Thursday, June 10, 2004

Science and the Schools

All the schools and all the politically correct media praise Science. August foundations are eager to give money to help more women and minorities become Scientists. All right-thinking people agree that the US is falling down in its science education, a belief which is backed by the abysmal test scores our students receive in international competitions. Children's museums across the land are stuffed with Science exhibits of incalculable boredom in the hope that Science--boring as it may be--will rub off magically somehow on the hapless youngsters.

There's likewise an incessant drum beat coming from the federal government, with various state governments chiming in from time to time, declaring that our national well-being is in grave peril if we fail to address the looming scientific threat. First there was Sputnik and the exponential increase in national funding of Science, lest "the Russians happened to get up there first". The students of the Sixties were inculcated with the need for Science in the form of Space. Space was going to be everything. It was the Space Age. The television channels were jammed with images of our near future as we traveled the stars with phasers and robots and the like.

The Eighties on the other hand brought the fear of the might of Japan, Inc., and the fear that any student who didn't grow up with computers in every classroom and around the house and who didn't become a computer programmer at the age of 5 was going to be "flipping burgers". As an aside, it's a little ironic to say the least that many or most of those who did manage to become computer experts back in the Eighties are now out of work, having been replaced either by machines or Indians or far cheaper recent graduates. But that's just an aside.

And there has always been, in modern America, the Science Fair, that solemn annual event in which all children of forward-thinking earnest people must take part, must produce a Science Experiment of great meaning, on peril of their mortal souls. Except that now that we're all Scientists we don't believe in mortal souls anymore, but anyway....

Lately we've had Microsoft itself explaining that it is shipping jobs to India because the American Scientific curriculum just isn't up to snuff. It couldn't be related to the fact that the Indians are ten times cheaper could it? Naw, couldn't be, that was just another aside. This of course takes some kind of chutzpah on Microsoft's part, since no American in his right mind would ever pursue a degree in Science knowing as he does that such stalwarts of American industry as Microsoft will never hire him. But Microsoft has never lacked for chutzpah.

Yet despite years, nay, decades of earnest exhortation toward more Science on every side, our students continue to produce those lackluster scores which put us at the bottom of the Scientific leagues of the Industrial World. College enrollments in scientific and engineering fields continue to decline. What's going on here?

To begin with, very few people in our country understand science. Science is not big machines and rockets and space and lasers and computers. Science is not Big Projects. Science is not having a "Hypothesis". Science is not the "Scientific Method". Science is not Isaac Newton's theories of mechanics, nor even Albert Einstein's Theory of Relativity, nor yet Quantum Chromodynamics. It is not String Theory or even HyperString Theory. Science is none of those things at all, although they are all part of science.

No, science (as opposed to Science) is really quite simple. It's just honesty. In Catherine Johnson's terms, science is simply the act of allowing your right brain to do its job. That means that when you see a fact which interferes with the "narrative" your left brain is trying to create, you don't allow yourself to just blow that fact off. You give it some thought. You allow for your narrative, your theory, to be changed. You honestly try to resolve the apparent contradiction. You climb down from your high horse if necessary. If your theory can't be changed as far as you can honestly see, you accept that the fact is inconvenient to your theory and you accept some humbleness toward your understanding of this vast universe. Your theory may be wrong; the fact may be wrong; your understanding of the fact may be wrong. You don't just blow the fact off, you acknowledge that there's something here you don't understand and you move on. You keep looking for evidence, holding this inconvenient proverbial pebble in the proverbial shoe and continue to hope that the time may come when you are enlightened, when the mental pebble is allowed to be removed, when the fact and theory, in other words, match after all.

Science is not popular and has never been popular because this willingness to back down, to change the narrative, to admit not knowing, to admit being wrong, is in direct contradiction with human nature. It's hard to admit being wrong and very hard to change our own narrative. For most of us, I would venture, our brains are hard-wired to reject those inconvenient facts and for most of us that's a survival trait, not a deficit. The true scientists of this world have been few in number and most of them were so ultra-nerdy that they are now widely believed to have been mildly autistic. Somehow, by being disconnected from Social Reality these ueber-nerds of the past were freer to interrupt their own internal narrative honestly. It would be interesting to know exactly what that connection, between social retardation and the ability to interrupt the narrative honestly, really is.

If very few citizens of our great country are able to grasp the essence of science, even fewer school teachers are able to do so. And I assert this coming from a family of teachers myself. Studies show that education majors tend to get the lowest scores among all majors on standardized tests such as the SAT. For most of them, science is nothing more than a painful memory of some nasty classes which were required for graduation. It is likely that for such people, although they may have managed to memorize that F = ma, there is very little chance that they ever came across an understanding, or even a statement of, the true nature of science, cutting away all the detritus of formulas and failed exams. Most elementary school teachers in particular are "SJ" Myers-Briggs types, the sort of person who wants to know exactly what the rules are in great detail and wants to stick exactly to those rules. In other words, the sort of person who of all people is least likely to change or alter the narrative. In other words, the least scientific of all personality types. Expecting such people to inculcate the next generation with the true spirit of science is roughly equivalent to expecting Osama bin Laden to turn up tomorrow as a born-again Christian.

But our society cries out, figuratively speaking, for the application of scientific principles, not in a big way, but for small decisions which have to be made all the time. Even the school system itself. For example, study after study after study has shown that small class size (no larger than 15 or so) is the one variable which consistently causes significant improvement in pupil performance. This is objective fact. But small class size is seldom or never implemented in our schools. Lots of other things are tried. The school buys more computers, switches the math textbook, puts in new audio-visual equipments, takes more field trips, teaches more about minorities, etc. etc., but this one thing which schools can do and which is known to be successful is seldom adopted. Why? Because it doesn't fit the agenda of the people in charge. It doesn't fit, in my current parlance, in the "narrative" of the people in charge. There are at least five groups pushing and pulling the schools, all acting in their own self-interest rather than that of the schools: the administrators and school boards, the state governments, the federal government, the teachers and their unions, and the parents. All of these groups want something. None of them wants exactly what is good for the students, though they all pay lip service to the students' needs. The teachers want, for example, more money and better benefits; the administrators want fewer teachers who are better qualified and will work for less; Congressmen frequently want to spend money on gizmos for the schools which just happen to be made in their home district--pure chance of course--and so forth.

There are many examples of this sort. Does home schooling produce better results? If so, under what circumstances? Which programs actually help inner-city blacks to get higher test scores, and which actually hinder them, when looked at honestly? Does science education lead to greater happiness? Does creating journalism schools produce better journalism? Who knows? Nobody wants to apparently.

So science is not applied even to the schools themselves. People frequently feel that science is not relevant to their jobs when in fact science is very relevant to their jobs, it is just antithetical to the narrative they wish to perpetrate.

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