Boning Up: Better Late Than Never
Fear Leads to Anger

A Little Learning . . .

RadicalmoiI cannot remember a time when it wasn't assumed that I'd go to college. Two of my older cousins on my mom's side had gone (both became teachers) but only a younger cousin on my Dad's side wound up going. The Kottners were not much on schoolin', especially for girls, though my Dad was a huge history buff and managed to teach a colleague of mine a few things about Civil War battles. It took him a while to come around to the idea that his daughter might become a "pointy headed intellectual" and he continued to razz me about writing free verse until nearly the day he died. (I finally told him I wouldn't tell him how to fix jet engines if he'd stop telling me how to write poems.)

The upshot of always being encouraged to study and to learn is that I grew to love it. I came home every day and shared something new I'd learned with my mom, whether it was about the process of eutrophication we could see happening in the lake across the street as septic systems leaked phosphate laundry detergents into it, or just some new word. I found the life of the mind entertaining and fulfilling. My favorite question became "why?" And one thing I will say for the church I grew up in, they taught me like no school could how to study, and how to do textual criticism. There is no field of literary studies so contentious or difficult as Biblical exegesis. But it's fascinating stuff. There are still days I'm sorry I didn't go into theology.

When I first got to college as an undergrad, I felt like the proverbial kid in the candy store. Unlimited books! Classes in everything! Psychology! Medieval history! Invertebrate biology! Writing! I hardly knew where to start. Registration was torture each semester, not because I couldn't get the classes I wanted (that rarely happened with a student population of 600) but because I couldn't make up my mind. The most frustrating thing about being a biology major was that I could take so few of the other tantalizing classes that beckoned me. I wanted to know everything about everything, and this was my big chance. Woohoo!

I think like most undergrads who are the first in their families to go to college, I was also a bit overawed by all the educated people around me. It took me quite a while, and enrollment in a Ph.D. program myself, to realize that pieces of paper do not make one erudite or even intelligent. As Rob said in an earlier conversation, "It just means I've read a lot of books." That was a definite blow to my rosy view of academe, if not the intelligentsia. On the other hand I learned to find smart, thinking people everywhere, in class and out, possessing official pieces of paper and without. In a lot of ways, I think I learned as much from the round table discussions over beer and burgers at the Peanut Barrel during my graduate school career as I did in class. Tossing around all those ideas and philosophies in that free-for-all atmosphere with some really intelligent colleagues allowed me to begin to formulate some of my own, as well as to come to some rather startling conclusions that I didn't quite trust for a long time.

One of these, which formed while I was teaching science writing and the written work of scientists, was the slow realization that Science (I always want to put that in radioactive Italics, for some reason) actually wasn't terribly objective, as I'd been lead to believe all these years, and that it had infected the humanities with some of the worst of its characteristics. Like what? Logic, for one. Art is often not very logical or rational. It serves no utilitarian purpose, it has no higher goal than itself. Art just is. It may or may not have a message, or you may only think it does or doesn't. Its goal is not to explain the world to you. If it has any purpose, I think, it might be to teach us more about ourselves. I used to think its purpose was to make us better humans, but that's too much of a burden for anything to bear but each of us as individuals. Anyway, it's completely possible to live without it, but it's a mean, brutish sort of existence. Everyone, I dare say, requires some kind of art in their life, whether it's low-brow television or high-brow historical rhetoric.

Because it has no real purpose, looking at Art (or humanities like history) through the lens of logic distorts it. Its purposelessness becomes offensive, wasteful. We see this all the time in school budgets. The millage fails and what goes? Not sports. Art. Music. Theater. Sports builds character, teaches cooperation, hones competitiveness, mirrors the hard knocks of the "real," adult world. Art just looks or sounds pretty. There was even a study some time ago that proved its utter uselessness in raising test scores.

Well, duh.

Art is not about data, and yet it is measured that way all the time, critically, monetarily, philosophically. For a while, theorists of literature whom I shall not name were routinely analyzing literary works by running them through a computer and totting up their word usage frequency and sentence structure. What this said about the literary work in question is anybody's guess. There's no DNA to sequence in literary works, despite what some critics might think. Literature and history are about human activities and interactions, not mindless chemicals.

But I digress. The real revelation to me was that Science was actually not objective or value free. One of the things that graduate school does is introduce you to the world of so-called original thought. It's one of the requirements of getting a Ph.D., actually, that you write a thesis that will add to the body of knowledge about your particular subject. As a result, there's a lot of territorial marking in pursuit of those three letters. Generally, publishing an article in a recognized journal outlining your thoughts, or a portion of them, will do the trick. "Oh, she's working on minstrels in Piers Plowman," one thinks, reading a short paper on the subject in Speculum. It's a way of saying "hands off this area until my book/thesis comes out." Pissing on the boundaries, so to speak.

Now, there's not much riding on that particular subject (I should know; it was mine for a while) except one person's future dissertation, publications, and possible career, but in science the stakes can be much, much higher. Original research in science usually costs millions of dollars. Students often ride the coattails of their professors onto publications in significant journals by lab-monkeying for them, gaining co-authorship and mad lab skillz by doing so. Unlike the humanities, science is very often a team effort and while you may be participating in someone else's research, it can make or break your own career, even if it's not your original idea (ask the folks who decided to go into cold fusion). Plus, you may be able to claim spin-off ideas as your own. What's really riding on scientific research right now is Money (another radioactive noun). Money, plum positions at national or academic labs, multi-million dollar patents (in the case of much biotech research) and fame.

Yup, fame.

Albert Einstein-sized fame, sometimes, and the influence that goes with it. Hard to resist. Not many people in the Humanities get a taste of that (Stanley Fish, maybe), but it's not that uncommon in science. Watson & Crick. Stephen Hawking. Carl Sagan. Richard Feynman. Robert Gallo and Luc Montagnier.

If you're wondering about that last pair, they're the guys who discovered the AIDS virus, one at the National Cancer Institute, one at the Pasteur Institute, more or less simultaneously as they had shared samples and research. Robert Gallo, though, gets the press, because he jumped the gun, contrary to agreements between NCI and PI. Three years later, Montagnier says, "It could have happened differently, but everybody has their personality."

And there's the reason that science is not objective.

We talked a lot about the history of science, especially post-WWII in America, at those round table discussions in the Peanut Barrel, but it took a while for me to realize what big grant money had done to both independent labs like Bell Labs, and academic research labs like the University of Chicago's. Scientific research started to shift from knowledge for its own sake to R&D for profit. It's not so much that the amount of money thrown at them corrupted research institutes, but it made science a whole new game, one much more likely to be pursued for the sake of grants and product than just for the sake of knowledge. That gap between pure and applied research widened, with pure research becoming harder and harder to justify in a monetary economy. That was one of the beauties of Victorian science: its independent, dillentante-ish nature. Undisciplined and unsystematic as it often was, subjects were at least studied for sheer love of knowledge.

This is not to say science still doesn't ask all those big questions: how did the universe get here? How did life develop? What can we do to make it longer and better? But the moment money gets involved (pardon my cynicism) people's not-so-best natures come out. And the presence of potential fame, even if it's in a smallish pond, is just as distracting. And it adds an extra layer of motive, one that's not very pure and more likely to influence outcomes than the pure search for knowledge. When the renewal of your grant depends on positive results (even though negative ones are just as illuminating), it's harder to admit your idea might be wrong. That's just human nature.

I hear outraged screams of protest in the background already. Scientists aren't like that! They don't falsify results! Especially not for such base reasons as money and fame or politics. The truth means everything to them!

Yep, I'm sure it does. But so do their individual reputations. And there's no getting away from those outside influences like politics. Pity the poor scientists at the EPA, who've been going round and round with the Bush administration about Global Warming for the last eight years. As an aside, it's interesting that only the conservative Wall Street Journal (subscription required) has pointed out how vicious the fight between EPA scientists and the Administration has been, and made it clear that the repudiation of the most recent report is a political maneuver, not a scientific one:

The EPA document was written to respond to a Supreme Court order: The court instructed the agency to decide whether greenhouse gases are a danger to public health or welfare. Instead, the final document took no position on the court's question -- yet escalated the extraordinary battle between the agency and the White House. The White House rejected an earlier draft that did find a danger to welfare, which would trigger application of the strict rules of the Clean Air Act to regulating greenhouse gases.

Listen, kids, no matter how many times you say I believe in Science, scientists are human too. All those human qualities—greed, fear, ego—figure into it as they do into anything else humans do. That's why fraud (nicely termed "misconduct" in scientific circles) happens. Again, and again, and again.

So where does this leave us if we can't trust Science?

Where it leaves us with everything else: using our own discernment. You don't buy a flat screen TV without checking out the best brand and best buy (and if you do, well, need I say more?). Do the same with science. You don't have to be a scientist to understand the consequences of research. There are plenty of good explainers out there who will be happy to help you sift the wheat from the chaff and boil down the salient points. A little scientific literacy will also help protect you from crackpots and extremists, like the anti-vaccination people who would like to expose us all to the joys of rubella, smallpox, whooping cough and scarlet fever again because they seem to think, despite the lack of scientific evidence that vaccines cause autism. Learn what scientists mean by "correlation is not causation," i.e., some things are just coincidence. No, really. Remind yourself that statistics are only useful in describing the behavior of large populations or datapoints, not individuals.

In short, be informed. Think for yourself. Don't let somebody else do it for you. At its core, that's the real goal (or should be) of education.


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