Knowledge punched by pundits in 2011

January 2, 2012


2011 featured pernicious political posturing over what we know and how we discover it. Florida Gov. Rick Scott told the state’s universities that they should be educating students in areas “where people can get a job in this state.” Accordingly, he intends to invest higher education dollars in physical science, math, engineering and technology departments, and let the humanities, arts and social sciences go fallow. Scott singled out anthropology as an example of a job-less education, saying, “Is it a vital interest of the state to have more anthropologists? I don’t think so.”

Well, think again. Anthropology sits at the busy intersection of nature and culture, one that has seen explosive accelerations, enormous traffic jams and massive pile-ups in the human condition for at least the past 2 million years. Its lessons are instructive for Florida, the nation and global communities: how peoples have exploited their environments for food, fiber, fuel and pharmaceuticals, how they fashioned their cultures, economies, industries, technologies and jobs, and why they went boom and bust.

According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers, graduates in career-oriented majors, such as science, math and technology, do indeed have a higher probability of landing a job — at least initially. But, a few years down the career path, liberal arts graduates “frequently catch or surpass graduates with career-oriented majors in both job quality and compensation.” Why? Because of their knowledge of ethics, communication and social dynamics, which is adaptive to rapidly changing global economic, political and cultural environments.

Scott might be interested in the career paths of people who majored in job-less disciplines: Carly Fiorina, former CEO of Hewlett-Packard, medieval history and philosophy; George W. Bush, 43rd U.S. president, history; Dick Cheney, former U.S. vice president, political science; Clarence Thomas, U.S. Supreme Court justice, English; Michael Crichton and Ursula K. LeGuin, best-selling authors, anthropology; Sally Ride, astronaut and first woman in space, English; Ronald Reagan, 40th U.S. president, 33rd governor of California, economics and sociology.

Earlier in the year, three Republican presidential candidates went AWOL from modern science. Former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum, U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, and Texas Gov. Rick Perry opined on talk shows and stump speeches that 20 years of research on climate change involving thousands of investigators was “junk science.”

Apparently, they choose to be deaf/dumb/blind to evidence. They didn’t issue a retraction when a leading skeptic of global warming, physicist Richard Muller and his Berkeley Earth group, confirmed the findings of the “junk” scientists: Global temperatures have risen sharply since the mid-1800s because of a jump in greenhouse gases, notably CO2. “Our biggest surprise was that the new results agreed so closely with the warming values published previously by other [scientific] teams,” said Muller’s Berkeley Earth study, which has solid conservative credentials: It was funded by the U.S. Department of Energy and foundations established by Bill Gates and the Koch brothers.

While on the stump, Bachmann and Santorum proudly flashed their pre-Enlightenment credentials, espousing their belief in intelligent design as the best biology curriculum for the nation’s students. One can’t be polite about this. What’s next? Scrap Pasteur and teach the Bad Air Theory of disease in medical school? Dump Aristotle for the Flat Earth Theory in geography class? Bachmann and Santorum are entitled to their private discomfort with the established knowledge of Darwinian evolution. But, hubris aside, their personal discomfort is not a rationale for national policy on science education.

The prize for sanctimonious social science goes to Cal Thomas’ editorial piece on the Sandusky-Penn State affair (Journal-World, Nov. 15, “Penn State’s shame — and America’s too”). The blame, he writes, extends beyond the individuals involved to all society, to the “free-loving ’60s, (when) we seem to have taken a wrecking ball to social mores.” Really? No song at Woodstock advocated rape or pedophilia.

Thomas also blames human nature, “but society — buttressed by religion — once did a better job of keeping human nature in check,“ specifically, keeping “lesbian, gay, and bisexual orientations” in check as “sinful.” Hmmm. You’d think being buttressed by religion against sin would naturally have kept the Catholic clergy in check. Yet, as we now know, its systematic sexual abuse and pedophilia were rampant, with the crimes abetted and covered up by repeatedly moving the abusers from diocese to diocese. It started long before the free-loving ’60s,” and went beyond one locker room at Penn State to parishes worldwide. Its innocent victims are countless.

The complex challenges of the world in 2012 and beyond demand more from our self-declared leaders and sages than wishful, simplistic nostrums as our default solutions or salvation.

— Leonard Krishtalka is director of the Biodiversity Institute and a professor or ecology and evolutionary biology at Kansas University.


George Lippencott 6 years, 4 months ago

I commend the professor for writing about something he clearly understands.

Unfortunately I offer an alternate notion as to our common focus on education. Over my lifetime we have significantly increased our investment in education. The K-12 classroom has evolved from a very structured affair to a significantly automated and flexible environment. Student- teacher ratios notably lower. Higher education, an opportunity taken by about 25% of us in my time, has almost doubled participation. Where funding was primarily private when I took the journey it has become heavily subsidized with government loans and grants. So, IMHO we as a nation have not downplayed education. On the contrary we have embraced it.

Now in the last two years, like any other part of a community experiencing a downturn in revenue, we have receded in our commitment – just a bit. As a consequence question have been asked about just how much the common pot should contribute to education and how much the individual should contribute. It is probably healthy that we do that.

As we all know, more is not necessarily better. Recognizing that there are no definitive measures of success, we can note that test scores and SAT performance have not improved significantly despite the investment in K-12 education. Academic degrees in and of themselves are no longer a key to future success. In one sense, we may have betrayed our young by encouraging them to pursue education without thought as to what comes next. A large debt in an avocation not much in demand may just not be in anyone’s interest.

IMHO it is way too early to blow the whistle on those challenging the current state of education. It is probably the right time to suggest better ways to provide the education we all value. Simply viewing with alarm brings forward the notion that the concern is more personal than civic. As an educated and progressive nation we are pursuing many laudable goals. The education business is just one. It must compete with all the other needs. The taxpayers can only afford so much and we are contributing a great deal.

Kris Krishtalka 6 years, 4 months ago

Thanks George for the comment, but, just to clarify the dialogue, the op-ed was not about increasing spending on higher education. It was about (a) not taking the shortsighted view of restricting higher ed investment to alleged "jobs disciplines" (Gov. Scott);
(b) not dissing or dismissing responsible, established science and science education on the basis of a pundit's or politician's personal beliefs or election posturing or discomfort with the facts (Bachmann, Santorum, Perry); and (c) not making deliberately irresponsible social science conclusions about the causes of reprehensible human behavior by avoiding a much larger history of that reprehensible behavior, which instantly disproves the conclusions (Cal Thomas).

Ken Lassman 6 years, 4 months ago

Kris, I always enjoy your sense of irony and cutting to the quick when it comes to pointing out the non sequiturs and hypocritical stands that fill the political and policy airwaves. I appreciate your calling the Emperor as having no clothes when it comes to candidates who want to be taken seriously and at the same time have such an anti-intellectual, let alone anti-science position on a wide range of issues. Mark Twain's Letter's from Earth comes to mind....

It is definitely time for all of us who see science as having a responsible role to play in society to call those who shout down reason as being the real danger. Our planet can ill afford to have human cultures continue to live on a continuous diet of ideologies and beliefs that are independent of the data. Jared Diamond is an example of what the anthropological perspective has to offer in his book Collapse, and to continue to ignore the evidence will condemn to us the same fate as others have fallen into.

There: a little anthropology and history, with a good measure of science thrown into the mix, no?

Kris Krishtalka 6 years, 4 months ago

Thanks Doug. I could not have said it better. I hope that the electorate will expect their presidential candidates, and their representatives at the federal, state and local levels to demand and rely on the best science to solve the complex challenges of our current and future times.

George Lippencott 6 years, 4 months ago


Actually my response was directed at your expansion – which I read into your original work. To place more emphasis on science we have to consider several things

  1. We need to come up with a policing mechanism to address the misuse of science from both the left and the right. We use to use peer review to do that. Today peer review has degenerated into log rolling. So much science is funded by governments there is no avoidance of politics in science. Not a good thing.

  2. Restricting investment in higher education to curriculums where graduates are in demand is exactly what I was writing about. If we as a society choose to fund whatever a student wishes to pursue we will go broke. My reflection on personal as opposed to civic concerns addresses my perception of your original work. The state IMHO does not have a compelling interest in everyone having a college degree of their choice.

Now you jumped on me to social science which IMHO is not science as I have understood it. You seem to suggest that there is some absolutely knowable fact associated with human actions. I would argue that human actions are not fully predictable. That said, it is my anecdotal observation that people in general want all they can get and are less than enthusiastic in working to get it. There are exceptions and you may be one. Public policy must take into account psychology and sociology in trying to reward individuals. The great Communist experiment (from each according to their ability and to each according to their needs) floundered on human nature. The phenomenon of those on unemployment finding jobs shortly after the unemployment insurance ends is a case in point.

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