Physics for poets

This article came out a few days ago, but I’ve been too busy around here to blog about it until now. The pseudonymous author argues against science classes for non-majors — “physics for poets”, as he calls it — on the basis that they are neither truly scientific in nature nor satisfying for students. Snippet:

I worry…that our approach to teaching science as a part of a liberal education is undermining the goals we have set for our classes. Despite the effort we put into providing classes that are both relevant and informative, I am troubled by the subtext of these classes. By their very existence, these classes send two damaging messages to students in other disciplines: first, that science is something alien and difficult, the exclusive province of nerds and geeks; and second, that we will happily accommodate their distaste for science and mathematics, by providing them with special classes that minimize the difficult aspects of the subject.

I think this is the right kind of concern for any kind of course in a liberal arts environment. You want to give students real experience in the classical fields of study, including science; a science course that deliberately avoids mathematical rigor of any sort or tries to sex up science so that it will “engage students where they are” hardly seems to be a real experience in any reasonable sense, no more than having a music course focused only on top 40 hits of 2005 can be considered a real music course — despite its relevance and student-friendliness.

The author and I share a context, namely that our small liberal arts colleges are in the midst of a radical revision of the liberal arts core. In fact, in 45 minutes, we are having a faculty meeting to vote on the new curriculum model which we will implement. Some of the proposed models have no lab science component; there is either nothing at all required for science, or else a “physics for poets” type class. Those proposals are uniformly at the bottom of my ballot. I want students to take a real science class, where they have to do actual lab work and run actual numbers and think about the quantitative (and otherwise) issues playing in to how the world works. Do the work of actual scientists, in other words, and not simply give up on science because you’re a humanities major that doesn’t like math.

Relating to math-avoidance inherent in the design of “physics for poets” classes, the author also takes a well-deserved shot at Richard Cohen, whose addle-headed nonsense about the uselessness of algebra was first ripped apart blogged about here:

It’s a sad commentary on the state of our society that a public intellectual (even a low-level one like Cohen) can write such a paragraph and be confident that it will be met with as many nods of agreement as howls of derision. If a scientist or mathematician were to say “I can handle simple declarative sentences all right (although not transitive verbs),” they could never expect to be taken seriously again. Illiteracy among the general public is viewed as a crisis, but innumeracy is largely ignored, because everybody knows that Math is Hard.

Unfortunately the author disappoints me with this:

People with political agendas are constantly peddling distorted views of science, from conspiracy theories regarding pharmaceutical companies and drug development, to industry-backed attempts to challenge the scientific findings regarding global climate change, to the well-documented attempts to force religion into science curricula under the guise of “intelligent design.” It’s more important than ever for our students to be able to understand and critically evaluate competing claims about science.

Did you get that? “Critically evaluate”. Sounds like the author might not be ready to be critical himself just yet. But the rest of the article is good enough to wink at that.


Filed under Education, Higher ed, Liberal arts math, Math, Teaching

7 responses to “Physics for poets

  1. virusdoc

    I don’t get your point on in the last paragraph. A critical evaluation of the data leads me to the conclusion that intelligent design theory isn’t science, and that the earth is in fact warming because of human activity. What is your problem with this statement?

    I’ll have to read the entire article to see if I agree with your concern about “physics for poets” and dumbing down/sexing up science.

  2. The point is that the correct way to TEACH a critical evaluation of ID is to say to students: “Here’s ID and what it says. Is this science? Let’s investigate.” On the other hand, to come to students saying: “Here’s ID, which is a means of forcing religion into the science curriculum. Now let’s see if it’s science” is simply telling students what to believe and then centering the course around rewarding those students who agree with the prof and punshing those who don’t. That’s indoctrination, not critical examination.

    Whether or not ID is actually science, pedagogically a professor has to hold his own judgment out of the picture until the students have had a chance to make up their own minds — otherwise you can’t call that “teaching critical thinking” in any reasonable sense.

    Of course the author doesn’t say that this is the way he TEACHES about intelligent design, so this is just a concern moreso than a criticism.

  3. Justin

    I’m not convinced that “pedagogically a professor has to hold his own judgment out of the picture until the students have had a chance to make up their own minds.” I would not expect a professor to lead his students to “make up their own minds” about, say, the negative health effects of secondhand smoke, even though a small number of vocal groups claim that the science doesn’t support that conclusion. Professors have limited time to get through a limited amount of material, so they always have to decide what is worth teaching in the time available. With all the real science that students need to learn, it is not a good use of a professors time to debunk all the fringe science out there.

  4. virusdoc

    I’m going to have to agree with Justin and disagree with Robert. It’s not teaching “critical thinking” to withhold judgement on matters in which your entire discipline is in agreement. My entire discipline, save a very few, is in agreement that intelligent design theory doesn’t meet the criteria for a scientifically testable theory. I don’t serve my students by allowing them to believe otherwise, even by tacitly allowing them to believe otherwise through some socratic attempt to analyze the data. The same is true for current theories of human-caused climate change. All education starts with teaching well-established theory, and although I agree that this could be considered “indoctrination” it lays the foundation for future critical thinking. Without that foundation, you are left with eternal doubt and skepticism.

  5. I’m not advocating here that courses ought to reinvent the wheel every time an important concept is encountered. Otherwise the first week or two of Astronomy 101 would consist of students trying to prove or disprove that the earth revolves around the sun. What I am advocating is that if “well-established theory” is called for in a class, that the professor explain why it’s well-established theory, and not just tell students what to think.

    Taking ID for an example, if you teach in your class that ID is not viable science, and you do so by making a case for your views based on science and sound reasoning, inviting (compelling?) students to examine your argument on its own terms — this is not only covering the material, it’s teaching students how to think in scientific terms, which is the whole point of science education. If, on the other hand, you teach the same thing by saying “ID is an attempt to force religion into the science class”, you havesimply made a judgment call that does not invite any kind of real thinking, and that is not education. (Unless you can build a case for that opinion that students can access and controvert if they want to.)

    In other words, I don’t particularly care what professors say in their classes, even if I totally disagree, as long as they back it up with sound reasoning and discipline-appropriate methodology and invite students to engage the idea. But when anybody gets up in front of the class and says, “Here are my views; they are the truth; repeat after me”, thereby insisting students disengage the idea, then I am not cool with that.

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