Education Opinion

A Culture Divided By Science

By Pat Shipman — October 01, 1986 7 min read

We live in dichotomous times. On the one hand, technology in all fields is blossoming. We are reaching higher, deeper, farther; we are seeing larger, smaller, sharper. The speed of travel, communication, and science itself seems to accelerate exponentially with each passing year. On the other hand, we live in a renaissance of anti-science. The occult, the mystical, the inexplicable, and the unimaginable haven’t been so popular since the Middle Ages.

The serious question to be raised is why and how both science and anti-science are growing like weeds in the tomato patch. For example, why TWW are the courts full of creation-science challenges to the curriculum? Why now is there more media coverage of unexplained mysteries, some neither mysterious nor inexplicable, than of important, well-documented scientific discoveries?

We all know the symptoms of this dichotomy; they affect our daily lives. They range from the extraordinary stories of the supermarket-stand newspapers--"Scientists say men can get pregnant ... " or “The grape Kool-Aid diet cured me of cancer ... "--to the dreaded “The computer made a mistake on your account.”

What I think is happening was written of persuasively by C.P. Snow, in his Two Cultures. What! see is that our society is becoming two: one technologically adept and the other seriously technophobic.

Education per se is not the answer. Despite the tales of illiterate college graduates, in the United States we manage to educate an unparalleled percentage of our population at the high-school or college level. It is not the illiterates who read the National Enquirer and believe that men came from outer space to build the pyramids. There are dozens of graduates of good high schools and colleges who swallow the flimsiest nonsense.

It is only a small step from the intellectually gullible to the resentful: those who are intimidated by physicians, distrustful of computers, and worried about what The Scientists are up to because They don’t have all the answers.

Most of us share, in greater or lesser degree, these feelings of technophobia, distrust, and resentment. Surely some measure of discomfort is to be expected when we are all raised to live in a world that, by the time we grow up, no longer exists. The rules are constantly changing and it seems unfair.

What’s more, science has become increasingly specialized. Jargon is self-perpetuating and hopelessly esoteric. As a colleague of mine once remarked, “Scientists would rather use each others’ toothbrushes than each others’ terminology!” But the reality is that technology is both here to stay and here to help.

The most catastrophic scenario--worse than a nuclear winter--that I can imagine is the inevitable outcome of the continued proliferation of anti-scientific, anti-intellectual, and technophobic attitudes. I view this as a horrific future for two reasons. First, it will be a society rigidly divided into two mutually incomprehensible units that will battle each other with a passion. Second, a large segment of the society will be denied the very great and real benefits that science and technology can provide.

Do science and technology really provide such wonderful benefits? I think so. We forget, in the United States, how different peoples’ lives were before the scientific and technological revolution hit. Because I travel and work for months at a time in the third world, I am reminded periodically of how middle-class America lived a generation or more ago. The thing I find hardest to bear in the third world is the number of cripples. What pains me most deeply is that most of them are victims of polio. I have seen, as a daily occurrence in East Africa, otherwise healthy and able people with an irretrievably withered arm or leg, hobbling along on a homemade crutch. And every time I see one, I think, “This needn’t have happened.”

I am well aware of the scientific debate currently raging over the value and dangers of different polio vaccines; I am concerned that many of us may have been vaccinated in a less effective or more dangerous way. But the bottom line is that we have vaccines, every child receives them, and a polio victim is almost unheard of in America today. This is a simple example of what anti-science would deprive us of.

If the causes of rampant technophobia are the accelerating pace of scientific progress and the increasing specialization of scientific disciplines, what is the cure? I believe there is one approach that lies squarely in the lap of educators at all levels, but especially those teaching high-school and college students.

What I see, as a scientist and a teacher of undergraduate and graduate students, is a widespread inability to handle shades of gray. Even bright, well-trained students are disconcerted and uncomfortable with controversies or unsettled issues in science. “Yes,” they say, “I understand that this group of scientists thinks this and that thinks that, but what is the real answer?”

Students arrive in college believing that education is a matter of learning the “answers.” When they read scientific papers from earlier times, or sections of textbooks dealing with early ideas in some fields, their overwhelming impulse is to regard these past scientists as dumb or foolish. How could anyone believe the sun revolved around the earth or that the size of the bumps on your head determines your personality?

In our eagerness to teach students the facts--or even the theories--we are leaving them ignorant of the process and procedures of science, of the painful struggle to wrestle incomplete data into a tractable theory. This is a tremendous handicap. First of all, it presents them with a notion of science as a monolithic set of Great Truths. Is it surprising that resentment and disillusionment follow when they later discover some of those Great Truths aren’t true? The danger in seeing science and technology as black and white is that it becomes difficult to deal with change or with the gap between what is theoretically true and what actually happens.

Thus, although most of life is made up of shades of gray, we have fitted our young with black/white eyeglasses that blind them to most of reality. The consequences of this blindness to shades of gray can last a lifetime. If we foster in our in our students the notion that there are great, immutable truths that are perceived by great thinkers, then the only reasonable option available to those students in their lives will be to search for the greatest of the great thinkers. If science is once proven wrong, then it must all be bunkum; try astrology or cult religions or bizarre diets or drugs instead.

The second handicap is that by denying the incongruities, debates, arguments, and struggles of science, we deny our students any chance of developing the tools to evaluate and think through issues for themselves. How can they work out the correct resolution to a problem when they expect to be able to simply perceive the truth? How can they tolerate their own learning process when to be less than entirely accurate is to be hopelessly, unforgivably wrong? Lacking confidence in their own ability to read, to think through, to understand, and to evaluate shades of gray, they are doomed to technophobia.

These problems can be remedied by a reorientation of our teaching in all fields. Let us stop teaching the Truth and start teaching thinking. Let us train our students in shades of gray, in struggles for better answers and better theories, rather than histories of stupid, illogical ideas leading up to the present when we have it all figured out at last.

If these is anything I would teach the youth of America, it is to ask, “How could I figure out if that were true?” Just the process of considering what evidence would be useful in proving or disproving a theory is valuable. If we could add to that nation of teachers who were comfortable in saying, “I don’t know that,” and “That issue is controversial; let me explain the evidence we have at present. . . ,” we would have come a long way toward halting the rise of anti-science.

I submit to you a simple but formidable task, the challenge of the 1980’s. Teach our students how to approach problems, how to reason and evaluate, how to deal with shades of gray, how to ask questions The challenge is upon us; the stakes are high. The payoff for meeting this challenge will be the recreation of a single society that can accept and choose wisely among the developments that science has to offer

A version of this article appeared in the October 01, 1986 edition of Education Week