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Yet another call for interdisciplinary education

September 1, 2011 Leave a comment

The mild sarcasm in the title notwithstanding, I think what Johns Hopkins is doing is fantastic (emphasis added):

Currently, most biomedical graduate programs teach first year students in separate silos, giving them separate courses in biochemistry, cell biology, physiology, and so on. The proposed new model would instead divide biology up into the key underlying processes — gene expression, metabolism and cell fate and function. Instructors would teach each of these key processes, or “nodes,” in an integrated bottom-to-top manner, incorporating important information from the molecular scale all the way up to the whole organism.

A second major component of the new curriculum would be a year-long, hands-on course in methods and techniques, providing students with skills to pursue their research interests.

“We think the new curriculum would create a valuable foundation for today’s graduate students in the life sciences,” says co-author Jon R. Lorsch, a professor in the Department of Biophysics and Biophysical Chemistry. “Organizing the material into nodes, which is the way biological systems are actually arranged, will help students retain more of what they learn, and the techniques course will prime them to tackle fundamental biological questions with whatever methods are required.”

The proposal follows an innovative curriculum that was implemented for medical students by Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in 2009, called Genes to Society. The changes were designed to encourage students to see patients in a larger context, integrating the biological and physical aspects with the social, cultural, psychological and environmental variables that also affect their health. Such integration is viewed as critical to realizing the promise of personalized medicine, which was made possible by the human genome project.

Categories: Academia

There is more to science than climate change

September 1, 2011 3 comments

I understand the Zack Beauchamps out there apply a national politics filter to almost everything they write. I get why they spend time on climate change and stem cells rather than space physics. I accept my thesis really wasn’t very interesting. But can we please stop pretending that science begins and ends with climate change? Can we stop equating a position on two or three hot-button issues with “science?” The U.S. spends some $400 billion on R&D every year. In 2006 over 1 million papers were published in 23,000-odd peer-reviewed journals. Are we going to reduce all of this to nothing more than the latest IPCC report?

I assure you I too want to stop global warming. But come on. Most research has absolutely nothing to do with politics at any scale. It cheapens the whole experience to brand me as pro or anti-science based on a single issue. It is possible to engage with and care about science without giving a damn about cap-and-trade.

You may not know this from reading the political blogosphere, but there is in fact more to science than climate change.

Politicians’ scientific beliefs, indicators, and cultural markers

September 1, 2011 3 comments

Liberal bloggers have been attacking National Review’s Kevin Williamson for arguing politicians’ scientific beliefs don’t matter:

Why would anybody ask a politician about his views on a scientific question? Nobody ever asks what Sarah Palin thinks about dark matter, or what John Boehner thinks about quantum entanglement. (For that matter, I’ve never heard Keith Ellison pressed for his views on evolution.) There are lots of good reasons not to wonder what Rick Perry thinks about scientific questions, foremost amongst them that there are probably fewer than 10,000 people in the United States whose views on disputed questions regarding evolution are worth consulting, and they are not politicians; they are scientists.

Let me narrow in on a specific type of claim made Chait, Drum, and Beauchamp, where they seem to use evolution and climate change (ECC) as a kind of indicator for Rick Perry’s decision-making and governance ability writ-large. Here’s Chait (emphasis added):

Likewise, Perry’s evolution skepticism signals a strong commitment to conservative values over the conclusions of data and experts. On a deeper level, he is demonstrating social solidarity with conservatives against the intellectual elites they resent. He probably won’t have to make a presidential decision on teaching evolution, but his answers to questions about it tell you a great deal about how he would govern.

This claim is rather strange. Many practicing scientists dispute evolution and climate change. These intellectual blind-spots don’t prevent them from designing circuits, writing Matlab code, solving differential equations, or analyzing datasets. (I’m thinking of specific people I know here.) If their stance on ECC doesn’t necessarily impact decision-making in other areas of science, how can it tell you anything useful outside of science?

It’s even stranger to use ECC when we have Rick Perry’s actual record as a governor, stated political views and publications to turn to. Surely these are much better governance indicators than passing comments on evolution. I see no need to use a bad indicator when better ones are easily available. Given that Chait et al. have themselves written extensively on Perry’s record, they shouldn’t have to reference either evolution or climate change.

I suspect that liberals view ECC the way conservatives view public displays of Christian piety. Both represent cultural markers as much as they do a policy agenda. And that’s okay with me. Political leaders are more than people who advance legislation we support. By that measure we know we will often be disappointed in the end anyway. When you see yourself losing on the substance, public affirmation of your values can become even more important. Liberals want to live in an America where everyone embraces evolution and climate change. Since that won’t happen anytime soon, at the very least they’ll make damned sure our President embraces them. Put another way, liberals want politicians who believe in ECC because, well, they want politicians who believe in ECC. I wish they’d just say that.

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