[an edited version of this is published at The Conversation: ‘Science education the key to better public debate‘]
Late last year, the Media reported gleefully that Australians were “more interested in science than sport!”. This news came via a poll run by ANU which you can download here.
The first lot of data presented in the report shows the respondents ranking their interest in “a range of topical issues”. This data shows that we are more interested in health, medical, general scientific and environmental issues or discoveries than music, politics, ‘sports news’ or films. Well, ‘sports news’ isn’t necessarily ‘sport’ is it? I prefer to watch an actual game of rugby than a sports news bulletin, and I’m sure others do to…but that’s just being nitpicky.
But the report doesn’t tell us the demographic range of the respondents. All it tells us is that the sample size was relatively small (only 1200 people), and less than half of those surveyed (43.2%) actually submitted their responses!
The really interesting bit is the rest of the report that didn’t make the news. Although Australians are interested in Science, the vast majority of them feel that they are not very well informed about Science. That’s a huge clarification that the Media forgot to mention. I’m extremely interested in astrophysics, but that doesn’t help me understand it any better – because I’m not very well informed on the basic theories and issues that define it as a science, mostly because I have never studied it.
Similar opinions surfaced in a recent survey done in the UK. Most of the respondents in that survey agreed that Science is “such a big part of our lives that we should all take an interest”, but just over half of them admitted that they don’t feel well informed about general science, or scientific research and development.
Interestingly, a 2010 European Union survey also found that people were more interested in science than sport; however, a big difference was that a majority of respondents (61% – and this survey questioned 31,000 people, not 1200) thought they were well informed about Science.
Obviously there’s room for improvement. I’ve mentioned the weak links between Science, Policy and People before (see The Laws of Nature), but it’s never clear where the black hole for information is. Humans are an intelligent species and have an unfathomable capacity to learn (although we choose not to sometimes). But to learn, one needs access to information and education.
(I’m interested to know whether anyone has done a study correlating the answers to general questions about people’s attitudes to Science, such as those surveys mentioned above, with answers to more specific questions about people’s education and understanding of actual scientific or environmental concepts. Please let me know if you have.)
Education systems have the capacity to address the black hole here, but so far it’s not looking positive on that front. The recent government attempt at a new National Science Curriculum was met with concern from educators, many of whom thought it placed too much emphasis on teaching methods and the social outcomes of science, rather than scientific concepts themselves. It even contained glaring errors of basic scientific concepts. (Also read the Science Teachers Association of Queensland formal response – it’s very nicely written.)
In addition, science is only compulsory until grade 10 in most (if not all?) Australian schools. Why not keep a general science course as required until the end of high school? After all, Science or Nature is literally fundamental to EVERYTHING.
If you choose to study the fine arts, science can help explain colour, paint mixing and consistencies, fabric weights and properties or craft material compatibilities. Science is invaluable to home economics courses – cooking itself is a science, and knowledge of nutrition and human biology is indispensable for a career in food.
Science is also an integral part of the manual subjects like agriculture, carpentry or graphic design – you’d be doing yourself more than just a favour to learn the basic science behind them. Even understanding sociology-based courses can be helped with knowledge of science – people are an animal species, so understanding how we function, as a species and in relation to the Earth, is essential to understanding psychology, criminal behaviour, history, demographics etc.
If more politicians understood basic scientific concepts they wouldn’t risk putting voters offside with illogical, unreasonable policies about environmental or scientific issues, and they wouldn’t create education curricula that failed to educate. If more journalists understood basic science, they wouldn’t disseminate science or environment “news” that misinformed or missed the point.
If the general public had more grasp of basic scientific concepts, there might be less conflict and misunderstanding in the public domain over critical environmental issues such as climate change, water resources, renewable energy or conservation plans.
If more GPs had a better grasp of science they might have a higher success rate in referring patients to the right specialist, or prescribing the right treatment. If insurance companies had more of a grasp of scientific concepts, they might be a little more reasonable about natural disasters…actually, that one’s a bit too naïve to expect.
But you get my point. Public understanding of science is imperative to a progressive society.
Most importantly, we need to accept that Nature, or the Environment, is part of Science. It is not separate, and it is not a meaningless pseudo-science emoting only rainbows, whales, tree-hugging, and incense. Science is Nature and Nature is Science. All of the laws of Nature relate to scientific concepts, and all of the branches of Science are governed by the laws of Nature. Astronomers have even found that the laws of Nature, previously thought to be only relevant to Earth, occur in the distant Universe.
If this concept was more widely accepted, we might not be having such a “heated” climate change “debate”. “Environmentalist” might be a respectable title, conservation of species or ecosystems might not have to be “sold” to a bribed public, and “Ecology” might be accepted as a bona fide Science.
You may be harrumphing at the computer screen by now, saying I’m preaching to the choir. I probably am, because there are a lot of people in the world who do get what I’m saying…but there is still a lot of education to be shared. If we are serious about changing our lifestyles, we need to change how we educate.
As Professor John Rice wrote in his letter to Australasian Science in December:
A public that values science will provide more policymakers who are better informed about science, as well as students who take it seriously rather than treat it as a stepping stone to law and medicine.
© Manu Saunders 2011
An interesting post that I came to as a consequence of the extract in the conversation. I absolutely agree that a better grounding in “basic science” might help deliver better policy. The questions that this begs are “what is science?” and “what part of science is basic science?”
Too many scientists have an unreconstructed positivist view of their discipline – they assert that they speak truth because it has been verified – rather than the more nuanced version that they are using theories that have been demonstrated to be reliable through repeated application to empirical problems within the confines of the assumptions inherent in the theory.
Too much of the guff that gets taught as the “method” of science is a heavily constrained artiface that reflects the positivist view – hypothesis (theory), deduction to observable conclusion, experiment – and is really useless for understanding what real scientists mostly do, which is repeatedly apply fundamental theories to generate new understanding.
The second is the question of “basic” and perhaps getting in touch with “natural philosophy” is a good way of doing this – very much a “how stuff works” approach, be that mechanics (pulleys and rockets), electronics (question does the year 7 to 10 syllabus deal with electronics yet – do they build stuff with transistors?) simple chemistry (how to make a cake rise or your mayonnaise emulsify) through how plants and animals survive (photosynthesis, eating). I would think that with the aid of computers you could even teach complex dynamic systems and weather modelling in a basic science course.
This is stuff that interests people. Not the “social applications” or method.
But equally it is not mostly environmental science. That is a very long way away from basic.
Thank you for reading David.
I agree with you – many scientists quite often get trapped in a small world that centres around their own work/interests. I have been trying to figure out why this happens – it seems partly because of the way we educate today, partly because of the nature of the industry now (e.g. there is SO much literature in any one field that you have to be on top of, the publish or perish business model etc. You can read my post Science is not a corporate ladder about this), and partly just because of the way the world is orientated today – the supply of information exceeds demand and life seems centred around an “instant gratification” philosophy.
Most of the great scientists we laud today (Darwin, Einstein, Newton, Bohr etc.) all had truly interdisciplinary educations – they studied literature, theology, art, philosophy, economics, logic, maths etc. etc. They began to understand how the world worked and came up with wonderful theories because they had a diversity of information at their fingertips. Today, we are forced into choosing a career path in grade 9 or 10, when most of us are too young to understand the world, ourselves or what we want to do, and once we have chosen that career, it’s very difficult to change course.
As to your question about basics, that is of course up for debate. I would think that “basic” science is mostly information you need to understand how the Earth system and general society works (atoms, molecules, basic geology, tectonics, basic physics, chemical reactions, ecosystems, biology/reproduction of plants/animals etc.). More “advanced” science can discuss these things in more depth. Just like senior maths is divided into levels – Maths A (or equivalent) is really all the basics a student needs to learn the maths that will help them out in the world: sums, money managing, etc..
But that’s just my opinion!