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Liberal Arts Symposium Puts Spotlight on Science

Heights Staff

Published: Sunday, October 30, 2011

Updated: Wednesday, January 9, 2013 18:01


Boston College's Institute for the Liberal Arts brought a quartet of speakers to the Heights Saturday for a symposium entitled "Science in the Liberal Arts University: Why it Matters to Us All." The summit was the second such event in as many years for the Institute founded in 2010, and featured lectures on the role of the sciences in the context of the liberal arts through an array of topics.

"We wanted to find speakers who could talk about important issues from a scientific perspective and who would also address the need for the humanities, social sciences, sciences, and professional schools to work together on educating people about these issues and searching for solutions," said Mary Crane, director of the Institute for the Liberal Arts.

Elizabeth Kolbert, a New Yorker staff writer and avid climatology chronicler, kicked off the symposium with a discussion on climate change, man's role in it, and society's view of the controversy. She considered the notion of the "anthropocene," the idea that we're living in a geological era primarily defined by humanity's impact on the environment. Her lecture covered the nature of being human at a moment when mankind might be determining the fate of the planet, a topic to be considered not only through science, but all disciplines of the liberal arts.

Steven Pinker, professor of psychology at Harvard University, followed Kolbert with a presentation encapsulating his new book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: The Decline of Violence in History and Its Causes, which argues that society has entered its least violent period in history. Using a slew of data tracking homicides, wars, cruelty towards animals, and other metrics, Pinker asserted that mankind has never been less violent. Pointing to factors like the rise of commerce, cross-cultural exchange, the Enlightenment, nuclear proliferation, and increased promotion of human rights, the speaker claimed that human nature hasn't changed, but rather the forces enabling the more peaceful sides of our beings to reign more frequently. He argued that, while modern authorities may lament the prevalence of war, terrorism, and destruction, their opinions don't reflect the steady trend towards less violence.

"Our own sensitivity to violence has been ramped up, and we're finding it in every nook and cranny," Pinker said.

Siva Vaidhyanathan, professor of media studies and law at the University of Virginia, answered the symposium's question of "why science matters" through an investigation of the potential pitfalls of technology if consumers don't properly understand it. Vaidhyanathan, a longtime observer of Google and other technology giants, expressed concern at the way consumers put too much trust into ubiquitous technology with too little examination into what goes into the technology and its ramifications. He alluded to the prevalence of Americans being duped by statistics, describing a cultural obsession with "vulgar empiricism," or our reliance on statistics without considering the biases of the poll, its sample size, and actual importance.

"There is so much more to complex human interaction than we can count," Vaidhyanathan said.

His concerns extended to the way consumers don't fully understand Google and the search results it yields, noting Google's quieter practices of capitalizing on personal data obtained through user searches. He warned that society's overreliance on technology has led to a dangerous "technofundamentalism," where the public believes that we can always invent machines to correct the damage of previous technology.

To resolve his perceived gap of knowledge between the forerunning engineers of today's society and the general public, the speaker advocated a greater emphasis on critical thinking in society and increased efforts to bridge the knowledge divide by academics.

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