Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Creativity and the Root-Bernsteins again

I put up yesterday some comments  on a 2011 article by the Root-Bernsteins in which they were very skeptical about the notion of creativity as a general trait and in which they challenged the claim that training in the arts was a good way of fostering scientific creativity.

A reader has however drawn my attention to an earlier, 2009,  article (See below) by the same authors in which they argue that the most creative scientists are also great dabblers in the arts. They argue from that that scientists with artistic interests are most likely to be the most creative in their fields.  That seems to run counter to their later article.

But there are large logical flaws in their 2009 approach.  They certainly show that SOME distinguished scientists dabble in the arts but that is a long way from showing that highly creative scientists IN GENERAL have artistic interests. And they certainly do not show that people with artistic interests tend to make good scientists.  I would have thought that arty people would be the LEAST likely to make good scientists. Art is about impressions.  Science requires precision.

And, most of all, they have not shown that artistic proclivities CAUSE scientific creativity.  It might be the other way around: artistic interests might be an epiphenomenon of scientific creativity.

But, while the Root-Bernsteins have not made their case below,  their theory is an interesting one and I find it personally relevant.  For various reasons I see myself as a primarily literary person yet I have also  been scientifically creative.  In my best years I was getting academic journal articles published nearly at the rate of one per fortnight.  And I know I did exactly what the Root-Bernsteins say: I brought to bear on my primary research field thinking from many sources outside my main field of enquiry.  But I could be an oddball.  Many would say that I am.

So I am rather inclined to the theory that artistic interests have no causative role in scientific creativity but artistic interests are an occasional byproduct of scientific creativity, perhaps mainly as light relief

How do you search for scientific talent? What criteria should you use? IQ scores? High scores on math and science tests? Precocity in a scientific field? Some of the best scientists recommend looking for breadth of skills and talents in a variety of endeavors beyond the sciences.

In two previous posts, we argue that training in the arts benefits scientists in a variety of different ways. The best scientists are much more likely to be artists, musicians, actors, craftsmen, and writers than are typical scientists, or even the general public. Scientists draw skills, knowledge, processes, concepts, and even inspiration from their non-scientific avocations. Many are well aware of these advantages.

Perhaps the first scientist to recognize a correlation between scientific talent and non-scientific pursuits was Jacobus Henricus van't Hoff, a Dutch scientist who won the first Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Van't Hoff invented the field of stereochemistry (the study of atomic shapes); co-invented the field of physical chemistry; founded geochemistry; and helped to create the new field of history of science. In addition, he was a talented flautist, wrote poetry in four languages, and was a reasonable amateur artist. In 1878, twenty-one years before he received his Nobel Prize, he gave a lecture on "Imagination in Science" in which he argued (after having read some 200 scientific biographies) that the greatest scientists almost invariably display their imagination in non-scientific fields as well. Examples he cited included Galileo, also an artist, craftsman, musician, and writer; the astronomer Kepler, also a musician who described planetary motion as the "music of the spheres;"and Sir Humphrey Davy, one of the founders of modern chemistry, and also a poet praised by the likes of Coleridge.(1)

Santiago Ramón y Cajal, another early Nobel laureate (1906), also believed thatSci fi by Ramon y Cajal the most creative scientists are broadly trained. One of the founders of neuroanatomy, Ramón y Cajal took time to practice gymnastics, to paint, to produce the first color photographs taken in Spain and start up a photographic supply company, and to write science fiction. (That's his drawing of nerves of the eye, above, and his Vacation Stories, right.) When it came to recruiting students, he rejected those focused solely on their science. "The far-sighted teacher," he argued, "will prefer those students who are somewhat headstrong, contemptuous of first place, insensible to the inducements of vanity, and who being endowed with an abundance of restless imagination, spend their energy in the pursuit of literature, art, philosophy, and all the recreations of mind and body. To him who observes them from afar, it appears as though they are scattering and dissipating their energies, while in reality, they are channeling and strengthening them..."(2)

We must admit, since Cajal made this assessment of scientific talent knowledge has grown exponentially. Specialization, is it argued, is required for mastery of ever more deeply plowed fields. Nevertheless, recent Nobel laureates continue to repeat the mantra that scientific creativity within those fields draws sustenance from breadth beyond those fields. Donald Cram, a Nobel prizewinning chemist, craftsman, artist, poet and musician, said that "I have a tendency to use my hands and I also have a tendency to use my intellect. Well the sciences are a great way of combining these operations.... My concept of the ideal [scientist] is that you do one thing real well... and then you do a lot of other things, but not too many, maybe 4 or 6 or 10 different other things, which you do well enough to give yourself and possibly others pleasure. This should be distributed quite widely among sports and artistic things and carpentry and things that involve using your hands and a little music perhaps and things of that sort."(3) Peter Mitchell, another recent laureate in Chemistry (1978), agreed. "Most [scientists] who try to be creative..." he wrote, "have found that they've got to become craftspeople as well as art people."(4) Mitchell attributed his most important discovery to a third profound interest: the study of philosophy caused him to rethink the fundamental assumptions of modern biology, leading directly to his revolutionary experiments on the way energy is utilized by cells.

What's going on here? Why do so many leading scientists insist on paradoxically "scattering" and "channeling" their energies? The fact is that novel ideas, in science as well as in every other discipline, come from combining diverse and often disparate sources of problems, skills, knowledge, and methods. The most creative scientists recognize this fact and exploit it by integrating a wide range of interests. But some other purpose is also in play. The best scientists are also the best communicators, for novel and original ideas must be articulated and "sold" to a skeptical scientific community.

Poetry by Roald HoffmanIn this venture, skills learned beyond the sciences become invaluable. Nobel Prizewinning chemist Roald Hoffmann, for example, is also a professional poet: "I write poetry to penetrate the world around me, and to comprehend my reactions to it...." Likewise in his chemistry. "By being a natural language under tension," he says, "the language of science is inherently poetic."(5) Similarly, William D. Phillips, who won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1997, writes that, "In high school, I enjoyed and profited from well-taught science and math classes, but in retrospect, I can see that the classes that emphasized language and writing skills were just as important for the development of my scientific career as were science and math. I certainly feel that my high school involvement in debating competitions helped me later to give better scientific talks, that the classes in writing style helped me to write better papers, and the study of French greatly enhanced the tremendously fruitful collaboration I was to have with [a French] research group."(6)

In return to our original question, how should we go about identifying and fostering scientific talent, especially creative scientific talent, in our students? If van't Hoff, Ramón y Cajal, Cram, Mitchell, Hoffmann and Phillips are right, the standard approaches aren't going to work. Nobel prizewinners are rarely the best academic students. They do not have IQs that are any higher than those of scientists overall. They don't test higher on other standardized tests. They DO bring a much wider range of skills, knowledge, talents, and methods to their work.

So instead of looking for scientific and mathematical prodigies (however we choose to define these) and funneling them into early scientific specialization, we should be doing the opposite. As Cajal put it, we should be looking for and nurturing a "happy combination of attributes: an artistic temperament which impels [the student] to search for and [admire...] the number, beauty, and harmony of things."(2) We should give our science students the broadest possible education in arts, crafts, writing, philosophy, and everything else that makes us fully human.

This is not a new conclusion. In a report commissioned by the U. K. Royal Society in 1942, Nobel Prizewinning physicist William Lawrence Bragg concluded that "[t]he training of our physicists is literally too academic."(7) Bragg recommended a good dose of crafts in school and a wide range of hobbies at home. So do so many of our most successful scientists. Why, then, does our education system persist in earlier and earlier specialization when it is clear that increasing breadth fosters scientific creativity?


Scotland: Colleges battle with pay deal and falling student numbers

Scotland’s colleges are under growing financial pressure as student numbers have fallen to their lowest levels in a decade, the country’s public spending watchdog has said.

Audit Scotland warned that despite promises of extra funding, a new pay deal struck with lecturers presented one of several financial challenges to the further education sector, which has been struggling after years of Scottish government cuts.

The Scotland’s Colleges 2017 report found that an underlying deficit in the sector increased to £8 million, while the institutions held £11 million less in 2015-16 than they had a year previously.

In a conclusion that was rejected by the Scottish government, it was found that there were 220,680 students at the country’s colleges, the lowest figure since 2007, the year the SNP came to power. The total represented a drop of more than 30,000 in five years, mostly as a result of a fall in those taking part-time courses.

Caroline Gardner, auditor-general for Scotland, said: “There is a growing risk to colleges’ ability to keep delivering what the Scottish government requires from the sector, as a result of major financial challenges and a declining student population. Colleges need to plan ahead so their budgets can withstand the impact of cost pressures. Demand for college courses and the effects of demographic shifts also need to be assessed so educational provision can be designed around these.”

A recent pay deal with lecturers, designed to harmonise pay levels across the country, is set to cost £80 million over three years, according to Colleges Scotland. Although the Scottish government has agreed to cover extra costs in the first year as the new wage structure is phased in, there is no commitment of central funding beyond that.

Audit Scotland said it was not possible to say whether a fall in student numbers was caused by a fall in demand, and while colleges met targets to deliver a specific volume of learning, levels of provision fell compared with the previous year. Full-time female students fell by almost 3 per cent, while full-time male students remained static.

Overall, it was found that college finances remained “relatively stable” and attainment improved, with the proportion of students successfully completing courses up from 64 per cent to 65 per cent.

Liz Smith, education spokeswoman for the Scottish Conservatives, said: “In a decade in charge the SNP has utterly neglected the vital colleges sector. These figures show fewer people are entering college than at any time since the Nationalists came to power.”

The Scottish government claimed the Audit Scotland figures were not based on headcount for all colleges, and said that numbers had actually increased by 0.1 per cent. It claimed the watchdog should not have compared figures with years prior to 2014-15 because of changes in methodology.

A Scottish government spokesman said: “With one of the lowest youth unemployment rates in Europe, increased modern apprenticeship places, more young Scots going to university and over 116,000 FTE [full-time equivalent] college places still being provided, it is clear that our approach to giving young people equal chances and choices to succeed in life is working.

“This report highlights that Scotland’s college sector is financially stable overall and that colleges continue to exceed their targets for student learning opportunities. It also identifies areas where improvements can be made. We will work closely with the Scottish Funding Council and colleges to consider its findings, as we continue to deliver job-focused learning that enables everyone to get the qualifications they need to get on in life.”


67% Hispanic immigrants in U.S. 15 years or more are functionally illiterate

Learning English is a much bigger hurdle for immigrants than earlier believed, with most Hispanics being functional illiterates, even those who have been in the United States for over a decade.

A new analysis of immigrants found that 63 percent of Hispanics have a "below basic" understanding of English, making them illiterate.

And it doesn't get better if they stay in the U.S. for 15 years. In a shocking finding showing that they haven't tried to learn -- or even had to -- more, 67 percent, of Hispanics don't have English proficiency even after 15 years in America.

The Center for Immigration Studies found that overall immigrants of all nationalities have difficulty with English. Some 41 percent score at or below the lowest level of English literacy.

The children of Hispanics don't score much better, said CIS. "The children of Hispanic immigrants score at the 34th percentile, and 22 percent are below basic. In addition, just 5 percent of second-generation Hispanics have 'elite' literacy skills, compared to 14 percent of natives overall," said the report.

The study, done by Jason Richwine, a PhD and independent public policy analyst and author, said, "The importance of English literacy cannot be overstated. Without language proficiency, immigrant families will find it difficult to succeed in the mainstream of American society, and high rates of English illiteracy may be a sign of poor immigrant assimilation. Policymakers should take note."

Typically, researchers use Census data where immigrants grade themselves. For his report, Richwine used a direct test of English literacy administered by the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC).

The highlights:

41 percent of immigrants score at or below the lowest level of English literacy — a level variously described as "below basic" or "functional illiteracy."

The average immigrant scores at the 21st percentile of the native score distribution.

Hispanic immigrants struggle the most with English literacy. Their average score falls at the 8th percentile, and 63 percent are below basic.

67 percent of Hispanic immigrants in the U.S. more than 15 years score "below basic."

For Hispanic immigrants, self-reported English-speaking ability overstates actual literacy. The average literacy score of

Hispanic immigrants who self-report that they speak English "very well" or "well" falls at the 18th percentile, and 44 percent are below basic.

Even long-time residents struggle with English literacy. Immigrants who first arrived in the United States more than 15 years ago score at the 20th percentile, and 43 percent are below basic.

Literacy difficulties brought by low-skill immigrants persist beyond the immigrant generation. The children of Hispanic immigrants score at the 34th percentile, and 22 percent are below basic. In addition, just 5 percent of second generation Hispanics have "elite" literacy skills, compared to 14 percent of natives overall.


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