Sailing the Maelstrom: A Case and a Curriculum for Meta-Science
When I was a child, my mother had a mantra that went like this: "He's going to be a marine biologist like his dad," or simply "scientist." I absorbed that idea deeply for a long time and it was only in high school that it hit me that my father was unhappy and he seemed trapped inside a narrow academic discipline. Having a PhD and various microscopic organisms named after him were not enough. I never got to talk to him about the question of my parental programming, but I ran away from the idea of being a scientist, shocking my parents with "I'm going to major in philosophy." I was fascinated by Chinese philosophy, but there were no courses in that at the College of William and Mary. The Western philosophy they presented turned out to be the deadliest, most uninspiring material I had ever sat through, so I ended up as an English major.
I took no grammar classes at William and Mary, only studying literature and writing. I was beginning to be able to avoid anything that smelled of taxonomy, or the practice of splitting and classifying the world into separate scientific domains. I still caught scientific fire in my senior year and almost asked my parents for help to go a fifth year so I could take more of the anthropology, geology and music courses which thrilled me. But I could not find a way to justify asking for more costly college time based only upon my raving curiosity. And so I graduated without a specialty which would have lead me directly into a career.
I was so determined, at some level, to avoid specialization that I set myself up to flounder. I tried substitute teaching and living at home but it was clear that I didn't have the classroom management skills to handle teaching although I was fascinated by it. So I embarked on a grand journey to see my grandparents, moving my life from Virginia to Minnesota, where I soon landed on my uncle's thousand-acre cattle ranch, with my English degree.
I must have been hilarious to my neighbors who knew what they were doing, but I turned out to be very teachable because I knew nothing about animals, crops or machines; I was soon warmly adopted by the community and ran that ranch for 11 years while struggling to make a living by working off it as an apprentice mechanic, as a machinist, a substitute teacher again and as a township supervisor. It didn't get better when I moved off it and bought my own farm, determined to grow fruits and vegetables for a roadside stand. I was driven in part by key ideas I had picked up from my parents, including a concern for ecology. Silent Spring sat on our family bookshelves and I knew what organic gardening was, and I had brought that bent to farming.
I got that roadside stand going while I struggled with poverty and loneliness. I coped by reading anything that fascinated me. The county agent rebuffed my inquiry about organic farming and handed me his college soil science textbook, so I read it and went on to many books about ecological agriculture. I began studying Spanish, first on my own and then in a college course and found to my surprise that I was good at it. This was a shock because my high school and college experience with French had been terrifying.
My farming enterprise almost collapsed during the first year, but I was rescued by family and by meeting my future wife Neal Ann, who sold her home and poured the proceeds into renovating my 140-year old tamarack log home, and into the farm. Eventually the farming collapsed for good, even as I went to work studying water to run a small non-profit environmental organization. After that dried up Neal talked me into going back to school, so I eventually became a teacher and moved to Missouri.
Since I've had an actual career for nearly ten years now, I suppose I have gained some measure of respect within my family but I may still be regarded as a dilettante because of my dabbling in so many different areas, none of which I have lost interest in over the years. Even though I have a master's degree in Educational Administration, I'm still not that much of a specialist, or am I?
In the third episode of Pirates of the Caribbean, At World's End, a word is resurrected that we don't often hear now, maelstrom. It's a giant whirlpool and it holds two pirate ships locked together in mortal combat. It's a vortex that spins everything within it, sucking it faster and faster into the center, a tornado in water, and it's a symbol of my life, the symbol of my personal conflict with science. I believe it was the same conflict my father felt and his life was sucked into that vortex. Do I want to sail away from the conflict like the Black Pearl or allow myself to be pulled down into it only to resurface and gain a new captain like the Flying Dutchman?
My father was not only a marine biologist, he was also a skilled botanist who published the first extensive list of the flora of Chesapeake Bay and helped to awaken environmental concern for that area. He was a practicing forester who knew how to identify trees and he was an excellent ornithologist who kept his own records of bird sightings as well as participating in Audubon society Christmas bird counts for many, many years. In his later years he was fascinated with population issues, until Alzheimer's robbed his clarity of thought. My mother had studied to be a social worker and became an archaeologist after my dad's death. One cannot grow up in such an overtly scientific household without absorbing these influences, and I have come to think of myself as a scientist, more like my dad than I believed was possible. But since I have never taken the narrow path of scientific specialization, the image of myself as scientist has been scorned within my own family-"you're no more a scientist than I am!"
Perhaps this is actually fair and justified, from a conventional perspective, but I've had enough of it. I'm declaring my independence with this document and setting out a course for others who also pursue a path of knowledge that extends rather than narrows one's focus upon the vast mysteries of life.
I am a meta-scientist! Just as metacognition is thinking about thinking, meta-science is the broad science of finding connections between the sciences. It requires a fundamental, working knowledge of the basic principles of multiple sciences but does not necessarily specialize in any of them. It is a visionary science that understands the boundaries between sciences as arbitrary and artificial human barriers which interfere with our perception of the cosmos when they are rigidly enforced.
To truly enter this level of scientific endeavor is to enter a maelstrom where everything is in flux and the idea of a rigid curriculum is almost heresy, but I shall still propose some guidelines to be debated, anticipating the day when some university sees within this doctrine the vast possibilities which flow from this unleashing of science. I do not here propose the end of specialized scientific careers; I simply proclaim the end of discrimination against those whose level of knowledge rises beyond the specific all the way to the general and thus gives the world more on which to possibly agree. The world is full of specialists who cannot or feel forbidden to really talk to each other. It is time for a great class of generalists to rise and help us make sense of what the specialists have provided us with.
There is no one starting point to this curriculum and certainly no end even though to award an advanced degree in meta-science, there must be some limit. I present the following as a starting point for debate. A meta-science curriculum should include but not be limited to the following:
Cultural Anthropology-the study of human culture. Given the human influence upon this planet, the study of the patterns of culture is essential.
World History-if taught with a generalist's eye and not crushed under the burden of dates and details, nothing is more fascinating. Special emphasis will be given here to those generalists who cross-fertilized culture with evolutionary ideas that crossed disciplines.
Biology, including the theory of evolution and a study of the arguments against it, with an emphasis on broad principles rather than on taxonomy.
World Languages, not just because they are my specialty but because learning a foreign language demonstrably raises intelligence and breaks the rigid worldview of speaking only one language. A candidate should be fluent in at least one language beyond her or his own native tongue. A general overview course should compare various approaches to learning languages and their effects upon the brain.
Creative Writing, including prose, poetry and songwriting. The ability to communicate must be practiced in challenging disciplines that stretch us personally.
Principles of Medicine, to include a detailed study of the fundamental principles which define allopathic, homeopathic, naturopathic, chiropractic Chinese, Craniosacral and other therapies plus energy medicines. A detailed comparison of the effectiveness and practicality of each approach is mandatory with as much hands-on practice as is practical and legal.
Soil science, from the competing and conflicting standpoints of conventional, ecological, biodynamic and organic agriculture. Our survival and our health depend upon our treatment of the thin layer of soil on our planet and global climate issues are directly related to how we sequester carbon in soil.
Music for performance-we cannot overrate the importance of music as a tool for personal growth, brain stimulation and calming or stimulating therapy. All candidates should have at least a modest ability to perform on some instrument and to sing with their own voices, one of the scariest of all personal bridges for many of us to cross.
Principles of Psychology-a history of the development of psychology that extends all the way into its modern and most effective tools of Neuro-Linguistic Programming, Cognitive Behavior Therapy and Emotional Freedom Technique, giving insight into the human condition and tools to maintain our own mental health and that of the people around us. These tools are too important to be limited to specialists.
Hydrology-the study of water, and not as typically confined to underground waters, but to the mechanics and behavior of water in all its fascinating forms. Knowledge of how to handle water without violating its subtle nature will be a key to human survival in coming generations.
Quantum Physics to Metaphysics-we needed the specialists to get us to our present knowledge, but now we need to study what they have found and how it creates an understanding of personal responsibility for our own thoughts and actions.
Communication Arts-including public speaking, effective teaching and communication theories including my own Water Information Theory. The development of this extended scientific focus will depend upon effective communication of its principles.
Astrophysics-the study of the universe itself including the flow of energy throughout it. This is an area far too fascinating and important to leave out.
Mathematics-to be presented as yet another symbolic language and its principles presented as it relates to foreign languages, along with the presentation of its usefulness as a tool for discovery of specialized knowledge.
Body Discipline-a course in the commonalities between all known body disciplines including but not limited to Karate, Tai Chai, Kung Fu, Pilates, Magical Passes, Alexander Method, Qi Gong, Judo, Yoga, etc. The student should choose one or more on which to focus for their personal body maintenance.
Neuroscience-the study of the how the brain functions with the basic information necessary to understand how to grow and maintain our brains and their relationship to our health. Various approaches to meditation would be taught with access to brain-monitoring technology.
Comparative Religions, philosophy and Moral thought-this class would address the fundamental principles of the world's religions and moral traditions, their effect upon human society and thought and consider their usefulness and accuracy as verified by science. It would consider the largest possible questions and the possible answers generated by those meta-scientists who can cross disciplines to fertilize new lines of thought.
Could such a massive curriculum be taught with academic rigor and be appealing to candidates? Of course, because we have so many specialists in each of these areas! They would have to be brought together to synthesize their knowledge. It would require new and unusual academic partnerships and it might require some credit for life experiences and previous courses. To achieve such a degree would not be the work of a few years but the culmination of perhaps most of a lifetime, for this must not be a quasi-scientific degree achieved through a series of simple survey courses, but a true work of building a questioning, far-flung mind not limited by the thought boundaries of contemporary academic degrees.
And so begins a vision of the expansion of what we know as science. It is an incomplete vision intended only to be a starting point, a seed to be planted into the idea of how we view ourselves as learning beings. It begs to be spun through your mind and enhanced by your unique experience.
Published with grateful acknowledgement to John Beck and to Dr. Nathan Altshuler, Professor Emeritus, College of William and Mary.