Saturday, April 11, 2015

Science and Math in a University Curriculum

I heard it when I was in high school. I hear it from my daughter today. "When am I ever going to use this?"

So the square root of 48 reduces to 4 times the square root of 3. Who cares, right? What should be an essential part of a college curriculum in math and science and what depends on career and interest?

1. It seems to me that the most important feature of math and science for everyone is somewhat philosophical. People in a democracy need to possess "evidentiary thinking." Unreflective thinking is the enemy of a democracy, where people just believe whatever they want to believe or just follow unthinkingly whatever traditions they've inherited from their environment.

We're overlapping with philosophy here, but the default state of human thinking is "premodern." It is magical thinking. I realize I am on a trajectory of tension with some Christian voices that want to re-enchant the world. But those who completely reject modernism are not only enemies of truth but they are nutters who need to turn in their cell phones and go live on a farm without tractors. They make Christians look stupid.

So a good college education will include competency in scientific method.

2. This may sound mean, but one of the most important functions of math and science in a curriculum is to confront us with how stupid we are. In America, everyone thinks their opinion is as valuable as anyone else's. But we are, on the whole, incompetent thinkers. We're blurring into philosophy again, but logic has to be one of the most important elements of a college philosophy class. It is crucial for a democracy that people be able to think straight or at least be able to recognize those who can.

One of the most important functions of math and science is to humble us.

Of course there is often math in specific fields people go into. It would be ideal if the math requirement of a university were tailored to specific disciplines. A ministry student, for example, might learn math in the context of church budgeting, church loans, fund raising, planning for retirement, etc. Economics is, after all, very mathematical.

3. The most controversial aspects of a science curriculum have to do with our understanding of the world. I watched Interstellar last week, and one of the most fascinating moments to me in the movie was where a public school teacher chastises a parent for letting his daughter think that the US ever went into space. Everyone knows, she suggests, that the lunar landing was a story invented by the US to cause the Russians to spend themselves into the grave trying to compete.

(By the way, the movie is fascinating to describe, but a little boring to watch. If I could put together clips and then just tell you what happens in between scenes, I think it would be much more enjoyable.)

Most of us get our science from one of two places--the scientific community or the evasive maneuver machine of America's current situation. Because of my experience in biblical studies, I don't trust the "round up the usual suspects" machine that has evolved in America to talk people out of believing the scientific community on various issues. From a probabilistic perspective, the majority of actual experts in science are far more likely to be correct than the idiosyncratic puppets rounded up to tell people what they want to hear on Fox News.

The situation of the Christian college is particularly sensitive, since there are powerful voices that are willing to throw significant amounts of money at counter-science. I've always been glad that most people aren't smart enough to try to sabotage quantum physics or relativity (although I am curious to know if part of American rhetoric against relativism may go back to an initial reaction against Einstein's theory). Christian nuclear physicists are free to follow the evidence wherever it seems to lead.

In fact, another part of the miracle of us winning WW2 is the fact that Hitler didn't trust the Jewish scientists at the forefront of a lot of nuclear physics developments in the 1930s.

4. Christian colleges have to be very sensitive to these issues, however. They just have to be. I've always felt that if a professor can present options and evidence fairly, the choice of position can be left to the student. I have personally found that, if a person is truly a truth-seeker, the most likely truths have a tendency to gnaw at your soul until you eventually submit to them.

So it is just the case that, at many Christian colleges, professors will have to be very sensitive to these sorts of issues. It's just not helpful to take a "matter of fact" approach. In such circumstances, a good teacher has to re-enact looking at the evidence for the very first time, as if he or she doesn't know where it will likely lead, at least in introductory classes.

And it goes without question that professors really should genuinely have a permanently open mind. Paradigms do shift from time to time.


Martin LaBar said...

Good job, and real food for thought.

A couple of other ideas:

Educated people should have some idea of how dependent on the natural world we are, and Christians should have some idea that we need to take care of it, as God's stewards.

Educated people should know that we are absolutely dependent on photosynthesis, water, and a lot of other stuff.

They should also have some idea of the different materials that make up the universe, the enormous diversity of living things, and the size and age (Whoops!) of the universe.


Ken Schenck said...