“If you’re scientifically literate, the world looks very different to you.” So why is it, then, that so many of us can’t see the world from this standpoint?
When asked about achieving happiness, the philosopher Dan Dennett replied, “Find something more important than you are, and dedicate yourself to it. If you’re really savvy, you’ll find someone to pay you to do it.” For many, science is that “something.”
As scientists, our job is twofold: to reach into the bowels of reality and pull out something never-before-seen, and to transform that abstraction into the language of the everyman. We are researchers and teachers at once. But how can we improve on the latter? We’ve all had brilliant professors who clearly are at the frontiers of their field; and yet, once they enter the classroom, all the enthusiasm and excitement behind their work gives way to a monotonous lecturer who simply doesn’t want to be there. Here, our scientific literacy takes a hit because those who are supposed to enable it do not.
On the flip side, we’ve all also had those professors who simply inspire — those who are so animated and engaged in their topic that the process of studying it seems like the unfolding of a top-notch drama. How can we teach science in a way that no longer makes it feel nasty and boring? In two lively and motivational speeches, physicist Brian Greene and astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson propose that the answer involves not just teaching science, but enchanting people with the unfolding drama of science. Science indeed can pluck our heart-strings if we teach it properly.
To start, science can be intimidating, but it doesn’t have to be. Yes — it’s hard. Yes — it can be very complicated. It takes years of college coursework and graduate-level research to finally reach the edge of what is known and unknown — and that is where discovery happens. But this is only half the goal of a scientist. The other half involves sparking interest in a field that uses the lens of skepticism to search for nature’s laws on every level of analysis: from the atomic to the cosmological level and everything in between. And yet, any attempt to raise laymen eyebrows has everything to do with the manner in which the information is presented. Consider the following:
- The year is 1601. A semi-educated son of a glover and potential deer-poacher scribbles down, “If music be the food of love, play on.” He would become the greatest playwright of all time.
- The year is 1824. A completely deaf German finishes his ninth symphony, partly about freedom and brotherhood. He would become one of the greatest musicians of all time.
- The year is 1905. An unknown Swiss patent clerk publishes a formula, E = mc^2, which contains a remarkable principle that would be illustrated over Hiroshima 40 years later. He would become one of the greatest scientists of all time.
Many of us can read and re-read Shakespeare’s quote and figure out that it’s about nourishing love. Many of us can listen to Beethoven’s 9th and literally feel the different moods of each movement. Many of us can see Einstein’s formula and know that it somehow relates energy, mass, and the speed of light, which can be applied practically via the use of atomic bombs. Even if our understanding is superficial, most of us can surely appreciate the importance of these statements because the genius behind the historical figures precedes their contributions to humanity.
Yet, all of this can seem boring if presented slightly differently:
- Shakespeare’s masterful use of blank verse in iambic pentameter emotionally charged even the most familiar of human emotions — that of love.
- Beethoven’s 9th symphony was the culmination of careful practice and his personal attempt to capture the zeitgeist of contemporary German culture.
- Einstein’s immortal formula imbues energy with relativistic mass and has various applications in atomic theory.
This sounds more like a textbook and less like an impassioned lecture meant to inspire interest. Why is it that so many teachers and professors sound a lot like the latter scenario, bringing the students to a quiet yawn? The first scenario requires you to actively put the pieces together by using context, personal information, and historical significance. The second scenario is a more passive, observational experience. It is the kind of stuff you only memorize. Greene and Tyson argue that science can enrich our lives if we let it, and it all starts with an educational system that places an emphasis on actively thinking like a scientist, not just reading and memorizing facts. So what happens when we think to objectify, empirically test, and understand the world around and within us?
Dissecting Nature’s inner-workings
This is where things get neat. From the standpoint of science, the world looks like an interdependent web of cause-and-effect, explainable on every level with enough probing (and funding) — and the scientific method is the only game in town for such a feat. Evolution becomes one of the most elegant truths about how nature works. (As psychologist Steve Pinker puts it, “Evolution is ‘true’ not because the experts say it is, nor because some world view demands it, but because the evidence overwhelmingly supports it”). Notoriously difficult problems like consciousness and the origins of life or even the universe are suddenly solvable, or at the very least, we know what the solutions would look like and the experiments necessary to get there. Skyrocketing thousands of pounds of steel with seats and TVs and food through the sky at 500mph becomes possible. Medicine has the real potential of treating and curing the fragility of the human condition.
Spirits and ghosts, heavens and gods, become benched — we have no need for those hypotheses. Intelligent design and creationism get laughed out of the scientifically literate classroom. The natural order is elegant enough, because that’s all there is. We can say this with unshakable confidence because of every scrap of evidence ever unearthed and evaluated. And so on. As Neil deGrasse Tyson notes, “If you’re scientifically literate, the world looks very different to you.”
By keeping all the moving parts in a system untouched and only tinkering with one variable, we can observe the overall effects of any manipulation, and the results must be concordant with every other level of analysis and with the results of every subsequent hypothesis-driven experiment, or the results are scrapped. That is the drama behind science, because it progresses “independent of our emotional state,” as Tyson says. It fundamentally depends on evidence, and evidence only. Interpretation comes second. Imagine what the implications would be if scientific literacy was a pre-requisite for our nation’s policy-makers.
The Two Cultures
For those crying foul play right now, scientific literacy does not have to come at the price of a liberal arts education. In the late 1950’s, C. P. Snow proposed that there were only two cultures in the academic world, the sciences and the humanities, both separated from each other by a wall of “mutual incomprehension… artists did not understand — or care about — science; physicists and biologists paid no attention to art.”
In a world that is becoming increasingly interdisciplinary, both spheres of human knowledge seem equally valid in their attempt to figure out who we are, where we come from, and where we are going. But both also ask — and sometimes answer — different types of questions. Art’s function is to produce instructive imaginary worlds and the function of science is to test theories for contact with reality. Both views can be mutually inclusive if we let them.
Articles in Nature and the Shakespearean canon can both enrich, inform, and transform our lives on various levels. We don’t have to be scholars on every subject possible (“A jack of all trades is a master of none”), but perhaps specializing in a small few and simply understanding what’s going on in the rest — the controversies, the theories, the movements — is enough to make well-informed decisions. In the end, Tyson simply argues that scientific literacy should be just as essential as any other component of our education, and Greene ends by forcefully reminding us that, “The wonders of the cosmos transcend everything that divides us.”