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Assuming a spherical cow

Milk production at a dairy farm was low, so the farmer wrote to the local university, asking for help from academia. A multidisciplinary team of professors was assembled, headed by a theoretical physicist, and two weeks of intensive on-site investigation took place. The scholars then returned to the university, notebooks crammed with data, where the task of writing the report was left to the team leader. Shortly thereafter the physicist returned to the farm, saying to the farmer, “I have the solution, but it works only in the case of spherical cows in a vacuum.” (Wikipedia, Spherical cow).

This metaphor has a number of variations, but they all end with a physicist putting forward a solution that makes the same unrealistic assumptions – a spherical cow in a vacuum. Eliminating external effects simplifies problem formulation enough to arrive at a solution but can end up making it so far removed from reality as to make it practically useless.

The study of sciences, both pure / natural (mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology) and applied (engineering disciplines and medicine), instill the idea that (for the most part) questions have a one correct answer. Design problems, more common in the applied sciences, offer some degrees of freedom and can yield multiple solutions or correct answers but they typically make up only a small fraction of assessment problems thrown at students in undergraduate and graduate programs.

This means that, for the most part, over time the view that develops is that there is the right way of doing things or the highway. If you are trying to compute the date and time of the next solar eclipse visible in Lahore, there is only one correct answer. If you are trying to figure out what the maximum current going through a particular wire of an electrical circuit will be, there is only one correct answer. And if you are trying to figure out how much water you have to add to an acidic solution to raise its pH-value to a desired level, you guessed it, there is only one correct answer.

This is in sharp contrast to the humanities and social sciences, where questions often do not have one right answer. Things are often a matter of perspective, of which there can be many, and are subject to debate. Those different perspectives do not necessarily negate but complement each other, creating a fuller picture in support of developing a richer understanding. Of course, this assumes that the context is an education system that goes beyond rote learning, allows room for debate and expects students to apply critical analysis in these subjects.

In practice, that means that as long as an analysis is based on sound premises and well-reasoned arguments, students in these disciplines typically graduate with high academic achievement levels, relative to their pure and applied sciences peers because if you give ‘an’ answer, it can be just as valid as another.

Understandably, post-World War II, there have been a significant number of studies in sociology and psychology that studied the link between work experiences and academic disciplines on one side and tendencies to support authoritarianism and fascism on the other. Some interesting studies across the years in that regard include the ones by Weller (1975, 1979), Rubinstein (1997) and Kitschelt (2014).

Without going into the intricacies and differences of each study, the headline from these studies is that support for fascism, as measured on the F-scale (short for ‘fascism-scale’), and authoritarianism among college graduates is higher among those enrolled in the pure and applied sciences than those in social sciences and humanities. Students of some disciplines, like economics and geography, fell in between on the spectrum.

Some studies also investigated whether there is something inherent to these disciplines that attracts students with authoritarian attitudes or if that attitude is picked up during the course of higher education studies. The collected sample at least indicated that support for authoritarianism among first year science students is no different from students in other disciplines, but that it increases by senior year. At this point, the reader is cautioned that this is not an absolute statement – it does not imply that all medical, engineering and science students support fascism!

Across the scale of educational attainment levels, other studies found that support for authoritarianism is higher among the skilled and unskilled workers than among associate professionals and least among professionals. Among professionals and associate professionals, it also tends to be higher among those in technical roles than those with interpersonal or organizational ones.

In our local political discourse, people publicly express opinions with a lot of certainty – certainty that is, given how much of our political history and present remains concealed from the public, unwarranted. Nevertheless, everyone has some simplistic recipe to ‘fix everything’: do A and it will accomplish B and from there everything else will right itself.

I recall how back in the 1990s a university in Pakistan used to describe its offering of undergraduate programme as being “core technical”. Back in those days, to me that signaled a focus on competence, something to aspire to. With the benefit of hindsight, I feel that pure and applied science programmes that singularly focus on their discipline deprive students of a holistic education. I am aware of only a few programmes at local universities that require their undergraduates to broaden their horizons by taking a significant number of courses from outside their major areas in the tradition of American liberal arts programmes.

Unfortunately, with a few exceptions, to score high on assessments, most higher education programmes ask for little more from students than memorization and reproduction, even in the humanities and social sciences – and only very little in the way of genuine and original critical analysis. It would be interesting to see how undergraduate students from our local universities score on the F-scale across disciplines and education levels.

All major political parties are built as cults of clans or personalities that stand on thuggery and their potential to threaten mob violence to varying degrees. Even authoritarian party positions on issues (by any party) enjoy visible support from the urban and educated youth.

Societies and the countries they inhabit are complex systems and demand complex solutions – there are no simple fixes that solve everything. The solutions parties advertise to voters are pulled out of thin air, simplistic, and based on gut instinct rather than precedent, evidence or research. While the fixes and programmes they are peddling to voters differ, that is all they are. Yet, many voters happily subscribe to one or the other (often vigorously), although they probably would not even work for a spherical cow in a vacuum.

Dr Ayesha Razzaque, "Assuming a spherical cow," The News. 2022-11-20.
Keywords: Education , Education system , Higher education , Education levels , Humanities , Engineering , Pakistan