need to be distinguished:

    1. Knowledge is an end in itself.
    2. Knowledge is valuable because it is useful.

    I find (1) very attractive, but I also think (2) does some important work when we judge what we as individuals need to learn — i.e. playing the piano may indeed be a valuable skill, but I need some way of assessing whether *I* need to learn to play the piano, and in order to do so, I need to know whether playing the piano is going to be useful to me. Note that “useful” as I think of it is a very broad category — something can be useful even because it is pleasurable.

    I feel somehow (it’s hard to work out just how) these two assessments of knowledge come into conflict when one makes claims that everyone should know X.

  • Jeff Roizen

    I’m sorry, I’m coming quite late to this discussion, probably too late to be heard, but I just wanted to make the point to Jeff Harvey (quote below). That the professor in question (Mark Kishlansky) used to teach at UChicago and moved to Harvard for many reasons. One of which (I imagine) was less required teaching than at a place like U Chicago (since that time, U Chicago has changed some of the ways in which the University is structured so that they actually require more teaching of their faculty (it was a greater burden/requirement than at most other universitites and that requirement has been increased further)).

    A negative of having some of the big names teach is that sometimes being a great researcher (in the sciences) or writer (in literature) may not make you a great or even passable teacher (there are notable exceptions – like Feyman for instance).

    The point I imagine he was trying to make is that teaching and research are different functions and that it is easier to recruit a big name to harvard (where he is a former dean of the faculty) if you don’t make them teach so much.

    There is a school of thought that you shoulden’t make people do something they would rather not do…..and by this I mean many of the best teachers will be people who choose to be teachers……I guess the above sentences have interesting implications for the rest of the debate about scientific literacy…..but I would argue that by “something” I mean apply such a great effort (i.e. design and execute a course) for something they would rather not to. Because many of these professors (not necessarily a majority or even a plurality) will not put in the effort, and so people take an intro physics course from a big name but get very little from it….

    thanks for letting me post -jeff

    Z,

    I only know what happens at the U of C, but in the winter quarter freshman
    physics courses are being taught by Sid Nagel and Philippe Cluzel. They
    are both “big people” in my opinion, and both straddle the worlds of experiment
    and theory quite effectively. I believe Jim Cronin has also taught
    freshman physics. Can’t get much bigger than that.

    It is true that theorists teach these courses less often, but I think this is mainly because they are needed to teach graduate QM, QFT, GR and so on.

  • Jeff Roizen

    I guess one of the real issues this whole thing brings up is not whether a big name professor should be forced to teach a survey course on physics, but whether a big name professor should be forced to take a survey course on physics

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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Mark Trodden

Mark Trodden holds the Fay R. and Eugene L. Langberg Endowed Chair in Physics and is co-director of the Center for Particle Cosmology at the University of Pennsylvania. He is a theoretical physicist working on particle physics and gravity— in particular on the roles they play in the evolution and structure of the universe. When asked for a short phrase to describe his research area, he says he is a particle cosmologist.

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