FROM THE PRESIDENT
Science, the Rebel Educator: I
"For what a man more likes to be true, he more readily
believes," wrote Francis Bacon (1561–1626). We
researchers resist this natural tendency; we do not try to
"discover" or "scientifically prove"
preconceived notions, to find what we like to be true. We
discount gossip. We disdain common myth. We seek evidence, hard
evidence. When doing science we try to avoid the influence of
Yet all of us who participate in science must share one common
faith. We believe that the material-energetic world is knowable, at
least in large part, by the concerted activity of research:
exploration, reconnaissance, observation, logic, detailed study that
includes careful measurement against standards. In short, we uphold
the Sigma Xi values that lead us all, independent of wealth, creed
or eye color, to be "companions in zealous research" who
"encourage original investigation in science, pure and applied."
We in Sigma Xi are members of one of many strong science-promoting
organizations based in, supposedly, the richest and freest country
in the world. Then why, for example, do 15-year-old U.S. students
rank 22nd of 40 countries in science literacy, according to the
latest survey of student performance by the Organization for
Economic Cooperation and Development? This, the first of three
related "From the President" messages, presents my take on
the national problem of inadequate science education.
American students' persistent low scores on international tests and
faltering interest in science and mathematics reflect, in my
opinion, a contradiction in our national psyche, a deep cultural
divide. Intellectual truths in this country are often sacrificed to
what people "like to be true" and thus "more readily
believe." What sells to the multitudes is what people like. Our
culture puts a premium on being liked; we tend to seek and value
popularity over truth, especially abstract scientific truth.
James Baldwin (1924-1987), the outspoken Harlem, New York novelist
and essayist who resided in Paris most of his career, claimed that
life in the U.S.A. was "terrifying for black people." In a
1984 interview with Kay Bonetti for the American Audio Prose
Library, he described America as "a conglomeration of many
cultures, none of them really respected ... [all] at the mercy of
what this country imagines itself to be ... a collection of
pragmatic, pious businessmen.... the key to American life seems to
me to be involved with their stubborn, manic refusal to accept their history."
Baldwin was referring to America's legacy of slavery, but there is a
corollary to his statement with importance for science. Science
faces a vaster, more stubborn mania: the refusal to accept
natural history. The affliction of history-ignorance
promulgates likable, arbitrary, pragmatic "facts."
Memorizable trivia and arguments from authority substitute for
logical narrative and hard evidence. A stubborn, manic refusal to
accept evolutionary history cripples our national capacity to teach,
learn and do science.
The scientist studies nature in nature, and it is from nature that
authentic scientists take dictation. Skepticism, particularly toward
arrogant authorities, and disclosure of their distortions, omissions
and half-truths, is mandatory for the health of science and growth
of its knowledge. To challenge unstated assumptions, to resist
arguments from authority, to detect and reject institutionalized
bias, all are intrinsic to the scientific enterprise. In
peer-reviewed professional journals, outlandish claims,
overgeneralizations and personal experience don't count. Having
heard something on the grapevine of the day—newspaper,
telephone, lecture hall, television, Internet—does not
constitute authority. Acceptable authority, on which our scientific
lives depend, is limited to the primary scientific research literature.
Nothing I say here is radical. Popular, palatable views of the world
and how it came to be do not constitute science or truth. But decent
science education requires that we share the truth we
find—whether or not we like it.