Science, History, and Education

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.

Edward R. Dougherty

Edward R. Dougherty

Edward R. Dougherty is an American mathematician, electrical engineer, Robert M. Kennedy '26 Chair, and Distinguished Professor of Electrical Engineering at Texas A&M University. He is also the Scientific Director of the Center for Bioinformatics and Genomic Systems Engineering.

4 thoughts on “Science, History, and Education

  1. The preface to De Revolutionibus orbium coelestum was not written by Copernicus’s assistant. It was written by Andreas Osiander, a Lutheran pastor in Nurnberg, where the book was published. The preface was written without Copernicus’s consent, and in fact it undermined Copernicus’s intent. Copernicus was arguing quite explicitly that observations and theoretical models should not be independent of one another, as was often the case in medieval natural philosophy.

  2. About a year ago I gave a lecture to third year biomedical science doctoral students on Building Your Mentoring Network. We talked about the meaning of the word mentor. At one point in the discussion, I referred to Mentor and Telemachus. They kind of looked at me like I had 14 heads. I said, “From The Odyssey?” This time they looked at me like I had 15 heads. I asked, “Didn’t anyone have to read The Odyssey in college?”. The answer: “No, we were science majors”.

    In my head, I shouted “So the *&%$ was I!!”. But rather than saying that out loud, I silently wept, composed myself, and returned to my lecture.

    When I was an Assistant Professor at a research university with outstanding undergrads (and middling to no-damn-good graduate students), a physicist friend and I proposed a class, for science majors and non-majors alike, on integrated science, wherein we would discuss more or less what you lay out here. I was asked why I wanted to spend my time on this, rather than get another grant.

    In my tenure denial, my outstanding teaching evaluations were cited as evidence that I was insufficiently focused on maintaining my grant funding so, even though I was funded, the fear that I would not be someday, someday, won the day.

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