Science and society: a question of education?

Guest blog by Dr Cormac O’ Raifeartaigh, Lecturer in Physics, Waterford Institute of Technology and
author of the science blog ANTIMATTER

This year marks the 350th anniversary of the Royal Society, the world’s oldest scientific society. The Society was founded to provide a forum for discussion amongst ‘natural philosophers’ of the astonishing discoveries that were emerging from the new experimental sciences. (The invention of the microscope had opened up a micro-world hitherto inaccessible to the senses, while the telescope had revolutionized astronomy). However, the Royal Society had a second aim that is often overlooked: to disseminate the discoveries of the natural philosophers to society at large, i.e. to share the new discoveries with all men, rich and poor.

What would the founding fathers make of today’s world? No doubt Robert Boyle would be astonished that the reality of his speculative ‘corpuscules’ had been established beyond doubt (now called atoms and molecules) and form the basis of all modern chemistry. Issac Newton would be amazed that his all-encompassing theory of gravitation had been replaced by a theory that describes gravity as a curvature of space and time – with dramatic supporting evidence.

But what would dismay those early scientists is the lack of progress that has been achieved in the second aim of the Royal Society. A knowledge of the basic ideas and methods of science is as unknown to the general populace today as it was in the time of Newton. Far from becoming an indispensible part of the human experience like music or history, the discipline of science has remained an esoteric subject confined to a specialized few. Indeed, while scientists’ understanding of the laws of nature has progressed beyond bounds since the time of Newton, this knowledge has remained inaccessible to the vast majority of the populace.

Does it matter that that there is a comprehensive lack of general scientific knowledge amongst the general public in most developed nations? No doubt historians complain of a lack of historical knowlege in society, French teachers of a lack of appreciation of French literature, etc. Why should science be different?

I think science is different, for two fundamental reasons. First, as our world becomes more and more driven by technology, many of the challenges facing society involve a basic understanding of science. Issues such as the safety of commercial nuclear power, the ethics of embryonic stem cell research, and the cost of action to curb greenhouse gas emissions all demand a certain understanding of both basic science and the strengths and limitations of the methods of science. Democratic governments cannot act without public support, so it is vital that the public can form an informed opinion. For example, the huge media campaign surrounding an invalid study that purported to show a link between the MMR vaccine and autism showed a total lack of understanding of how scientific consensus is reached, and had serious repercussions. In the climate change ‘debate’, much of the media scepticism concerning man-made global warming stems from a genuine lack of understanding of how science is done, and how scientific consensus is reached (IPCC shenanigans notwithstanding).

A second, and often overlooked, reason for a public understanding of science is that science is part of the human experience, just as history and music are. Not everyone may want to partake in the actual discovery of the workings of the natural world, but they deserve to know what has been discovered! This science-as-culture argument was first articulated by the physicist C.P. Snow when he realised that he could engage in literary discussion with colleagues in the humanities, but they knew nothing of his subject. Indeed, he felt that the general public were being cheated out of a scientific education.

This coincides with my own belief, and that of many scientists, that the general public has a right to know the discoveries of modern science. Indeed, I believe society also has a right to know how those discoveries were made, as the story of unfolding scientific discovery is an important part of human history. (I regularly give public talks on cosmology and it is no exaggeration to say that people find the story of the emerging evidence for the Big Bang model at least interesting as the theory itself). From the conjecture of the biological cell to the structure of DNA, from the atomic hypothesis to the search for the Higgs boson, the story of scientific discovery gives us confidence in the methods of science. (It is also the easiest way to understand the basic concepts of science).

So what is the solution? How do we increase public awareness of science? I suspect the solution lies in education. It is striking that when we talk of literacy, it is understood to mean a proficiency in reading, writing and arithmetic. It could be argued that a knowledge of basic modern science should also be a part of this package – indeed is possibly about 200 years overdue.

In Ireland, children do encounter some science in school a young age; however, it is a small amount at an early stage and by school leaving age, the vast majority have long opted out of scientific subjects. This pattern is also seen in the UK, US and other English-speaking countries. One reason is that science subjects can be difficult, and require long hours of study. A more fundamental reason is the system itself, in which we force our young to make a choice between science and other subjects.

Perhaps this is what should be changed. It is interesting that in many continental countries – such as France and in Germany – students continue at least one science subject up to Bacc or Abitur (not necessarily as an examinable subject). This seems a very sensible approach and may be responsible for the far higher level of debate on scientific issues one sees in the French media (I’m told this is also true in Germany).

I don’t know what the solution is, but we certainly need one – if only because the response to global challenges that are scientific in nature may be dominated by vested interests, or by uninformed media comment, as is already happening in the US.

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17 Comments on “Science and society: a question of education?”

  1. kevin denny Says:

    An excellent piece! It often struck me as odd that for all the official guff about the importance of science & technology we do very little to encourage it among young people. If you go to many major cities elsewhere you find science museums but these are not museums in the traditional sense but very hands-on “exploratorium” type places. Kids love it. There might also be an aquarium. What we have here is extremely limited though TCD’s science gallery is a start as well as the few small underfunded sea life centers.
    I don’t think the public can be blamed for the confusion over MMR: it was published in The Lancet and the editors – medics- have to take the rap. Its hard to be optimistic about the present government taking a lead & I don’t just mean because of the financial crisis. If I am not mistaken, the revised program for government included a commitment (due to the Greens) to keep GM foods out Ireland for there is not a good scientific argument:

  2. Vincent Says:

    Might your problem not be less an educational one and more a conceptional one tailored to the age of the kid.
    Given that we on this island can show the development of metallurgy with so many bits and bobs sitting in the NMI that every kid is not beyond 15 miles from a major find. How difficult can it be to connect with kids imagination when you have such aids. It is so easy to show where certain metals sit just below the soil by the plants growing on the seam. Walking from the foot of a mountain to the top will seal geological concepts better that 50 classes.
    Ah anyway, were it not for the local libraries of two Counties where I found biogs on Rutherford, Bohr and a few dozen others my knowledge of science would have been non-existent, this even though I was quite attentive in high school science classes. But while science educational aids was an OHP and sheets of plastic with downright weird drawings in high school labs that had not been used since the free education came in sometime in the 60′s.

  3. iainmacl Says:

    Excellent article. One of the aspects of the Irish education system though is that there are indeed many school students who do well in science in the leaving cert but choose to go into medicine rather than science at university. A question that is also worth asking is why is this trend so strong? Is it a combination of the historical culture of respect for certain professional hierarchies and the attraction of potentially very high earnings?? And then there is also the appeal of general arts, why is it so much stronger than science? What is missing from school and popular culture that prevents science from being seen as an attractive option?

  4. Perry Share Says:

    The widespread concern (across the English-speaking world anyway) with the ‘decline of science and maths’ in itself is interesting. I don’t have an answer as to why it is that this has become such a compelling political and educational issue with, it seems to me, a parallel critique of investment in ‘non-science’.

    But, some observations:

    a) clearly there is a gender issue here, with many women publicly expressing an abhorrence of anything that reeks of ‘maths’. We see this is in a disinclination, for example, to engage in quantitative methods of social research. Yet girls now outperform boys in LC maths, so there is clearly no ‘genetic’ basis to this. So, it would be worth examining the gender dimensions of the relationship between science and the broader culture. Are the (perhaps aptly named?) ‘hard sciences’ presented in such a way as to alienate substantial segments of the population?

    b) scientists should stop dismissing opposition to certain scientific programmes as ‘irrational’. While the likes of Bad Science do a great job in ridiculing the claims of anti-MMR conspiracy theorists &c, it is disingenuous of scientists to ignore the genuine political and social, as well as scientific, arguments in relation to GM foods, nuclear power and stem-cell research &c. It would be a good idea for Irish scientists to become more publicly vocal about the social and ethical aspects of their research. If nothing else such political debates will help to enhance people’s interest in scientific issues – ie once they start to believe that these issues will impact on their everyday lives. I see these issues drawing people into Science Week events every year.

    c) The promoters of science need to recognise that yes, science is difficult, and can be a very specialised discourse. Any educated person can pick up a sociology article and make some sort of sense of it; if I pick up a mathematics journal it might as well be written in Sanskrit. Even though I would admit to some scientific interest and knowledge, there are at least 2 articles in any issue of New Scientist that have me either stumped or bored rotten. Pretending that an appreciation or understanding of science is just a matter of will, or even ‘more education’ will solve the problem is perhaps part of the problem and only helps to further alienate those that are already nervous about scientific discourse.

    Fundamentally, the population at large might also legitimately ask why we need ‘more’ science and ‘more’ scientists. We can see gazillions of scientists involved in the climate change panels, for example, but it is pretty obvious that lack of science is not the key issue here: it is politics and economics. Would a doubling of climate change scientists solve these issues? Or do we need more scientists to develop more iPods and other gadgets? I think a stronger argument may need to be made as to why, in Ireland for example, substantial further money needs to be put into science as opposed to other areas.

    • Perry, I think you are right to raise some of these issues, but I would be inclined to argue with some of your observations. I don’t think opposition to GM foods or nuclear power owes anything at all to social or ethical considerations, but is for the most part entirely irrational – which also makes it hard to have a rational argument about these issues. I wrote about these topics in yesterday’s Irish Times column, and I received a couple of emails in response from people opposing GM foods, with absolutely no basis in anything other than a fear of the unknown. One of them claimed GM foods are a political conspiracy, and once you’re in that territory no argument based on common sense,, science, policy or frankly anything can prevail. Nor do debates couched in such terms enhance people’s interest in anything other than bullshit.

      As for it being possible for anyone to pick up a sociology article and make sense of it, I doubt that very much. I’ve seen sociology articles that would baffle Einstein.

      As for why we need more scientists, the simple answer is because we haven’t enough. Ask any manager for a pharmaceutical company as to how well they can recruit to certain posts to get your answer. Your example about climate change is not really relevant – our shortage is not primarily in academic scientists.

  5. cormac Says:

    Perry, interesting points indeed.
    Re “it is disingenuous of scientists to ignore the genuine political and social, as well as scientific, arguments in relation to GM foods, nuclear power and stem-cell research”, I couldn’t agree more: but ideally one would have an ethical and moral debtae where all sides know the basic science as well as all other aspects. Too often I hear such debates peppered with information that is factually wrong (e.g. possibility of black holes at CERN etc)

    This ties in with your third point; it is indeed difficult for the untrained mind to quickly grasp a scientific topic, unless he/she has some scientific training – probably more so than any other subject, Ferdinand’s point on social science notwithstanding. This is why science literacy at an early stage is so important: it offers everyone the chance to have an opinion on material they understand. The alternative is a noisy debate with falsehoods liberally sprinkled in the mix – which is very much what is happening in the climate debate

  6. Brendan Says:

    We must remind ourselves that the general public are not simply empty vessels ready to be filled with vast quantities of scientific understanding under the rule of: ‘the more you know about it, the more you’ll like it’. However, the fact remains that there is a demand from young and old for scientific knowledge. Science does not need to be difficult.

    Einstein is a case in point. He always struggled with mathematical content to the point where instead of having sprawling equations with complex mathematics, he would instead represent a few elements with one symbol and make things easier. Something short and sweet that could be opened up and tweaked if you needed to, but in its smaller form could be handled.

    In general, science is accessible at some level. One can take the Sun for example, explain that it’s constantly bashing atoms together and we get energy out. I don’t need to break down E=mc^2, unless the interested party wants more information. So if you have an interest in science- take a look at the surface, if you like what you see – dig a little deeper.

    There is an ever-present tension created by parties at two extremes. Some believe that everyone should know as much as possible about science, as deeply as possible. Others think that science is the renegade, breaking all sorts of ethical boundaries in an unstoppable quest for scientific knowledge.

    Stop and relax. The panic evoked by the previous paragraph is unnecessary. Science is changing. The very fact that I am a physicist/ astronomer currently studying science communication is surely something. I doubt I’ll ever be in the position where I’m the lead scientist explaining to the government why we should invest time and resources into a manned mission to Mars, but others worldwide undertaking such studies will inevitably occupy a similar role. The understanding of the public understanding of science and what it means for those from all walks of life is not a stagnant area. It’s alive, vibrant and exciting! It would be my hope that in the not so distant future, we could look back and wonder: how could we have been so rigid about boundaries between science and society?

  7. kevin denny Says:

    We have been genetically modifying food for millenia. Likewise animals. When you choose who to reproduce with, you are engaged in genetic modification yourself. So called “GM foods” are just doing it in a smart way, modifying a small number of genes with known properties instead of the more blunderbuss approach involved in breeding. So I doubt that there are scientific objections. The concerns may be genuine but that doesn’t mean they are not stupid.

    • Perry Share Says:

      Well, Kevin, there you go with that word ‘stupid’!

      I would have to say that I do have concerns in relation to GM foods: in relation to the long term implications of genetic manipulation; in terms of the impact of the privatisation of genetic data and the operations of multinationals in the global food industry; and in terms of the displacement effect of GM research in relation to other food-related issues.

      I am also happy to acknowledge that there are clear benefits of GM (I am a big consumer of microbial rennet myself) and can also accept that there can be very positive outcomes, for example in the development of salt-tolerant crops.

      There may well be all sorts of fruit-loops out there who have weird ideas about GM, but I do not think that dismissing people’s concerns as ‘stupid’ does much for the communication of scientific knowledge. Or, indeed, for converting people to a point of view.

  8. Niall Says:

    Are the ‘hard’ sciences really that hard? There are plenty of students who prefer the study of science to the long, discursive essays typically found in the humanities. Sociology and Philosophy can be difficult – indeed incomprehensible to many people.

    BTW, you don’t need much mathematical knowledge to be a biologist

    • Aoife Citizen Says:

      I don’t think that’s true, or at least biologists don’t usually have much maths but it would be better if they did.

  9. cormac Says:

    I’m not sure that it’s so much that the sciences arehard, Niall, but that the type of logical thinking required is different to the humanities – and not really encountered elsewhere…

  10. Imre von Soos Says:

    “Does it matter that there is a comprehensive lack of general scientific knowledge amongst the general public in most developed nations?” asks Dr Cormac O’ Raifeartaigh. – My word, it does!

    Because on the field of science ignorant but trusting general public is presented by “science” – that is dominated, both financially and on the field of informatics, by vested commercial interests – with a scientifically defined reality and worldview, where everything originates and happens without cause and principle; where everything is ruled by chance, luck and endowment; where compassion is a motion in the belly and love a spasm in the genitals; thought, intellect and consciousness are produced by “mindless swarms of neurons and other cells that cooperate” within the cranium; and creative work is the result of trial and error.

    Free will – and, consequently, responsibility – does not exist: we are but marionettes in the hands and power of our selfish genes and the products of their ad-hoc mutations. Summa summarum, we are some “worthless scum” as professor Stephen Hawking expressed it after meticulously calculating it.

    No wonder that the interest of the young (and of all other ages) is directed towards induced consuming at any price, as I can be read in John Taylor Gatto’s book, The Underground History of American Education: “The secret of commerce, that kids drive purchases, meant that schools had to become psychological laboratories where training in consumerism was the central pursuit. . . The truth is that America’s unprecedented global power and spectacular material wealth are a direct product of a third-rate educational system, upon whose inefficiency in developing intellect and character they depend. If we educated better we could not sustain the corporate utopia we have made. Schools build national wealth by tearing down personal sovereignty, morality, and family life. It was a trade-off.”

    Imre von Soos

  11. cormac Says:

    No Vioncent, I don’t think so: it is all too easy for an arts graduate to pick up a scien book and simply misunderstand it.I frequently hear clear misunderstandings of scientific facts aired in the media, from well-meaning green party types to economists, from Lomborg to Lawson

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