In Defense of…Frontiers of Science

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Welcome to Bwog’s latest feature, “In Defense Of…” Here, a writer defends something that most students consider useless, inferior, or downright loathsome. In doing so, Bwog hopes to bring you a new perspective, and give the subject the appreciation it deserves…or not. In our second offering, J. Bryan Lowder offers some thoughts on a much-discussed and often unloved Core class.

Alaskan Gov. Sarah Palin may soon be “a heartbeat away” from leading the United States.  Allegedly, Palin also believes in intelligent design.  I hope Matt Damon and I aren’t the only ones who think this is a problem.  What may be even more problematic, however, is that Palin is not alone.  An August 2006 article in the journal Science found that in 2005, only 40% of Americans accepted the idea of evolution, second in the survey only to Turkey.   Far from a simple theological disagreement, the intelligent design movement represents an outright rejection of scientific, rational thought at a time when it is most important.

This brings me to Frontiers.  We’ve all heard the joke that Lit Hum and CC are really just preparatory courses for future cocktail parties.  Maybe so, but I doubt that any half-sober student can leave those seminars without having been exposed to at least a few life-changing ideas. This “enlightenment by osmosis” is really the point of the Core, and so, while you may not remember how to figure the luminosity of a star (or even what that is), you should leave Frontiers at least having learned how to think scientifically.  

Humanities people: I already know what you’re going to say – as an English major, I’m one of you.  Frontiers is too hard; it’s not relevant to your intellectual interests; the professors are boring, etc.  Science people: from the perspective of a science writer, I also think I understand your point of view.  Frontiers is too easy; it’s redundant; the humanities kids are stupid, etc.  I suspect that the reality of the situation lies in the middle.  

The humanities majors need a dose of rationality every once in a while.  They also need to understand what quarks are, why the stars shine, and how babies are made (Tolstoy elides that last bit, you know). I agree that Frontiers may be “too hard” in the sense that, at times, the problem sets tend to obfuscate the more interesting, “big picture” ideas.  Other courses, such as Janet Conrad’s Physics for Poets or Amber Miller’s Intro to Cosmology, would be good models for improvement.  As for the professors, you have to realize that scientists generally find it difficult to communicate their ideas to the layperson, hence the need for science writers.  I would bet, however, that using your well-honed close-reading skills you could distill the salient points from a lecture.   

The science kids need to step-back from the equations from time to time and really think about the concepts that underlie their work.  Perhaps it is redundant, but so are a lot of things. Artists still have to take Art Hum—welcome to Columbia. As for the humanities students’ stupidity, just remember that their tax dollars will be funding your experiment one day, so you had better get them on board now.  

The point is this: just as everyone benefits from reading Hegel, everyone is better for having sat through Helfand.  Frontiers may not be as intellectually exciting as shooting wolves from a helicopter, but taking it will make you a more informed, rational thinker.  And let’s face it; some of you will eventually be in Palin’s place.  Do you really want Matt Damon trash-talking you?  

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  1. what do you call  

    the study of extremely poofy hair?


  2. also redundant:  

    music majors/concentrators taking music hum in addition to a 2-semester sequence of music history.

  3. honestly bwog,  

    these things are a bunch of self-righteous rants.
    and a load of crap.

  4. I disagree  

    I disagree with...well..almost everything said:

    1) "The science kids need to step-back from the equations from time to time and really think about the concepts that underlie their work." It is not as if science majors sit in a room all day and plug numbers into equations. They actually have to learn how they work and the conceptual foundations of them in order to apply them to various situations. They actually have to know the 'big picture' in order to do well.

    2) "Perhaps it is redundant, but so are a lot of things. Artists still have to take Art Hum—welcome to Columbia." Just because other things are redundant does not mean that it is good or that it provides any benefit. Even if Music Major were required to take Music Hum, it does not mean this type of system is good. That is perhaps why students can test out of Music Hum.

    3) "...just as everyone benefits from reading Hegel, everyone is better for having sat through Helfand." Yes, everyone can benefit from reading Hegel, but that does not imply that they benefit from sitting through Frontiers.

    There's more, but what's been really said in this defense of Frontiers is some sweeping generalizations and conclusions from false premises.

  5. FoS fan  

    But I do agree that Frontiers is a good class. Just a few observations. In response to the belligerent douche above, I think it's perfectly fine to insult every retard who believes in intelligent design, especially dirty whores like your mother, and pity unfortunately uneducated people in third world countries. Second, the problem sets are a joke; if you have difficulty with middle school algebra, you deserve whatever struggles you have. Third, I'm sick of humanities majors knowing nothing about science, and then trying to reason out public policy on science from a philosophical perspective. Fourth, FoS is broad enough that science majors can still learn about different areas of science.

    Plus, the person (#6) above me has no affirmative reasons why Frontiers is bad, just holes in the writer's argument. That looks like a hole in #6's argument.

    • actually  

      The burden of proof is upon the defense since they haven't shown that FoS is actually effective. Also, their argument relies mostly on the fact that FoS teaches science majors how to think about the big picture and humanities how to think scientifically, but I've shown the flaws in those arguments.


    "the intelligent design movement represents an outright rejection of scientific, rational thought at a time when it is most important"

    WRONG. Intelligent Design is not in any way opposed to evolution. Creationism is. Creationism is the idea that Genesis is to be taken literally, that God created Adam and then Eve and the whole creation series took exactly 6 days.

    Intelligent Design is does not accept Genesis as a history book. Intelligent Design simply says, "Here is this world. People disagree about its history. But it couldn't have come into being without some sort of Divine Creator."

    Intelligent Design does NOT say WHAT happened. It does not knock evolution on principle. It simply is a statement about WHY it all happened. Evolution is not irreconcilable with Theism. Palin is NOT proposing Creationism.

    Do your research before attacking philosophical belief systems, Bwog...

    • false  

      Intelligent design was only thought up after it was decided that creationism couldn't be taught as science. They are essentially identical. And of course it is opposed to evolution. Intelligent Design refuses to accept natural selection. Natural selection, however, is the mechanism of evolution. Intelligent design is basically a politically correct form of creationism. I suggest you do YOUR research before writing stupid comments on bwog.

  7. Religion  

    is the opiate of the masses. - Karl Marx.

    Now normally I'd hate to use Marx but it's appropriate here. Rationality is the only thing that propels society.

    Science majors and Engineers create new things and the masses love it but then they go and criticize the very basis of science. This is a generality though.

    When was the last time religion produced anything useful? Last time I checked, Hindus are forcing Christians to convert in India, Christians crusaded, Jews were killed for their religion, and some Muslims are going about with a jihad.

    Does religion make people feel comfortable and reassure them that when they die there is something more and they won't be another nothing in history? Yes.

    But a line is crossed when religion interferes with societal growth

    • dude  

      all the fundamental tenets underlying society - morality, law, compassion, family, duty - were communicated and propagated by the great religions of our world.

      just saying. i mean i was raised a liberal atheist, and i'm an engineer. but religion is very important. even if you're not religious. you gotta respect that shit.

  8. To #8  

    ID is closer to Creationism because it is unscientific. It also stunts the development of rational inquiry by giving an endpoint answer to all difficult questions. In essence, it abuses science and is probably more political than anything else.

    As a Catholic, I think that, with John Paul II, truth can't contradict truth. Evolution, evidence tells us, is true. But that doesn't imply Intelligent Design if you believe in God.

    Read up on theistic evolution (John Haught, Owen Gingerich)

    And #14

    Please don't be so ignorant. Religion has produced a lot of useful things. And I'm pretty sure guys like Kepler and Galileo had religious motivations in their work.

    And in terms of society, religion has done a lot of good. It unites people, give us reasons to be good, etc.

    What you complain of is fundamentalism, which is really dangerous whether it be of the religious sort or the atheist sort you espouse.

    Speaking of which, it's anti-religious fundamentalism like yours that led to the terrors of communism (which Marx, the guy you quoted, had something to do with).

  9. breaking  

    bwog why haven't you reported on the assaults that occurred on/near campus last night?


  10. PSA

    Intelligent Design is Creationism in a shiny new wrapper. The very essence of ID is so vastly unscientific that I consider it a personal affront against myself and my scientist colleagues. I grant you that ID sounds nice to the layperson, but it is a (1) superfluous, (2) uninformed, (3)ignorant, {...} and (97) insulting mangling of true objective science. Teach ID and creationism if you are so inclined, but you are gravely mistaken (and marvelously uneducated in even the most elementary tenets of science) if you wish to put ID into a science classroom.

    Also, re:18 - Please give me one objective reason why I must religion above and beyond any other topic we encounter on a regular basis.

    • sorry,

      "...why i must *respect* religion..."

    • While

      the current Intelligent Design movement is clearly also trying to advance creationism, Intelligent Design, the idea that the world has both created by something outside of it and is directed toward some ultimate end, cannot be proved or disproved by science. It is a question of philosophy. Science cannot prove what caused the creation of the universe.

    • dude  

      i wasn't trying to say, at all, that there's an objective argument in defense of religion.

      listen, we all know these arguments for science. grandly speaking, i probably believe them more than others in this world, due to my upbringing, education, and bill nye the science guy.

      but the stuff that religion is fundamentally about - faith, compassion, divinity, other shit - is historically and socially just as important valuable as the objectivity of science. no philosopher has ever argued that humans completely rational, and i think our many ways of understanding social order, cosmology, and epistemology rightly reflect this.

      granted, i understand your frustration for religion and science crossing their domains of faith and pure objectivity, as your lovely rant about intelligent design demonstrated. but this kind of disrespectful subversion of something so equally essential to humanity is not going to make either party realize this.

      • ...  

        religion is belief in things that cannot be proven that are relayed to one by other human beings. in order to fully subscribe, one must switch off reason and operate on "faith." this "faith" relationship is transitive, when one switches off reason to buy into a religious dogma, one also switches off reason to subordinate oneself to its purveyors.

        switching off reason when interacting with other human beings is a very dangerous enterprise. who's to say that they actually hold one's best interest at heart. once reason has been switched off, it becomes impossible to properly evaluate such things. this is why we have cults and holy wars.

        despite all the war, hatred and suffering, religion has done some good in this world. that said, regardless of the comfort, community structure/organization, goodwill and basis for morality it provides, it's fundamental structure encourages large numbers of people to abandon rational thought and subordinate themselves to others.

        some may not have a problem with this, but i do.

        • so the problem  

          as you say, is that religious zealots "subordinate themselves" to "purveyors". so the problem is not with religion, intrinsically. it is with the purveyors who incorrectly take advantage of them.

          • ...  


            learning to switch off reason and getting comfortable in that state is the primary problem.

            getting taken advantage of by a specific person or group is but one of many unpleasant avenues that open up.

            another one that comes to mind is mob mentality.

  11. DHI  

    One problem with religion is that for something once designed to explain mysteries, it doesn't even try to examine any of the real interesting problems of creation (now that we know a little more about it.) But whatever, those questions are better answered without religion anyway.

    The problem with Frontiers isn't that it's too easy, and definitely not that it's "too hard," or even that it's irrelevant, because understanding how science works is incredibly relevant. It's that it's not really a course, in that each individual topic is irrelevant to understanding the other topics. I don't buy the idea that "thinking scientifically" connects these topics; I would not want to take a history course that analyzed four disconnected areas of history, with the justification that you are learning to "think historically."

    • green

      Actually, I think it makes perfect sense to have a history course that covers disconnected areas of history, and I suspect there are quite a few, because some of the best analytic thought in that field ties seemingly disparate currents together. That doesn't mean that it makes sense to do that with science. Regardless, I don't think the idea of Frontiers is fundamentally bad. Although I'm a science major, I actually looked forward to it. It didn't live up to my expectations, but I believe it can be improved. The idea of having leading researchers give talks is a sound one, I think. But I believe they can and should conduct it on a more mature level.

      • DHI  

        If you're talking about courses like Islamo-Christian Civilization, I still think that's a lot different, there's a clear thesis bringing the different parts of the course together - other than "WE'RE STUDYING HISTORY!"

        I do think the course is fundamentally flawed, but I also think that it's taught in a patronizing manner, and that it's boring.

  12. DHI  

    I overanalyzed that shit, the reason that Frontiers is a bad class is because it's impossible to care about it. Forget that other stuff.

  13. the professors  

    I know it's impossible to fix but it's sort of silly that professors who know nothing about astronomy have to lead seminars about it.

  14. Humanities Major  

    Frontiers was pretty damn easy. 8th grade geology was harder. What is the author talking about?

  15. strange, i know  

    but i liked frontiers...as a double science and non science major, i thought it was interesting, if a little random.

  16. Aha!

    You're right. People never do evil things with rational self-interest in mind. Rational people (and, by extension, highly intelligent people) are by far more moral than less rational ones. This is a fact that everyone knows. Anyone who lives in the real world.

  17. No...

    I completely reject the notion that religion is required for compassion, morality, ethics, social order, etc. I am an atheist. Will you dare question my capacity for human compassion? Will you dare insinuate that because I do not believe in magic, I have no morals, and no ethical code? To use a McCainism, "my friend," I think I have far more compassion and morality than priests who use their undue status to abuse children, than a world-wide church who actively discriminates against other human beings, than televangelists who take money for nothing other than their own good, than fundamentalist terrorists who "would seek to harm our nation" (I hope the irony is sinking in by now). And, is your view of humanity so bleak, so distorted, that you feel most people REQUIRE a divine watchman to keep them "in line"?
    As for the argument that ID attempts to answer non-scientific questions, I posit that just because a question can be formed does not bring it any merit, philosophical or otherwise. How does a proton taste? If a woodchuck could....I hope you get my point. I concede that there are questions that science cannot answer (few and transient as they may be), but there are certain questions that simply cannot be answered because they are nonsensical. To answer them with religious (or, for that matter, scientific) nonsense does not improve your situation or add to your knowledge (i.e. "According to Leviticus, protons taste sour").

    Yes, religion has allowed some good things to happen, but as far as history goes, the dangers and drawbacks are far more numerous and far worse.

  18. Maybe:  

    Maybe the author was referring to Palin's alleged belief in the simultaneous existence of dinosaurs and humans? Maybe this was condensed to "ID" for space concerns? Just a thought.

  19. blue

    Congratulations, that is.

  20. dude  

    read my posts again carefully. you've misinterpreted them. i'm not trying to tell you that the correct life is a religious one. i'm saying that we should respect religion. the (misinterpreted) points you raised:

    1. you reject that religion is a prerequisite for compassion, morality, social order, etc. I agree with you. but i didn't come close to making this claim. this is not part of what i'm saying at all. i said: "historically and socially," religion has been singularly important in "communicating and propagating" these virtues, and hence, in setting up societies with these virtues. we should give credit where credit is due. (moreover, these societal virtues are probably where you developed your own compassion, morality, etc., but i'll leave that out of the discussion)

    2. yes that is a pretty good account of how most major religions view human nature. not mine. either way, irrelevant.

    3. your notion of how much 'merit' a question has is still shaped, in a very biased way, by your scientific viewpoint. it is absolutely true that some answers to questions do not "improve your situation or add to your knowledge," but please understand that there are more virtues in the human set of goods than knowledge and situational comfort.

    #34 was responding to me at #27

    i'm an atheist too. and i have a bracelet.

    • that was  

      in response to #34

    • My views

      didn't arise from religion as far as I know. They arose from my upbringing, and my parents aren't religious. You still didn't answer WHY we should respect religion. Not yesterday, not 100 years ago, but today. And I don't mean religion as a concept (i.e. yes, I do respect an institution for its historical accomplishments), I mean it in the sense of why should I give idiot A's views special status because they are religious, whereas I can call idiot B an idiot because his views are of the non-religious idiotic variety?
      Finally, I referred to merit semi-tangentially. The thrust of my point was that you cannot ask a question and claim that science is insufficient because it cannot answer that question. Of COURSE religion can answer "any" question, because you can MAKE UP as many answers as you want. It's the VALUE of those answers that really matters. Saying that "god" created the universe doesn't answer anything, it just leads you down an infinite corridor of questions about "god." The difference is, when you ask science about the creation of the universe, you might get a concrete answer eventually; with religion, you just get more questions, because religion isn't bounded by concrete laws, only by human imagination (which is, coincidentally, where it arose). Thanks for explaining your point. I feel like these debates would happen faster in person, and yet there's the extra clarity that comes with writing.

  21. and  

    maybe for the sake of not misinterpreting me again, you should track me and the comments i responded to. i wrote #18, #27, #33, #40, #41, and now #42

    and i would be happy to continue this discussion via e-mail if you don't want to write back on this. my e-mail is ajg2157@c...

    or reply on this thing, i'm interested in seeing what you have to say, if i've convinced you or not.

  22. lol  

    I love how this has gone off on a complete tangent to the issue. Funny how a footnote in the article can spark so much controversy about an issue that isn't really going to be resolved on Bwog. That's why the Veritas Forum exists. Go check them out, whether you're atheist, agnostic, or any degree of religious.

    Anyway, to the original post: there is nothing inherently wrong with Frontiers. I have a very strong Science background, and still thought the broader topics explored were interesting and relevant. For example, a Physics major doesn't come across Climate Change all that often; a Biology student probably doesn't deal with Tunneling/Quantum mechanics. It's also good way to at least teach Humanities majors a few facts about the world we live in and pique some interest, even if they don't achieve 'scientific reasoning' by the end of it. No, there's nothing particularly bad about the 'idea' of FoS.

    The reason FoS sucks is that despite these inherently interesting topics and stellar professors, the Core office hasn't come up with an interesting and engaging way of teaching the class. Pure and simple.

    It's like a Lit-Hum class with a Professor who gives you a tedious and large work-load, spends class time summarizing & paraphrasing ideas in the text, etc etc without there being anything wrong with the actual texts covered or the concept of the class.

  23. correction

    I wasn't reading carefully. Anyway, we agree.

  24. asdfasdf  

    on special status for religious people:
    1. i never implied anything of the sort. i think it's good that you can respect religion, as a general mode of thinking, for its historical establishment of the institutions that constitute most of how we think about this stuff today. that's all i proposed. i'm not suggesting any more or less than the non-religious.

    on the answers that religions provide:
    2. i think your claim that god's cosmology is useless because it 'leads you down an infinite corridor of questions' reveals your scientific bias for the 'value' of a question. it is central to the judeo=christian doctrine never to question god's answers for the sake of understanding wisdom. the assertion is that it is not man's place to ever comprehend this knowledge - human nature does not allow it. can you see how this is in stark contradiction to how you would analyze god's answers? in these religions, your questions would stop when god reveals his answer to you. the purpose of religion is blatantly not about the attainment of more and more knowledge. this is what your questions would aim to accomplish, and this is the scientific way.

    and yet, to certain people, these kinds of questions and answers - despite being completely insufficient by all scientific measures - are incredibly valuable. i think at the root of these different ways of appraising the completeness of knowledge originates in diverging theories about human nature. i.e., diverging theories about what man is intrinsically able to comprehend about our world, and how it is best to approach comprehension.

    as 'scientific' people, perhaps we above all should respect the valid discourse of different theories.

    • asdf  

      #47 is in reply to #44

    • answers?

      OK, you still haven't provided a reason why religion deserves my respect above and beyond other topics.
      I do have a scientific bias, but I don't see how this so-called bias is a bad thing. See, the promise of science is that it betters all of us humans -- of course not everyone can understand quantum mechanics, but at least in principle we can. Religion doesn't allow this. The whole concept of information being divulged to me is intensely tied in with the notion of a "personal god" whose message only I can understand, and which may be completely irrelevant to everyone but me. You cannot have rational discourse (forget rational thought) when Idiot A says "god told me the sky is green" and Idiot B says "god told ME the sky is red"-- and by virtue of the information coming from "god", both viewpoints are deemed correct.
      You are right, from its very inception religion was NOT about the attainment of knowledge. It was, and still is, an explicit substitute for cases when knowledge is lacking. This might've been acceptable many generations ago when there simply were no better explanations. Why isn't it acceptable today? Because religion's answers are simply not satisfactory compared to the answers given by other methods. When have they ever been? When has religious doctrine ever challenged science and won? Conversely, how many times has science offered a more complete and more satisfying answer than religion? But the issue isn't even that religion's answers aren't satisfying--maybe ignorance really is bliss to some people; maybe religion is a comfortable safety blanket. The issue is that religious thought is fundamentally about stopping progress, about submitting to higher powers (which are, for the most part other humans), about stunting the advancement of knowledge which can truly help everyone.
      Here's an example, all we Columbians can relate to. The ancient Greeks thought lightning bolts were literally thrown down from Mt. Olympus by Zeus. It was doubtlessly a valuable explanatory tool to them. So, how come we all chuckle at the notion today? Is it because we are all so horribly scientifically biased as to prefer the concept of charge imbalances over mythical bearded men? Or is it because the wonderful laws of physics offer a more satisfying, more pertinent, and let's face it, more rational explanation that does not require "faith"?

      //Apologies for length.

      • not attacking  

        Maybe I shouldn't be stepping in here, but I had a thought about something you said. You said "religious thought is fundamentally about stopping progress." That is not true. People all over the world have been religious in one way or another for millennia and yet here we are. I think you are thinking of very specific lines of religious thought stopping very specific areas of progress (albeit important areas of progress, but it is still dangerous to generalize). There have been plenty of societies with ideals deeply rooted in religious values that have flourished and greatly impacted the world for the better. As for your example with the ancient Greeks, yes, they were highly religious, superstitious even. That didn't stop them from producing some of the greatest architecture, art, and philosophy that this world has seen.

        And also, although I am sure they are quite capable of defending themselves, #47 never said you should respect religion above and beyond anything. All they pretty much said, originally, was that you should respect it on some level because it has impacted our world and done some good at some points.

        • answers?

          Religion has been around for millenia, yes. It is actually one of the reasons the human race remained relatively stagnant for those thousands of years. Let's take another ancient civilization, the Egyptians, since the judeo-christian tradition doesn't suit everyone here. The Egyptians engineered some of the greatest architectural feats known to man -- the pyramids. Think of the thousands or perhaps millions of man-hours that went into building these tombs, on the religious premise of an afterlife. Now think what this civilization could have accomplished if it used all this time, effort and obvious abundance of intellectual power toward exploring the world and improving itself.
          For another example, let's return to Christianity. Why? Not because I harbor a special hatred toward it or because I'm unaware of other religions, but because it is simply one of the most widespread delusions. Is the geocentric/ heliocentric model of the universe a general-enough area of progress for you? Do you know the story of Copernicus, and particularly Galileo? And do you know how many years elapsed before the church removed the label of "blasphemy" thereby allowing progress?
          I will refrain from giving you my views on embryonic stem cell research. However, I will tell you that as far as general scientific progress and religion are concerned, the vast majority of scientists in NAS (and European institutions as well) are atheists and to smaller extent, agnostics. The one time I saw a renowned scientist (Francis Collins) attempt to defend his strong religious views, the man began contradicting himself after about two sentences.
          Finally, I will posit that for all its purported benefits, there are far more dangers associated with religion.

          • Well...  

            I also think the world is a more beautiful place because of religiously-motivated work like the pyramids, Da Vinci's paintings, Gothic cathedrals, and etc. For the most part, I'm glad they accomplished those feats instead of motivating science. Science provides means for people to live, but religion, art, and beauty are why people want to keep living.

            Don't mistake me though - I'm an engineer, and I think progress is important too. But I think it is a flawed to say that it is the only thing that matters in this world.

          • Sometimes

            I think I am one of very few people who see the absolutely incredible beauty in science. I was relieved to find out I was not alone when I read Richard Dawkins' "Unweaving the Rainbow."

          • hey  

            i think science is beautiful too. i think mathematics is beautiful. but just because we are able to share this privilege doesn't mean that we should disqualify the more common avenues of beauty.

  25. errors  

    Religion, as defined in this thread, = Abrahamic religion.

    There are other religions out there, you know - ones that encourage a spirit of scientific questioning, do not encourage proselytizing, and ask you to question the faith itself without taking its word for granted.

    Yes, other religions do exist, so be clear about what you mean when you say "religion", because the problems most of you have identified with religion fit mostly in Judeo-Islamo-Christian context.

  26. kunimodo

    i learned about intelligent design in cc, NOT in frontiers.

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