The Teaching of Science

in Today's Political Climate

by Leon Botstein, President, Bard College

The issue of women and science is curious in that the controversy surrounding the question of why, relatively and historically speaking, fewer women end up in scientific careers than men has reached center stage because of the widely quoted comments of a male economist who is the current president of Harvard University. By all accounts, he engaged in some speculations concerning the causes for the gender discrepancy. Although I am not a scientist, it is my assumption that most, if not all, current claims about the biology of intelligence, much less the genetics of talent and intelligence, are indefensible. As yet we have no useful definition, biologically speaking, of intelligence sufficient to match discrete variables in behavior and ability with genetics. There are possible exceptions, such as the possession of perfect pitch, but having perfect pitch does not make one musical.

Intelligence is still poorly understood, and the social science surrounding it, which informs most of our intelligence testing, is woefully inadequate and out of date. In my view, the attempt to link gender and career or gender and certain kinds of expressed ability is not politically incorrect; it is inappropriate because it makes no sense. The question is poorly framed. Its language is so vague, in scientific terms, as to defy analysis. We just do not know enough. A bad question cannot have a good answer.

The right question, therefore, is why, through the structure of education and social life, something we do know about and can partially control, fewer women than we would wish are inspired and trained to become scientists. The first part of a possible answer is that, in general, we in the United States do a very poor job in educating all young people vis-à-vis science. Learning about the natural world, the universe, and even about numbers should be the easiest aspect of education. Curiosity about such things is endemic to childhood. In this country, that natural curiosity is destroyed by poor teaching in elementary and secondary schools. Science is taught as a bunch of dry facts. All the excitement, wonderment, and novelty inherent in science somehow vanish in the process of schooling.

In addition, popular culture has advanced the idea that there is a conflict between beauty and analysis, between the aesthetic and the scientific. We prefer to remain in a mystic haze of ignorance in order to preserve some sort of magic. But the distinction between the aesthetic and the scientific is false: the beauty of nature resides in that which is counterintuitive and not commonplace. Consider the nature of light, quantum mechanics, and the famous quandary about Schrödinger's cat. What could be more beautiful than the structure of DNA?

Last but not least, the heroes and heroines of television and movies are rarely scientists. There is a long-standing, anti-elitist tradition of demonizing scientists as crazed or evil. Our democratic culture has ceded to a populist fear of that which is difficult to understand. Indeed, mathematics, physics, chemistry, and biology are hard to understand, and inevitably only a very small elite commands those subject matters. In the arts, we choose what we like by buying tickets and DVD's and transforming popular taste into normative values. There is, in the arts, a more plausible affinity between popular taste and the arguable criteria of beauty and greatness. But truth in science and the results of the application of the rules of evidence do not require a majority vote. Yet our egalitarianism makes us resistant to experts, with the exception of those in charge of our physical well-being. We choose a heart surgeon not on the basis of a popular democratic vote, but, we hope, through a rigorous, highly elitist, critical vetting of medical competence. Among elites, scientists have never achieved the kind of popularity enjoyed by sports professionals, even though scientists, like sports professionals, excel at something each of us can do only to a limited extent.

In the general context of a poor system of education and an unsympathetic culture with respect to the training of future scientists, women do even less well. My hunch, no matter what we learn in the future, is that this situation is largely a function of culture and has little to do with inherent, gender-linked capacities. From the late nineteenth century on, for instance, the engineering fields have been associated with certain stereotypical masculine cultures ranging from the military to the playing field. Additionally, the teaching of science has developed over the years an overtly masculine, competitive character, one that requires an aggressiveness that women are encouraged, for cultural reasons, not to develop. One reason single-sex education is good for young women is that such culturally cultivated habits do not interfere with the dynamics of the classroom in a way that is deleterious to them. However, very few, if any, all-girls schools, or indeed many private schools in the United States, have first-class teaching programs in science and mathematics. Further, despite excellent programs in the leading all-women's colleges, the best graduate training in science is still offered in coeducational institutions. Surviving graduate school in any event is hard and is made structurally even harder for women.

But that is where the bad news ends. The good news is that the president of Princeton, Shirley Tilghman, is a distinguished molecular biologist, and the president of M.I.T., Susan Hockfield, is a noted neuroscientist. A leading, if not the leading, expert on string theory, Lisa Randall, is a professor of theoretical physics at Harvard, and Nancy Kleckner is one of the stars of Harvard's department of molecular and cellular biology. If one is inclined to optimism, I would suggest that during the next 10 or 15 years more women than men will make significant scientific contributions, particularly if the public discussion of the disparities in the allocation of resources and opportunities for encouragement retains its proper place in debates on public policy. The controversy surrounding the remarks of Lawrence Summers is, therefore, a good thing.

But the larger issue about science and the future of the conduct of science in the United States extends far beyond gender politics. We will not enlarge the cohort of women scientists if we do not repair the relationship between science and democracy in the United States. We are living in a dangerous moment. There is every indication that we may be encouraging, wittingly and unwittingly, the descent of a new age of superstition and fanaticism. It has been fueled in part by the culture wars, which included a ludicrously Francophile, so-called postmodern critique of rationality and the Western traditions of science. But it is generated most virulently by the revival of fundamentalist beliefs in all three of the world's major religions. The United States is in danger of replacing the conduct of science and rules of evidence with doctrine. Doctrine is judged right or wrong on the basis of moral and cultural norms, not the open scrutiny of research, scholarship, and debate. Doctrine is the product of the restriction of freedom, not its extension. We now wish to make falsehoods or unverifiable claims more palatable by fashioning seemingly rational alternatives to the possible role of randomness in evolution. The claims of evolution, and therefore modern biology, are at risk in the United States in terms of our education system and public policy almost as much as scientific truth was at risk in the Soviet Union under Stalin, whose advocacy of Trofim Lysenko set back that country's agriculture and knowledge of biology by nearly a century. Our federal government's willful denial of the facts of nature regarding the environment and health is much more dangerous to the recruitment of women into science than any factor related to discrimination against women within schools and communities.

The one hope on the horizon is that the scientific and educational communities can - in the name of the pursuit of truth, progress, and understanding, and not in the name of politics - fight back. Taking a stand on behalf of the conduct of science, the freedom of scholarship and research in our universities and colleges, the power of truth versus doctrine, and the distinction between the knowable and the unknowable is essential for the soul of the republic. It has nothing to do with religion and morality. A person's belief in God cannot be disproved, but the argument against evolution can. So long as religion is a private matter, freedom can reign. One encouraging sign is that we Americans, unlike the citizens of other nations threatened by religious fundamentalism, love our modernity. We want to have healthy children, we wish to cure the sick, we hope to make old age vital, we want to reduce pain, we wish to breathe clean air, we want to preserve the flora and fauna of the earth, we desire faster and more efficient sources of information, and we cherish convenience and efficiency. All these objectives require science. This is the Achilles heel of religious fundamentalism. If one wants to cure or prevent Alzheimer's disease, if one wants to triumph over breast cancer, if one wants to protect the global environment, one will need an honest and secular social order that is not dominated by religion.

We are also a people used to comfort and, therefore, economic well-being. Faced with the inevitable, overwhelming force that China will exert in manufacturing and in all aspects of economic and intellectual activity, America's only hope to maintain its financial welfare is through superiority in science and technology. Our jobs and economic health will depend on preventing religious interests in the federal and state governments from seizing power over education and research. Some of the contemporary drive toward religion is personal and honest. It is expressed by those who seek certainties in a world where there are few constants beyond life and death. The complexity, chaos, fallibility, and uncertainties of the conduct of life are hard to bear. However, there are those who cynically manipulate the search for meaning that religion can represent such as Senator Bill Frist, who was trained to know the distinction between truth and fiction, and who knew that the claims about Terri Schiavo's condition were false. These individuals are the most dangerous not because they are benighted, but because they are intellectually dishonest. Just as there are no "two sides of the question" about whether the Holocaust occurred, despite the existence of many books with many footnotes denying the Holocaust, there are no two sides as to whether the world is flat or whether evolution is true, randomness and all. That there is more to be known and understood about the Holocaust is undeniable, particularly in the area of understanding its causes and grasping its moral and ethical implications, and there is more to be known and understood about evolution and the universe. However, as David Hume argued long ago, that which cannot be proved must remain a matter of faith, such as the existence of a final cause, an intelligent designer, an overarching consciousness, or some divine presence and plan. Accepting such notions as factual and as premises for thinking about the world as opposed to taking a skeptical, open-ended approach to improving our understanding using time-honored rules of evidence and analysis will only deter the recruitment and training of future scientists among men and women alike.

The wonderment of science is based on the thrill of never being totally, "absolutely" sure. It is, however, possible for us to judge what is right and wrong enough to know that something works. That is how we discovered antibiotics and landed on the moon, conquered polio and made advances against AIDS, developed the computer and are beginning to better understand the causes of disease and the functioning of the brain. All that progress was contingent on restricting the role of religion and faith to private practice, not expanding it to public policy. If we fail to maintain that restriction, all the concern about encouraging women to become scientists will be a waste of time, for science will be a career whose conduct will be distorted and rendered impotent and unrewarding by larger political and cultural forces.


Leon Botstein, Ph.D., is the President of Bard College and the Music Director of the American Symphony Orchestra and of the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra. He is the author of many articles and books including The Compleat Brahms:A Guide to the Musical Works of Johannes Brahms (1999) and Jefferson's Children: Education and the Promise of American Culture (1997).