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Before and After Science

by ThatBritGuy Thu Jul 19th, 2007 at 04:56:27 AM EST


The Famous Unbelievable Diary from last month gave me an excuse to put down some ideas about the status of science in general at the moment. The comments made by our self-styled environmental-atheist bouncing Czech are indicative of a deeper issue with science which I've seen evidence of everywhere - including ET.

The conclusion is:

    Most people hate it.    

Here's why:

From the diaries ~ whataboutbob


I think it's possibly very difficult for most people here to understand how everyone else experiences science. Mostly we're either inside science, or have been inside science, or are just far enough outside science to be able to see inside it.

But in the rest of the world, most of the population isn't this privileged. In practice, public attitudes to science seem to be based on:

  1. Fear and uncertainty. Science and scientists have almost god-like powers. But science is also very closely associated with the ruling elites. There's no perception at all that scientists are on the side of ordinary people. Scientists are often labelled explicitly as bad, bad people, complicit in the doings of the evil rich - at best hench-people and at worst active persecutors of the poor and weak. This may look like a caricature, but outside of the PhD or the first degree circuit it really isn't. Science has done a very bad job of making itself look human and concerned.

  2. Resentment. Science is hard, and most people don't understand it. Worse, they know they don't understand it, and this makes them feel stupid - which no one enjoys. `Science education' doesn't help - and I'll get back to that later. In the meantime, aside from a small class of cranks, who believe they have The Answer, most people realise they have no clue what's going on. They may understand that huge sums are being spent, but it's not really clear why, or who benefits.

  3. Dislike. We have people like Richard Dawkins to thank for this - his message may be accurate, but his aggressive and hectoring Oxbridge tone has been a PR disaster for both evolution and science. See point 1 above - the subtext is that science is something that rich posh people with Oxbridge backgrounds do. Even someone like David Attenborough fits the stereotype. We've had poor working class scientists in the past - compare David Bellamy to Attenborough - but lower class exponents inevitably seem to lend themselves to caricature and comedy instead of aiming for that famous upscale authoritative media presence.

  4. Inconsistency. One month a study shows that something is a health risk. The next month a study shows that it isn't. Experts will know that most of these studies are simply bad science. And unfortunately for everyone, a lot of science that appears in the news is very bad indeed. But the public won't read the original papers, and won't understand enough about statistics to make sense of them even if they did. So in practice all that's left is the narrative, which is contradictory and confusing. This isn't just about factual analysis. There's a deeper social effect. Because of repetitive conditioning, science becomes associated with pronouncements that make people anxious and fearful.

  5. Creative sterility. Scientists don't do poetry or subjectivity, and prefer to close down options rather than open them up. When a scientist or engineer says `That won't work', it annoys arts-background types because it's like someone taking their toys away - especially if the science-type happens to be right.

  6. Opinion. This is possibly the most important point of all - people without a science background, and especially those with arts or social science training (and I include economists and lawyers in that) believe that truth is ultimately a matter of opinion.

Aside from specific creative techniques, the basis of all arts courses is the process of having and discussing opinions. Eventually, when you get advanced enough, you're allowed to create opinions of your own. In this world what matters is belief, consensus, shouting loud enough, being passionate enough, and thinking your own personal understanding is rich enough, just because you're enjoying it so much, that you understand what's going on.

This happens to be a good way to do art, but it's absolutely the wrong way to do science. Of course a lot of this goes on in science too. But sooner or later ideas have to be checked against reality, and this limits wild oscillations of silliness and credulity - at least over reasonable time periods. In science there is always - eventually, even if it takes a while - an ultimate court of appeal, in the form of experimental reality.

Scientists and technocrats are also trained to understand that solutions either work or they don't - there's no opinion involved. A bridge stays up in a high wind, or it falls down. A CD player's laser is in focus, or it isn't. So it's part of the scientific mindset to understand that there are limits to perfection, and that benefits have costs. You can usually have X or Y, but - unless someone makes a huge breakthrough - you can't have X and Y at the same time, because it may not be physically possible.

If you're not scientifically trained, this is dispiriting. It's like being told by a parent that you not only have to eat green vegetables but also clean your room. Aside from all of the other sins of science, people simply don't like this approach to the world. When you're told that you can have it all, it's irritating to be reminded that actually, you can't - although perhaps someone cleverer than you can.



So - those are all reasons why people hate science. If you talk to non-scientists, you'll see that I'm barely exaggerating. At last year's Big Green Gathering I watched an astrologer give a talk in which scientists were lumped in with a generic bad `they' - vindictive, ignorant of important issues like community spirt and ecology, actively persecutory, and closely tied to the ruling elites.

What's worrying is that this is true in spite of the strong consensus in the scientific community that supports ecological action. Something has gone badly wrong here, because the communalists and the scientists are living in parallel worlds travelling in similar directions, but looking at each other with contempt - scientists despising the communalists for being irrational, and communalists resenting the scientists for being evil.

Is there an answer? No - there is no simple answer with a quick fix. It's going to take at least a couple of generations to fit science back into the social context that it thinks - wrongly - it has abstracted itself from. But it's going to need changes in scientific education. Science education is almost universally appalling - and not just for the obvious reasons. The academic approach to science dates back to the Greeks in theory, and in practice to gentlemen amateurs, who typically made a living either by teaching, by consulting to governments - you can see the roots of popular unease right there - or simply by being rich and having the time to spare. Our university system is still based on this formal structure, and has a strong bias towards theory over practice, and social exclusion over social integration. To do science, you have to be special. And you have to go to a special place.

Science is elsewhere - in a unique place all by itself. Goodies like laptops and iPods and DVD players appear regularly, trickling down from Olympus, and most people understand there's some science in them, even if they're not sure exactly what that means. Experts occasionally send media postcards from the front lines saying all kinds of interesting things which are very clever, but also very strange, full of quarks and the speed of light and strings and other incomprehensible oddities. A string? As in - a piece of string? What? Scientists might as well be speaking their own special language. In fact they are. So it's all a bit confusing. And since they contradict themselves regularly - or so we're told - it's hard to know how seriously to take it all.

Of course we have science education, but it only makes things worse. Most science education is really science biography and science history, with all of the real science taken out. What's left is a meaningless patchwork of colouring-book narratives that the proverbial anyone can understand (Einstein was very clever, E=mc², he said the Cosmological Constant was the biggest blunder of his career...). The problem is there's no sense of ideological buy-in. Science is something that happens to other people. It's not about personal experience and idenfication. Science students, meanwhile, have the opposite problem. Courses throw a toolbox in front of students. Some students will be smart enough to pick up the tools for themselves. The rest won't, and will go and do something else. What's missing is a narrative to explain why the tools matter, and why a social context is important.



The problem with both of these default approaches is that they're inherently alienating. The way to make science accessible isn't to repeat the same old rather aspirational stories about Newton and Einstein and Darwin over and over in the hope that something will stick, but to reinvent parts of the social experience to include core scientific principles. As it happens, the core of science is something everyone can understand. You don't need calculus to make sense of observation, theory building, and reality testing. These ideas have obvious and everyday applications. You only need calculus for specific applications. Calculus isn't science, and isn't a test of scientific literacy - it's an advanced tool often used in certain kinds of science.

Embedding science back into everyday life means taking some - but not all - science away from scientists, and creating ways in which ordinary people can participate and feel like science is something they can belong to. Imagine someone like Dawkins turning up at a farming community centre. Instead of haranguing everyone and implying they're idiots for believing in God instead of evolution, imagine him asking people to help with an investigation into inheritance and genetics in farm animals. Imagine people seeing the results for themselves. It's a lot harder to argue with an animal that has just been born in front of you than a talking head on the TV.

With an issue like global warming, this could mean asking people to track the weather for themselves rather than relying on news stories or weather forecasts. Ask them to look through local historical records, keep an eye on average temperatures. Ask them to get involved - personally, and creatively. The best way to fight anti-scientific, anti-rational narratives isn't to shout louder. We've already tried that, and it doesn't work.

It's to convert theory to practical experience, and to get people involved.


Display:
Interesting diary. A couple of points:

Inconsistency. One month a study shows that something is a health risk. The next month a study shows that it isn't. Experts will know that most of these studies are simply bad science.

Not necessarily bad science, but prematurely and incompletely reported science. Media will look for stories that could grab viewers, so many times we end up hearing about the latest study without much background. They also don't always report who funded the study, which can make a huge difference in how seriously to take it.

At last year's Big Green Gathering I watched an astrologer give a talk in which scientists were lumped in with a generic bad `they' - vindictive, ignorant of important issues like community spirt and ecology, actively persecutory, and closely tied to the ruling elites.

Remember that astrology gets "special" attention from a lot of scientists. Mainly ridicule. Thus some astrologers are going to have a much more negative view of scientists just due to that. (I know one scientist who loves mythology and lucid dreaming and art, yet scoffs at the mere mention of astrology. Go to the Bad Astronomy Blog, you'll see a link on the front page for astrology-- it's a treatise on how bad it is. I don't blame a lot of astrologers for holding views like the one you heard, even if I don't agree with them.)

by lychee on Thu Jul 19th, 2007 at 12:56:25 AM EST
Remember that astrology gets "special" attention from a lot of scientists. Mainly ridicule

Well, when astrologists stop pretending they have anything to do with objective reality, and move over to the "myth and security blankets" section, perhaps this will stop.

Alternatively: Show us the hypothesis and how it was tested. Show us the research. Show us how it's more accurate than shrewd guesses based on knowledge of human nature. And show us how it has progressed with the discovery of new celestial bodies.

Telated:
"It has made some people feel like a Christian Scientist with appendicitis."
-Tom Leherer, That Was the Year that Was

(I can feel a rant coming on, and I don't want to offend anyone. Please could someone stop me if I get carried away?)


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sapere aude

by Number 6 on Thu Jul 19th, 2007 at 07:24:26 AM EST
[ Parent ]
See, already I'm foaming at the mouth. Cannot even spell related. Related.


-----
sapere aude
by Number 6 on Thu Jul 19th, 2007 at 07:35:07 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Astrologers, not astrologists.

Well, when astrologists stop pretending they have anything to do with objective reality, and move over to the "myth and security blankets" section, perhaps this will stop.

Alternatively: Show us the hypothesis and how it was tested. Show us the research.

With the attitude you show in the first quote, why should they bother? Your statement there isn't very conducive to discussion. Who wants to offer themselves as shark bait?

Since astrological forecasts are based on combinations of positions (or whatever, I don't know the correct term) that don't repeat exactly for centuries, in some cases, it's extremely difficult to present replicable research, although there have been a couple of scientific studies regarding Mars and athletes, and Uranus and earthquakes. But even those, I think, were kind of vague. I'm not an astrologer, so I'm not someone who can give you all the detail you want. I will say that in the one conversation I had about it with someone (said scientist I mentioned before, we had wandered onto the topic), I was cut off immediately. The person couldn't even hypothesize about it, his reaction to it was like that of a vampire to a cross.

Both sides really need to relax about it all.

by lychee on Thu Jul 19th, 2007 at 08:15:34 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Without wanting to get into a debate about astrology, I don't think the astrologer's views were untypical of those of many people at the BGG. Or indeed elsewhere.

It's true that you get the wackier shadings the deeper you drift towards the New Age, but there are some common narratives, such as

Scientists are primitive and don't understand the really clever stuff

Scientists are working for Sinister Dark Forces. In one example I found recently downtown Auckland had been dotted with mysterious radio aerials.

By the time you get there you're well into crank territory. But the point is really that with public buy-in, instead of public alienation from science, this kind of thing would be a lot less common and even harder to take seriously.

A lot of these fringe things work like a kind of cargo cult. You'll see 'quantum' and 'electromagnetic' and other key words scattered liberally, but used in ways that prove the writers don't really know what they mean, and they're there just to give a kind of scientific veneer.

Which is a revealing thing to do, because the implication is that although science is primitive, etc, it's still secretly considered an ultimate authority on what goes in this part of the universe.

by ThatBritGuy (thatbritguy (at) googlemail.com) on Thu Jul 19th, 2007 at 08:35:59 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I'm not trying to get you into a debate on astrology. I had just wanted to point out that the astrologer you saw may have had additional background to his or her hatred of science. N6 and I were off on a tangent.

The crank element, I think, is a vocal minority. The new agers I've met have for the most part loved science (and would have brushed off reports of those aerials as cell phone towers).

by lychee on Thu Jul 19th, 2007 at 08:47:31 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Which is a revealing thing to do, because the implication is that although science is primitive, etc, it's still secretly considered an ultimate authority on what goes in this part of the universe.

This, and your description of Fear and uncertainty and Resentment just point to the conclusion that Science is just magic to most people. They incorporate it in their magical thinking, and they dislike science and scientists like they would dislike wizards and witches a thousand years ago.

Arthur C. Clarke's any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic is spot on.

Can the last politician to go out the revolving door please turn the lights off?

by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Thu Jul 19th, 2007 at 08:53:41 AM EST
[ Parent ]
A lot of these fringe things work like a kind of cargo cult. You'll see 'quantum' and 'electromagnetic' and other key words scattered liberally, but used in ways that prove the writers don't really know what they mean, and they're there just to give a kind of scientific veneer.

Which is a revealing thing to do, because the implication is that although science is primitive, etc, it's still secretly considered an ultimate authority on what goes in this part of the universe.

Hence the tables, graphs and maps prevalent in astrology. They were high tech when it was at it's peak.


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sapere aude

by Number 6 on Thu Jul 19th, 2007 at 09:14:58 AM EST
[ Parent ]
See, I can't even spell it correctly. Thanks for reminding me about what's really important. :)

However, I will not "relax" about something that is exploiting people's fears and disguises magical/wishful thinking as reason. It's not "harmless fun". It is to science (and a better life for all) what Fox is to politics.
Some planets far away affect you about as much (when you are born and otherwise) as a book next to the bed.

To paraphrase Asimov (Ike and I happen to agree on this one, and now I'm reduced to "appeal to authority", my lack of God I must stop):
It's possible that reason and discussion from facts are not the only way to find out the truth. If you think that's the case, please paint me a painting or meditate a meditation or play me some music that brings me round to your point of view. Anything that does is not a logical, step-by-step testing of verifiable facts.

There is no way to rationally discuss this (or homeopathy, or "crystal" or ...). Have the last word.


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sapere aude

by Number 6 on Thu Jul 19th, 2007 at 09:14:38 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Which reminds me of a half-written diary I have lurking around.
by Colman (colman at eurotrib.com) on Thu Jul 19th, 2007 at 09:16:07 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Great diary, close to my heart.  I'll be back later to comment properly.
by In Wales (inwales aaat eurotrib.com) on Thu Jul 19th, 2007 at 02:43:38 AM EST
Important diary indeed. There's a big issue in schools as well. The universities want science candidates soaked in all sorts of tools, but someone who is going to end up studying something else is not only turned off by the constant harping on boring tools, but is not given any education that would lead to an understanding of science that could help them in modern life.

I personally feel that universities need to rethink some of their "tool obsession" at the student selection stage because it leads in part to scientists (especially in the UK) who lack appreciation of the "non-scientific" parts of society.

But, even if we say we have to retain a hyper-specialist stream in schools to educate future physicists etc. it's time we recognised that future "artists/politicians/whatever" need a different curriculum to help them relate to science.

At one silly level, my glib statement about this is always "we should be teaching statistics instead of calculus." That's true in that some sense of risk analysis and understanding expression of polling etc. would be useful, but it's still rather a tool oriented response.

Really, in a way, it would be best to ask some artists etc. who managed to develop a good relationship with science not just how to spark their interest, but about the pathway that education could take that would work for them.

I don't say this will solve everything for everybody, but I am sure that the way we do things now really isn't the best way.

by Metatone (metatone [a|t] gmail (dot) com) on Thu Jul 19th, 2007 at 03:56:40 AM EST
we should be teaching statistics instead of calculus

That statement is spot-on.  

She believed in nothing; only her skepticism kept her from being an atheist. -- Jean-Paul Sartre

by ATinNM on Thu Jul 19th, 2007 at 10:20:11 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Can't resist: note is wasn't the Science of Motorcycle Maintenance....


Now he began to see for the first time the unbelievable magnitude of what man, when he gained power to understand and rule the world in terms of dialectic truths, had lost.

He had built empires of scientific capability to manipulate the phenomena of nature into enormous manifestations of his own dreams of power and wealth... but for this he had exchanged an empire of understanding of equal magnitude: an understanding of what it is to be a part of the world, and not an enemy of it.

Robert M Pirsig (Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance)




"The future is already here -- it's just not very evenly distributed" William Gibson
by ChrisCook (cojockathotmaildotcom) on Thu Jul 19th, 2007 at 04:11:36 AM EST
Oh spare me.

There is nothing in science that gives that second paragraph any validity. Our disconnection from the system around us is more tracable to religion than science.

by Colman (colman at eurotrib.com) on Thu Jul 19th, 2007 at 05:26:29 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Nothing inherent in the scientific method, or in scientific facts.  On that point you are correct.

But in the "culture" of science, in the personalities and habits and ways of doing things common in the science community?  Perhaps.

It's important to keep this in mind, and realize that the majority of popular resentment of science comes from the latter, not the former.

by Zwackus on Thu Jul 19th, 2007 at 11:00:10 PM EST
[ Parent ]
But in the "culture" of science, in

That's largely derived from the wider culture.
by Colman (colman at eurotrib.com) on Fri Jul 20th, 2007 at 02:57:13 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Yes, and no.  Scientists are of course members of their wider societies and cultures, and as such have inculcated the attitudes and whatnot from those cultures.

But most scientists work as part of a wider community of scientists.  They may, in fact, interact primarily or exclusively with other members of that sub-community.  Like any community, there are rules and norms and values and whatnot that govern the way in which people commonly behave in that community, what is acceptable and what is not, what is usually done and what is avoided, etc.

Some of these norms and values come from the nature of their collective endeavor, and some do not.  An emphasis on accuracy, reporting one's findings, and discussion thereof are community norms, but norms that stem directly from the practice of science - if they weren't doing these things, it wouldn't be science as we understand it.

Other things, like the violently negative attitude towards such things as astrology, are not.  There is no reason inherent to the practice of science that says obvious non-rational fallacies like astrology must be attacked with arrogant contempt - complete disinterest, or magnanimous bemusement seem equally possible, even though they are currently minority responses.

To put it another way, not every scientist has to come across like Dawkins, but the fact that a good number of them do (including many friends of mine in different fields) indicates that a particular group culture is at work.

by Zwackus on Fri Jul 20th, 2007 at 11:39:25 PM EST
[ Parent ]
It is in the Subject/ Object Metaphysics as be all and end all - which as I understand it is inherent in the "Scientific Method" - that Pirsig was criticising the "Church of Reason" as he called it, and he created a new Metaphysics of Quality which he holds better addresses Reality.

The basis of which is that Quality - like all of the facets oof Reality, such as "Beauty", or "Value" - is indefinable, or definable only in relative terms.

Science as a Religion will do me fine. You only have to look at Dawkins to realise that he is as fanatical as any Jesuit in defending HIS Religion.

"The future is already here -- it's just not very evenly distributed" William Gibson

by ChrisCook (cojockathotmaildotcom) on Fri Jul 20th, 2007 at 04:30:57 AM EST
[ Parent ]
You can measure beauty. I can produce a list of the most common ingredients in different genres of photography needed to produce beauty.

This doesn't mean anyone will immediately be able to take a beautiful photo - or even that I can, to order -  but the rules are there, and to some extent they can be quantified.

There are also studies of facial beauty that will tell you the exact proportions that make each face beautiful - or not.

There are certainly more nebulous and vague perceptions which are more difficult to parse. Abstract art would be very much harder to quantify - but it's a challenge for many humans too.

So I don't think you can rely on a feelgood catch-all like quality to understand these things.

But that was one of the points I made - in the arts, it's more about unquantified opinion, and the origins and roots of those opinions aren't tested.

It's more about 'I feel this is...' This works just fine for some things, but is a very different perceptual mode to the one required for science.

by ThatBritGuy (thatbritguy (at) googlemail.com) on Fri Jul 20th, 2007 at 05:59:14 AM EST
[ Parent ]
 One problem - it's not very scientific :-) - more an expression of opinion, and a bit over-stated. Most people don't HATE science; there is a range of attitudes from fascination, through indifference, occasional interest, dislike, etc to hate at the extreme fringe. About the only evidence you cite is the opinion of an astrologer - with good reason to hate science - as already pointed out.

For a rather more scientific treatment of the subject, see:

Indeed, although scientists
frequently complain that science is not respected Lewenstein/Science Books/1 June 2005, p. 7
in American culture and that nonscientists need
more "science literacy," the history of science
books in public discourse suggests that science
grew in popularity during the second half of the
twentieth century - especially after the well-
educated baby-boom generation began to reach
adulthood in the1970s. By the end of the
century, that popularity may have been a factor
in the simultaneous growth of a religious,
fundamentalist culture - a culture war between
science and religion, between Romantic and
Enlightenment outlooks that played out both on
college campuses and in politics and other
forums.

From the end of World War II until 1977,
only two science-related books won Pulitzer
Prizes (Table 2). But from 1978 to 1984, five
science books won, all in the "general
nonfiction" category (which had been
introduced in the early 1960s). In the late 1970s,
science was also succeeding in other areas of
public culture, with a "science boom" in
magazines and television shows.

http://people.cornell.edu/pages/bvl1/Books2004.pdf

And science books remain quite popular.

 

Maybe it's because I'm a Londoner - that I moved to Nice.

by Ted Welch (tedwelch-at-mac-dot-com) on Thu Jul 19th, 2007 at 05:00:23 AM EST
Point A - Before and After Science is one of my Desert Isle albums.

Point B - There is something not quite true about the 'it either works or it don't' mentality of science. Having been in high tech as a manager and salesperson and installer/trainer, having witnessed first hand the 'must shoot the engineer to get the product out' scenario, I can argue that there is some parts of Science that are no different than Art, or Scientists no different than Artists.

There are the same frustrations after the aiming at perfection phase, the same joys at getting at least part of a situation covered that was in the original thesis.

Now, you might say that I am talking about mere productizers, engineers perhaps, but not scientists. But it has been 30 years of watching audio/video/film transform from analog to digital...I'm certain that I must have seen a few engineers put on a scientist hat at least a couple of times.

Never underestimate their intelligence, always underestimate their knowledge.

Frank Delaney ~ Ireland

by siegestate (siegestate or beyondwarispeace.com) on Thu Jul 19th, 2007 at 05:42:29 AM EST
And that's why Genesis 1 should be thought in science class.

ducks and runs for cover.

no wait, let me finish my argument. No, there is the spagetti monster, it's going to kill me (arghh)...

But seriously - I had this discussion with my father the other day, (who as some might recall is a retired Church Minister) and he was all for teaching Genesis 1 in Science class and I was gobsmacked, since I learned from him over twenty years what Genesis 1 really means.
But after a short readjustment of definitions we agreed, that it has to be tought as a way to teach "the history of science" and how scienctific thought started. Obviously our scientific understanding has moved swiftly on from 2600 (Genesis 1)- 2900 (Genesis 2) years ago, but starting with early understandings and working out, how people made sense of their environment and how this changed over time and improved might make science more accessible (I am a great believer in taking historical development of an idea into account when discussing and learning about the current state).

by PeWi on Thu Jul 19th, 2007 at 05:43:16 AM EST
The cosmology of The Discworld is more entertaining, and also (I believed) based on actual myths from actual ancient cultures. I would much rather teach that.

Can the last politician to go out the revolving door please turn the lights off?
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Thu Jul 19th, 2007 at 05:46:31 AM EST
[ Parent ]
yes, I am a littel harsh with my "shoulds" but Genesis 1 is NOT purely a mythical story. It is scientific thought cladded in mythical language. People are experiencing that the sun is moving around. They are describing the world they see.

how can you say the earth is on the back of a turtle when you cannot see the turtle?

I probably should have mad clear that I include other scientific investigations (egyptian, mayan, etc) in this as well.

by PeWi on Thu Jul 19th, 2007 at 05:52:59 AM EST
[ Parent ]
History of Science books tend to have initial chapters about creation myths and ancient cosmologies. However, for how late in history Genesis was composed, it was already backwards compared to what Babylonian astronomers knew.  And you only have to go to the 4th century BC to get Archimedes' Sand reckoner.

More often than not, history of mathematics courses spend an inordinate amount of time on ancient number systems and all they ask students to do is write numbers in funny scripts. The reason science education is atrocious is not really the curriculum, it's the teachers (and the students).

Can the last politician to go out the revolving door please turn the lights off?

by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Thu Jul 19th, 2007 at 05:58:03 AM EST
[ Parent ]
There are serious issues with the curriculum, at least when I was in school.

For example, the year before GCSE course in the school I was at, everyone took Physics. Now it didn't help that the teacher was an odious little toad of a man, but even with a better teacher, a year dominated by waves, little tappers in water tanks and measuring the deflection of a pencil when viewed through a prism is nothing more than a good way to discourage people (particularly non-geeks) from thinking about science ever again.

I went on to study engineering at university, so obviously I was hard to put off. But now I'm not an engineer, how much of what I was taught is really useful for understanding the kind of public policy issues we discuss here?

And could we do future poets/etc. a bigger favour by focusing their science curriculum on the things that will be useful for them in that regard?

by Metatone (metatone [a|t] gmail (dot) com) on Thu Jul 19th, 2007 at 06:08:11 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Just compare the Feynman Lectures on Physics with every other first-year physics course known to (wo)man. It's not the curriculum: it's the teacher.

Can the last politician to go out the revolving door please turn the lights off?
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Thu Jul 19th, 2007 at 06:13:56 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Let me put it to you that the Feynman courses don't do it for everyone... that's to me really what TBG is pointing to.
by Metatone (metatone [a|t] gmail (dot) com) on Thu Jul 19th, 2007 at 06:54:05 AM EST
[ Parent ]
They especially don't do it for most teachers.

But my point is that the presentation of wave physics, and optics, is excellent, and engaging, and uses topics from biology, and colour vision, and stuff. And it's not overly mathematical either. The first 6 chapters are excellent, nontechnical, and set the methodological and philosophical stage, and address the relevance. And then he goes and he shows you how you can calculate an elliptic orbit using Newton's law with a pocket calculator and Euler's method. The guy also does quantum mechanics with 2x2 matrices, and only introduces the Schroedinger equation in the last 3 chapters of the third volume. But most physics instructors don't know how to make heads or tails out of it. And the students don't like it because it's not a cookbook (by the time they encounter it they have been conditioned to study the wrong way).

Can the last politician to go out the revolving door please turn the lights off?

by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Thu Jul 19th, 2007 at 07:01:42 AM EST
[ Parent ]
You know, there are a number of books available now that break down the "science" in science fiction movies and stories, pointing out what's right, wrong, possible, or completely out of left field (Here's an example for biology). Get one of these as a supplemental book, for example, and have students pick apart a movie not covered in the book, showing what's right (and why), etc. It sounds small, but it could be another way to make science seem more accessible to students who otherwise might not give a damn. Just a possibility, since you're discussing ways to make classes more interesting.
by lychee on Thu Jul 19th, 2007 at 07:29:51 AM EST
[ Parent ]
There is no science in Space Opera.

Can the last politician to go out the revolving door please turn the lights off?
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Thu Jul 19th, 2007 at 07:51:41 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Wrong. There's science, it just may be bad science. :) So, the students have to explain what's wrong. Kind of like the cringe-inducing sound of engines in the vacuum of space. Get your beginning physics students to explain why that's bad. I'm just throwing ideas around here.

You should take a look through that biology of SF cinema book-- bookstores specializing in SF/Fantasy might have a copy. It's a real hoot, he did a thorough job!

by lychee on Thu Jul 19th, 2007 at 08:20:54 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Personally, I dislike those 'Science of...' books intensely.

Firstly, they're obvious cash-in titles, and there's something quite cynical about them.

Secondly, I've yet to read one that made me feel excited about what I was supposed to be learning.

Finally, there's a kind of grim crashing of gears as drama collides with pedagogy. I don't think the interests of either are served particularly well, because usually all you get is more story telling.

Feynmann is interesting, but still - I think - too technical for many people. He explains a lot of stuff, but never quite gets across why people should care. If you're already excited you'll be curious, but if you're not, you won't understand why you should be.

by ThatBritGuy (thatbritguy (at) googlemail.com) on Thu Jul 19th, 2007 at 08:39:58 AM EST
[ Parent ]
If you're not curious, you won't understand why you should be excited

And that is the whole problem with "science education". It really is hopeless because what you cannot teach people is curiosity.

Can the last politician to go out the revolving door please turn the lights off?

by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Thu Jul 19th, 2007 at 08:48:49 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Are there many people who really lack that kind of curiosity?

I really don't know. It's hard for me to imagine not being curious about things, but that's a personal view.

Based on experience I'm sure there are totally incurious people out there. But I'm not sure what percentage of the population they'd be.

by ThatBritGuy (thatbritguy (at) googlemail.com) on Thu Jul 19th, 2007 at 11:12:20 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Maybe it's the context. Just setting foot in a classroom kills people's curiosity?

Because, clearly, people spend incredible amounts of effort researching sports, celebrities, music, film, fashion...

Can the last politician to go out the revolving door please turn the lights off?

by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Thu Jul 19th, 2007 at 11:22:55 AM EST
[ Parent ]
by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Thu Jul 19th, 2007 at 11:47:35 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Huh? This was obviously meant to reply to someone's post below.

Something's wrong with the science round here grrmmble...

by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Thu Jul 19th, 2007 at 11:50:33 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Of course you could get me to pull the lever. That wouldn't be very hard. I love levers!
by someone (s0me1smail(a)gmail(d)com) on Thu Jul 19th, 2007 at 12:47:47 PM EST
[ Parent ]
You win the jackpot.

And I conclude the zapping only happens to me.

by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Thu Jul 19th, 2007 at 12:50:05 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Afew!  The zapping....happens to me, too!

Lightning!

Science is cutting edge, and moaning about how stupid people are is not cutting edge, it is reactionary.  Some people are stupid.  Why?  How do we educate people so we aren't overwhelmed by stupidity?

Heh heh!

People used to believe the sun rose every day.  They needed astronomers to explain the eclipses.  But...how stupid were people that they needed such fears assuaged?

I see science, as a method, as...pffff...the history of method.  How did we learn to walk, talk, move, eat?  Trial, error, hypotheses tested by experience.  It was only when science delved beyond the senses that scientists told us "This is true, strange though it may be."

And yet (and so) I don't respect scientists who work for large pharmaceuticals.  I'm not saying they're evil, but I don't see any high moral dimension to such activity.  Ditto those who make explosives, or...these days...any endeavour that isn't based around limit, recycle, reuse, reduce, fine elements used to maximum advantage...

I think astrology (a loud irritating note for many) is simply decadent astronomy.  The fact that these people know when the moon gets up and when it goes to bed is, for me, a positive, because at least they're tied into, in some way, the long cycles.  The moderately rich banker who ponders, between sniffs, the global cost of the house, the sauna, or the jacuzzi, can be useful to finance the next wave of smaller, more efficient, electrified...via solar/wind/wave, yack yack.

Afew!  If you know farming people, are they heading to permaculture, or are they resisting?  The agricultural sciences, the symbiotic scientists are, for me, by far the more enlightened beings.  Propose, test, evaluate.  If it works, it works.  There are some fundamentals, such as "I breathe to live" that only crazy people think should be taxed.  

Maybe the fact that there are too many humans means humans have to hate away a certain percentage.  Like rats in cages, the more we are, the more we bite.  But against that, against that endless irritation created by "the other"...against that defeat of the person in the face of ego logic...

the ego needs to curb itself, get out of the mental car, look around, go some place different, and science is no more and no less than the ability to judge, by experiment, certain experiences.

The ego is partial.  As Chris quoted, ach, science is in man's image ergo: nuclear bombs.  Created in a cultural milieu, where science is part of business, the business of science is money, for the scientists....

I suggest that the green elements of society are, by far, the most scientific and most forward thinking in terms of science.  "Organic", for me, means "without pesticides".  There's something unscientific, for me, in a person who demeans "organic."

Science teaching to primary kids is, effectively, the scientific method.  Hypothesise, test, evaluate.  But if adult society is obsessed by economics, or big brother, or porn, the young will...simply react, which is what we all do.  Action and reaction.  The zen point between the two is as amenable to scientists as anyone.

Yack yack!

Hey!  All that to say, cazang!  Lightning!



Don't fight forces, use them R. Buckminster Fuller.

by rg (leopold dot lepster at google mail dot com) on Thu Jul 19th, 2007 at 07:57:56 PM EST
[ Parent ]
by someone (s0me1smail(a)gmail(d)com) on Thu Jul 19th, 2007 at 11:29:21 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I'm a reasonably intelligent guy.  I've studied a lot.  I've done a little bit of science stuff in school, but really came to appreciate the method after setting up a few "Hypothesis and Test" situations for myself in non-mathematical situations, and through my study of their application to modern archaeological practice.  I have a strong appreciation for science.

But honestly, I could care less about waves and stuff.  Physics is astoundingly boring.  I just don't care.  I find the ultimate results of current astrophysical and cosmological research interesting from a conceptual point of view, but only in 1-5 paragraph tidbits.

At a rather basic level, I think some people find that stuff interesting, and some people don't.  The key to good science education has to take this into account, and as bad as it sounds, I think it has to separate them into two different tracks as soon as possible, so that the people who could care less about "real" science are introduced to the kind of stuff that can lead them to appreciate the method and practice of science in a very general way, even if basic algebra is a challenge.

Sadly, though, as science is usually taught by science-types, and amongst science types a rather common attitude is "If you don't find this interesting, than you're a hopeless dolt," it's really not surprising that many people will reject it entirely.

by Zwackus on Thu Jul 19th, 2007 at 11:13:10 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Physics isn't boring at all! The problem is that you don't get right down to the really awesome nitty gritty sheer wonder of the science until you are way into a degree...

You go from the macro to the micro to the nano... go sub atomic.  You don't need to get the maths to appreciate how absolutely incredible it is that all these different factors come together and that we actually exist.

We exist, it's amazing! I'm made up of proteins and other macromolecules, with enzymes doing their various jobs, bacteria living in me, without which, I would die. I eat food, drink water, breathe the air, all of this is chemistry, biology and incredibly fine tuned to keep me alive.

If anything significant had altered the path of human history or evolution, or a random clash of primordial soup had formed something else or the energy had escaped and gone elsewhere, this planet may not be here, humans and cats and dogs and sheep wouldn't be here. If the mitochondria hadn't quite pulled it off or the DNA mutated in the wrong place a million years ago...

Oh the probability threads, how tenuous they become when you look at everything that could have happened and then see what did.

And all these millions, billions of proteins and molecules that I'm made up from, somehow are sitting in exactly the right place for me to function and live; these are made from atoms, with electrons and protons and neutrons all these funnily named sub atomic things, that whizz about and it's only probability that puts them in a point in space at any one time with their complex energy levels and empty space.

So much space, how am I even solid? Do I really exist the way I think I do? I'm pure energy.

We are made from space dust!

Tell me that is not amazing.  Physics is not boring really, but it's a damn shame that they don't start the story with the narrative that we know nothing at all and how did this world become what it is? And then bit by bit, unpick and discover and test and fail and learn and be inspired.

Science is a great big adventure to explore the world with so let's go and discover...

by In Wales (inwales aaat eurotrib.com) on Fri Jul 20th, 2007 at 03:53:18 AM EST
[ Parent ]
You don't need to go to the micro or the nano to appreciate the beauty in physical phenomena. Take a rainbow, for instance, or water waves in a canal made by a barge, or shock waves made by a fast beat in open sea.

Can the last politician to go out the revolving door please turn the lights off?
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Fri Jul 20th, 2007 at 04:33:25 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Very true, but there are many more layers beneath all of that that are not so day to day.

I find that understanding science makes the day to day alone, awe inspiring. But I'm not sure that is entirely true for the non scientist. A rainbow perhaps yes, or other phenomena that you don't see often.  But ripples, blue sky etc - do people try to look further than what they purely observe, is it taken on board that there's something sciencey behind all that? Or does it just need pointing out?

I found that the more layers of complexity that I uncovered, the more amazing all the really simple things became.

by In Wales (inwales aaat eurotrib.com) on Fri Jul 20th, 2007 at 04:44:34 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Your comment motivates me to pull out a couple of Feynman quotations:
A poet once said "The whole universe is in a glass of wine." We will probably never know in what sense he meant that, for poets do not write to be understood. But it is true that if we look at a glass closely enough we see the entire universe. There are the things of physics: the twisting liquid which evaporates depending on the wind and weather, the reflections in the glass, and our imaginations adds the atoms. The glass is a distillation of the Earth's rocks, and in its composition we see the secret of the universe's age, and the evolution of the stars. What strange array of chemicals are there in the wine? How did they come to be? There are the ferments, the enzymes, the substrates, and the products. There in wine is found the great generalization: all life is fermentation. Nobody can discover the chemistry of wine without discovering, as did Louis Pasteur, the cause of much disease. How vivid is the claret, pressing its existence into the consciousness that watches it! If our small minds, for some convenience, divide this glass of wine, this universe, into parts -- physics, biology, geology, astronomy, psychology, and so on -- remember that Nature does not know it! So let us put it all back together, not forgetting ultimately what it is for. Let it give us one more final pleasure: drink it and forget it all!
Poets say science takes away from the beauty of the stars -- mere globs of gas atoms. Nothing is "mere". I too can see the stars on a desert night, and feel them. But do I see less or more? The vastness of the heavens stretches my imagination -- stuck on this carousel my little eye can catch one-million-year-old light. A vast pattern -- of which I am a part... What is the pattern or the meaning or the why? It does not do harm to the mystery to know a little more about it. For far more marvelous is the truth than any artists of the past imagined it. Why do the poets of the present not speak of it? What men are poets who can speak of Jupiter if he were a man, but if he is an immense spinning sphere of methane and ammonia must be silent?


Can the last politician to go out the revolving door please turn the lights off?
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Fri Jul 20th, 2007 at 04:39:12 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Great quote, thanks!
by In Wales (inwales aaat eurotrib.com) on Fri Jul 20th, 2007 at 04:46:14 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Yes, it's amazing in the abstract.  And I do find it interesting in the abstract . . . on the level of prose explanations of how things work in non-specific manners.  I do read a fair bit of science news, which I wouldn't do if I didn't find it at least somewhat interesting.

But the actual, math-laden practice of physics?  Taking measurements and plugging them into equations?  Bleah.

Yet, the really advanced stuff cannot really be properly understood any other way, as it is so beyond the normal realm of perception or experience.  Quantum stuff is just strange.  I can listen to explanations of it, but I do so in a manner that I might listen to a creation myth - I can see sub-atomic particles no better than I can see gods, and although one most definitely has a very important and profound influence on my very existence and on the existence of all matter, those actions are as completely invisible and imperceptible to the unaided eye as are the acts of mythological entities.  

Now, if I were the sort of person who really got math, I could actually come to understand advanced physics on a real level, or at least as well as anyone out there does.  But I'm not, and I'm hardly alone.  It will always be something that I just have to take on faith.

Whether this is the cause or the effect of my disinterest I cannot say, but in any case, the problems of physics are not the ones that really interest me.  I feel just fine taking the workings of the physical world for granted.  What interests me is society, and how social groups work.  Given that physical reality is, at the level I can percieve, pretty much the same for me as it is for anyone else on Earth, it's more the background against which we work than the substance of the problem that interests me.

by Zwackus on Fri Jul 20th, 2007 at 11:27:52 PM EST
[ Parent ]
There are three 'jumps' in learning Mathematics.  In all 3 cases a student may be swimming along and then hit a wall.  And.  Just. Don't. Get. It.  The first is Algebra, the second is Euclidean Geometry, the third is Calculus.  Somewhere 'round here I've got a couple of books investigating this issue.  All of them spend a couple of hundred pages stating in great detail why nobody knows why this happens.  8^)

If I may offer a suggestion, the next time you're in a bookstore see if they have a copy of Morris Kline's Mathematics for the Non-Mathematician, thumb through it, and see if floats your boat.  It's a history of math from a Humanities POV.  It was written as a textbook for college students who had primary interests other than math/techie/science.  At 500 pages it's a bit of a slog but there's no reason not to skip around to find the bits one finds interesting.  

She believed in nothing; only her skepticism kept her from being an atheist. -- Jean-Paul Sartre

by ATinNM on Sat Jul 21st, 2007 at 12:06:10 AM EST
[ Parent ]
ATinNM's Laws of Disciplinary Entrancement:

What you find utterly fascinating is unknown to 75% of humanity(Category A); 15% think it is useless, boring, tedious, and dull (Category B); 9% actively despise it and hate the practitioners thereof (Category C); .999999999999999% admit it might have some use, some day and immediately tell you a long, pointless, anecdote (Category D); .000000000000001% are slightly interested (Category E).

  •  Corollary I:  98% of the people you meet in daily life will be Category C.

  •  Corollary II:  Anytime you talk to people in Categories A, B, D, or E about your Disciplinary Entrancement they will immediately morph into Category C.



She believed in nothing; only her skepticism kept her from being an atheist. -- Jean-Paul Sartre
by ATinNM on Sat Jul 21st, 2007 at 12:36:24 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I don't mean the show-specific ones. I mean the books that go through genres, rather than showbiz dynasties.
by lychee on Thu Jul 19th, 2007 at 08:52:38 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Does that mean we're screwed?

Seriously, if successful science learning depends on either having a one-in-a-million instructor or being a one-in-50,000 student, there would seem to be little hope of communicating meaningful science to the population at large.

If it is not possible for a curriculum to make a difference, we're left with little to talk about.

The fact is that what we're experiencing right now is a top-down disaster. -Paul Krugman

by dvx (dvx.clt št gmail dotcom) on Thu Jul 19th, 2007 at 07:53:11 AM EST
[ Parent ]
The curriculum is a minor factor compared to the teacher and, especially, the student.

Can the last politician to go out the revolving door please turn the lights off?
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Thu Jul 19th, 2007 at 07:56:57 AM EST
[ Parent ]
All my science teachers were duds.  (I am being VERY charitable here)  I lived in small towns and anyone who knew science could get MUCH better jobs elsewhere.  Yet by 16, I was one of 250 National Science Foundation scholars in USA.  So one could conclude that:

  1. Teachers don't help that much
  2. There is so much science all around us we can pick it up by simple contact
  3. Its much more important to learn why we should study science than to learn the details


"Remember the I35W bridge--who needs terrorists when there are Republicans"
by techno (reply@elegant-technology.com) on Thu Jul 19th, 2007 at 01:23:32 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Well, it depends on what your goal is. If you want science education, we're indeed screwed. If you want science instruction, well, mechanical teaching of tools and repeated standarised testing will finally select a small population of technically competent scientists.

But don't listen to me, my own science education was clearly an abysmal failure.

Can the last politician to go out the revolving door please turn the lights off?

by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Thu Jul 19th, 2007 at 08:01:22 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Define "communicating meaningful science". What exactly do you want to achieve?

Can the last politician to go out the revolving door please turn the lights off?
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Thu Jul 19th, 2007 at 08:09:31 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I don't scientifically literate people need to understand F=ma or even E = mc^2. In reality people don't seem to understand them anyway, even if they can quote them.

What I'd like to see is much more appreciation of critical thinking, trial and error - no, you don't get the answer right the first time - and the empirical method applied to processes and situations from everyday life, rather than being reserved for lab situations with ripple tanks and oscilloscopes and other doodads and thingummies.

Understanding science as policy direction is possibly more useful than optics to most people.

by ThatBritGuy (thatbritguy (at) googlemail.com) on Thu Jul 19th, 2007 at 08:44:15 AM EST
[ Parent ]
So what matters is the method, not the subject matter.

And (see Feyerabend) "the method" is not what elementary science books teach in their "scientific method" chapters (another example of good curriculum destroyed by rote and bad teaching) but rather a critical-thinking attitude to problem solving.

Can the last politician to go out the revolving door please turn the lights off?

by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Thu Jul 19th, 2007 at 08:47:14 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Let me just pick one element that struck me particularly.

European Tribune - Before and After Science

Resentment. Science is hard, and most people don't understand it. Worse, they know they don't understand it, and this makes them feel stupid - which no one enjoys.

I find that incredibly fascinating as my (and my contemporaries) experiences are that science is hard and that we don't understand most of the stuff either. Generally, scientists are puzzling on problems they have no clue about, feel miserable about themselves when they get stuck and finally settle for the fact that no one understands nothing and that most people just pretend to know and so be able to live with themselves.

Or this just could be the PhD experience.

by Nomad on Thu Jul 19th, 2007 at 09:11:58 AM EST
You're describing the frustration of the actual practice of science. TBG is describing the popular resentment at arcane arts and their practitioners.

Can the last politician to go out the revolving door please turn the lights off?
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Thu Jul 19th, 2007 at 09:20:15 AM EST
[ Parent ]
All true. Just wanting to inject here that most of the time scientists also know that they don't understand science, is all.
by Nomad on Thu Jul 19th, 2007 at 09:49:56 AM EST
[ Parent ]
That's even worse, at least astrologers and priests offer absolute certainty. Which leads us to TBG's point about inconsistency. What? Scientists can't even agree among themselves? Then which scientist am I supposed to listen to?

Can the last politician to go out the revolving door please turn the lights off?
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Thu Jul 19th, 2007 at 09:55:18 AM EST
[ Parent ]
What's so wrong with uncertainty?
by Nomad on Thu Jul 19th, 2007 at 10:32:28 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Isn't certainty better?

Can the last politician to go out the revolving door please turn the lights off?
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Thu Jul 19th, 2007 at 10:44:47 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Only when you're properly certain, as opposed to certain by fiat.

One of the problems with some religious types is that they expect absolute truth, the type sold by religions, from science as well.

by Colman (colman at eurotrib.com) on Thu Jul 19th, 2007 at 10:46:22 AM EST
[ Parent ]
You mean certainty by fiat is not certainty?

There is a whole scientific/enlightened narrative implicit here.

Can the last politician to go out the revolving door please turn the lights off?

by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Thu Jul 19th, 2007 at 10:54:07 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I'd add that certainty is doesn't exist ... and there's a narrative to play with.
by Colman (colman at eurotrib.com) on Thu Jul 19th, 2007 at 10:58:11 AM EST
[ Parent ]
That's even worse, at least astrologers and priests offer absolute certainty.

Can the last politician to go out the revolving door please turn the lights off?
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Thu Jul 19th, 2007 at 11:03:11 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Yup.  I've found that a lot of people have great trouble with the idea of a universe that doesn't have any absolute certainties.
by Colman (colman at eurotrib.com) on Thu Jul 19th, 2007 at 11:05:20 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I know I certainly do. I trust science to provide certainties! :)

Good tentative answers are better than unprovable/unfalsifiable final answers. See Asimov on The Relativity of Wrong

-----
sapere aude

by Number 6 on Thu Jul 19th, 2007 at 11:31:13 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Which leads us to TBG's point about inconsistency. What? Scientists can't even agree among themselves? Then which scientist am I supposed to listen to?

You've got a whole world of educational failure right there.

Paradoxically it's the illusion of certainty that makes science seem alienating, and scientists seem inhuman.

I think people have very little idea that there's a lot of frustration and guessing and uncertainty involved. The idea seems to be that every so often a genius appears out of nowhere with The Answer and so the story grinds on.

It's the certainty and predictability that make science look like magic. If you take those away and combine with them with participation, you'll get less of the surly 'You people never agree anyway so why should I listen to you?' and more of the 'So what other evidence is there?'

by ThatBritGuy (thatbritguy (at) googlemail.com) on Thu Jul 19th, 2007 at 11:10:10 AM EST
[ Parent ]
With much of my research, I'm giving my best possible guess as to what is going on.  I say it's probable, it could be something else.  But people want the certainty.

They want science to say you MUST take this vitamin and you will NEVER get cancer if you do so. Elsewhere on the thread it mentions how results come out prematurely or even where the paper itself may only talk in terms of likelihood and not absolute certainty, it gets report as being the authority and telling people that this is the whole truth and nothing but... and then next week someone else will have a new truth.

People don't understand that the whole process very often is 'experiment, experiment, experiment and oh ok what's going on here...? It probably isn't this or that, but it's likely to be that. Give the same dataset to someone else, and their answer can be different.'

Migeru is right, you want certainty, go to a priest. Science isn't religion, it's exploration, there's infinite possibilities to surf on, all sorts of amazing things jump out and throw you off and then you sit there and think until your brain hurts and try to work it out again.  

It is magic! And it's foolish to think we can provide all the answers. If the public could be more realistic about that, perhaps we'd all seem to be a bit more human to the non-science bods. Then perhaps they'd find the quest for answers more interesting too.

Research wouldn't be called research if you knew all the answers. (I can't remember where that quote comes from)

by In Wales (inwales aaat eurotrib.com) on Fri Jul 20th, 2007 at 04:18:20 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Again, if people were taught statistics instead of calculus maybe they'd understand a thing or two about confidence intervals, false positives and false negatives... And note I'm saying understand, not being able to calculate them.

Can the last politician to go out the revolving door please turn the lights off?
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Fri Jul 20th, 2007 at 04:36:06 AM EST
[ Parent ]
People don't understand that the whole process very often is 'experiment, experiment, experiment and oh ok what's going on here...?

I think if there's one thing that I'd like people to get from science education that they don't seem to at the moment, it's this.

And an understanding of how to parse statistics. So when someone says 'Twice as likely to get cancer because...' they can say 'But the difference between odds of 15 million to one and 30 million to one is insignificant.'

by ThatBritGuy (thatbritguy (at) googlemail.com) on Fri Jul 20th, 2007 at 06:04:59 AM EST
[ Parent ]
it is attributed to Einstein; I used it for my MSc thesis: "If we knew what it was we were doing it would not be called research."
by Nomad on Fri Jul 20th, 2007 at 08:54:01 AM EST
[ Parent ]
in s discussion with a philosopher specialising in the philosophy of science we were discussing how to explain what was science and what wasn't. and the simplest explaination we could come up with was that you had to imagine scientific knowledge as a baloon. the air inside was the accumulated knowledge and the skin of the baloon was the science happening on the edge of knowledge.

Any idiot can face a crisis - it's day to day living that wears you out.
by ceebs (ceebs (at) eurotrib (dot) com) on Fri Jul 20th, 2007 at 09:31:37 AM EST
[ Parent ]
The surface of that balloon would be a sort of space-filling fractal.


Can the last politician to go out the revolving door please turn the lights off?
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Fri Jul 20th, 2007 at 09:43:09 AM EST
[ Parent ]
On the "Inconsistency" issue. I think a large part of that is poor science coverage in the media, possibly do to an inherent contradiction between what makes for a good story and what makes for proper science. The media is propagating (unwittingly) the myth that once it's in a science journal or a science conference it is Science: a fact. It is very difficult to make the point that one publication does not a fact make (but that its part of a much longer project of debate, checks, cross-checks, weeding out competing theories etc), and even more difficult to explain that science doesn't deal in certainties, that every result is tentative and, having pointed this out, to communicate that this doesn't devolve into some sort of relativism where everything goes, since there are various degrees of tentativeness depending on the volume of related research and the broadness of empirical data (which again you have to confirm and reconfirm). All this doesn't make great copy according to established media wisdom, although I have a feeling that it might be feasible to present all of that in a truly fascinating way - and there are cases out there that prove the point - yet it would require a massive paradigm shift in science journalism and science education world-wide.

Additionally: to get across the idea that a climate scientist, say, is a guy or gal that knows about climate the same way that your car-mechanic wiz neighbor knows about cars, or your carpenter knows about woodworking, only in a much more organized and communal way, might be a good way to "humanize" the scientific endeavor. It might not work, but it's worth a try.

As an aside, I think that the vast majority of scientists are truly disconnected with the average (educated) person's ability to parse science. My personal anecdote about this, is when a film-director friend of mine, with no background in science at all, went to the late Ilya Prigogine to ask him about chaos theory and his work in thermodynamics and the Nobel Prize winner directed her to his From Being to Becoming, which if you are acquainted with the book (let's not debate its merits), is rather funny.

The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom - William Blake

by talos (mihalis at gmail dot com) on Thu Jul 19th, 2007 at 09:12:40 AM EST
Are you talking about Scientific Education or Scientific Training?

I disliked math during my official schooling, especially high school.  It was all:

If one rabbit can run one mile in one minute and two rabbits can run two miles in two minutes how many people can you fit in a telephone booth?

Answer:  I don't give a damn.

The teacher (indoctrinator) would grandly bestow upon the class a cookie-cutter recipe for problem solution.  No questioning of the method was allowed.  No background was given.  You memorized the procedure and regurgitated it on demand.  The procedure was taught as if it was Handed Down from God.  (The same pedagogical technique was used in my science classes as well.)  This is the antithesis of proper Mathematical technique and any deductive system.  

I suspect the teachers taught that way to cover their ignorance of the subject matter: most science and math teachers in the US did not major in science or math.

That's what passes for science 'education' - in my experience. And it's not, it's training.  Education, in my view, is the process of getting to understand the mathematical procedure AND the reasoning behind the procedure.  

She believed in nothing; only her skepticism kept her from being an atheist. -- Jean-Paul Sartre

by ATinNM on Thu Jul 19th, 2007 at 10:50:09 AM EST
Schooling is not about education, it's at best about training and at worst about herding/freeing parental labour.

Can the last politician to go out the revolving door please turn the lights off?
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Thu Jul 19th, 2007 at 10:52:38 AM EST
[ Parent ]
A position that got me into some serious disagreements as a child.  My father was a preacher who was deeply suspicious that most scientists HATED religious types.  I grew up around many folks who believed that learning science was a short-cut to hell.

But I also grew up during the space race.  It was downright patriotic to know the science of aviation and space travel.  In order to escape the life singing and Biblical memorization of a parsonage, I began to build flying model airplanes at 12.

When I finally got one done, I had to show it to everyone.  My parents were proud, my teachers were encouraging, my friends were envious.  So one sunny day, I took it out to fly.  It crashed in less than 30 seconds.  I had neglected to tighten properly the retaining nut which held the control rod to the elevator.

For a while, I acted as if I had suffered some great injustice.  How could something that took 150 hours to build be destroyed by a tiny oversight that could have been corrected in 30 seconds??  Why wasn't there some court of appeal that would overturn this cruel outcome?

But the more I thought about, the more I LIKED this "cruel" world--even though I was still bitterly disappointed by my destroyed airplane.  I LIKED the fact that the fine opinions of my fellows had made absolutely NO difference.  I LIKED the fact that there was truth that was utterly independent of what anyone believed.  And I especially loved the idea that while the laws of nature were utterly unforgiving, if you knew them well enough, you could do "impossible" things like fly.

I would go on to build dozens of model airplanes.  Most flew beautifully.  And NONE of them ever lost an elevator pushrod connection.  This is the best part of science--if you actually learn from the disasters, even mistakes are not a waste of time.  It is this self-correcting feature that keeps science as the premiere human endeavor--no matter how arrogant and unpleasant some scientists are.

"Remember the I35W bridge--who needs terrorists when there are Republicans"

by techno (reply@elegant-technology.com) on Thu Jul 19th, 2007 at 10:54:34 AM EST
I LIKE that post. :)
by ThatBritGuy (thatbritguy (at) googlemail.com) on Thu Jul 19th, 2007 at 11:15:40 AM EST
[ Parent ]
And I'll add that 'No mistakes allowed' seems to be the basis of science education.

If your pretend baby-experiment gets the wrong answer in secondary school, you're not supposed to stop and ask why. At best you'll write it off as 'experimental error' and at worst you'll be marked down viciously for being incompetent and stupid.

This is not a good way to persuade people that some uncertainty is not just acceptable, but necessary.

by ThatBritGuy (thatbritguy (at) googlemail.com) on Thu Jul 19th, 2007 at 11:19:00 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Not to speak of simply doctoring the data.

Can the last politician to go out the revolving door please turn the lights off?
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Thu Jul 19th, 2007 at 11:45:00 AM EST
[ Parent ]
You keep using the word "education" instead of "schooling".

Can the last politician to go out the revolving door please turn the lights off?
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Thu Jul 19th, 2007 at 11:46:01 AM EST
[ Parent ]
<weeping, wailing, gnashing of teeth>

As no one else has stuck their head above the parapet and admitted to actually teaching science...

A big chunk of the primary curriculum is about designing 'fair tests' and evaluating results, as well as producing critiques of other experiments and conclusions.

We didn't do that when we were at primary school.  Sometimes I wonder if that's part of the problem- that we're trying to get kids to do these things at an age when they'd really rather be doing labelled diagrams of volcanoes.

Sometimes, we just put a big pile of apparatus in the middle of the table and let them get on with it.  We circulate, ask "What happens if...?" and remove the funnel from the boy who thinks it ought to go up his nose, but that's about it.

And absolutely yes, we do let them fail.  And we respect unexpected results.  This term we've had plants with their roots removed that grew better than those with roots intact, and sandy soil that has absorbed more water than clay soil.

As far as I'm concerned, that gives us (the adults) a chance to model behaviour when experiments don't concur with predictions.  That is, we're intrigued rather than defensive...

There are rather a lot of us out here doing our best...sigh...

</weeping, wailing, gnashing of teeth>

by Sassafras on Thu Jul 19th, 2007 at 03:29:35 PM EST
[ Parent ]
But then they get to secondary school...

I'll admit this diary may make more sense to readers of a certain age who grew up drawing labelled diagrams of volcanoes. (Or in my case, sneaking out of fingerpainting classes to go find interesting books in the library.)

But how long have the changes been in place, and has it made a difference to perceptions of science?

And what happens at secondary school?

by ThatBritGuy (thatbritguy (at) googlemail.com) on Thu Jul 19th, 2007 at 05:24:36 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I haven't been in a live secondary school classroom since I was a secondary school pupil, so I'm not much help there.

(I can't get much out of my daughter beyond "Boring" and a deep resentment that her teacher's idea of 'fun' today in the last lesson of term was a worksheet...I found it difficult to summon enthusiasm, however, when she brought home two plastic cups of cress seeds/cotton wool, one of which had to be given water and one not. I've done that experiment with seven year olds.)

The National Curriculum was introduced in 1988, so anyone 24 or younger will have had their entire school career under its aegis.  As there's been a decline in takeup of science A levels in that period, it doesn't appear to be enthusing children about science.

One thing I find interesting is that, although science is popularly believed to be difficult, the science SAT at age 11 is the 'easiest', ie schools generally achieve a higher pass rate in science than in English or maths...

Maybe we should be pointing this out more enthusiastically?

by Sassafras on Thu Jul 19th, 2007 at 07:44:57 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I thoroughly enjoyed your post as well!  Superbly written.

"Remember the I35W bridge--who needs terrorists when there are Republicans"
by techno (reply@elegant-technology.com) on Thu Jul 19th, 2007 at 12:57:54 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Right on.
If there is no possibility of total, abject failure, what's the value of success?

I like that post!

-----
sapere aude

by Number 6 on Thu Jul 19th, 2007 at 11:38:09 AM EST
[ Parent ]
The problem with this is that it does not really reflect what it is defending - i.e. a scientific approach -which would seem to be a fundamental issue (see previous comment).  It's far closer the the opinion which is contrasted with science, and the opinion is over-stated - most people don't hate science -  and under-supported by evidence. Thus it doesn't even properly reflect what TBG now adds as a sort of fall-back position:

"What I'd like to see is much more appreciation of critical thinking, trial and error - no, you don't get the answer right the first time - and the empirical method applied to processes and situations from everyday life, rather than being reserved for lab situations with ripple tanks and oscilloscopes and other doodads and thingummies."

But this isn't very "critical" in that it doesn't examine it's own assumptions and it's not very empirical in that about all the evidence offered to support the exaggerated assertion that "most people hate science" is the view of one astrologer - who has reason to hate scientists.

I cited a paper which actually has a lot of evidence about the issue - e.g. about the popularity of books and TV programmes about science at the end of the 20th century. But TBG seems to tack on another set of opinions to rule out such evidence against his main opinion:

Personally, I dislike those 'Science of...' books intensely.

Firstly, they're obvious cash-in titles, and there's something quite cynical about them.

Secondly, I've yet to read one that made me feel excited about what I was supposed to be learning.
Finally, there's a kind of grim crashing of gears as drama collides with pedagogy. I don't think the interests of either are served particularly well, because usually all you get is more story telling.
Feynmann is interesting, but still - I think - too technical for many people."

Again this is opinion not evidence, e.g. the fact is that Feynman's lectures, books and TV programmes were very popular.

Here's a bit more from the source I quoted above, which does use a generally scientific method and assembles some evidence to support the claims made:

The increasing attention to science made it easier for "explanatory" books to gain influence--volumes that served primarily to present the current status of areas of scientific work. Sometimes, these books addressed multiple audiences, serving as community-builders not just with the general public, but also within the scientific community. James Gleick's Chaos (1987), for example, was primarily a broad description of current developments in a fascinating area of science, and thus fit securely in the "popular science" genre. Yet at the same time, like Watson'sMolecular Biology of the Gene, Gleick's book brought together for the first time a set of disparate work that had never previously - even among the intellectual community - been clearly seen as a single coherent field. Thus it was, in some ways, a founding document for a field of science that is today characterized by its own institutes, meetings, journals, and so on. Coming shortly after Sagan's Contact novel and at about the same time as Hawking's Brief History of Time, Gleick's book also helped demonstrate the changing nature of the relationship between the scientific community and books. Beginning in the late 1970s with a series of autobiographies subvented by the Sloan Foundation, senior scientists had begun to see books as a way to address the public directly without violating the norms of peer-reviewed journals that held together their community of professional colleagues.

...
Furthermore, despite the extraneous appeal of celebrity and sex, many science books did have direct impact because of their content.Their arguments became important to policy debates and conversations among what the British call the "chattering classes." They were cited in magazine articles, in newspaper editorials and columns, in policy reports. Books like James Conant's On Understanding Science (1947), E. O. Wilson's Sociobiology (1975), or  Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray's Bell Curve (1994) were widely discussed, their sometimes controversial theses debated in academic conferences and colloquia.

The ability of American culture to take up books as diverse as Lewis Thomas's essays on the human spirit or Herrnstein and Murray's polemics on racial politics suggests that the United States was not a science-phobic, anti-science culture (as many scientists feared).

http://people.cornell.edu/pages/bvl1/Books2004.pdf




Maybe it's because I'm a Londoner - that I moved to Nice.
by Ted Welch (tedwelch-at-mac-dot-com) on Thu Jul 19th, 2007 at 01:32:26 PM EST
It's opinion in the sense that I spent three years working for one of the UK's popular science magazines reviewing science books for them, with occasional side reviews for the TLS, and I now literally have a house full of popular science books, and have spoken to many of the publicists and commissioning editors and some of the agents, and have a good sense of what the trends and drivers are in that market.

I've also, in forty four years, literally never heard anyone say they love science. I've heard a few people say they're interested, and occasionally fascinated by esoterica (black holes, string theory, and so on.) But I've heard any number of people expressing negative opinions about it, and if you think my sample is based on exactly one astrologer then you haven't been paying attention.

It's true I don't think scientists are likely to find themselves strung up from lamp posts any time soon. But nonetheless the key points are that:

  1. Scientists and eco-activists actually agree about many things, and would be far more effective if they both realised this, instead of circling around each other in a rather hostile way.

  2. Most popular science books don't really teach science.

  3. The point which I didn't spell out and perhaps should have - this has had a huge impact on the plausibility of public acceptance of climate studies, and delayed political pressure for action by at least a decade.

If you want a formal critique of the science book market, with a breakdown based on the specialities and market practices of individual publishers I can certainly produce one, although I don't think it would be all that interesting to read.

As an overview though, science publishing is almost exclusively a somewhat aspirational middle class activity. It's very cyclical and was much bigger in the 1990s than it is now. It's also very formulaic, and often not terribly good.

This matters because if - for example - you're discussing an eco-related TV program, it's important to accurately gauge public attitudes to scientists and scientiific information so you know when and how to pitch the hard facts.

Does this matter in practice? Damn right it does.

by ThatBritGuy (thatbritguy (at) googlemail.com) on Thu Jul 19th, 2007 at 05:45:14 PM EST
[ Parent ]

TBG: It's opinion in the sense that I spent three years working for one of the UK's popular science magazines reviewing science books for them, with occasional side reviews for the TLS, and I now literally have a house full of popular science books, and have spoken to many of the publicists and commissioning editors and some of the agents, and have a good sense of what the trends and drivers are in that market.

I've also, in forty four years, literally never heard anyone say they love science. I've heard a few people say they're interested, and occasionally fascinated by esoterica (black holes, string theory, and so on.) But I've heard any number of people expressing negative opinions about it, and if you think my sample is based on exactly one astrologer then you haven't been paying attention.

I don't question your experience, but general impressions are not what science is based on - and I was discussing THIS diary, and the astrologer's comments seem to be the only piece of evidence in it.

Also it's not very British to say you love something, and I'm sure this applies to many countries as far as science goes; it would sound a bit pretentious to say so. People are more likely to make negative comments than simply say they have no problem with something.

"It's true I don't think scientists are likely to find themselves strung up from lamp posts any time soon."

Well that is a rather key point, in other words, "hate" was far too strong a term - but that was your conclusion and the rest was suupposed to explain this - non-existent fact. People expressing "negative opinions" - of varying degrees no doubt, from lack of interest, through irritation, to hostility, etc. - is quite a different thing. But we do have the actions of many as evidence, e.g. in buying books about science - however much you may disapprove of them - and watching the many popular TV series on science of various kinds. You might think there is a class problem with David Attenborough, but I suspect he's one of the most liked and most trusted figures appearing on TV and (taking it out of mere trading of opinions) the viewing figures and the sales of his series on video and DVD would seem to bear this out.

I prefer Lewenstein's approach of actually citing a wide range of evidence - and some conter-evidence and complexities - for his conclusion that science has become more popular in general.

"Scientists and eco-activists actually agree about many things, and would be far more effective if they both realised this, instead of circling around each other in a rather hostile way."  

It's quite natural that there should be conflict between them since the activists' interest is in trying to make things happen NOW, so they get irritated by scientists' failure to be a bit more simple and dramatic, while the scientists get irritated by the activists' reluctance to qualify statements and to accept the complexity of the issues and the areas of uncertainty. It's quite healthy that this kind of tension should exist.

"The point which I didn't spell out and perhaps should have - this has had a huge impact on the plausibility of public acceptance of climate studies, and delayed political pressure for action by at least a decade."

I think what has had more effect is the media's commitment, especially in the US, to a notion of objectivity wrongly identified with balance, and the latter in terms of ANY rival views, whether or not they are just a tiny minority. The related important thing is the energy companies' funding of some scientists to come up with views which challenge the climate change orthodoxy and to generally muddy the waters. When combined these understandably leave many people confused and under the impression that scientists in general are divided over the issue.

Maybe it's because I'm a Londoner - that I moved to Nice.

by Ted Welch (tedwelch-at-mac-dot-com) on Thu Jul 19th, 2007 at 07:48:25 PM EST
[ Parent ]
You may find this useful.
by ThatBritGuy (thatbritguy (at) googlemail.com) on Fri Jul 20th, 2007 at 06:12:16 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Thanks for this, it would seem to support my arguments:

Key findings

... The majority of those surveyed were 'amazed' by the achievements of science, although some expressed concerns about its regulation and control.

Analysis identified six attitudinal groups: 'confident believers', 'technophiles', 'supporters', 'concerned', 'not sure' and 'not for me'. The research offers descriptions of each of these groups.

The majority were "amazed" by the achievements of science - almost the opposite of "hating" it.

And the groups identified showed the range of attitudes which I suggested was more likely to the case with science - the most negative - "not for me" is very far from "hate".

QED :-)

Maybe it's because I'm a Londoner - that I moved to Nice.

by Ted Welch (tedwelch-at-mac-dot-com) on Fri Jul 20th, 2007 at 08:21:28 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Actually I thought it was a mass of contradictory responses, with people being amazed, but a firm majority also agreeing that 'You shouldn't tamper with nature.'

And so on.

If there's a point in that survey, it's that scientific comprehension lacks internal consistency. The public doesn't have much of a model of how science works, and especially how scientific points are made and evaluated.

'Hate' was for rhetorical effect and not meant literally, obviously.

The real point is that people blame science and scientists for issues which aren't their direct responsibility, when they could more profitably be directing those criticisms at economic apologists and the markets.

by ThatBritGuy (thatbritguy (at) googlemail.com) on Fri Jul 20th, 2007 at 08:38:00 AM EST
[ Parent ]
First of all, the !attitudinal groups" were identified and named by the researchers from the survey data. They were not actual attitudes expressed by the respondents.
Attitudinal groups
A key finding of this work has been the identification of attitudinal groups within Britain. Using factor and cluster analysis of the responses to 40 attitude statements, the quantitative research identified six groups.
Confident Believers
Positive, self-confident and outward looking, the Confident Believers (17 per cent of the sample) tend to be interested in science because of the benefits it brings, and their interest in politics means that they tend to have faith in the regulatory system and believe that they can influence Government.They tend to be well off, well educated, middle aged, and more likely to live in the south of Britain.
Technophiles
One-fifth of the total, this, the largest group, is confident, pro-science and well educated in science, but sceptical of politicians.They tend to be confident that they know how to get information when they need to, although they need reassuring that the regulatory system exists and works effectively.
Supporters
Some 17 per cent of the total, this relatively young group tends to be `amazed' by science, engineering and technology and feels self-confident enough to cope with rapid change.They also tend to believe that the Government has got things under control.Although they, like everyone else, express most interest in the medical sciences, they tend to be slightly more interested in the physical sciences - especially engineering - than others.
Concerned
The Concerned is the smallest (13 per cent of the total) and most female (60 per cent) of the clusters. The Concerned have a realistic and positive attitude to life but are sceptical of those in authority.Their social grade, household income and education levels tend to mirror the population as a whole, but they tend to be rather home centred. They are interested in a whole range of topical issues, and they know that science is an important part of life, especially for their children.
Not Sure
This group (17 per cent of the total) tends to have the lowest household incomes, the lowest level of education, and falls into social grades D and E (semi- and unskilled manual workers, and those wholly dependent on state benefits).Their views tend to be unformed: they are neither `anti-science' nor `pro-science'.This is largely because the benefits of science are not always apparent in their daily lives, which are constrained by low income and educational achievement.
Not for Me
This group, 15 per cent of the total, mainly comprises those aged 65 and over, of social grade E women, and of slightly younger men of social grade C2 (skilled manual workers). Like the Not Sure group, they are not particularly interested in political and topical issues nor in science. However, their lack of interest in science does not stop them appreciating its benefits for the future and its importance to young people.
Of interest here would be to look in detail at the methodology used to identify these clusters. Factorial analysis and cluster analysis are useful and powerful techniques, but sometimes they reflect as much the a-priori assumptions of the researchers as what's in the data.

Can the last politician to go out the revolving door please turn the lights off?
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Fri Jul 20th, 2007 at 09:13:18 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Actually I thought it was a mass of contradictory responses, with people being amazed, but a firm majority also agreeing that 'You shouldn't tamper with nature.'

And so on.

If there's a point in that survey, it's that scientific comprehension lacks internal consistency. The public doesn't have much of a model of how science works, and especially how scientific points are made and evaluated.

'Hate' was for rhetorical effect and not meant literally, obviously.

The real point is that people blame science and scientists for issues which aren't their direct responsibility, when they could more profitably be directing those criticisms at economic apologists and the markets.

by ThatBritGuy (thatbritguy (at) googlemail.com) on Fri Jul 20th, 2007 at 09:36:12 AM EST
[ Parent ]
"Actually I thought it was a mass of contradictory responses, with people being amazed, but a firm majority also agreeing that 'You shouldn't tamper with nature.' "

Well one can hardly blame them, given the overwhelming evidence from scientists of the mess we're making of the climate/planet.

I quoted what the study said were the "key findings" - with the majority finding science "amazing » and the groups they identified having the range of views - none of them VERY negative - which I suggested.

"If there's a point in that survey, it's that scientific comprehension lacks internal consistency. The public doesn't have much of a model of how science works, and especially how scientific points are made and evaluated."

Well that's a reasonable point - but a rather different one.

" 'Hate' was for rhetorical effect and not meant literally, obviously."

 Well really !:-) You deplore people's lack of understanding of how scientific points are made and evaluated - in a diary which makes little attempt to reflect such procedures, and then admit that your "main conclusion" was a mere rhetorical device, more suitable in a tabloid's distorted reporting of a scientific issue. And you have the nerve to criticise some authors of books on science ! :-)

"The real point is that people blame science and scientists for issues which aren't their direct responsibility, when they could more profitably be directing those criticisms at economic apologists and the markets."

Ah, so now, having abandoned the main conclusion - which was the motivation for the bulk of the diary - we now come to the "real point" - but yet again it is put in an absurdly general way. "People" -  ALL of them ? Ah, but of course this is just another rhetorical device - you really mean some indeterminate proportion - based on your general experience. In fact I suspect that again the majority don't blame scientists, certainly not if you ask them: Do you blame scientists or politicians and corporations ? - for such unspecified "issues". I'm pretty confident that the majority would blame politicians and corporations for the kind of thing where "criticisms at economic apologists and the markets" would be more appropriate.

Maybe it's because I'm a Londoner - that I moved to Nice.

by Ted Welch (tedwelch-at-mac-dot-com) on Fri Jul 20th, 2007 at 12:22:18 PM EST
[ Parent ]
In the US there is a permanent strain of anti-intellectualism. It shows up in politics as well ("effete eastern intellectuals") or who would you rather have a beer with?

In the school system it shows up when parents want enrichment or advanced programs for the intellectually talented students. This is opposed as being "elitist" while doing the same sort of things for the physically talented (i.e sports jocks) is seen as proper.

I think it goes back to the founding of the country which was based upon the myth of the self reliant pioneer. A person with specialized knowledge means that this pioneer can never do what the specialist can and thus implies there are categories within social strata which are unique. This runs counter to the "every man can become president" myth.

There was a period immediately after Sputnik when all this changed and the country made a concerted effort to promote science education and research. Over the past 30 years this has been replaced by the pursuit of money and the sapping of resources by runaway militarism.

I also think the rise of conservatism fits this as well. Conservatives believe in a hierarchical social structure led by strong (and unquestioned) leaders. This is the antithesis of the liberal/science worldview which encourages investigating everything and challenging authority and replacing it with individuals coming to their own conclusions.

A mindless easily led population is the goal.  

Policies not Politics
---- Daily Landscape

by rdf (robert.feinman@gmail.com) on Thu Jul 19th, 2007 at 04:32:50 PM EST
the whole discussion seems taxonomically sloppy to me -- "science" is used casually to mean the funded scientific establishment, the empirical approach, the quantitative approach, popular science media, space science, techne in general, the physical sciences, the mathematical sciences, etc.  they all seem like separate cases to me.

"the people"'s attitudes to "science," in my experience of 30 years in the trenches of Big Funded Science, vary widely from near-religious awe and worship, to gee-wow kidlike fandom, to patriotic/nationalist fervour, to complete indifference, to suspicion, to active hostility, to cargo-cultism...  and more than one of these attitudes can be found in the same person at the same time, moreover.

it was much easier for the public to relate to science as an activity in an era of more basic discoveries from more easily-obtained data;  we are way out on the edge of the diminishing-returns curve here in primary research, not necessarily in the value of the results obtained but in the amount of effort, complexity of concepts, and cost of equipment needed to do most original physical science in our time.  

the mathematicians have it easier, they only need their brains and occasionally some serious compute power...  for most of the rest of us techne-based science workers, the cost of the tools is getting ridiculously high and we are definitely in the Age of Didactic Machinery here:  the tools are complex, precise, and frail.  this makes the "frontier" of research very, very far from the kitchen chemist or backyard astronomer;  an average person's hope of replicating any of our results or being able to contribute to the field (in terms of primary data gathering) is about nil, and not surprisingly this makes science a kind of "pro sport" which people observe from a far, far distance rather than doing themselves.

opensource sharing of primary datasets might change this considerably;  10 million bright people mining the collected astronomy data of the last 30 years, with ubiquitous cheap compute power and dataviz at their fingertips, might come up with several original and valid insights from outside the academy.  that would be a fine thing, and the VO gang are working towards it.

back in late C19, doing science experiments at home was very popular...  cool stuff you could do with an egg and a bottle, that kind of thing.

as to the cargo-cult aspect, far too many people shrug their shoulders at planetary resource limits, reciting "scientists will think of something" as they get back into their SUV.  this blind faith in a fetishised Science is imho another product of the distancing of the well-funded frontlines from the public.

scientists would also do well to remember that it was scientists who promoted the toxic chemical agriculture that now turns out to be a global threat of great magnitude;  scientists invented the A-bomb;  scientists promoted DDT and Thalidomide, perfected napalm, and contributed to many another minor and major disaster.  legions of scientists work in the war/weapons industry.  and scientists spent millions and billions on projects like space shots, while poor people in the US starved and died of preventable diseases and so on.  ("Whitey's on the moon," as Gil Scott-Heron memorably quipped).  people tend to remember these things.  

we can take each of those instances and deconstruct it to show how commercial interest (profit motive) or military nuttiness or politics warped the scientists' ethics or prevented good science from being done;  but successful scientists, like successful politicians, work very close to very large pots of money and have, alas, often been corrupted or at least paid to shut up.  the ideal of science is total honesty and total glasnost, but like the ideal of American democracy it has often been honoured more in the breach... and people remember that.  they have many memorable reasons to generalise that scientists have sone serious ethical boundary issues and are far less interested in the public welfare than in their own careers.

I personally think -- cf earlier remarks on credentialling and professionalisation -- that we ought to stop calling it Science -- as if it were a separate, special, higher-status activity than other activities that are useful to our survival -- and start distinguishing science that is survival- or sustainability-oriented, serves the common planetary good, from science which is grandiose, not cost-effective, authoritarian-oriented, serves to entrench the power of elites, etc.  why should we draw a distinction between "scientists" and "communalists" as if they were opposites?  to be anti-communalist at this point in our understanding of climate, biolology, energy, etc. is essentially to be suicidal or murderous or both.  to be anti-science today, in the sense of being in denial about the laws of thermo or the meaning of "finite," is also suicidal and/or murderous.  why shouldn't scientists be communalists?  why shouldn't communalists be scientists?

imnsho there is no reason to believe that people who are not scientists are somehow reason-disabled, or don't understand the scientific method (empiricism, repeatability, refinement).  carpenters, farmers, plumbers, contractors, mechanics, bike trailer designers, fishermen, cooks, and everyone else who actually makes something or does something uses "the scientific method" as they solve problems and learn what works and what doesn't.  the degree to which we use mathematical modelling and high-tech instrumentation is the primary difference between "scientists" and every other kind of problem-solver.  scientists have no copyright on the empirical method, they just like to claim one :-)  

it is also imho an elitist and unfounded assumption to believe that only scientists have an orderly or widely communal body of knowledge.  collective wisdom, documentation, and multigenerational experience is also passed down to people pursuing all kinds of other trades/activities/hobbies.  the tone of some of the remarks earlier in this thread suggest to me an unexplored reason why some  of "the people" don't much like scientists;  many scientists think that their chosen trade makes them a kind of aristocracy, naturally superior to others whom they look down on as some kind of lumpen inferiors.  this is not an attitude calculated to win friends :-)  the elitist attitude is most clearly reflected where scientists (warped usually by big money) inflict undocumented and undiscussed risk/damage on the social and biotic fabric, as in the uncontrolled and irresponsible release of GMO and other examples mentioned above.

another thing to remember is that science follows ideology just as religions follow ideology;  although vindication usually comes along eventually for positions that were politically unpopular but scientifically valid, it usually comes along a generation or two later -- after the mandarins of the previous paradigm have died, not changed their minds :-)  the scientific establishment (and that ought be an oxymoron of sorts right there) has a patchy track record at best for the kind of enthusiasm for and openness to new insights which, ideally, ought to be the heart of the scientific culture.  inside the world of science, we all too often do not practise what we preach...

The difference between theory and practise in practise ...

by DeAnander (de_at_daclarke_dot_org) on Thu Jul 19th, 2007 at 06:06:32 PM EST


The Fates are kind.
by Gaianne on Fri Jul 20th, 2007 at 10:01:24 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Science doesn't have anything warm or comforting to offer.

It tells us that we are just a bunch of small, frail hairless simians surrounded by a perfectly indifferent Universe.

Personally, I find that rather uplifting - it's up to us to do what we can to make our lives better - but for most, it's a downright turn-off.

by Francois in Paris on Fri Jul 20th, 2007 at 12:24:58 AM EST
i'd like to offer my story regarding science ed.

the only event i remember after c. 10 years of skool science:

mr. ridett dissolving potassium permanganate, and the beautiful purple colour swirling into solution...

add to this my experience with math, where mr. paton had a strange aversion to shampoo and clean shirts, liberally depositing dandruff over my desk as he tried to get me moving from my perennial 'please sir, i'm stuck (again)' bleats.

my nose decided that ignorance was preferable to asking the unsalubrious presence to come any closer, and thus the result.

the periodic table might just as well been egyptian heiroglyphics pre rosetta.

and so my aversion therapy to science and math was complete.

if i had to start again, i would wish the curriculum used colours and drama to keep the attention of bored students.

humour too.

about ten years after leaving academia, my left brain started to recover from the scarring and mutilation of skool and i started enjoying the wonder of how good science was revolutionising the human experience.

terror about nuclear annihalation had done plenty to convince people that scientists were free of moral qualms, and that if we became extinct, it would likely come from too much science, not too little.

so, make it entertaining, if you want your little ones to get a taste for the scientific persuasion!

'The history of public debt is full of irony. It rarely follows our ideas of order and justice.' Thomas Piketty

by melo (melometa4(at)gmail.com) on Fri Jul 20th, 2007 at 01:22:59 AM EST
Since this is now a very general discussion on Science and their relation to the world, I thought back to my childhood and remember a couple of books that we had (Spiel das Wissen schaft) what a nice pun (Games that create knowledge) but Wissen schaft = Wissenschaft Science.

But we also had a Magazine called PM, which isa populist science magazine, that I remember reading fondly. It covered everything from Nature to history, extraterrestrians and their probability. Their cover story this Month is freemasons, What is the truth behind them.
Even though I realised early on, that it is truely a populist magazine, it is however quite popular as well, with over 200.000 subsribers and about 400.000 regular readers. and these are all kids and teenagers.

They do say though that their readership is in decline. Are there similar magazine's in other countries?

P.S Migeru: that's were I have all my half knowledge from that you so masterfully always expand and put on the right legs(-:

by PeWi on Fri Jul 20th, 2007 at 06:43:09 AM EST
During my high-school years I consumed Muy Interestante, but by the time I graduated I had moved on to Scientific American. When I was in primary school I consumed El Libro Gordo de Petete, which was children's encyclopedia published in weekly instalments.

Can the last politician to go out the revolving door please turn the lights off?
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Fri Jul 20th, 2007 at 06:51:12 AM EST
[ Parent ]
and muy interesante's quote of the day is:

Lo que forma nuestra suerte no es lo que experimentamos, sino nuestra forma de sentirlo.

Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach (1830-1916), novelista austriaca.

which sort of fits into Helen's Diary on Transgenderism...

by PeWi on Fri Jul 20th, 2007 at 07:02:03 AM EST
[ Parent ]

"They do say though that their readership is in decline."

The internet has grown in popularlity and has sites with stuff like this - free.

Maybe it's because I'm a Londoner - that I moved to Nice.

by Ted Welch (tedwelch-at-mac-dot-com) on Fri Jul 20th, 2007 at 08:24:07 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I get Science News every week.  It's a thin newsletter with short, concise summaries of recent papers and announcements in a variety of fields, from astronomy to materials science to biology to psychology and sociology.  

There's no math or data presented, just a short prose summary of recent findings, and a couple 2-4 page articles writing up particular issues or debates incorporating several viewpoints each issue.

I'd figure it would be readable for interested teenagers.  

by Zwackus on Fri Jul 20th, 2007 at 11:45:46 PM EST
[ Parent ]


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