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 Issac Newton would be amazed that his all-encompassing theory of gravitation had been replaced by a theory that describes gravity as a curvature of space and time – with dramatic supporting evidence.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.