Sunday, April 1, 2012

Why we hate science, 2

Leslie and I walked along the edge of the Atlantic this afternoon, arguing just what that meant. She believes the edge is ephemeral, abstract, and I drew a line at the highest point of the last wave. It was a pointless discussion, and done in play, but it gets back to the words thing. So many words approximate what we think we know.

If we knew what we were talking about, we wouldn't be so chatty.
From Fishing Destin Guide

I saw a sand flea on its side. I picked it up to look at it, and it kicked its legs a bit. I dug a hole at the edge of the ocean to give it a chance to survive, and accidentally uncovered another one. I dug another hole, disturbed yet another one. Thousands upon thousands of sand fleas lay under our feet, betrayed by the dying one lolling upside down in the tiny trench washed by the surf.

I buried it an inch or two, said a prayer, and walked on.

There is far more to this universe than we'll ever know. 

To reject expertise, to reject scientists, is not the same as to reject science, but the distinction can be fuzzy. Science research can be (and is) dictated by powerful folks who drive our economic engines. Scientists can be (and are) influenced by money, by rewards, by fame--everybody wants to be a rock star.

Science itself, though, can be practiced by anyone with a reasonably intact brain and a decent command of written language (a scarce commodity), anyone willing to follow where the natural world takes you.

I might say the same for democracy, substituting "rational thought" for "natural world"--and this similarity drives my passion for teaching in a Title 1 public school system. I'm not worried about the children in private schools, nor those in the elite suburban public schools. Our culture has their backs.

Democracy wasn't promoted by our British aristocratic roots--the first man killed in the Boston Massacre was once an American slave, a dockworker of both African and Wampanoag descent. If we ever remember our own history, we might avoid our habit of electing Tories.

The problem with science is that it tells the truth, at least as far as the natural world goes. You do this, you get that. We don't always understand the "that," and much of the creative joy in science is creating models of the "that" that can explain all this stuff outside our brains in a way we can understand.
  • Our current dominant economic system requires "growth"--it does not recognize natural limits.
  • Our current dominant political system depends on raw emotions--it does not recognize rational thought.
  • Our current dominant culture requires magical thinking and deference to humans--it does not recognize the mystery around us.
I am part of the bourgeoisie, a Christian when it's convenient, a social liberal who walks by the homeless, and I still get teary-eyed with a good rendition of our national anthem. I thrive in our human community, though many of my students do not.

Then I pick up a "dead" sand flea, and its feeble kicks tickle the palm of my hand, reminding me I know nothing, then dig up several others while trying, foolishly, to save the one.

The push for STEM education comes about for all the wrong reasons, and will fail for the same. We need to kick China's ass, we need to fix the economy, we need to kick Russia's ass, we need to provide workers for our multinational corporations, we need to kick India's ass, we need to get more energy, we need to kick Europe's ass....

Science, real science, starts with the first time a child's simple observation of the natural world conflicts with what she knows, the first time she realizes that the world most of us live in, as comforting as it may seem day to day, is made of mirrors. She has a choice to make, a huge choice that will push her into a new world that will separate her from her culture.

I have known a few real scientists in my classrooms, and most of them do not thrive in our building. The life of a scientist requires hard work, and may pay less than the high school science teacher who pushes them into a field he himself could not master.

You can no more make professional scientists by pushing high school science child than you can by eliminate obesity by requiring every child to take physical education.

We do it anyway.

What do you remember from high school science?

Sand flea by Fishing Destin Guide, permission pending
The STEM chart from New Voices for Research


Susan Eckert said...

I think people often reject much of what science knows ("knows" is a loaded word, yes, but you know what I mean) and accept things are not supported by evidence. I suppose it's always been like this but my radar is more sensitive these days.

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Occasionally, I point out that there is no evidence for this or that claim...and I get blank stares, even hostility and's awkward and isolating. Maybe I should keep my mouth shut?

Wait, does this have anything to do with what you're writing about in this post?

Okay, I'll try again.

I don't remember a thing from HS bio except the frogs (I've always preferred working with living things). I remember looking up at my chem teacher during a test and he was looking out at us wearing enormous clown classes (this is a fond memory) and I remember asking my physics teacher if he thought the world was primarily evil with some good or primarily good with some evil (he earnestly entertained my question, even put an equation up on the board--he was a wonderful teacher).

I remember my college science classes with much more clarity, especially the ecology and plants classes in which we noisily and joyfully marched though the woods. I suppose these memories are reflected in the little experience I have teaching HS--let's work more with the living creatures and actually go frolic outside a bit.

I have felt hypocritical in encouraging some of the students I have had to consider going into science when I have seen so many struggle in the field, including myself. It's not an easy career and it gives new meaning to the term delayed gratification.

I'd do it all again, though. Maybe that's just me reducing cognitive dissonance but whatever gets you through the night, aye?

Leslie said...

Hi Sweetie--Just a note as i just read this: If I gave the impression I thought it was "abstract," then I spoke carelessly. I don't think it's abstract at all. It's very real. I was saying it's not a determined line, like when a body of water ends at a bank or a wall. I meant a beach type "edge" (and parts of the ocean don't have that, either). The slant of it. And I meant that the edge can't be pinned to one place--it's real but it slops all over--the edge of the top of the wave you pointed to was the top that minute, but not another. Which I think is cool. But not abstract.



doyle said...

Dear Susan,

I think one reason, and a big one, that folks hate science is because they've carved out such a closed, comfortable cocoon of craziness that poking a hole in any one part threatens their whole sense of well-being.

I get around the cognitive dissonance this way--grasping science and enjoying the natural world do not require becoming professional scientists. Good Lord, I love clamming, but if I had to meet a quota for some corporation or university it would take all the fun out.

Dear Leslie,

I misspoke (again).

The concept of the edge of the ocean becomes abstract if we fail to see its ephemeral existence. You have a better imagination than I do, so I am reduced to drawing lines in the sand, only to see them disappear with the next wave.

Love you!