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    The hubris of the humanities

    The New York Times
    December 6, 2005
    The Hubris of the Humanities

    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.

    Posted on 12/06/2005 08:37:00 AM EET
    This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License. You may cite, quote, or reproduce articles on this site for non-commercial purposes, provided that you attribute them to Dienekes Pontikos and provide a link either to the main page of this blog LINK... or to the individual blog entry you are referring to.

    2005-12-08 13:49 | Categoría: Sociedad del conocimiento | 39 Comentarios | Enlace

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    De: Javier Corzo Fecha: 2005-12-08 20:46

    Estoy de acuerdo con ese escrito. Se desprecia lo que se ignora. Y en España en particular, la educación y la cultura se han entendido, se entienden y se entenderán como algo básicamente humanístico. Llevamos un año celebrando hasta el hartazgo y la náusea el Quijote, en los mismos medios en que los horóscopos son una sección fija. Los museos de la ciencia son una cosa de escolares; una persona culta que vaya de turista a Madrid no dejará de vistar el Mueso del Prado, o la Tyssen, pero difícilmente visitará el museo de ciencias. En fin; así nos luce el pelo. Con el agravante de que, si los americanos pueden importar técnicos y científicos del resto del mundo, nosotros solo "importamos" personas para usarlas como mano de obra semiesclava.

    De: Cuca Rachas Fecha: 2005-12-08 23:02

    Yo también estoy de acuerdo. Pero ir al Prado no es contradictorio con ir al Museo de Ciencias. El error es pensar que son cosas contradictorias y excluyentes. Mi experiencia me ha enseñado que los de "letras" son más incultos en ciencias y matemáticas que los de "ciencias" en literatura y filosofía. No sé si se puede generalizar.

    De: Heimy Fecha: 2005-12-09 12:08

    No creo que sea contradictorio. Javier sólo resalta el hecho de que a nadie se le pasaría NO ir al Prado. Pero, ¿cuántos habrá que ni saben que EXISTE el museo de ciencias?

    De: Cuca Rachas Fecha: 2005-12-09 15:37

    No se le da ninguna publicidad al Museo de Ciencias y sí se hace mucha publicidad del Prado, el Thyssen o el Reina Sofía... La cosa viene porque el Ministerio de (In)Cultura no considera que la ciencia forme parte de la cultura. De hecho, parece que lo único que le preocupa, además de tener contenta a la SGAE, es el Quijote y Picasso. Y posar en el Vogue :-(
    Quizás entendí mal a Javier.

    De: Javier Corzo Fecha: 2005-12-10 01:52

    Claro que no hay contradicción entre arte y ciencia, entre cultura humanística y conocimiento científico. En este campo, cualquier reduccionismo es absurdo y esterilizante. Necesitamos saber qué es el ADN, -o el ácido aspártico :-)-, pero eso no impica prescindir de Kavafis, de Bach o de los primitivos flamencos, por ejemplo. O el apreciar una botella de tinto (del Somontano, por ejemplo), que también es cultura. Lo que me fastidia es que "cultura" se considere, por nuestros ministra/os floreros (y sus adláteres autonómicos y municipales) como lo segundo, sin tener en cuenta que el conocimiento del universo es tambien, y de un modo muy fundamental, cultura.

    De: Teresa Fecha: 2005-12-10 09:10

    Estoy muy de acuerdo con eso de que el conocimiento del universo y de los mecanismos de la vida es cultura, del mismo modo que lo es conocer a Epicuro, a Spinoza, a Mahler o a Escher. O apreciar un buen tinto en buena compañía, cómo no. Lo malo, lo perverso más bien, es esa radical separación entre las dos culturas que seguimos reproduciendo y de la que se queja Kristof en este artículo que reproduje arriba.

    En plan "autobombo" -y perdón por la inmodestia- me remito a mi articulillo "¿Hay cultura sin ciencia?" publicado en el nº 7 de El Escéptico Digital y que también está disponible en mi web académica para consumo de mis alumnos.

    Ese artículo tuvo su origen en una mesa redonda celebrada en el Museo de la Ciencia y el Cosmos de Tenerife en mayo de 2005. En el coloquio, y antes del cóctel, un físico de la Universidad de Zaragoza presente en el acto planteó una pregunta básica y provocadora que, de memoria, cito: qué tendría peores consecuencias para la humanidad ¿eliminar las aportaciones de la ciencia de los últimos 300 años o las de las letras (pintura, música, literatura, filosofía, etc)?

    La pregunta es provocadora y la respuesta es, sin duda, que mejor no eliminar nada. Pero siendo fríos y cerebrales, he de confesar que, pese a que me encanta la música, la literatura y (alguna) filosofía, pese a que como y vivo gracias a esa variante de la filosofía social que se llama sociología, me parece que las ciencias -desde la física a la biología, desde las matemáticas a las neurociencias- han hecho más por la especie humana que las llamadas humanidades que se identifican con la cultura.

    Por eso llevo con estoicismo los reproches de mis colegas cuando me dicen que soy "positivista" o, peor, "cientificista". Por más que respondo que no soy "ista" de nada y que detesto los "ismos" excluyentes, prefiero llevar colgadas esas etiquetas que sus antis correspondientes. Como canta Serrat, "puestos a escoger, prefiero..."

    De: Teresa Fecha: 2005-12-10 09:39

    Muy bueno lo que Malambo dice en Bloxito: Tiene que ver también con todo esto.

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