In the Times:
Academic Tradition
22 August 2013

¶ Physicist Alan Frank laments the “Age of Denial” on today’s Op-Ed page. Funny, but I was thinking of the disconnect between the academy and society myself, having written a few lines yesterday about what’s missing in college teaching. I was thinking of the humanities, but Frank shows that my concern stretches to the sciences as well. He concludes:

During my undergraduate studies I was shocked at the low opinion some of my professors had of the astronomer Carl Sagan. For me his efforts to popularize science were an inspiration, but for them such “outreach” was a diversion. That view makes no sense today.

The enthusiasm and generous spirit that Mr. Sagan used to advocate for science now must inspire all of us. There are science Twitter feeds and blogs to run, citywide science festivals and high school science fairs that need input. For the civic-minded nonscientists there are school board curriculum meetings and long-term climate response plans that cry out for the participation of informed citizens. And for every parent and grandparent there is the opportunity to make a few more trips to the science museum with your children.

Behind the giant particle accelerators and space observatories, science is a way of behaving in the world. It is, simply put, a tradition. And as we know from history’s darkest moments, even the most enlightened traditions can be broken and lost. Perhaps that is the most important lesson all lifelong students of science must learn now.

There are several interesting points here, and popularization is certainly one of them. We need authoritative populizers like Carl Sagan, writers and filmmakers who can connect young readers and audiences especially with the look and feel of real science. But my eye caught on “the most enlightened traditions.” It is unusual to hear scientists speak of traditions. Carrying on as though the Aristotelian Weltanschauung was still in need of demolition became something of a necessary deformation for modern scientists. But Western science is by now an august tradition, with centuries-old roots, and most of its authority derives from those roots.

It is really time for universities to reclaim the moral authority that they so heedlessly threw off in the Sixties and Seventies. Ordinary schools abandoned the pretense, as it were, while professors in the great universities contented themselves with a kind of mutual authority, among themselves, that disregarded public opinion. They have no one to thank but themselves for the public’s embrace of existential fantasies.

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