Good tidings and well-wishes, faithful readers!
I’ve just weathered yet another finals week while simultaneously ending my freshman year of college, and I hope that anyone who has ever found themselves in a similar predicament will forgive my inability to verbally grasp the overwhelming sense of relief I’m currently experiencing. This new-found freedom has enabled me to revisit my previously-neglected blog at long last, and I assure everyone that I’ll begin posting again at regular intervals shortly. Being a philosophically-inclined individual as well as a nerdy science buff, I frequently utilize such ‘down time’ to reflect on my experiences and to ponder.
There is a trend I’ve observed which I’m convinced has been noted by thousands of others as well: if given the choice between a math course and a literature course, a student of science will almost invariably select the former. This phenomenon is particularly striking to yours truly, because I would unhesitatingly express my preference for the latter in such a situation. In this regard, I’m an outcast of sorts in the nerd community: especially considering the fact that the image of a formula-thumping, perpetually calculating academic has become synonymous with the word ‘geek’ through the odious miracle of stereotypical pop culture.
At the onset, the traditional scientist’s affinity to mathematics seems (and in most cases is) only natural. After-all, the memorization of equations, algorithms and their kin is an essential element of nearly every branch of science imaginable. But are literary classes so very useless to this end by comparison?
I seriously doubt it.
Let’s examine the qualities deemed desirable by these courses and how they can contribute to the forging of a highly successful scientist. While many of my colleagues (and by this term I mean scientifically-oriented classmates), cringe at the thought of reading, analyzing, and discussing Steinbeck’s novels or Shakespeare’s plays, I greet these notions with eager anticipation. And do you know what I’ve discovered? Following such a procedure bears an eerie resemblance to the hallmark of scientific progress that is the systematic gathering of evidence, making of logical conclusion based thereon, and discussing these findings with intellectual peers who have observed the same data.
Allow me to set the scene. During the Literature course I’d enrolled in this past semester, we were assigned various short stories and one-act stage dramas on a weekly basis all of which were to be discussed during the majority of the class period upon their due date. These discussions were frequently heated, as many of the tales involved controversial subjects. When ‘The Bridegroom’ by Ha Jin was assigned, I knew that we were in for just such an analysis. The narrative chronicles the plight of a homosexual Chinese man named Baowen during the 1970’s who, upon his discovery, is forced to undergo horrific and tortuous procedures (such as being thrown into an electrically-charged bathtub) because the nation’s government is convinced that homosexuality is both a voluntary ‘bad habit’ and ‘curable’, despite the evidence to the contrary as presented later by the very doctor who is obligated to subject him to these deplorable exercises.
When the time for the in-class discussion arrived, one of my classmates (who shall remain nameless) was of the opinion that Baowen ‘flaunted’ his sexual orientation. However, when she was asked for evidence to support her claim, none could be found in favor of her position. In contrast, a huge amount of what’s revealed about Baowen’s private life suggests that he was meticulously discrete and was never ‘caught in the act’.
If a better analogy exists to the concept of scientific peer review, I am at a complete loss to identify it.
The reason why I prefer literature, history, and political classes to their mathematical counterparts is precisely because of this phenomenon. In a math course, the answer is given and can’t be questioned (with the exception of those pertaining to the the subject’s highly theoretical branches), but in a literature or humanities course, the identity of the ‘correct answer’ is open to debate. This is not to say that in these classes all answers are equally valid, for they certainly aren’t. But the question of which are likely more accurate than their competitors is answered by weighing the conclusions against the evidence and discussing to what length does the latter support or reject the former. While math teachers assign grades based upon the student’s ability to absorb information and regurgitate it at will, literature teachers assign grades based upon the student’s ability to reason their way through the facts towards a logical conclusion. Proficiency in both qualities is absolutely essential for anyone hoping to become a decent scientist. So why are the courses which foster the development of the second trait largely ignored by science majors?
May the fossil record continue to enchant us all.