We live in an age of extreme cognitive dissonance in regard to science in America. Many high-profile members of the American political and corporate leadership simultaneously attack and promote science. As a body of knowledge, a method for acquiring knowledge, and a profession, the discipline of science and its practitioners are under attack by elected and appointed officials at the highest levels of government. Many corporate leaders and their lobbying arms also actively work to discredit science and scientists.
At the same time, STEM has become a ubiquitous acronym as many of the same government and corporate leaders that attack science also counsel our youth to pursue education in STEM fields. The push towards STEM education has become so pervasive that it has left many educators in the humanities feeling marginalized and superfluous.
How are we to make sense of this simultaneous embracement and debasement of science? Actually, it is the political and corporate leadership that is in a bind, albeit one of their own making. Given their financial interests, they do not see how they can live with many inconvenient scientific truths, but they also know that they can’t live without science because otherwise, economic progress would grind to a halt. Their solution to their self-made conundrum is to promote views of science that aren’t really science and views of education that aren’t really education.
Consider just a few examples of attacks on science made in order to promote corporate and political interests:
- Denial of the contributions to global warming and pollution-induced public health crises that result from widespread use of coal is so deeply entrenched within the Trump administration that an executive order was issued in June 2018 that requires utilities to purchase electricity from coal powered sources in order to prevent them from shutting down.
- That same month, Time magazine ran a story on the damage to public health in Ulan Bator, Mongolia—the most polluted capital city in the world—from its toxic air quality, which is caused in large part by burning coal. Perhaps the accompanying photo of the smog-shrouded metropolis should be re-captioned: Trump’s vision of utopia.
- Oklahoma has recently become one of the most earthquake-prone regions of the United States. Scientists at the University of Oklahoma, studying a possible linkage between this increased seismic activity and the now widespread use of fracking in the state, triggered outrage from Harold Hamm, the CEO of the energy company Continental Resources. Despite his denials, e-mails obtained by Bloomberg Business show that Mr. Hamm asked the university to dismiss the scientists doing the research and offered to sit on a search committee to fill the vacancies.
- By ignoring very basic chemistry for water treatment, city and state officials in Flint, Michigan, managed to destroy the city’s water supply infrastructure and poison its residents. When confronted by medical researchers with evidence showing a linkage between elevated blood lead-levels in the city’s children and its tainted water supply, officials initially tried to discredit the results and impugn the researchers.
- Despite repeated mass shootings, Congress has not repealed the Dickey and Tiahrt amendments that impede researchers on gun violence from having access to the relevant data. Massive data suppression makes it difficult to perform reliable studies on gun violence and make reasonable recommendations to curb it, which appears to be the only reasons for passing these laws in the first place.
Yet despite repeated high-profile attacks on science such as these, STEM education continues to be advocated and studies of the humanities marginalized. There are, for example:
- Opinion pieces by high-profile politicians and business advocates, such as former Michigan governor John Engler arguing in U.S. News that STEM education is essential for the U.S.’s economic future and that we need to encourage more students to pursue STEM.
- Alarmist articles, such as one in the New York Times reporting that colleges do not graduate enough students with STEM majors to meet future needs.
- A report from a high-profile commission on humanities education arguing that the humanities are being marginalized in favor of STEM.
- Even the staunchly anti-science Trump administration hosted a White House summit in June 2018 to promote STEM education—the same month that it issued an executive order to subsidize the coal industry.
How is this contradiction possible? It is becoming apparent that government and corporate leadership want students to obtain scientific skills—that is, facility with mathematics, computer coding, testing and debugging equipment. They do not want graduates who think like scientists—that is, ask questions and search for truth. They want technically trained and adept robots—graduates who will accept what they are told, do what they are commanded and not ask tough questions—which is, of course, the opposite of science.
Scientists know this and actively resist being turned into automatons. Events such as the March for Science that occurred in multiple cities across the U.S. in 2017 are examples of this resistance. But understanding the difference between technical know-how and authentic science needs to infuse education policy.
The reality is that the liberal arts/STEM divide is a false choice. Science is a liberal art. Sciences and the humanities are bound together by a common goal—the search for truth—and they need each other. Most educators, regardless of discipline, know that is no longer possible for students of the humanities to be STEM-illiterate and still have a relevant skill set. But science students also need the humanities. How else can they resist the onslaught of nihilism that has infested the highest levels of government and corporate leadership? These have become enclaves where meaning is now assessed solely in dollars and where public relations is prioritized over truth.
Education that includes both humanities and authentic science is essential for continued economic prosperity, but more importantly, it is essential for our continued survival as a species on this planet. The stakes cannot be higher. As Richard Feynman warned: “Reality must take precedence over public relations, because nature cannot be fooled.” We cannot afford to have authentic science education repeatedly disparaged in favor of a more convenient authoritarian facsimile and to have the scientific method routinely disparaged and manipulated in order to advance feel-good public relations.