A Simple, All Too Repeatable, Experiment

Below is a transcript of part of a video of Neil DeGrasse Tyson discussing the need for science literacy. The setting is the World Science Festival 2010. My transcript, which may not be trustworthy, starts at the 5:00 minute point but readers should watch the whole thing.

But one thing I think we should be embarrassed by is that the scientists – I, I – you can do this experiment yourself, I’ve done the experiment – the scientists, by and large, know more – know more – liberal arts than the science that is known by liberal artists. And that needs to change. If you go to a science cocktail party and someone talks about Shakespeare no ones is going to say, “Oh, I was never good at Shakespeare. I was terrible at nouns and verbs.” Look, you’ll never hear that. But you go to a liberal arts party, artists parties, and someone starts talking about math and “I was never good at math. I hated math.” And they all chuckle. And they all agree! And they’ll, like, sip the next sip of champion and go on talking about the art. And that’s, somehow, okay. No, that’s not okay!

Christopher Hite made the video that I in part transcribed. He posted it at Tomas Paine’s Ghost (and YouTube). Go watch it all.
These results from cocktail party experiments are so common as to be nearly universal. I’ve experienced this phenomenon several times myself at humanities events and science events. Very few in the liberal arts ever blush as they change the subject from math or science to anything else. But scientists are generally eager to discuss art, literature, and history. The liberal arts’ chuckle that Tyson describes is often a chuckle of feigned superiority rather than of real embarrassment. In my own experience, the only such parties that might produce different results are gatherings of philosophers of science and mathematics. But, philosophers of science and mathematics are often reviled by their philosophy colleagues for not making their work “more accessible.”
Via A Blog Around the Clock

2 thoughts on “A Simple, All Too Repeatable, Experiment”

  1. It is possible to find a analogue on the liberal arts side. For example, when I find myself describing my work at the equivalent of cocktail parties, I often get the same comment: “Well, it’s all Greek to me!” — which I put in the same league as “I was never good at math.”

  2. Yeah, I’ve experienced similar things at a few liberal arts gatherings when I’ve brought up Akkadian or Ugaritic. Interestingly, about once a month I attend a gathering of mostly science types. When I mention something Akkadian or Ugaritic there, I can almost guarantee I will get questions. Not all the questions will be informed, but all will be expressions of genuine interest that often generate several follow-ups.

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