Andrew Hagen finished up his Marin pole vaulting with a dramatic county final victory with a destroyed knee. This tells of his character. So does his academic prowess, graduating with a B.S. in biochemistry from UC San Diego after spending his senior year abroad in Lund, Sweden. Adrew is currently working as a research scientist at UC San Francisco in a lab that tries to understand the molecular and cellular events that contribute to diseases such as type II diabetes (adult onset diabetes) and cystic fibrosis. He tells of enjoying the experience of being in a new and growing lab and feels good that the research is contributing to a worthy cause. Andrew will be applying to PhD graduate school programs next year and hopes to continue studying biochemistry with the ultimate goal of researching ways to engineer bacteria and fungi to remediate environmental pollution like oil spills, pernicious pesticides, etc.
My first word, uttered while watching my mother cook over the stove, was "hot." I like to brag that this empirical observation at such a young age proves I was born a scientist. Years later, after growing up with chemistry sets, tinkering with electronics from Radioshack and performing any number of clandestine experiments (which the scars on my old carpet and bathroom counter bear witness to), I am still fascinated by the workings and mysteries of the natural world and thrilled that I can make a living exploring it. English and history courses were always a matter of going through the motions; I invested little more in them than was needed to squeak by with a good grade. It was with awkward footing, then, that I came to my first Arete meeting. Rather than training my thought on the natural world--on the immutable physical laws of the universe, the transmutation of compound A to compound B or the staggering lives of a cell--Arete turned the proverbial microscope around and asked me to examine the human condition. What is the nature of being? What questions would I put to God? What does Crime and Punishment teach us about our motivations and the consequences of our actions? Over time I felt more comfortable tackling such questions and enjoyed the demands of thinking in wholly different ways. These ideas may not have had much relevance in terms of my life as a scientist, but they had tremendous significance in my life as a human being.
Philosophy can shape and challenge our moral bearings. History gives us a better understanding of the world we live in today by retrospection of people and events that preceded us. The humanities are rightfully held in high esteem--indeed, in educated circles ignorance of Plato, Shakespeare, or the rise and fall of the Third Reich would be considered barbaric. Yet for all the insight and guidance we stand to gain from the humanities, I would make the case that a foundation in science is equally essential to a well-rounded education.
Before you cringe at the thought of chemistry textbooks, dry physics formulae or memorization of all the bones in the inner ear, let me explain. Most of what we all learned in high school science classes is largely irrelevant to our day to day lives and soon forgotten. We don't make decisions based on the laws of thermodynamics as we might based on lessons from a Nietzsche parable. To quote New York Times columnist Nicholas D. Kristof, "If President Bush were about to attack Iraq all over again, he would be better off reading Sophocles - to appreciate the dangers of hubris - than studying the science of explosives." However I don't believe a proper scientific education necessarily means knowing all that much, but rather understanding some basic principles and knowing how the scientific process works. The late Carl Sagan poignantly says, "Science is a way of thinking much more than it is a body of knowledge."
We are all scientists whether or not we identify as such. The simple act of sniffing an old carton of milk can prove or disprove the hypothesis that it has gone bad (and from there we can predict that drinking the milk would make us sick). The elegance of the scientific method is that it is grounded in observable phenomena and takes nothing on faith--conclusions can be drawn only after the elimination of plausible alternatives. A consequence of this requirement however, is that all hypotheses and theories are in principle subject to disproof. Our current administration's "the jury is still out" [on global warming] position unfairly exploits this limitation. Of 928 papers published in peer-reviewed scientific journals between 1993 and 2003 on climate change, not one explicitly refutes an anthropogenic basis for climate change. Yet by citing the beliefs of a small cadre of skeptics, the administration can frame the issue as a debate, rather than the consensus opinion of a bona fide reality. If we, particularly as Americans, were better educated about the science behind debates such as these, there would be a stronger push for much-needed reform.
Another unfortunate result of a lack in scientific understanding is the endless contention between science and religion. Though Catholic, Galileo's astronomical observations led him to refute the church's heliocentric model of the cosmos, resulting in house arrest until his death. It wasn't until 100 years after his death that the Catholic church authorized publication of his censored works. Einstein famously rejected Heisenberg's uncertainty principle (a foundation of quantum mechanics) saying, "God does not play dice with the universe," a statement we now regard as one of his few major mistakes. Taken together, one could justifiably say science trumps religion in its power to explain the workings of the universe because it is based on impartial observation rather than faith and doctrine. Yet the other side of the coin is that science has no power in the realm of theology. It is a logical truth that you cannot prove a negative. That is to say, you can't prove God does not exist. So can we prove God does exist? Only if we can cite evidence that has no other plausible origin--and it is this subjective interpretation of evidence of the divine that is at the heart of the schism between science and religion. If people of faith understood that science is no threat to the core of their beliefs just as scientists should understand the inherent limitations of their methods, these old adversaries could at least call a truce.
So at the start of this new year as thoughts inevitably drift towards the future, I imagine a day when policy makers have the background to rationally debate issues of growing import--stem cell research, cloning, climate change and beyond; when educators can convince students of the beauty in natural selection along with any Renaissance masterpiece and scientists and the church can leave well enough alone. Such changes take time, but the dizzying clip of advances in science and technology may thrust them upon us sooner than we think. In America, government funding for science has remained static for the past six years. Accounting for inflation, this amounts to a 6% cut in funding each year. We simply cannot afford to underestimate the importance of science as a partner to the wisdom of the humanities if we hope to intelligently respond to the complex, ethical dilemmas of today and tomorrow.