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Are Science Majors Better Than Liberal Arts Majors?

March 5, 2018

Science Major

On the day of my graduation from UMass-Boston, we science majors wore gold tassels while everyone else wore undistinguished white ones. At one point, a young lady Liberal Arts Major said to one of my friends, “You Science Majors think you’re better than the rest of us!” My friend was quick to respond, “That’s because we are better.”

I was borderline illiterate when I reached my twenty-second birthday. Then, to correct this deficit, I read about 7000 first-rate books over the next twenty years. At first, I would just go to the Penguin Classics section of the local bookstore and pick authors with exotic, challenging names like Dostoyevsky and Flaubert. This allowed me to get my bearings in terms of literary quality and where each narrative fit on the four-thousand-year-long cultural timeline, with each book referring me to other great works, and, furthermore, to my wanting to read historical accounts that would add to my knowledge of the human condition. I read advanced literary criticism to enhance my reading experience, which really helped to deepen my understanding of the greatest novel of all-time, Moby Dick. This long process culminated in my reading everything I could find on African American History and Literature and then writing my magnum opus (and feel welcome to buy your own copy), The Education of a White Boy. In short, I earned a sound Liberal Arts education without having gone to college.

Then, at 42, I decided to go to college at UMass-Boston to get a science degree in Biology. Friends and family wondered why I did not pursue a degree in literature or history, to which I answered that I had already done that at a level far beyond what is achieved by the usual Liberal Arts Major. Also, I HAD read science books but had to admit that absorbing their content did not come to me as easily as leaning back on a recliner and breezing through Lord Jim. It turned out that this was not due to a lack of intelligence on my part but rather because science IS a harder discipline, emphasis on discipline.

I had not taken algebra in 25 years. Therefore, in order to qualify right away to take Algebra I so to begin the long ascent to Calculus, I taught myself enough math to bypass all the pre-Algebra classes. My plan was a success, but I learned right off the bat the key difference between a Science and Liberal Arts Major – that is, 2 + 2 = 4, not 5 because 5 FEELS better.

This simple premise was hammered into me for eight years until I graduated at the age of 50 a less dreamy, more grounded man. At the heart of a Science Major’s education is the Scientific Method, which requires that one , first, observe some natural process; second,  think of a reason to explain one’s observation (called a hypothesis); third, create an experiment that employs objective measuring techniques to test one’s hypothesis (or guess); and, last, if one’s data disagrees with the hypothesis, then one must forget about feelings, about one’s clever-sounding guess, and get back to work coming up with another hypothesis. But even if the data agrees with one’s hypothesis, others will follow up with their own experiments to disprove the “clever guess” – and the original scientist, or student, must be cool with having been wrong for the sake of Universal Knowledge, Knowledge that will never achieve the Ultimate Truth. Here is a picture for those without either a Science or Liberal Arts Degree

Scientifis Method

In 1907,  Einstein formed a vague hypothesis on the relativistic theory of gravity that sounded great in his head. But he had to come up with mathematical facts to prove his theory, which took him seven arduous years. Finally, in 1915, in front of the rigorous Prussian Academy of Science, he presented his proof, and then turned around as if to drop the mike, and say, “And that, bitches, is the General Theory of Relativity.” Okay, that was a Liberal Arts flourish. But you can see this moment dramatized in the TV series, Genius, in these two clips:

Still he had to wait four more years until Arthur Eddington observed a solar eclipse off the west coast of Africa to get the final, physical data needed to turn the General Theory from something being debated over by brainy scientist to the awesome Theory that would revolutionize the world – and it was NOT easy.

One way to look at the difference between Science and Liberal Arts Majors is to make it a battle of Facts versus Persuasion. I took a required course on public speaking. One of our assignments was to split up the class for a formal debate on an issue in which I personally had a minority opinion. Yet I volunteered to join the majority-opinion team to test my fact-twisting ability. What I found was how easy it was to argue for something in which I had absolutely no belief.

Now I understood how a Big Tobacco lobbyist could make a living by convincing Washington politicians and the general public that Cancer = Freedom, much how George Orwell in Nineteen Eighty-Four, had Big Brother claiming that “Freedom is Slavery” and “Ignorance is Strength” and, my favorite, “2 + 2 = 5.”

There have been recent stories about Perdue Pharma and how their cash cow, Oxycontin, has pretty much created millions of heroin addicts that have, in turn, ruined entire American towns and regions. Scientists may have engineered the drug but it was Perdue’s army of marketing people – i.e., Liberal Arts Majors – who distorted the facts, the data, so they could sell Oxy as a wonder drug.

Many have argued that what Washington needs are more Scientists (Fact People) and less Lawyers (Persuaders defending whatever pays their campaign bills). A Scientist will look at measurements, taken for over a half-a-million years, of CO2-levels in the atmosphere, and conclude that, yes, they have risen in lock-step with the Industrial Revolution (a sound hypothesis), while a Persuader/Lawyer will persuade himself that this is a lie because, well, he doesn’t want to FEEL guilty about not giving up his Hummer or big boat. He likes his cushy, feel-good life. Then you have the Hollywood stars – the ultimate Liberal Arts Majors – who will preach against Global Warming while persuading themselves that their private jets and carbon-spewing mansions are exempt from the facts. So, yes, the country would be better off with more scientists serving in government.

The master Persuader, Donald Trump, is infamous for not trusting facts. Instead he will “trust his gut.” Well, Mr. President, just one Anatomy and Physiology class would teach you that your gut is another name for your formidable stomach through which food – in your case, Big Macs – gets broken down into smaller components. It does not break down thoughts, much less create thoughts.

One can posit that Liberal Arts Majors are better equipped in today’s economic landscape, even though that landscape is so dependent on technology. Here is the argument: True, Silicon Valley and its foreign imitators are the prime movers of Globalization, but that element is being taken over by robotics, thus allowing a platform for self-promoting talkers, or Persuaders.

In the Sixties and Seventies, when personal indulgence began to push aside inconvenient, hard facts, people would say things like, “Do what makes you feel good.“ These slack-minded gurus never considered the possibility that what often feels good to one person causes misery to dozens of other people, for example a coke-head who feels great when tooting the white powder while wrecks the lives around him. At present, the junk-science impresario, Oprah Winfrey, is preaching the hazy concept of “living your own truth,” which is say, she has not bothered to submit her blandishments to the Scientific Method. Oprah was a Communications major.

At UMass-Boston I WANTED to have the haziness beaten out of me, but it was still an epic internal battle to jettison what had been my inherent disposition as a born artist-rebel-type who sometimes, out of spite, would align myself with the more irrational aspects of life. One of my favorite professors at UMass was a lady who taught Russian Literature, of which I had always been a fan, and I could not help but to get a rebellious thrill when once she said, “Sorry but I believe the world is flat.” Perhaps this was a welcomed comment during a semester when I was taking physics and organic chemistry.

My transition from Liberal Arts Guy to Science Guy was well documented in my lab reports and other science papers. My first paper was on The Walking Catfish wherein I used a children’s book as a frame on which to hang my scientific research. I have since turned it into a blog, Introducing The Walking Catfish. I again mixed my own literary style with standard scientific presentation when I wrote other papers, for example , Five Plants that Changed Civilization and  Sexual Selection, though I removed all the dry Methods and Results from the latter paper before posting it as a blog.

Then I may have taken this approach too far when I wrote a Cell Biology lab report using the reality show, Jersey Shore, as an analogy for enzyme activity. Here is the opening paragraph:

“Determining the activity of a certain enzyme with its substrate in a specific cell is much like how the reality TV show Jersey Shore examines the romantic and sleazy activities of Guidos and Guidettes – that is, both the proteins and the self-absorbed, shallow Jersey simpletons have to be isolated from their normal environment to allow accurate measurements. The purpose of this experiment was to extract the enzyme, Tyrosinase, from both a green and ripe banana to see which is more effective at oxidizing DOPA to Dopachrome — the same as removing “The Situation” from Staten Island and Ronnie from the Bronx to compare which shallow dolt will win the icy heart of Sammi “Sweetheart” from Hazlet, New Jersey.”

Yes, I got way too cute. But I finally had the cuteness hammered out of me in Physics I and II. The language of physics is math, and no Shakespearean turn-of-phrase is going to replace the numbers needed to prove a hypothesis in this particular field of science. Our lab instructor insisted that I write with equations with nary a word-sentence. At first, I rebelled but soon saw not only the wisdom of this method but also its beauty. 2 + 2 = 4, no words necessary. Or to explain electrical resistance:

R = R₁ + Rg = 34.459kΩ + 0.600kΩ = 35.059kΩ

In the Einstein movie clip above, did the reader see any words?

My best friend at UMass was an ex-con with a gift for science who would go on to become a Physician Assistant. One day we were hanging out at the student center talking about where the various science majors rank in terms of difficulty. We ranked Environmental Science as the easiest, though a Liberal Arts major would cry the first time he had to explain the Nitrogen Cycle. Next came us, the Biology students, though a few Chem and Physics kids told me that they hated Biology because it was too messy, not always definable using sensible equations. Next came Chemistry with its meticulous handling and measuring of atoms and small molecules. The hardest? My friend and I were in perfect agreement that the Physics Majors were smarter than all of us – and when we tried to give an accurate description of this academic specimen, we heard a noise, and lo and behold we saw coming toward us a small group of the nerdiest, most spastic kids with a collective eye-lens width of the Hubble Telescope – and we pointed and laughed, there they are – but they also had our highest respect, since we had taken their basic course and considered it our greatest challenge, whereas, for them, it was only the first grade.

When we Science Majors took the required Liberal Arts classes, it was like taking a holiday, and we could bank on an easy A. But in my case, it was also a chance to do what I do best: write about literature and history using my full arsenal of words…and to hell with mathematical proofs or even being right. In these classes, one could be wrong, but if the wrongness was presented in a sound, well-crafted way, then that was all that mattered to the professor. In other words, welcome to the world of Persuasion!

One of my favorite writers of all time is H.L. Mencken. Now I was given the chance to write a scholarly paper on him, and here it is on my blog minus the footnotes:  H.L. Mencken: The Great Prose Stylist.  I wrote a short essay on Macbeth that allowed me to express my fatalistic worldview, Macbeth Teaches Us About the Futility of Life. The odd thing is that students from all over the world now consult these two blogs for their own papers.

In the end, my Science Degree made me a better writer. I became a more disciplined scribbler, willing to “kill my darlings” if they failed to support the rest of my text. My training in expressing concepts in numbers helped with the accuracy of my prose. I now write screenplays which require a steadfast adherence to the three-act structure and a willingness to jettison excess dialogue and even whole characters. I know other script-writers who struggle with this part of the process, but a Science Major thinks nothing of moving on from a flawed hypothesis.

UMass-Boston had cleared my mind of all the trash that had once made me feel good in the way of whiskey easing the pain of an alcoholic. The thing is that now I FEEL so much better by seeing the world with greater clarity, greater precision. In FACT, science taught me to see life as a beautiful poem.

Are Science Majors better than Liberal Arts Majors? If they are, it is just a hypothesis waiting for proof.

 

(Check out my writer website: http://www.authorjamesfjohnson.com)

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