Science students generally receive an abysmal education in the humanities. Having recently published an article on science education in Public Discourse, I was especially sensitive to comments by Gilbert Meilaender in The New Atlantis, “Who Needs a Liberal Education?” After stating the importance of historical development in the humanities, Meilaender writes, “But a physics undergraduate need know very little about the history of physics. Indeed, to study that history is to engage not in natural science but in humanistic endeavor — the history or philosophy of science.”
A red flag immediately flies: Do we want scientists who think deeply about difficult, complex problems that require one to break free of prevailing paradigms, or do we want technicians who can tweak existing methodologies and construct algorithms to produce pretty graphics? Since scientific knowledge concerns the representation of quantitative relations among phenomena, the capacity to engage in serious scientific research certainly depends on the mathematical content of one’s education. But science is not mathematics.
A scientific theory must take mathematical form but its physical content depends on the correspondence between the theory and observation, specifically, the ability of the theory to make reliable predictions. With the advent of the quantum and relativity theories in the Twentieth Century, scientific thinking was no longer confined to terms such as “particle” and “wave” that apply to perceptual experience. Thinking was no longer constrained within ordinary frames of experience, such as Euclidean three-dimensional space and linear time, nor was it bound by ideas of causality and continuity that originate in the commonplace perception of everyday phenomena.
Moreover, the study of complex biological systems depending on interactions among hundreds of thousands of variables has complicated the situation. Biological complexity and randomness preclude the possibility of validating every connection in a model with an experimental outcome.
“Okay,” you say, “but if theory and validation are more daunting today, then why study how they were approached in the past?” Because fundamental problems have been formulated by earlier thinkers and their approaches propagate through later developments. Many conundrums confronting contemporary science have been addressed in earlier contexts. A full appreciation of recent thinkers is impossible absent the earlier thinkers.
The problem of theory versus reality is not recent. The preface (penned by his assistant) to Copernicus’ De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium includes the statement, “The master’s … hypotheses are not necessarily true; they need not even be probable. It is completely sufficient if they lead to a computation that is in accordance with the astronomical observations.” We observe the same truth-theory dichotomy in the trial of Galileo. Moving ahead to the Twentieth Century, consider the words of physicist James Jeans: “We need no longer discuss whether light consists of particles or waves; we know all there is to be known about it if we have found a mathematical formula which accurately describes its behavior, and we can think of it as either particles or waves according to our mood and the convenience of the moment.” Do we see a great difference between Copernicus’ preface and Jeans’ convenience of the moment?
My laboratory website lists “Ten Books to Prepare for Scientific Research:” One mathematical, one statistical, and the rest philosophical. Why this unbalance? Because it is one’s scientific orientation and, as Einstein put it, “independence from prejudices of his generation,” that must be nurtured, especially in a society so focused on the superficial and the methodological. At the top of the list sits Hume’s Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. As I tell my Ph.D. students, if you did not study the Enquiry as an undergraduate, demand a refund.