Thursday, November 7, 2013

Why we need a Common Core

The ethically-informed, statistically-literate policy maker for our modern multicultural technological society.
Thinking about the ostesible reasons why people should study humanities instead of science.
I saw this quote from the Statistician to the Stars:

Science and math give us terrific toasters, efficient ways of annoying strangers with our electronic toys, and are darn good fields at extracting money from Leviathan. But none of them say word one about what is the best in life, which is the ideal way to live, what life is about, why life even exists, why anything exists, what is good and what evil, what is right and what wrong.

But in my work as a medical physicist, I find that I often have to make tradeoffs that the Humanities people should be making: how can I weigh extra pain and discomfort to a patient vs the cost of some improvement, or the improved accuracy of some diagnosis?  How many unnecessary mastectomys should we perform to save one woman's life from breast cancer? How should I trade off risk to the general public from radiation exposure vs. benefits to the patient of some new procedure vs the cost (in dollars) of shielding?  How do I weigh having more false alarms and potentially scaring patients vs the potential for improved patient care?

These seem like the kind of questions that a humanities person should be helping me with!  But I barely even get help from the physicians who work on the project, let alone our mythical on-call bioethicist or even my poet, philosopher, or artist friends.  People just don't understand the details of the trade-offs -- the math is too hard for them, because they decided they aren't "math people".  So the million small decisions and tradeoffs and some of the large ones end up being made by the engineering team.

To me, this argues for the kind of multi-disciplenary education that I had, but with tweaks.  Humanities people, studying what is right and wrong presumably so that they can best set policy, must must must have a deep knowledge of statistics.  At my college, they were required to study calculus, but calculus is just a tool to solve some problems, and other schools are happy if they can be taught again how to subtract fractions (only to immediatly forget it again).  Statistics is applied epistomology -- it teaches us how to distinguish between what is (likely to be) true and what is (likely to be) false.  Of course, you can't really do statistics without calculus.  If people want to guide society by helping us with these life-or-death questions, they need to have the tools to understand what the engineers who are building society are doing.

Meanwhile, the science geeks should be taught humanities, but with ethics as the focus.  Not the day-to-day ethics of should I accept this gift from a lobbyist, but the overarching ethics of what is good in life, and what should we do with our limited time on this dizzy planet, and what is good for the millions of people who will use the technology we produce or maintain.  Multicultural studies are important because we will have to make decisions that affect people different from us, and we have to understand them, or at a minimum, understand that they may be different from us.  We need to study Plato and Aristotle and the Buddha and Mohommed (PBUH) because without them we can't understand Bentham and Quine, and the latest modern theories of how we can best serve our patients, customers, clients, co-workers, friends and family.

Modern capitalism has an answer to this for the engineers, one they are adept at calculating: do what maximizes the long-term risk-adjusted inflation-adjusted tax-adjusted time-adjusted expected profit, measured in dollars, and to hell with anything else.  In practice, I get more feedback from the marketers and investors about the technical decisions I make than from the physicians and patients.

But at present, until the poets buckle down and learn their statistics, they are stepping away from their responsibilities in a modern technological society.

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