There was a time, long ago, when I wasn’t much into words. Books rarely lit a fire in me as a kid. When we were assigned the usual canon of great works in school — from Macbeth to Moby Dick — I’d diligently start in but, truth be told, I often wouldn’t finish. From newspapers to novels, magazines to plays, comics to biographies — the written word was a burden.
Mathematical equations were a completely different story. I loved their precision, their unwavering certainty, and the way they just plain worked. Whether you organized a calculation one way or chose to attack it from a different angle entirely, as long as you executed each step correctly you’d get the same answer. All roads inevitably led to an identical result, with no room for opinion or interpretation. Mathematics allowed me an abundance of creativity in seeking a problem’s solution but constrained that creativity to serve a single ultimate purpose: getting the right answer.
As I got a little older, my tastes became more nuanced. It’s not that my devotion to the exactitude of mathematics diminished. Rather, I began to better appreciate the gray areas of life and literature. The gray areas of ambiguity, the gray areas of human paradox. The gray areas where, search as you might, you will never find a solution. I spent increasing amounts of time wrapped up with Balzac, Gorky, Faulkner, Orwell, Sartre, and Camus. A messy and wonderful world opened up for me, and the burden of words lifted.
Even so, the two realms — the humanities and the sciences — seemed thoroughly separate, a view that remains widely held. In fact, the divide between the “two cultures” runs even deeper now. As Nicholas Kristof emphasized in a recent New York Times op-ed, the “hubris of the humanities” is extensive. There is an implicit agreement in “educated circles” that it’s “barbaric to be unfamiliar with Plato or Monet or Dickens, but quite natural to be oblivious of quarks and chi-squares.” As a professional scientist, I’ve often encountered this attitude among nonscientists. It’s rarely derogatory, and it’s frequently accompanied by embarrassment — sometimes feigned — that the otherwise intelligent and informed individual has no understanding of science or mathematics. Generally, the encounters end with a well-meaning chuckle (one in which decorum obliges me to partake) that says in short “it’s really okay not to know any math or science.” But in the twenty-first century, such willful ignorance of science is not okay. We are living through a radical cultural shift, one in which science and technology play an increasingly pervasive role in everyday life. From stem cells to global warming, from cyberspace to nanotechnology, from computer-enhanced perception to extension of the human lifespan, full participation in the global conversation requires a familiarity with the major advances in science and technology as well as an understanding of the scientific way of thought. The most far-reaching choices we will make in the years ahead, whether through action or apathy, are ones that have a critical scientific component. How should we deal with pandemic threats? What limits, if any, should we legislate on genetic manipulation? Should we curtail research on human cloning? Should we support manned space exploration, or is money better spent on robotic missions? Is evolution “just” a theory? Informed decision making requires a populace engaged with science, not one that is looking in from the periphery and not one that takes pride in its lack of knowledge.
Even on issues that seemingly bear no direct relation to science, a scientific mindset can have a radical impact. Here’s a concrete example. Think back to the 2000 presidential election and recall the dominant question asked in the tumultuous weeks following the casting of ballots: who received more votes in Florida? Count followed recount, with the vote differentials ranging from a handful to a few dozen to a few hundred. All attention was sharply focused on who came out on top after each of these recounts. But to someone familiar with scientific analysis, these recounts raised a different issue. Every measurement has a built-in limit on its accuracy. With a good- quality bathroom scale, you might measure your weight to an accuracy of half a pound — which for most purposes is all you need. But if you want to determine which of two averagesize apples is heavier, your bathroom scale would prove inadequate, as its accuracy is too coarse to provide a meaningful answer. Scientists are acutely aware of such limitations and always accompany their measurements with a caveat declaring the numerical limits on the accuracy of their methods and apparatus.
Vote-countting procedures also have built-in limitations on accuracy. In Florida these inaccuracies arose from hanging chads, dimpled chads, prrrrregnant chads, butterfly ballots, computer malfunctions, errors with voter registration, and other factors. Usually such sources of inaccuracy can be ignored because they’re too small to have any effect on the election’s outcome. But when the vote differentials are not in the hundreds of thousands or in the tens of thousands or even in the thousands, the built-in inaccuracies compromise the entire process. Like trying to use your bathroom scale to find the heavier dust mote, the vote-counting apparatus is just too coarse to determine a winner. Thus the appropriate question should not have been “who received more votes?” because the sources of error were as large as or larger than the vote differentials, rendering it impossible to provide an answer with any meaning. Instead, the mostly unasked yet primary question was “what should we do when two candidates, to within the accuracy of our measuring apparatus, are tied?” I offer no answer to this question because clearly that’s not my point. Instead, the example highlights how a scientifically sophisticated public would have shifted the debate to the truly relevant question and not bothered with, nor accepted the outcome of, a procedure that was in effect meaningless.
A scientifically literate public is, plainly, increasingly vital.
How then do we make headway toward this end? Well, let’s turn the issue around and ask why Kristof’s hubris of the humanities isn’t met by an equally extensive “smugness of the sciences.” Why isn’t it considered barbaric to know little or nothing about probability and statistics, genetics and biochemistry, relativity and quantum mechanics? One can come up with many explanations — science requires a specialized language that relatively few people have the inclination to study, science deals with esoteric questions that only experts can truly appreciate, science operates in an abstract, foreign realm that doesn’t cater to the casual visitor — but I think all such propositions add up to this: to many people, science — unlike Shakespeare, Beethoven, or Monet — seems dry, cold, and removed from the human spirit. Shakespeare, Beethoven, and Monet tell us about ourselves. They augment our understanding of the range and texture of human experience and thus enrich our limited time here on Earth. Science, many feel, doesn’t do this and hence is dispensable or, more precisely, can be safely left to the scientists. One culture is thus deemed profoundly relevant while the other profound but extremely distant.
This line of thought isn’t unreasonable. I can see where it comes from and how aspects of our educational system foster it. But the conc...