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May 9, 2011 | by  | in Features | [ssba]

Why You Need To Learn About Science

More and more often these days I am hearing people say that they are unsatisfied with their education, that it hasn’t prepared them for their lives as adults.

Maybe it’s because of the introduction of NCEA. Maybe it’s because a degree is no longer a job ticket. Maybe it’s because the lag between teaching and professional practice in most fields continues to grow and grow. There’s no doubt that there are many reasons to be dissatisfied with the school system as it currently stands, and it’s difficult to decide what is the best thing to be done to change it. Mostly this is because there are big disagreements about the purpose of education. There are a number of different views, and how the system might be changed depends heavily on which of the views you agree with. The fact that technologies and ways of life are changing more rapidly than ever before in history is also a big contributor—even if you devise and implement the ‘perfect’ education system, it’ll start showing cracks in a matter of just a few years.

With all this turmoil in the education system, one might reasonably ask if science education is delivering value for money. After all, who besides scientists really needs science education? Well, the answer is You do. Whoever you are, whatever your interests and occupations, You need to learn about science. And so do all of your friends, your children, and the rest of your family. Let me explain what I mean by that. I’m not insisting that you learn Maxwell’s laws of electromagnetic fields or the intricacies of the theory of evolution. I’m not asking you to learn how to be a rocket scientist, or a synthetic chemist. But you are a citizen, an active member of society in a world in which more and more often, we need to turn to science to help us make decisions. Decisions such as: Should we take action against climate change? If so, what is the best way to do that? How can our country position itself in markets in order to do well? What is the best way to reduce crime in our country? These are tough questions, and we can’t just choose a path and hope for the best. You have a democratic right to vote, and to make your voice heard on these big issues facing society. And with that right comes a responsibility to exercise it carefully.

Science cannot tell us what we desire, or the outcomes that we want to achieve from any decision making process. But science is the only thing which can inform us about what the results of our actions might be in complex situations. It used to be easy enough. If you wanted to build a national rail network, you could tell more or less what the implications would be without exhaustive study. But now we ask more complicated questions and we ask them in more complicated environments. We are strongly connected to economies and societies all around the globe. When the government flaps its wings, one cannot guess where the storm will end up. Do you know what the result of increasing tax on building depreciation will be? Or what the effect of tidal electricity generators in Kaipara harbour will be? I don’t. And I’m willing to bet you don’t either. Study and modelling are needed to tell us what the results of our actions are likely be, and only then can we make an informed decision as a country about whether or not it is worth it to go ahead.

This raises an interesting question. I don’t know much about environmental modelling. If a marine biologist tells me that the ecological impact of tidal electricity generators is expected to be minimal, do I believe him/her? Trust can take someone only so far in matters which could affect huge numbers of people. Do I have any way of independently checking the biologist’s facts? Well, it turns out that I do have a way of checking, and it’s not even that difficult to do—if you have the relevant experience.

Research, in order to be accepted as credible, is always published in peer-reviewed journals. You can access those journals, and they should completely describe the experimental methods, resulting data, assumptions made, and conclusions drawn*. Using all these factors, you can make up your own mind about whether or not the conclusions are reasonable, and if there are other unanswered questions that are important. However, to do this requires a certain amount of literacy in scientific method and in critical thinking. It is this literacy that I am talking about. This is the science I’m saying that You need to learn, and your children will need to learn in order to fully participate in the democracy we live in. And this literacy, currently, is not taught until university level.

Winston Churchill once famously said that Democracy is the worst form of government except for all those others that have been tried. Perhaps one of the greatest weaknesses that has been recognised in democracy is that it makes decisions based on the desires of the ensemble of the voting population—a population who for the most part does not understand the situations it is making choices about. Not only this, but individuals do not have a lot of motivation to find out more about contentious issues. I only have one vote in about three million. If I go to the effort of researching issues to make a more informed vote, that will probably not change the outcome of the election. So why bother putting in all that effort? And yet in a truly healthy democracy this is what voters would do.

Consider now though what the picture would be if changes were made to the education system, and the population have all learned in high school the scientific literacy that I describe above. The job of fact checking what politicians say will change from a huge amount of work to which non-specialists don’t have a road map into maybe half an hour’s work with a clear way forward. Now that the task has become so much easier and much less time consuming, it is probably worth a voter’s time to carry out that analysis. Moreover, once one person has done this and posted their analysis on the internet with links to references—behaviour which general science education will encourage—it will make the task even easier for others following along after. Before too long, people will start demanding of politicians that they provide citations themselves on contested issues, again simplifying the process for voters.

I’m not alone in the thought that science education needs to change in New Zealand. Several documents have been recently published which support this view. Authored by the Prime Minister’s science advisor, the Royal Society of New Zealand and the New Zealand Council for Educational Research, they suggest that science for non-professionals should be an integral part of curriculum in the future**. Perhaps I’m being fanciful in this vision, but I don’t think that it is unreasonable to achieve a population who can use more scientific tools in their lives, and I do think that the democracy in this country would be greatly strengthened as a result.

And finally, I must add a disclaimer. I have not carried out research on what the results of changing the education system in the way I have suggested are likely to be. The documents** to which I have referred are a good place to start in terms of checking my facts, but they certainly don’t constitute an exhaustive study***. I must encourage you to research further before you form a strong opinion on the education of all New Zealanders in the language of science*.

*If they don’t do these things, then that’s your first signal that something might not be kosher.

** reference:

*** this is not to say that the documents are not good studies, but their topics are different to mine. The result of their study is the topic of this article.


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  1. Electrum Stardust says:

    ” But physicists who confidently deny any profound mystery usually understand even less. Let me quote (approximately) something clever that one expert in the fundamentals of quantum mechanics said: “Physicists can be divided into two categories: Category 1 are disturbed by the mystery. Category 2 are not disturbed. Category 2 must be further subdivided. Category 2A are not disturbed, but won’t say why they are not disturbed. Category 2B are not disturbed and tell you why they are not disturbed. Category 2B then go on to say something that is either silly or demonstrably incorrect. “

  2. Science is very important in our life. If any thing we are doing in our daily routine then science is the basic in daily work. So we have learn science and improve it in our life.

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