πόλλ’ οἶδ’ ἀλώπηξ, ἀλλ’ ἐχῖνος ἓν μέγα (“the fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing”) – Archilochus (via Wikipedia).
George Philander gave a talk on The Hedgehog and the Fox yesterday at the Graduate Center, and provided some very interesting food for thought for both budding scientists and some of the larger scientific community. Our GEOS (Geology, Earth Science, Oceanography Series) has morphed into the EES Colloquium, and we have been fortunate to have some really great talks – Wally Broeker, Michael Mann, and now George Philander. Dr. Philander’s talk was a great example of scientists who are thinkers – polymaths, to some degree, who integrate ideas across disciplines and through their life experiences to come up with Big Ideas. It takes a certain amount of time to do this, and a certain amount of ambition, but the Big Idea that Dr. Philander presented showed a tremendous amount of thought, humanity, and humility.
He said we do a terrible job teaching Earth Science, and a terrible job communicating it. Our job, as teachers and scientists, is to teach people about the wonders of the planet – this planet, our planet, the one planet that we have – and to engage people based on our own expertise, knowledge, and passion. We should not see ignorance (be it willing or temporary) as weakness, nor should we see knowledge as a weapon. On the question of climate change, we must engage, but we must do so from an ethical level – not as privileged experts whose opinions are sacrosanct, but as informed members of the public who have the opportunity to provide expertise. In an interesting quip, he chastised politicians for saying “well, I’m not a scientist” – but also chastised scientists for saying “well, I’m a scientist!”. He framed the issue of climate change not as a scientific problem, but a moral and ethical problem. And, arguing that science doesn’t teach us about ethics or morals, called for engagement at that ethical level.
It was an interesting talk, and stimulated a lot of conversation, head shaking, nodding, and might have even made some folks uncomfortable. But every person in the room was impressed by the talk, which is great – we had to think a bit, and that is what this whole exercise is about.
I was lucky enough to spend much of the afternoon with Dr. Philander talking about ice ages and forcings and oceanographic dynamics and all kinds of interesting things – even touching on how to get through to students, and the future of education and the Universities. All in all, a good day – topped off with some wonderful Indian food and a great reception. Food for the body, food for the soul.