The unlimited limits of an education

Two weeks ago, shortly before the Roy Moore-Doug Jones face-off in Alabama, an exterminator came to my home to humanely dispatch from the premises a mother raccoon, which had taken up residence somewhere between the second-floor ceiling and the roof in early December. As I returned from a run,  he and the homeowner were talking about the potential debacle of a Senate race that was underway, and the exterminator, who looked exactly like Bruce Campbell in his Evil Dead days only bigger, mentioned that he was married to someone who worked for the Denver Office of the District Attorney and had met Moore years ago, long before most people outside of Alabama and atheist blogs had heard of him. When this Denver lawyer, who was part of a group hosting Moore and others from Alabama at a conference, learned that Moore was not only a lawyer but a judge, she was apparently stunned, given his startling lack of knowledge of everything related to the law, or the bench, or reality.

Maybe it’s not a good idea to use Roy Moore as an example of anything other than a demented, theocratic shitbag. But he did at one time manage to get a law degree. That’s supposedly not the easiest thing in the world, even in the decerebrate South.

One of the fun paradoxes of getting a college education is discovering that it’s possible to earn a bachelor’s degree in a given scientific while remaining largely ignorant of that discipline, even if you receive high grades at a reputable school.Virtually anyone who majors in French is probably going to be able to speak, read and write in that language with considerable proficiency after four years of post-secondary education. Even if she doesn’t go on to a career directly drawing on her major, she’ll probably still be a solid Francophone 10 or 15 years later. Someone who majors in economics (which I’m not calling a science for present purposes) may not recall many of the relevant equations off the top of his head, but even if he doesn’t remember what the Phillips curve is, he’s likely to recall that a short-term trade-off exists between inflation and unemployment.

If you major in, say, physics, though, like I did, a couple of things are bound to happen. One is that people will automatically be impressed with your degree both before and well after you’ll actually earned it because they have heard that some physicists, such as Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking, are smart. The other is that you will graduate and realize that you still know fuck-all about physics, even if you got close to straight A’s.

I never intended to go to graduate school in physics or materials science, which is the game plan and the reality of most people who chose my undergraduate path. I believed from the outset that I would go on to medical school and regarded myself more as pre-med than as a physics person. I wanted to take a range of courses outside my major, so I got a B.A. instead of a B.S. Nevertheless, given that I worked fairly hard for at least 70% of my undergraduate years and drank away the rest, I could have reasonably been expected to know a great deal about physics, other than the names of old or dead people who’d been very good at discovering physics things.

I’ve actually kept up with physics to some extent over the years because I’ve tutored high-school and college students in introductory physics, and I also like Brian Greene’s books very much (Greene fills the same general niche as pre-atheist-first Richard Dawkins did for evolutionary biology, delivering great stuff to an educated but lay audience). But between never really getting to a point of giving a shit about most if what I was lectured about and the passage of a quarter of a century, it’s amazing how little I know about what physicists do these days. The natural sciences change rapidly, and when superstring theory first became the rage in physics over a decade ago, I recalled honestly not having heard that term mentioned once by a single one of my profs at the University of Vermont. A also didn’t learn a lot about dark matter, even though I took an astrophysics course (my favorite physics course to this day despite the professor heroically trying to fuck it up for the whole class).

I did well in physics because I’m good at math, and by the end of my physics “career” I  had become adept at triple integrals and spherical harmonics while not possessing more than a half-assed idea of why I was solving these problems in the first place.

Part if the reason I mention this is because you are likely to run into people who majored in biology yet still either can’t explain the basics of evolution, don’t know it’s not “just a theory” in dismissive the way dumbfucks say it is, and in some cases deny the reality of it. There are creationists out there with biology and geology degrees, and I’m sure I could track down a few with physics degrees if I felt like delivering a few rabbit-punches to my own crotch.

Any reasonable person with a bachelor’s degree in a given subject will admit to having essentially done no more than survey the range of categories within a discipline, and will not claim real expertise. There is no shame in this, and it clearly doesn’t apply only to undergraduate schooling. People are about as fit to practice medicine on the day they get their medical degrees as a fairly ambitious chimpanzee that’s been shown episodes of “E.R.” or “Scrubs” for hours on end for a few days. Almost all of them know this. It’s a manifestation of the Dunning-Kruger effect, only in this case on the well-informed right-hand side of the graph instead of the jizz-headed left-hand side.

If it seems odd that people with degrees in something really might not know more about it that you yourself do if you’re enough of an autodidact (like Will Hunting, even if you’re not that smart). But ask yourself this: how many people with communications degrees strike you as being solid communicators?

When someone volunteers the fact that he or she has a degree in a given field, and is trying to leverage this fact for argumentative gain, start with three assumptions:

  1. If it’s a bachelor’s degree, who fucking cares?

  2. If it’s a master’s degree, you may still be dealing with a moron.

  3. If it’s a doctorate, you’re probably not dealing with a moron, but you might still be in a discussion with a liar.

As a pre-med, I could have chosen a far easier — and more importantly, far more enjoyable — path through college than I did. In retrospect, I wish I had pursued a self-designed science major, something I had the option of doing but never considered. But I have to admit I had some great profs, people who taught me how to approach not just specific kinds of physics problem but almost any conceivable solvable conundrum that  could be framed as a math problem. And contrary to what I like to tell people, I wouldn’t have any shot at doing the work I do now had I not wound up majoring in a fairly rigorous science.

(This post is in no way an indictment of colleges or educators, by the way, although that’s probably in the blog pipeline. It’s an indictment, as always, of people and their persistence in fucking up good things.)