I'm James Maxey, the author of numerous novels of fantasy and science fiction. I use this site to discuss a wide range of topics, with a heavy emphasis on cranky, uninformed rants about politics and religion and other topics that polite people attempt to avoid. For anyone just wanting to read about my books, I maintain a second blog, The Prophet and the Dragon, where I keep the focus solely on my fiction. I also have a webpage where both blogs stream, with more information about all my books, at jamesmaxey.net.


Thursday, June 10, 2010

Cultural Obstacles to Scientific Literacy

I think it's a relatively undisputed premise that Americans are falling behind in scientific literacy. Most objective measures of how our students rank compared to other countries show declining proficiency relative to other nations. Partially this decline may be due to other nations improving their scientific education. Still, while I know that eye-witness testimony is the worst kind of evidence, my own personal experience of trying to find people to intelligently discuss science leads me to think that the situation is even worse than what gets reported. Science, for most people, is something they were forced to study in school that instantly vanishes from their brains the second they hit the real world. Why?

Here are eight possible answers:

1. Religion. I know, as an atheist I'm probably supposed to argue that this is the most important cause. Fundamentalist religion pushes back against fundamental science, disputing such ideas as evolution and the size and age of the universe. On the other extreme, new age religions mangle quantum mechanics in their attempt to seem legitimate (see the movie What the Bleep Do We Know for a truly grating example). And don't even get me started on Scientology. Still, the tensions between religion and science have existed since the time of the Greeks. I don't think it's the primary culprit.

2. Our education system in general. It ain't just science where we ask, "Is our children learning?" An argument can be made that as politicians have tried to improve education, they've wound up instead improving bureaucracy. The right has tried to blame teacher's unions and the breakdown of the family brought about by liberalism. The left has tried to blame a lack of money and right wing censorship. All these things may contribute, but I don't think they quite get at the heart of the issue. I think I'm fairly well educated in science, but my education didn't come primarily from a formal education. Instead, I'm a voracious reader of books and magazines that report on science. The science I was exposed to in high school didn't have as much impact on me as the science I was exposed to reading Carl Sagan and Stephen Jay Gould. The information is out there for anyone who wants an education, completely free, or nearly so. Why don't more people make the effort to learn?

3. Technology. In a counterintuitive argument, as our technology has been improved by those who do understand science, it's weakened the minds of everyone else. I will use the analogy of the automobile: At first glance, the car has improved our mobility. We can move our bodies dozens of miles in space in a matter of minutes. But, the price we've paid is that, unless we really work at exercise, we are weaker and have less stamina than our ancestors. A century ago, the average person could probably walk a dozen miles and think little of it. Today, a dozen miles would be a challenge to most people. The use of machines to improve mobility weakened our bodies. Conversely, the use of machines to improve our knowledge may be weakening our brains. If I ever lose my cell phone, I'm screwed, because I can't remember any one's phone number. And why bother learning history since, if you ever need to know the reason the civil war was fought, you just pull out your smartphone and look it up on wikipedia? The easier and more available information has become, the less value we place on it.

4. Affluence. Our grandfathers came to this country and took jobs as janitors and cops and coal-miners so that their kids could become doctors and lawyers and rocket scientists so that their kids could become performance artists and coffee shop baristas. Of course, affluence doesn't rob people of all ambition. Some of these people have accumulated really great action figure collections. Wealth insulates people from the consequences of their own ignorance.

5. Science fiction. Heresy! So many science geeks, including myself, will report that science fiction opened the door to their interest in science. But, I also think that a lot of my education has been one long string of disappointments as I discover that so much of the foundational assumptions of science fiction, like faster than light travel, time travel, interstellar civilizations, laser pistols, jet bikes, transporters, robot butlers, etc., become less plausible the more science I know. I've bounced back from these disappointments, but I wonder how many other people wound up bummed out that science fiction has made so many promises that actual science can't keep?

6. Science television. Heresy again! Right now, you have television channels like National Geographic and Discovery with a lot of programming related to science. But, the focus is on the big and flashy stuff. If one watches Mythbusters, you might come away with the notion that science is all about making things blow up. Biology, you might assume, is all about finding great white sharks and harassing them into biting your dive cage. The study of dinosaurs on television has become the study of animation and cgi effects rather than the study of fossils. Again, I worry that science television sets up expectations that actual science can't keep. Darwin wrote an entire book on the behavior of earthworms; don't expect the Discovery channel adaption any time soon. Science can and does take place in the absence of animated dinosaurs, great white sharks, and explosions.

7. Politics devours science. Of course, politics devours everything. But, our news media outside of the segregated science shows tends to turn all scientific questions into political questions. For instance, the ongoing oil spill in the gulf has a hundred different scientific elements that deserve reporting. The physical changes that common materials experience once they are under a mile of water is important here. Ocean currents, food chains, coastline migration... there are a lot of scientific questions I'd like to see more reporting on as a result of this spill. Instead, the focus has been almost entirely on what facial expression and mannerisms Obama adopted while talking about the spill. Strip away the politics, and reporters seem bored by the subject. Once they've filmed a few dirty birds and talked to a couple of fishermen, they run out of ideas on how to cover the actual spill.

8. Removal from nature. This is, I think, the biggest culprit of all. Science is the study of reality, and the whole goal of civilization seems to be to remove people from close contact with reality. We spend our lives sealed up inside boxes--our houses, our cars, and our stores, and don't spend that much time outside. I was reading Mark Twain recently, and was struck by a passage where he chronicles the journey of a small caterpillar. His writing is rich with details because he didn't spend his childhood watching television. He spent it outdoors, finding his entertainment in bugs on leaves, on wild islands in the river, and beneath night skies that still had stars in them, rather than a dull silver haze of light pollution. Science has been turned into a subject, something you learn in classrooms, on television, and in books. But, the roots of science come in experiencing the world around us and asking, "why," and "how," and "what the heck is that?" If you want your kid to get interested in science, lock them outside this summer. Let them sleep in the backyard and get curious about all the stuff crawling over them. Take them fishing and let them take apart and devour a fellow denizen of the planet. Get them someplace as dark as you can so there's a chance, at least, of seeing a shooting star.

Newton discovered gravity sitting under an apple tree, and Einstein figured out relativity while biking through Alpine villages. I don't think anyone has yet reported any scientific advances that came to them while they were bowling on their Wii.

1 comment:

歐英傑 said...

死亡是悲哀的,但活得不快樂更悲哀。 ..................................................