Rhetoric on campus issues remains weak without context

The truth, unfortunately, is more complicated than Byrnes implies. And that truth is that Vassar as an institution isn’t responsible for the arts and sciences divide: Vassar’s humanities students are. Now, before you begin accusing me of things, let me state that I am math major who studies pure (read: useless, and non-applicable) math, and I’ve taken about fourteen classes outside the natural sciences. Most of my friends are non-STEM majors. I don’t believe that humanities are useless. I think they’re as important as the sciences, and definitely more important that pure mathematics.

The truth is that this “failed relationship between letters and numbers,” as Byrnes calls it, is due to a number of students holding massively conspiracy-theory level pseudo-scientific views, and their rejection of a large number of scientific consensuses and practices. (Boilerplate, “The sciences and humanities at Vassar: Are we building a better bridge?”, 04.20.15 )

To the best of my knowledge these conspiracies mostly influence the progressive left (and radical right), and as a ‘progressive’ this dismays me to no end. The issues I’m mainly referring to are the rejection of ‘western’ medicine, the embrace of ‘alternative’ ‘medicine,’ homeopathy, opposition to vaccines and blanket opposition to GMOs. At the heart of this is a paranoid fear of scientific authority, and the Dunning-Kruger effect–that is, people who lack skills in a certain area tend to believe that they have a great understanding of said area, and also believe that they are particularly skilled in their field.

I’m referring specifically to scientific-reading comprehension, i.e. the ability to swap pseudoscience for real science when reading. For instance, GMO websites frequently equate correlation and causation, frequently lack citations, misinterpret studies they cite, cite single studies instead of meta studies, cite other conspiracy or fringe websites, claim things that are proven to be false, studies that have been debunked or unrepeatable, slander scientists and journalist who argue for the use of GMOs, etc..

Let’s, for instance, take a brief detour and look at GMOs. Many of you probably oppose GMOs. In fact, 82 percent of Americans want food made with GMOs to be clearly labeled But 80 percent of Americans want food with DNA in it to be labeled, likely the same people as those who are conscious of GMO content. DNA: the building block of life you’d find in almost any food. Repeated studies have shown that many people answer yes to questions such as, “Ordinary tomatoes do not contain genes while genetically modified tomatoes do,”  which is very much false. (Jayson Lusk, “DNA Labels”, 1.19.15) You’ve probably heard that Monsanto has sued farmers whose crops were cross pollinated with GMO plants. That’s not true (New York Times, “A lonely quest for facts on genetically modified organisms,” 1.4.14). Do GMOs increase pesticide use? Actually, they decrease pesticide use. You might have heard that there have been no independent studies on GMO safety, “But Biofortified, which received no funding from industry, listed more than a hundred such studies, including a 2010 comprehensive review sponsored by the European Union, that found “no scientific evidence associating G.M.O.s with higher risks for the environment or for food and feed safety than conventional plants and organisms.” It echoed similar statements by the World Health Organization, the National Academy of Sciences, the Royal Society of Medicine and the American Association for the Advancement of Science”. A study of more than 1 million animals over the course of 18 years found that GMO food did not have a negative effect on animals (IFL Science, “Study of 1 million cattle finds GMOs safe”, 9.19.14). You might not know, but you’re probably already eating GMOs. GMOs are used to create insulin which treats diabetes, and clotting medicine for people with hemophilia. Furthermore, there is a broad scientific consensus that GMO foods are not more dangerous than non-GMO foods.

The reason I told you all of these things about GMOs is because it’s the pseudoscientific paranoia about GMOs and other things that separates humanities students and science students. Ironically, progressives are quick to complain about the political right’s rejection of the broad consensus among climatologists that climate change is happening, and human-caused, but the left’s rejection of science probably eclipses the right’s in size. And for scientists this is infuriating. Can you imagine a chemistry major walking around loudly declaring that Poland invaded Germany in WWII and that every historian who thinks otherwise is paid off by the Polish government? Or further, that every country’s historians are paid off by the Polish to lie? Or a mathematics student with no neurology background declaring that all the neurologists are wrong, and that I actually know how the brain works? You probably wouldn’t spend too much time talking neurology with a person who rejected all of the neurology research that’s been done. The mostly progressive student body’s obsession with pseudoscience is what keeps the humanities and the scientists apart. It’s not that, as Byrnes claims, “Vassar is definitely at fault in this failed relationship between letters and numbers,” but that the humanities students are.


—Robert Ronan ’15 is a math major.

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