Science and its disciplines

Science in its original sense was a word for a type of knowledge rather than a specialized word for the pursuit of such knowledge. It refers, for example, to natural science and social science and certain disciplines in liberal education in general.

In higher education, there is a class of disciplines called STEM, an acronym for the Natural Sciences, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. STEM excludes Social Science and liberal education in general.

With regard to funding higher education, STEM disciplines are given priority for practical reasons, mainly because most industry prefers personnel trained in science and technology.

However, there has always been arguments in defence of teaching a combination of STEM and non-STEM Liberal Education.

In his recent book, Fareed Zakaria argues that the “turn away from the liberal arts is a mistake. A liberal education teaches you how to write, how to speak your mind, and how to learn (critical analysis)—immensely valuable tools no matter your profession. Technology and globalisation are actually making these skills even more valuable as routine mechanical and even computing tasks can be done by machines or workers in low-wage countries.

More than just a path to a career, a liberal education is an exercise in freedom. Above all, it is an expression of the most basic urge of the human spirit—to know. There are current trends to teach what are called ‘soft skills’ as well as technical skills. It is not uncommon for a CEO to advise his team to ‘think outside the box’.

The point here is that a liberal education teaches one how to learn, hence how to ‘think outside the box.’ This why a Jeff Bezos, (Amazon), requests his team to write their proposals in a memo and bring them to a meeting.

Natural science and liberal education

It is important, therefore, to discuss in what sense the liberal education benefits an individual in the same way that the natural sciences do.

The link between Natural Science and Social Science would be if both sciences used the scientific method to discover knew knowledge.

The scientific method

The scientific method seeks to discover knew knowledge in a reproducible way. The method determines whether any type of knowledge is verifiable as true or false. The search for new knowledge starts with a hypothesis (or theory), then the theory goes through a series of experiments (laboratory, statistical), after which it reaches a conclusion based on the experiments.

If the new explanations (conclusions) lead to falsifiable predictions and are testable by experiment or observation, then the conclusions are stated to be either true or false. The predictions are announced, and confirming experiments or observations are made to provide proof that no tampering has occurred.

If a conclusion cannot be disproved, then it be stated to be true. This may be confirmed through observation of natural phenomena, but also through experimentation that tries to simulate natural events under conditions as appropriate to the discipline.

In observational sciences, such as astronomy or geology, a predicted observation might take the place of a controlled experiment.

This method is closely linked to the philosopher, Karl Popper (1902-1994) who held that theories must be falsifiable. If a theory is falsified by experiments or observations, scientists can respond by revising the theory, or by rejecting the theory in favor of a rival theory.

In any case, however, this process must aim at the production of new, falsifiable predictions. Popper recognized that sometimes scientists can and do hold onto theories in the face of failed predictions when there are no predictively superior rivals to turn to.

He held that scientific practice is characterised by its continual effort to test theories against experience and make revisions based on the outcomes of these tests.

While performing experiments to test hypotheses, some scientists may have a preference for one outcome over another.

In pharmaceutical research and development, for example, scientists may be commissioned to show that a certain drug rather than another cures certain diseases.

In that context, it is absolutely necessary to show that clinical studies do confirm the conclusions reached.

The conclusions in a clinical study must be both reproducible and falsifiable. It is important to ensure that science is objective and transparent, through a peer review process of the experimental results as well as any conclusions.

Multidisciplinary Scientific Method

The Social Sciences are primarily concerned with human beings and human society. People are, obviously, more difficult to understand, predict and control than molecules.

This makes it difficult to base explanations in psychology or sociology on falsifiable experiments. The differences in the results of the two kinds of science (physical and social) is due to the essential difference between the objects of study.

It may be necessary to find a scientific method that would apply to both physical and social science. One would wonder, for example, whether a study of the brain is strictly in the field of physical science or part of social science as well; whether the study of human emotions (psychology) belongs in both physical and social studies.

Once one has accounted carefully for the essential differences, one might end up with set of requirements for a more general scientific method for the social sciences of which scientific method for the physical sciences is a special case.

There are current multidisciplinary studies in which biologists, neurologists, social scientists and linguists collaborate. In order to reach reasonable conclusions, the researchers must agree on methodology that is mutually acceptable for all disciplines.

The psychology of language is a particularly interesting study of the psychological and neurobiological factors that enable humans to acquire, use, comprehend and produce language.

Initial studies into psycholinguistics were largely philosophical or educational schools of thought, due mainly to their location in departments other than applied sciences (e.g., cohesive data on how the human brain functioned).

Modern research makes use of biology, neuroscience, cognitive science, linguistics, and information science to study how the brain processes language. There are also studies into the acquisition of social sciences, human development, communication theories and infant development, among others.

A number of sub-disciplines with non-invasive techniques for studying the neurological workings of the brain are studied; for example, neurolinguistics has become a field in its own right.

In these disciplines, it is quite easy for linguists, biologists and neurologists to perform experiments on the brain (a physical object). However, they might not be able to perform experiments of developmental stages in language learning.

Neurology might be a STEM discipline, while language teaching and learning might not. And yet it is necessary to finance language teaching as a basic discipline.

Technological applications

There is no doubt that the use and application of science and technology in everyday life has been of infinite value in copies with the environment. This is precisely why STEM disciplines are preferred to liberal education.

For example, in a developing country like Uganda, technological applications are reaching the entire population at affordable cost. In Africa today, the use of solar power has made it possible to teach IT in rural areas that are not connected to an electrical grid.

The pervasive use of cell phones has made it possible for many people to learn and communicate to each other without too much expense. In Kenya for example, farmers and herdsmen get information about new and more productive methods of growing their crops or raising their animals on the cellular phone.

In this sense, the training of an IT engineer, who would invent the cellular phone, becomes much more important than training a social scientist.

Current Trends

Current trends in both basic education and higher education towards are moving towards blended learning trains people about coping and managing their environment while at the same time inspiring students towards innovation through arts and design across any curriculum.

This has been characterized and a movement from purely STEM learning to STEAM which includes art and design as a necessary part of STEM education. For a long time, teachers have been encouraged to engage their students in critical thinking in any subject of study, which is not included in STEM education.

A famous physicist, Freeman Dyson, once pointed out the importance of both the use of technology and the importance of ethics to protect the environment. Dyson envisions the day genetically engineered crops stamp out rural poverty.

Though this might be said to be unethical, Dyson considers that if successful, the popularity of such crops would spread among farmers and help alleviate poverty. During the last 20 years, he said, there has been explosive growth in understanding of the basic processes of life, “allowing us to breed new varieties of animals and plants in a decade instead of a millennium.”

Within a few decades, he predicted, “We shall be able to design new species of microbes and plants according to our needs.” Such species will be able to do many things that industry does today -- and also many things industry cannot do. For example, scientists may design trees that produce liquid fuels and termites that can chew up used cars.

Dyson calls these new technologies “green” because they are based on biology rather than physics or chemistry, which are the primary foundations of what he calls the “gray” technologies of industry.

The ethical conflict between the green environmental movement and genetic engineers is well understood. On the other hand, the millennium development goals of eliminating poverty are enormously important to the world.

The argument can only be resolved through the joint resolution of both scientists and liberal artisans to cope with the questions of the green revolution. It is very clear that the green revolution, through genetic engineering, has raised crop yields during the last 50 years. But the world must protect itself from the dangers of unethical conduct.

If the biotechnology revolution involving genetic engineering can use plants to generate solar power, it will be of beneficial to both the rich (Monsanto) and the poor (in South Sudan).

The writer is a retired Professor of Linguistics, who continues to be passionate about the use of words, language and communication.