Karen Lona Allendoerfer
ka143 at columbia.edu
Fri Jul 24 01:08:27 EST 1998
Dierdre Sholto-Douglas wrote:
Pursuing a career in science
>is *hard*...it always has been, it *should* be. There will always
>be those whose reality is ill-suited to their dreams...those
>whose dreams were formed at the behest of parents...those who
>simply do *not* belong in the scientific arena, it is the instructor's
>job to allow those people to realise this. And I concede, it's
>an absolute bitch of a realisation, but a necessary one. The ones who
>>ultimately succeed are those who can set aside
>their personal feelings of self-esteem, etc. in order to pursue
>scientific fact. Those who know that while validation from
>without is nice, determination from within is what really counts.
>Scientific progress is built on the backs of the stayers...and
>it's a very simple truth that not everyone who wants to be one,
Well, since we're getting philosophical here, and since my 32P has not yet
arrived . . .
I don't see hordes of inappropriate people wanting to be
scientists. Worrying too much about that seems like a solution in search
of a problem, the proverbial sledgehammer being used to kill the mosquito.
What I see much more of, instead, in late-20th-century American culture, is
anti-scientific sentiment: New-Age mysticism, "spirituality,"
deconstructionism, creationism, "assaults on science and reason from both
the left and the right." Animal rights activists bomb labs and Rustum Roy
calls scientists "welfare queens in white coats." While the situation is
not uniformly grim, by any means, I think that to the extent the culture of
science is a competitive, weed-out, tougher-than-thou place, scientists
contribute to and enhance this public hostility and lack of comprehension.
IMHO, not *enough* people want to be scientists, not even amateur
ones who use the scientific method in their day-to-day lives while having a
different paid job description. The last thing I want to do is weed out
those who do.
Your comments are directed at "pursuing a career in science," and
in that narrow context, I can't find anything to disagree with in what you
write. It's hard to articulate, but I don't think that the decision of
whether or not to pursue a career in science is really the most important
point, if one takes a larger view. Is an instructor's job really primarily
about facilitating the decision of what career to pursue (as in encourage
those who have the right stuff, and discourage those who don't), or is it
about educating citizens and human beings? Is getting so focussed on the
needs of professionals or pre-professionals helpful, or is it hurtful?
This has been discussed at some length by Caltech Provost David
Goodstein in various essays that he's written; I heard him at a Sigma Xi
meeting several years ago. He describes the old educational viewpoint as a
"mining and sorting" operation and suggests it is no longer appropriate for
From Goodstein's lecture, called "Scientific Elites and Scientific
Illiterates" (printed in the Forum Proceedings: "Ethics, Values, and the
Promise of Science," February 25-26, 1993, p. 75):
"Unfortunately, we have never developed a way to bring people along as
informed tourists of the vast terrain we have conquered, without training
them to become professional explorers. If it turns out to be impossible to
do that, the people may decide that the technological trinkets we send back
>From the frontier are not enough to justify supporting the cost of the
expedition. If that happens, science will not merely stop expanding, it
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