November 13, 2012

Letter: PhySci needs theory

In response to: "A new scientific method."

In the November 9 issue of the Maroon, the Editorial Board trots out oft-discredited proposals to “reform” the core science curriculum by removing from it any vestige of actual science. The Editorial Board suggests that students may not “feel fully engaged by the theory-laden material.” They call for this material to be replaced—presumably, by subject matter containing fewer theories.

This replacement subject matter consists of a so-called “alternative approach to scientific inquiry” that focuses less on actual scientific concepts than on the history of science. Such a suggestion betrays a naked contempt for the scientific method that is especially inappropriate here at the University of Chicago.

At almost no other university in the country are all students required to read Plato. Those lucky enough to be exposed to his thought frequently encounter it as a mere précis, presented to them in a historical overview of philosophy that focuses little on actual philosophical concepts. At the U of C, we repudiate that approach, and rightly so—for it cannot be that anyone can become truly educated if they have not spent time grappling with the questions Socrates asks of us. The same is true of science.

Why do objects move? How do substances interact? What is our place in this world, and in this universe? These are the fundamental questions which students learn to ask and answer in the introductory physics, chemistry, and physical science courses; questions with which humanity has struggled for thousands of years, questions that are at the core of human existence. There is no room for an “alternative” to these questions that rejects the basic tenets of scientific inquiry.

Anguished scholars of the humanities may shudder at the prospect of learning actual science, but they must nevertheless take the bitter medicine and be comforted by the knowledge that it will make them better people. Recall the inscription above Plato’s Academy: “Let no one ignorant of geometry enter here.”

Like it or not, the “mathematical methods and theory” the editors of the Maroon disdain are the core of all science, and to suggest anything less indicates a frightening failure to comprehend even the rudiments of the scientific method. More theory, not less, must be taught in our science classes, and the strongest argument for such a change is the stunning combination of arrogance and ignorance displayed in the Maroon’s editorial.

Benjamin Gammage, Class of 2014