Jul 19 2010

Why Science Education Matters

Yes, this is going to be one of those annoying adult “if I’d known at your age what I know now” screeds.  Get the fuck over it.*  One day you, too, will be pouncing upon innocent young things screaming the same phrases you now denounce, up to and possibly including “Get off my lawn!”  It’s an unfortunate consequence of aging.

Have I got your attention?  Excellent.  Let’s talk about science education, and why those classes you roll your eyes at now could just save your life one day.  Seriously.

My screed is prompted by this missive from a teenager who apparently needs to pay more attention in English as well:

I want my voice to be heard! I think science should be an optinal class. Many kids aren’t going to grow up to be sceintest so why are we forced to learn it. For exemple I know I will not pursue my science carreer so why waste my time when I could be learning about things I want to. I think all schools should have a debate class but many don’t like mine wich dissopoints me because that’s what intrests me the most. If we had more classes that teach life skills instead of science. If I took a survey I’m sure more kids and adults would say sceince is not that important to kids who aren’t intrested. I’m not saying get rid of science just please consider making it optinal.

Fact o’ life numero uno: when you’re forced into the shark-infested waters that are the adult world, you will find that people spend more time poking fun at your ideas rather than taking them seriously when you can’t spell the things you’re ranting against.  The boss will never give you that raise/vacation/promotion when your request starts “Deer surr, kin ah pleez haz…”  That kind of thing only flies when you’re intentionally breaking grammar and spelling rules with I Can Has Cheezburger fans.

But I digress.  We were supposed to be talking about science education.  You see how we very nearly didn’t, because the first response to such a missive is to snort, “Ye gods, what an ignoramus!” and dismiss the ideas hidden within the misspellings out of hand.  In this age of spellcheckers absolutely everywhere, there is no longer an excuse.  No, you can’t even fall back on a learning disability.  I know of none that allow you to submit comments to education sites, but prevent you from finding the spellchecker in Word.

Anyway.  We shall pack my offended Inner Editor into a box with copious amounts of duct tape applied to the oral orifice for now, because this is not supposed to be a presentation on proper English.  You want to learn why English is actually fun and easy, you come see me after class.  I used to make this subject enjoyable for people who hated it.  I can turn you into a grammatical force to be reckoned with in no time flat.  But for now, I want to tell you something:

I used to agree with you about science classes.

Oh, yes, I remember being a teenager.  I remember dragging my sorry arse into science or math class and whining that this shit should be elective.  Because I’d bloody well elect right out of it.  What possible use could any of this crap be?  I was gonna be a writer, damn it!  Writers don’t need no stinkin’ math and science.

Alas, they do.  Everybody does.  And now we come to the meat and the marrow, wherein I share with you my hard-fought realizations in the vain hope that you, dear hormonally-challenged person, will not have to repeat my mistakes.  I want to you realize a few truths about science.  I want you to understand why awful old adults force your butts into seats and try to stuff this stuff into your brains until you want to scream.

First thing, for those of you clamoring for more life skills classes, science is all about life skills.

Oh, it may not seem that way.  Few things may seem to matter less to you when you’re looking for your first apartment, your first shitty job, etc. etc., than physics, chemistry and biology.  Au contraire.  Take math, for instance.  Without good math skills, you’re prey to all those people who know how to manipulate math to make a deal sound better than it is.  You can’t calculate your income versus your expenditures, balloon mortgages sound like an awesome good deal, and you end up with car insurance because it promised you discounts of 40%!!1!! – and you thought that sounded great because you forgot to ask “forty percent off what, exactly?”

Even algebra, my dears, esoteric as it seems, can come in handy, especially when you have missing monies in your checking account.  Percentages, vital.  In other words, don’t punk off math, and if you’re one of those lucky few who’s forced into economics and statistics classes, scream for joy and buckle down to learn all you can, because if more people had known more about this shit, you wouldn’t be facing graduation in an economy that sucks leper donkey dick.  People who knew this stuff pulled entire sheep farms of wool over the eyes of those who didn’t, ergo, you have an excellent chance of ending up living in your parents’ basement for the next twenty years, if your parents even still have a basement.

Fine, you say.  Math good.  Must appreciate math, or at least tolerate it, because while the word problems are ridiculous now, the concepts will be useful IRL later.  Great.  But physics?  Chemistry?  Biology?  Yuck.  Who needs it?

That would be you.

You are biology.  You are chemistry.  You are physics.  So is every single thing around you.  You are, quite literally, made of star stuff, and if that isn’t awesome, nothing is.  It also means that all those weird things they try to shove in your ear in science class matters in the real world.

I won’t go into the weeds here with equations and so forth, because I was one of those idiots who didn’t learn them and am now scrambling sadly to catch up.  But you don’t need to take equations away from class and out into the real world, necessarily, as long as you can grasp the basic concepts.  Let me tell you one of the many ways that understanding Newton’s Laws of Motion saved my life once.

You may vaguely recall a few general principles from learning about Newton: every action has an equal and opposite reaction, an object in motion will tend to stay in motion until something else acts on it, that sort o’ thing.  Now, consider Phoenix, Arizona.  It is a city set on a grid in the bottom of a gigantic, flat valley, which leads to long, arrow-straight streets.  This means that drivers can see quite a long way, even with buildings and such around, and means they are not forced to slow down for hills and curves.  This has led to a rather distressing tendency for some drivers to completely ignore red lights.

One night, I saw a driver approaching an intersection at a high rate of speed.  I had the green light.  I was supposed to go.  He was supposed to stop.  But I understand the laws of inertia, and I realized he was driving far too quickly for brakes to be of any help, even if he did see me.  See?  Science is already of some help – you know that heavy objects will take longer to stop when moving at a high rate of speed, and that there’s a length of time before the friction of the brakes can halt the car’s inertia.

Realizing this, I slowed.  But I didn’t stop yet, because another car was coming into the intersection opposite me, and they either hadn’t seen the imminent red-light runner, or they’d assumed he could stop in time.  They continued at their normal rate of speed.  And I could see that they were about to get t-boned.

More Newtonian physics here.  Two objects colliding at that speed won’t just stop, they’ll rebound off each other.  So I found myself calculating a few likely trajectories.  Had I stopped where I originally intended to, chances were excellent I would’ve gotten hit.  I aimed in a slightly different direction, threaded the needle, and made it safely through without so much as a scratch while the two other cars engaged in a spectacular bang-up. 

And no, I wasn’t thinking literally in terms of F=ma.  Newton’s name never crossed my mind.  But I had that background – it was one of the few things I’d paid attention to in school.  I’d seen countless demonstrations of Newton’s laws, both in the classroom and out.  All of that prior experience meant that I could, in less than two seconds, make the calculations that prevented me from ending up on the pavement with glass down my throat, as happened to one of the unfortunates in the car that hadn’t seen the danger.

Science can save your life.

Same thing for chemistry.  Understanding how molecules work, how chemicals combine and react, can save you a world of hurt in the real world.  It helps you comprehend warning labels even when they aren’t written in layman-friendly language.  It helps you under
stand, avoid and mitigate a lot of hazards that we come into contact with every single day.  It will help you respond to disasters.  And it will help you puzzle out who’s telling the truth and who’s pulling herds of sheep over your eyes when blame gets flung around and people claim to have miracle inventions that can zap all those nasty hazards right away.  Of course, it will ruin you for some call center jobs, because you’ll have a hard time taking orders from people who’ve fallen for the latest hype on the late-night infomercials, but that’s a small price to pay for the armor of knowledge.

And biology?  Hated that class.  Hated it ferociously.  I wish I hadn’t, because I realize now that biology is the single most important science of them all.  You are going to get sick, you’re going to have children and have to make decisions about how to give birth, how to raise and protect them, and it’s a total crapshoot without knowing how biology works.  Without a solid understanding of biology, you’re prey to the first quack who comes along with a miracle cure, or a way to improve your baby’s brain, or any of the other ten billion things people use to play upon your fears and your sense of inadequacy.  You’ll lose shitloads of money, you’ll waste your time on useful crap, you’ll risk your health and your very life, and you won’t have any idea who to trust.  You need to understand this stuff, my dear hormonally-challenged fellow humans, because what you don’t know is going to fuck you over someday.  I guarantee it.

If that doesn’t have real-world applicability, nothing does.

Before I developed an interest in biology, I didn’t know quite why my doctor was always on about finishing a course of antibiotics.  Why should I keep taking these stupid horse pills when I felt just fine?  Now that I understand the basics of evolution, when prescribed antibiotics, I take them religiously.  Right down to the last pill.  Why?  Because the bugs those drugs kill figure out ways to defeat those drugs, and if you leave a few survivors, they sneer at your paltry efforts to eradicate them.  It may not happen this illness, or the next, but eventually, a population of bugs impervious to our drugs develops, and the next thing you know, you’re in the hospital getting your flesh eaten by bacteria, and there’s no drug in the world that can stop them.  Sound apocalyptic?  It is.  And it’s happening.  And if more people had learned basic biology, it wouldn’t be happening.  So cherish that biology class.  It’s going to save you time, money, and lives.

I know, I know, you’re bloody immortal.  Trust me.  You won’t always be.

Right, then.  So we’ve determined that science is useful in your everyday life for very important things: keeps you from getting fleeced, killed, helps you make smart decisions, and so forth and so on.  It’s useful for very nearly any field you’ll go in to, as well.  Science pervades everything.  Take out your cell phones.  No, really, do it.  I’m not gonna take ‘em away from you.  I want you to look at that cell phone and realize you’re staring at a chunk of science.  It’s science from start to finish.  Even geology’s in it, my friends, physics, chemistry, the lot.  And guess what?  Here’s where astronomy gets important. 

Yes, astronomy.  Because that gorgeous communications device that lets you text your friends and explore the intertoobz is just a very expensive and fragile brick if the people running the network don’t understand the sun.  Did you know you’re just one good solar storm away from electronics armageddon?  Indeed you are.  And you may think wise and wonderful people in jobs you’ll never want are taking care of that, but chances are, they aren’t doing enough.  Because, y’see, in some ways they can’t.  Because voters don’t understand science, and so Congressmen cut funding for things like solar observatories, and then we don’t know what the sun’s throwing at us, and we can’t harden our grids against the oncoming storm, and… you don’t get to text your friends anymore because the network is fried.  And so is your teevee, and every single thing that runs off of electricity.  Think about it.

Knowledge is power.  So is ignorance.  And ignorance has the power to fuck up our lives big time.  Remember that.

Learning scientific method, not just science facts, will also help you immensely as you navigate the real world. Your teachers may sometimes go on about critical thinking skills.  You may roll your eyes.  But those skills are vital for helping you sort through a lot of contradictory claims.  A great many people throughout your life will claim to have the truth, and their truths will not often jibe with other people’s truths.  Science can help you with that.  You won’t always be able to think scientifically about a problem (although I know of few problems that can’t be tackled with science), but that logical way of thinking will definitely be an asset when the salesman is trying to get you to buy his product because it is absolutely miraculous, darling.  It’ll even help you sort through all that confusion in the news reports.  You see, reporters quite often don’t understand jack diddly about science, and so they may leave you with the impression that science has no answers whatsoever, or that what a scientist claims today will be debunked tomorrow, so why bother?  Well, if you know how science works, you’ll understand all that.  And this will assist you with vital matters like whether you should consume some chocolate today, because you’ll know how to evaluate the studies hyped all over the media that one day tell you chocolate is the cure-all and the next day tell you it will kill you.

(Upshot: enjoy some chocolate.  Don’t eat it by the truckload.  And don’t expect it to work medical miracles.)

So I hope we’ve established that yes, science is essential, and you need to at least grasp the basics for wealth, health, and entertainment.  But there’s far more to it than that.  There’s a secret to science that I don’t think ever gets adequately conveyed in science class, and it is this:

Science is gorgeous.

It’s fascinating.  It’s intriguing.  It’s fun, and exciting, and if you want to live with a sense of wonder, if you really want to appreciate the world, there is nothing else like it.  Don’t fall prey to the idea that knowing how something works will kill the mystery, because it doesn’t.  It’s a little bit like waxing the car, in fact: when you first apply the wax, it makes the finish look dull and icky.  Keep going, and you end up with a brilliant shine.  Science is like that.  The more you learn, the more spectacular the universe and everything in it gets. 

Artists, musicians, poets, novelists, comedians, and all sorts of other creative people have discovered that secret, and put it to great good use.

Ordinary people have discovered it, and used it to forge a deeper connection to the world around them.

People who never thought they’d be in a scientific career have found themselves in one, and discovered what it means to really love your job.

The world will need you to know some science, because science will help save that world.  If you care at all about cute furry animals, forests and all that, do yourself a favor and pay attention in class.  You might just be the person who makes the critical difference in the world’s survival.  At the very least, it will prevent you from doing harm when you meant to do good.

And if you don’t care about cute furry animals, forests and all that, you’d be surprised at what might happen when you learn the science behind them.  Things I didn’t give two tugs on a dead dog’s dick about before suddenly matter intensely to me now, simply because I understand them.  I understand why they are important, and why they are fragile, and why they are worth saving.  I can find beauty in places I never thought to look for beauty before.  Beauty’s important.  Beauty makes it worth getting up in the morning.  Beauty even makes a crappy job tolerable.  And there is so much beauty in science, beauty where I never suspected any existed, that at times I just have to stop and stare with my mouth open and tears in my eyes, too overcome to speak.

Science will make you laugh.  It will make you cry.  It will become a part of you.  Hell, it already is a part of you.  You just haven’t gotten a real chance to get to know it, yet.

Remember when you were a kid, fascinated by dinosaurs and astronauts and why the sky’s blue?  That sense of wonder’s still there, and this stuff is far more exciting than anything you learned in elementary school.  Yes, it’s harder.  Learning equations and diagrams isn’t simple, except for a lucky few of us.  But it’s like anything.  Once you’ve learned the basics, it gets much easier, and you’ve now got the keys to the universe.

Go unlock the door and have a fabulous time.

*Why yes, I did use naughty words.  It’s not like you can’t handle them, now, is it?


  1. 1

    *standing on chair clapping wildly*

  2. 2

    One part of me says "making science optional would be like making education optional". (Another part snarks back "Well, with the way the school systems are These Days…")Another part of me says that maybe there should be different types of science class — one for the kids who Get It and are enthused about it, and another one for the people who mainly need to see How This Relates to Me. [ There was an editorial by Dr. Stanley Schmidt -- SF author, teacher, and editor of Analog -- a couple of decades ago about how some kids just don't have a head for most science and shouldn't be forced to learn it past a certain stage. I'd go try to find it except that my Analog collection is mostly in boxes in the attic right now :-/ ]What I don't know is if there is a good How Science Relates to Me curriculum in existence — much less whether schools could be persuaded to adopt it, and to use it only on the students who really need it and not require the students who Already Get It to suffer through it in order to satisfy state testing requirements — which are arrived at by a process that is far too political, if I understand correctly.The deeper problem, though, is that there seem to be Powers That Be who really do not want Americans to be well-educated, because then we can't be as easily manipulated through media distortions of reality. They work towards this goal via means both direct (e.g. selling off education to pay for missiles) and subtle (e.g. pushing curricula that are both boring and demanding, presenting science as abstruse, abstract, and unrewarding).Science is the great equalizer between individuals and power-loci. They know this, and they very much want us to forget it.That's the real problem we're fighting here, IMHO.

  3. 3

    My son asked me last night as I was saying good night: can you throw a ball "straight up" high enough that you could notice the rotation of the earth in the way it came back down?We discussed what "notice" might mean, I did some quick approximations based on high school physics and we quickly saw that the answer was a very clear "no". Certainly not in the sense of "throw by hand and observe with your eyes".So he decided he didn't need to spend the weekend trying to see – it would just be a waste of time.Not a life saver in that case, but certainly a time saver.

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