Science students utilize critical thinking, too
The article “Language degrees help students’ professional prospects” from Wednesday’s issue raised many good points about the benefits of studying a foreign language. But the contention that majors in the liberal arts require critical-thinking skills while science majors do not was a largely inappropriate comparison of the two fields.
Introductory-level biology courses, like introductory courses in any discipline, teach the fundamentals required to build a foundation in the subject. Memorization of “already accepted concepts” in a field is a necessary action for students to take before being able to critically evaluate something. An English major, for example, must study the time period that the work comes from, accepted literary forms, vocabulary and information about the author before he can successfully critique a piece of literature. Similarly, once a biology major understands basics such as cell division, genetics and protein synthesis, he can go to the scientific literature and begin to evaluate the methods used and conclusions drawn from published research.
Critical thinking is as essential to a scientific course of study as it is to a liberal arts one. Once undergraduates get past the introductory science courses, they enter advanced courses that challenge them to question accepted scientific ideas and new conclusions drawn by researchers. Science is anything but linear. It is only through critical evaluation of previous work that the field moves forward, and each question asked opens the door for a plethora of new research projects to be undertaken. Memorization of basic information is merely a stepping stone that provides the building blocks for future work in the field.
In addition to learning about science in the classroom, many science majors at the University work in research labs, where critical-thinking skills are, if anything, more important than in the classroom. In the midst of running an experiment, one must continually ask questions about the work being done: Why am I doing this? Can my methods be changed so this experiment works better? What do these results tell me? There is very rarely an experiment that works correctly the first time, and it is only by critically evaluating what was done that a researcher can predict what needs to be changed or done next.
While yes, it can be argued that the sciences require more memorization of basic concepts than the liberal arts do before reaching the level of being able to critically evaluate a piece of work, it cannot be said that critical thinking is absent from the study of science. It does take time to reach the point at which it is possible to critically think about the sciences, but the skill is a hugely important part of what it means to be a scientist. If a science major does not find himself using critical-thinking skills in class or in research, something is sorely wrong.
Aliyah Weinstein is a School of Arts and Sciences senior majoring in molecular biology, biochemistry and French.