Three-dimensional illustration, can be used in any design
Three-dimensional illustration, can be used in any design

In a recent Asia Times article (“Science: What must remain active in men’s souls?”), I noted that both Chinese and American students receive virtually no education in the epistemology of science and engineering. Every few years I teach a graduate course in this area, with students coming from good universities around the world. The last two classes had students from China, India, Iran, Brazil, Tunisia, South Korea and Vietnam – and even a couple of American students. Uniformly, they have known virtually nothing about scientific epistemology.

This essay, which is a condensation of a paper in the EURASIP Journal on Bioinformatics and Systems Biology, addresses this educational impoverishment.

In her essay “The Crisis in Education,” Hannah Arendt writes,

“Education is the point at which we decide whether we love the world enough to assume responsibility for it and by the same token save it from that ruin which, except for renewal, except for the coming of the new and young, would be inevitable. And education, too, is where we decide whether we love our children enough not to expel them from our world and leave them to their own devices, nor to strike from their hands their chance of undertaking something new, something unforeseen by us, but to prepare them in advance for the task of renewing a common world.”

The old must not leave the young to fend for themselves; rather, they must provide them with the fundamentals required to maintain and extend human knowledge. To do so, the educator must transform children into adults.

For science education, this transformation is governed by the nature of scientific knowledge. In “The Conquest of Space and the Stature of Man,” Arendt writes,

“To understand physical reality seems to demand not only the renunciation of an anthropocentric or geocentric world view, but also a radical elimination of all anthropomorphic elements and principles, as they arise either from the world given to the five senses or from the categories inherent in the human mind.”

Not only need we reject an anthropocentric worldview, as one might do when accepting the Copernican hypothesis, and not only need we accept the inability of our senses to reveal Nature in her true form, but beyond these limitations, we must accept that Nature is so strange that it is not even thinkable in terms of the human categories of understanding. Humans have no perceptual experience with systems, such as cells, involving hundreds of thousands of interacting components. Intuition fails when confronted with such complexity.

Fortunately, scientific knowledge of Nature is not given by description of the phenomena; rather, it is constituted by mathematical processes. Arendt writes, “Man can do, and successfully do, what he cannot comprehend and cannot express in everyday human language.” The validity of scientific systems depends solely on their functionality as predictors of future behavior.

Broad mathematical knowledge gives a scientist greater capability for conceptualization. Thus, budding scientists should be armed with a large mathematical toolbox – the deeper the mathematical knowledge, the more suitable for framing fundamental scientific knowledge. Education should supply the toolbox.

Budding scientists should be armed with a large mathematical toolbox – the deeper the mathematical knowledge, the more suitable for framing fundamental scientific knowledge. Education should supply the toolbox

Education should also provide an understanding of epistemology and method. In his California Institute of Technology commencement address of 1974, Richard Feynman stated, “But this long history of learning how not to fool ourselves – of having utter scientific integrity – is, I’m sorry to say, something that we haven’t specifically included in any particular course that I know of. We just hope you’ve caught on by osmosis.”

The results of this educational omission are immense. Several years ago, Janet Woodcock, then director of the Center for Drug Evaluation and Research at the US Food and Drug Administration, estimated that as much as 75% of published biomarker associations are not replicable.

While ignorance of basic scientific method is a serious problem, it is necessary to probe further to get at the full depth of the educational problem. Science does not stand alone, disjoint from the rest of culture. Science takes place within the general human intellectual condition. Serious study of historical antinomies and their resolutions enriches the mind, provides it with the perspective to see new fundamental issues, and trains it with the ability to think orthogonally to the previous unsuccessful approaches to the problem.

Can one truly appreciate the present without knowledge of the great past ruptures in human thinking? The Ptolemaic system assured man’s position at the center of the universe until Copernicus put humans on a planet revolving around the sun. From Euclid through Immanuel Kant, Euclidean geometry provided the framework for human sensibility before this worldview was shattered by the non-Euclidean geometry of Janos Bolyai and Nikolai Lobachevsky. From Aristotle into the 18th century, causality was generally accepted, even with it not being part of the Newtonian system, until David Hume showed with relative ease that there was no logical or empirical support for causality in Nature, and mankind was tossed into probabilistic insecurity.

The Newtonian world of absolute space seemed all too obvious until Albert Einstein shattered the obvious. And from Euclid into the 20th century, man’s hope for some safe harbor of consistency in his thinking was believed to lie in mathematics until in 1931 Kurt Gödel proved that the consistency of any mathematical system rich enough to include whole number arithmetic cannot be proved by the ordinary basic principles of logic.

Each of these ruptures was a shock to human understanding and the human position in the universe. All that came before was overturned and a new human condition came into being. Study of these events, along with the historical and other scientific events surrounding them, form the intellect.

Peering into a future in which careful experimental design and model validation are put aside in the quest for rapid results and funding, troubling questions arise. How many patients will be improperly treated based on diagnostic tests developed using statistically meaningless performance estimates? How many billions of dollars will be wasted on studies so poorly designed that they cannot possibly produce useful results? How many petabytes of unstructured data will be generated? Oblivious to the demands of science, the educationally impoverished are playing children’s games.

What has brought us to this point? Arendt answers: “In education this responsibility for the world takes the form of authority…. Authority has been discarded by the adults, and this can mean only one thing: that the adults refuse to assume responsibility for the world into which they have brought the children.” Irresponsibility has led to the impoverishment of education and a consequent loss of scientific capability.

The scientific epistemology posits standards developed over centuries to ground knowledge with a functional, phenomenal, and inter-subjective concept of truth. This provides the standards by which the higher authority is constituted. But that authority must be manifested by human beings, and these must be sufficiently educated so that they can make judgments in accordance with that authority. If educators fail in their responsibility to educate, then the higher authority becomes vacuous, because in practice there will be no one, or an insufficient number, to exercise it.

To leave students ignorant of Plato, Aristotle, Bacon, Hume and Kant is to leave them outside the course of civilization and to stunt their growth into intellectual adulthood

To leave students ignorant of Plato, Aristotle, Bacon, Hume and Kant is to leave them outside the course of civilization and to stunt their growth into intellectual adulthood. In Arendt’s words, it is to “strike from their hands their chance of undertaking something new, something unforeseen by us.” The price will be paid by future generations.

This essay is about transforming children into adults. It is not about lack of innate cognitive ability or a lack of desire to accomplish great things. A student may enter the academy with both a potentially brilliant mind and a longing to join the community that has driven the great scientific enterprise, but if the academy shirks its responsibility and impoverishes that student, then that mind will not come close to achieving its true potential.

The manner in which human beings perceive the world has gone through at least four radically transforming periods that can be marked by certain names: (1) Plato and Aristotle, (2) Francis Bacon and Isaac Newton, (3) Hume and Kant, (4) Einstein and Werner Heisenberg. Here we are not talking about radical theories, but rather radical transformations of mind. In that sense, these are maturing transformations, in each case the notion of intellectual adulthood being redefined.

The young student enters the academy as a wet-behind-the ears babe and must be transformed through these stages, perhaps kicking and screaming, into an adult who appreciates the road humans have traveled in two and half millennia to achieve the current state of maturity. Only then does the aspiring scientist appreciate the limitations of science and the mathematical, logical, and experimental rigor necessary to achieve scientific truth. And he has gained this appreciation because his professors did not see it as their duty to make a child happy; rather, they saw it as their duty to transform the child into an adult.

Edward R Dougherty

Edward Dougherty is distinguished professor of engineering at Texas A&M University.

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