It was the early 1990s, and mathematician Ian Malcolm – a fictional character from the “Jurassic Park” book-turned-movie franchise – called out scientists more preoccupied with whether they “could” rather than whether they “should.”
For William & Mary Professor of Applied Science Greg Conradi Smith, STEM students need to be equipped with both quantitative skills – essential to excel in their careers – and the ability to make judgment calls that involve both moral reasoning and technical knowledge. His Science and Authority class, a 400-level seminar-style capstone course, examines uses and misuses of science as a cultural authority as well as diverse topics related to broader scientific and societal issues.
Now in its second year, this course is offered to STEM juniors and seniors every fall and is partly supported by a National Science Foundation grant.
The enduring popularity of the “Jurassic Park” quote well exemplifies concerns about “unrestrained” science that are not certainly new to popular culture, with the most famous example being Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein.” Bioethics, which emerged as a discipline in the 20th century, has roots that can be traced back to the antiquity or even earlier; however, Conradi Smith explains, a STEM education may not address these broader questions and even actively avoid topics that require dialogue between science and “other ways of knowing.”
A theoretical biophysicist by training, Conradi Smith – whose research focuses on mathematical aspects of cellular biophysics and neuroscience — has considerable experience creating interdisciplinary and thought-provoking courses. More than 10 years ago, he created the Cellular Biophysics and Modeling class: a required mathematical course for neuroscience majors, now taught by Professor of Applied Science Christopher Del Negro, which developed into a textbook published with Cambridge University Press. Computational Neuroscience, another innovative course inspired by his experience working with students, addresses the questions “Is the brain a computer?” and “If so, what does the brain compute and why? What is the algorithm and how is it implemented by the brain?”
With such courses, Conradi Smith aims to connect the scientific expertise provided by a solid STEM education to a broader understanding of issues of science and society. This also allows students to understand what science really means for their careers and for them as individuals.
“We certainly want to build connections with the private sector and prepare our students for careers,” he said, mentioning the necessity to avoid decoupling faculty research and teaching.
“William & Mary’s ‘special sauce’ has for some time now included opportunities for undergraduate research experiences and unique interdisciplinary and integrative STEM programs.” Education that relates or combines science and the humanities is another dimension of William & Mary excellence.
Issues of science and society
Sociologist Max Weber’s “Science as a vocation” essay is one of the first papers discussed in Conradi Smith’s class. This essay raises the broader issue of “meaning” – for example, whether the findings of science can teach anything about the meaning of the world.
“If science does not give answers to questions of meaning or what ought to be (as Weber believed), where can those answers be found? Through study of the humanities? Through our prior political and religious commitments? That’s the sort of the question that the class is really posing,” said Conradi Smith.
Some of the issues raised are related to the importance of big data in an increasingly technological society. Data fluency is a pillar of the university’s Vision 2026 strategic plan; Conradi Smith underscored the importance of following the scientific method while working with data, promoting a responsible way to use datasets. No matter how large the data set is, correlation is not causation, he said. No amount of data can speak for itself.
Another theme of the class is the mutual reinforcement of scientism (scientific overreach) and science denials, seen by Conradi Smith as two facets of the same problem.
Mathematics major Luciano Saporito ’24 defined effective science communication as essential to bridge the gap between expert and lay knowledge. Biology major Atari Abundo ’25 highlighted that STEM majors may forget what it is like to be a lay person as their expertise grows.
“Scientists are professional experts, but doubling down on that position of ‘we are the authority’ doesn’t work for interacting with the public in general and certainly not with doubters,” said Conradi Smith, who defined such a framing as an argument from authority, which has no place in scientific reasoning.
“It’s not just a matter of trusting anyone’s personal opinion, but of having agreed-upon rules of evidence,” he said.
Conradi Smith also added that in a charged political environment scientists may easily become sensitized to questions coming from a seemingly pseudo-intellectual stance.
“Oftentimes, it is easy to interpret a question or a comment as science denial, as coming from a political ideology. But that isn’t really the whole story in many cases,” he said.
According to Conradi Smith, research and scholarship go together with educational innovation. He sees the new academic unit being considered at William & Mary as instrumental to this effort.
“I hope the (proposed) new school will stimulate the university to become even more excellent and distinctive with regard to STEM education,” he said. “One thing is for sure: A liberal approach to STEM education must involve ‘deep learning’ of students as well as machines.”
What is interdisciplinarity for?
Conradi Smith is considering recasting his Science and Authority class to a 200-level, taking full advantage of the COLL Curriculum’s mission to expose students to different knowledge domains. Current students seem to appreciate being introduced to broader-picture topics and different disciplines.
For Anya Ford ’24, a neuroscience major, the Science and Authority class represents a safe haven for open discussion she looks forward to. Colin White ’24, a mathematics major, finds it interesting to think about science in a way that students can then apply to their specific subject areas.
“You get the wider idea of what’s out there, spending time with people from other disciplines” added kinesiology major Rian Haigler ’24.
Outside of class, Conradi Smith keeps promoting experiences that bring together faculty and students from various disciplines.
A similar spirit hovers over the “Mind, Brain & Wellness” interest group, whose cofounders include Del Negro and religious studies professors Patton Burchett and Mark McLaughlin. This initiative aims to bridge the science/humanities academic culture divide – another topic of discussion in his Science and Authority class.
“We are reading articles on topics ranging from plant intelligence to bird cognition to breathing practices,” said Conradi Smith. He also mentioned a collaborative research subgroup that received seed funding from the Interdisciplinary Research Innovation Fund (Office of the Provost) to investigate secular and religious conceptions of mindfulness practices from the perspective of psychology/neuroscience (Adrian Bravo, Cheryl Dickter, Christopher Del Negro), philosophy (Matthew Haug) and religious studies (Patton Burchett, Kevin Vose).
“Initiatives of this type have been helpful in generating academic community,” he added, citing the university’s Biomathematics Initiative as a successful example from the recent past.
“A lot of collaborations started because people have met in that group – faculty and students who otherwise would not have met,” he said. “This is my hope for the Mind, Brain & Wellness group: After an initial phase of discovering mutual interests and complementary approaches, bone fide research questions will arise, and student-faculty teams will then unite their practices to answer those questions.”
Antonella Di Marzio, Senior Research Writer