Friday, June 18, 2010

Science And Engineering

FLG was reading the comments over at Ferule & Fescule and came across this question:
To what extent should people in the humanities, or, really, people in general - such as voting citizens - be required to have some education in scientific or engineering decision-making?

FLG has both taken the core curriculum for an engineering degree and completed a liberal arts degree. If we are talking about the best education for voting citizens, then the liberal arts degree is better. Full Stop. Even, as is the case with the SFS, science isn't required.

There are a variety of reasons. First and foremost in FLG's mind is the way that science and engineering educations form the students' minds. There's a deterministic vision -- every problem can be solved with the correct formula or algorithm -- that is antithetical to how people think, work, and live

A key example here is how poor most engineers are at designing user interfaces. The polish of the modern computer's graphical user interface is largely the result of calligraphy class Steve Jobs took.* For most programmers or engineers, the key problem in designing a device is efficiency and elegance of how it accomplishes its task. How it interacts with human beings is almost always an afterthought, with the engineers figuring out the simplest way to get human commands into the device. Please note, FLG doesn't mean that engineers are concerned about creating the simplest and most intuitive way for human beings to get their commands into the device. He means engineers find the simplest way for them to solve the problem of getting human commands into the system or device.

For copious evidence of this see almost any open source application. Many are fantastic at what they do. Oftentimes the code is very efficient and elegant. (Sometimes it's not.) But the user interface is almost always the last thing they worry about and it's a complete kludge.

On the other hand, most liberal arts students are confronted with what is meaningful and relevant to people. They look at art, literature, history, etc and explore the myriad manifestations and flaws of the human experience. Most don't think human problems can be solved with some simple algorithm or formula.

But FLG, we live in an increasing technical and scientific age. Shouldn't people be familiar with science and technology? Maybe. But FLG doubts Biology 101 will really help people make better decisions about esoteric topics in genetic engineering. Obviously, people would need a very basic understanding of genes, but what's important isn't the technical details. The A, C, G, and T of DNA is irrelevant. Rather it's what does this mean for society that's important.

FLG isn't sure that much scientific knowledge is required to understand the relevance to society. One doesn't need to understand the intricacies of nuclear fusion or fission to understand the implications of a nuclear bomb on society. You just need to know it's a really, really powerful bomb. Would a semester in physics really help with that? FLG doesn't think so.

All that said, FLG isn't arguing in favor of no or less science education. Shit, he took his share.


* Real geeks will object and say that engineers at Xerox PARC invented the GUI, which is true, but Apple made it workable for the mass market.


Flavia said...

I think you raise a really interesting question here about what kind of science classes students without quant skills should take (or what kind of scientific education intelligent citizens should seek out).

My alma mater required three courses in math/science fields, and the available classes for non-majors were pretty much a joke; I learned more in my (required, non-AP) 11th grade physics class than I did in the 100-level physics class I took in college.

Maybe that was partly my fault--I surely cared more about my grade in my HS physics class than in my college class, which I was taking credit/fail, but I think it was also about the instruction and its goals. My HS teacher wanted us to understand basic principles of physics, and how they affected daily life, and he had to teach kids who came in with all different levels of math skills. And he clearly loved doing it. But in college one either had the skills to do "real" science, or one did not. So people like me who were actually rather interested in science, but totally unprepared for doing it at a college level, wound up taking bullshit classes that were a waste of everyone's time.

Basic math skills are important, as is a familiarity with the scientific method. But when it comes to learning how something like biological research works, I sometimes think that classes in the history of science, or dealing with "science and society," would be a more effective means of both interesting and educating humanities majors.

Alpheus said...

Flavia, I think you can and should teach the scientific method *while* teaching history of science/science and society classes.

About a year ago I tried to outline a light-on-math but nonetheless substantial science-for-citizens curriculum for high school students.

Flavia said...


Sure; I wasn't implying that learning the scientific method is separate from studying the history of science--except insofar as I was talking about college-level classes, and imagining both math skills and familiarity with the scientific method being first acquired earlier.

Thanks for the link. I'm sure I would have been much more interested in math & science, at a younger age, if it had been taught to me that way.

Withywindle said...

I would say that it's as important as anything to have non-scientists learn that science and math can be creative, beautiful, etc., that they shouldn't look down on them.

arethusa said...

In response to the quoted poster's original question, I'm really starting to think Logic 101 and Economics 101 should be required of everyone who votes. Or runs for office.

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