Promoting a scientific mind

Posted by LisaJ

I find it astounding in this day and age, with the many grand scientific discoveries and advances we’ve seen and in our increasingly technologically dependent world, that a large proportion of our population (at least in Canada and the US, with which I have more personal experience) seems uninterested in understanding and learning about science. We have a wealth of information available at our fingertips and an educational system with the potential to accommodate any type of scientific mind, but yet we science-minded individuals are not in the majority. We are a culture that largely breeds an aversion to science. Now I know that I’m generalizing here, and that some individuals living in North America aren’t able to access these opportunities so easily, but that of course is part of the problem.

Now I’m not saying that I think everyone should become a Scientist, I just think it’s sad that more people aren’t embracing the wonders of science into their daily lives. Science is everywhere. It has the power to explain anything you want to know about the world, and it opens our minds up to bigger and bigger possibilities everyday. Science is beautiful, and to embrace it is to enrich your life dramatically. But so many people aren’t doing this, and they are really missing out in life. I see it myself everyday with many of my friends and family members who choose to tune out whenever science is brought up or who quickly cut me off with the ‘oh, you’re so smart, that’s too hard for me’ line. And they’re entirely comfortable to just walk away, carry on, and not understand.

So what’s our problem? Well, my thoughts are that we’ve really gotta get ’em while they’re young, and then give them the tools to keep them there, and this just isn’t happening for a lot of people. Most kids have a natural curiosity of the world, be it a love for dinosaurs, model airplanes, bug collecting, etc., and I think these innate curiosities need to be promoted more. Perhaps a large part of the problem is that the parents themselves have lost this curiosity and the ability for scientific dialogue, so they don’t know what to do to further promote this curiosity in their child. An interesting attest to this point is that I have a much easier time engaging my soon to be 12 year old brother in a scientific conversation than I do with most of the rest of my family. Another part of the problem could be the science education system. Now I can’t speak for all schools and teachers out there, and I know that student experiences will be quite varied. There are definitely some fantastic science teachers out there who are really able to engage their students and promote a love of science, and they are a wonderful gift to us. However, in my personal experiences, there are also a number of science teachers who just don’t have the tools to move past just teaching the basics of what they are required to teach and really communicate to their students how wonderful science is, and that it’s not just about memorizing names of animals and molecular pathways. I know that teaching is a busy and difficult job and a high calling, and that, at least where I come from, the course syllabus for each science class in elementary and high school is quite strict and defined. So how do we give our teachers the proper tools to really engage our kids in science?

Another question is, is It really the teachers and the course syllabus themselves that are at fault for our scientifically averse culture, or is it something more pervasive in our thought processes? Now this won’t be the same for all families and all geographical locations, but at least in my experience the supposed ‘fact’ that science is hard and only for the really smart people is instilled at a very early age. This is really sad, as a lot of people will quickly do away with their science education as soon as they are allowed to because they don’t have the confidence in themselves to carry on with such a ‘difficult’ subject. Yes, I do admit that a lot of science courses in say high school are difficult as they largely require a lot of memorizing, working through formulas, etc. But even if someone doesn’t want to carry on with a formal science education there’s no reason that by the point they are able to stop taking these courses they shouldn’t have the capabilities to remain literate in the subject and to still have that natural curiosity to understand the world around them. We seem to have a real difficult time in our society teaching kids that science really is wonderful, and that it’s about appreciating the wonders of nature around you and everything that is real. Instead, a lot of people seem to feel that science is just too hard for them, too geeky, and in a lot of cases, the big bad bully standing in the way of their beliefs.

So let’s hear your thoughts on what is at fault for making our culture so scientifically averse and what we can all do to help promote greater scientific literacy. Here are a couple of things going on in my back yard to promote a love of science in kids and teens. Let’s Talk Science is a now Canada wide organization that started in London, Ontario (where I started my Undergrad and Graduate careers), that, among other activities, pairs up Undergraduate and Graduate students with elementary and high school classrooms to teach them about various science subjects, form the viewpoint of a ‘scientist in training’. This organization has become highly successful, and is really doing a lot of good things to peak kids’ innate scientific curiosities. Another great example is CRAM Science, Canada’s first online science magazine for kids and teens that was launched about two years ago. This magazine is actually the brain child of two of my previous Grad school friends, and has a lot of great information about how science works in our everyday lives, possible careers in science, and lots of other stuff. I would highly recommend this site to any parent or teacher wanting to instill a greater excitement for science in their kids. What’s going on in your regions to promote scientific literacy and what else can we do to help solve this problem?


  1. Natalie says

    Something I wish was available when I was in college is “science for non-science majors” type courses. As an example, I find the human body fascinating and would have loved to take Anatomy & Physiology in college, but it required three prerequisites. I just couldn’t take that much general bio for something unrelated to my major.

  2. MicroZealous says

    My science education was at a small school in the 1960’s, and my best teachers were in science. It sparked a love for understanding the natural world that continues.
    Most people are quite content to use science and technology for their benefit, without any appreciation for the type of thinking that is behind these wonders.
    It is ironic when flat-earthers use modern medicine for their own health, then take anti-science political positions. They use the ‘innernets’ to spread their superstitions, but invariably oppose progress of any kind.
    Blargh! It’s amazing how far we have come in spite of that non-thinking. Thank Reason for science!

  3. kermit says

    Most folks seem to have little knowledge or interest in science, and yet they have strong opinions on subjects like stem cell research or ID in public school science classes. How can folks take a stand on subjects about which they have essentially no knowledge? My honey and I sometimes think that there are two human species.

  4. Stephen B says

    Not only science, but math as well. I am a math teacher in high school and cannot express my love of mathematics more than I already do. Yes, the curriculum is structured, but there are ways to adapt the curriculum in a way to make it fun. I have my classes do origami (to study lines, shapes, etc.), read books (yes! in math class) to show how math is related to real life and how it can be applied, find the width of a road stepping on the road by using properties of similar triangles. However, when I do the things, what I hear is that this is “a lot of work” and “why are we doing this?” What is wanted, is instant gratification, the immediate answer or a way of finding the answer without beign creative.

    The simple answer to why this is so is parents, but I believe that it is something that I am very fond of that is a major contributing factor…video games. Hear me out. When video games first came out, no cheat codes, if you got stuck on a level you had to come up with novel solutions to pass (think of the original game Lemmings). Now, I play with my neighbor kids, they can’t die, they are on “god” mode constantly, where can they use their imagination to proceed? Playing an NFL game, of course you can win every time if you max out each players ability and put the best players on one team. Ridiculous, these games could be a powerful tool, but now we are just coddling to kids by providing their instant gratification.

    My two cents!!
    Pre-Calc, Algebra II, and Geometry Teacher

    Please read “An Abundance of Katherines” by Ted Green, a real fun book about math.

  5. Whiskeyjack says

    It’s not just science and math, either. I often feel the same way about art, literature, and music.

    The whole wealth of human knowledge and experience is a click away… And people are staring at the ground.

  6. Exitus says

    I was astonished recently in a Philosophy class of mine, when one of my classmates declared that evidence isn’t important to her – She would much rather just think what she wanted. This sort of unscientific mindset baffles me: evidence is everything.

  7. RHH says

    That phrase “It has the power to explain anything you want to know about the natural world…” bugs me since there is no reason or evidence for another kind of world. What does the word natural add to that sentence?

  8. D says

    In my limited anecdotal experience, it wasn’t just anti-science, but anti-education/anti-elitism. This was of course in a good ol’ southern boondocks. It wasn’t so much the teachers, many of which were very good and all, but in general culture and in the school administration. It was generally assumed that most the students would not go on to anything more than a 2 yr program. Students that actually wished to get a 4 yr degree were discouraged from applying to any college more “elite” than the general state school, which was even considered a bit ambitious. Fortunately my parents, as well as a few others, were big on education, but for most of the people around it was treated as generally pointless except for the very few who were going to be doctors (physicians) or lawyers, the only acceptable smart people routes.

  9. LisaJ says

    RHH, what I was implying is what goes on in nature, within our world. I will fix, I see your point.

  10. says

    I find it astounding in this day and age, with the many grand scientific discoveries and advances we’ve seen and in our increasingly technologically dependent world, that a large proportion of our population (at least in Canada and the US, with which I have more personal experience) seems uninterested in understanding and learning about science.

    It shouldn’t be astonishing or astounding, since the evidence of this widespread indifference is so easy to find.

    Perhaps its time to revisit Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, which considered our educational system to be a prime culprit in the dumbing down of America? Just a thought.

  11. says

    I find it astounding in this day and age, with the many grand scientific discoveries and advances we’ve seen and in our increasingly technologically dependent world, that a large proportion of our population (at least in Canada and the US, with which I have more personal experience) seems uninterested in understanding and learning about science.

    It shouldn’t be astonishing or astounding, since the evidence of this widespread indifference is so easy to find.

    Perhaps its time to revisit Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, which considered our educational system to be a prime culprit in the dumbing down of America? Just a thought.

  12. Epinephrine says

    I agree completely that there should be science courses aimed at the non-scientist. Household chemistry, mechanics of every day objects, backyard ballistics, bones – form and function, what do statistics mean for you?, do you really lose 90% of your heat through your head, and so on.

    The formulae and such scare people off, but when you explain things without formulae you can get things across just as easily.

    I remember when I was young (<10 years old) my dad made a big balloon out of garbage bags (I think? Maybe it was just an air mattress?), and attached a little plastic tube to it. He then set our kitchen table on it, and showed me how I can lift a table and an adult just with my breath. It was impossible, I thought, but then he explained it all, not much math, just concepts – that the weight is spread out, so that on any given square inch there is only a fraction of his weight. The pressure inside only needs to push up enough to counter that pressure. The simple demostration is enough to really start thinking about pressure, and once you have them thinking the whole process gets easier. Why aren’t kids doing things like this? There are so many easy ways to introduce concepts, and the math and modelling can follow.

  13. says

    I completely agree on this. I’m not “good” at science and math – I have problems memorizing names, equations, and such-like – but I understand it and enjoy it. My favorite magazine is Discover, which I read front to back when I get it, and of course I read a couple of science-y blogs. I was homeschooled and used the Saxon Math series (which promotes repetition throughout the whole book to make you remember how to do something) – while I absolutely hated doing problem after problem after problem of the same kind, you can bet I still know how to do it now!

    My knight, on the other hand, hates math with a passion, mostly because he doesn’t get it. He’s smart and self-disciplined, and I really think he could bone up on math enough to pass the Praxis math test to become a high school social studies teacher, but he’s been putting it off because he hates it because he’s not good at it (because he hates it?).

    It’s a self-perpetuating cycle, I think, and not limited to him alone by any means. As soon as you hit something in your studies that you have problems with, you start to hate it. You put it off because you don’t get it, so it’s niggling at the back of your mind, which means you start associating it with guilt and/or hatred whenever you think of it. You don’t get better at it. Then, when you come across it again later, you can’t do it and it automatically brings up associations of hatred, so you still don’t work on it… and so on and so on. This isn’t just for math or science, this is for any subject in which you may struggle, but I think it comes out more in those two subjects.

  14. ompompanoosuc says

    I’m an electrical engineer and I serve on an advisory committee at a small technical school. In my area of science, I think the technology available to kids in their everyday lives, instead of provoking interest in how such things work, intimidates them. Understandably so, today kids walk around with personal electronics that would have made NASA envious 30 years ago. Once upon a time, a kit from radio shack would be the seed for a career in RF engineering. Which BTW, is crazy voodoo magic I tell you!

    Organizations like FIRST robotics get young people interested in technical careers ( by having robotic competitions between groups mentored by volunteers. This kind of “hands-on” fun is a good approach IMO.

  15. tilia says

    I don’t know if Dietrich Schwanitz ever became popular outside Germany. He is an Art professor (please correct me, if I’m wrong, but it is something like that) who wrote a book some years ago and titled it “All you have to know”. Kind of arrogant in itself to think you could put it all in one book but in there he said something like “You don’t need to know anything about natural science to be well educated.”
    So same problem in europe. But what frightens me most is to hear nonsense like that from somebody who considers himself (with some reason) to be well educated.

  16. Epinephrine says

    Right – can’t use the “less than” symbol.

    I remember when I was young, my dad made a big balloon out of garbage bags (I think? Maybe it was just an air mattress?), and attached a little plastic tube to it. He then set our kitchen table on it, and showed me how I can lift a table and an adult just with my breath. It was impossible, I thought, but then he explained it all, not much math, just concepts – that the weight is spread out, so that on any given square inch there is only a fraction of his weight. The pressure inside only needs to push up enough to counter that pressure. The simple demostration is enough to really start thinking about pressure, and once you have them thinking the whole process gets easier. Why aren’t kids doing things like this? There are so many easy ways to introduce concepts, and the math and modelling can follow.

    We should engage kids in actually doing science – and the experiments don’t have to be complex. Start with a simple example, then begin asking questions – is it harder or easier with more weight? What about if we change the size of the bag/table? How much harder? How could one measure how hard we can breathe out? What is pressure, anyway? Can two (or more) children blowing into tubes provide more pressure than one child? Why or why not? What’s atmospheric pressure? How can we tell that such a thing exists? How does one suck liquid up a straw? How far can you suck liquid up a straw? Let’s have a contest! Can a pump do better? Is there a limit? What about an established siphon? Does it matter how wide the straw/tube is?

    I’d love to teach science – I worked demonstrating science at a museum for many years, and it was great fun – but I don’t think I could do so within the school system.

  17. Bodach says

    As in many life pursuits, the really cool stuff starts after slogging through the 101 type classes, naming the parts of the cell and the wossname cycle and so on, ad boreum. Perhaps turning the pedagogical cycle on its head would work; I’ll have to leave to you smart folks to figure that out. I know that studying the interesting stuff first can lead to its own problems, i.e., not having the necessary tools in hand. But maybe by making the interesting questions part of the day to day learning, you could maintain their engagement.

    I learned to stop stuttering in jr high through the efforts of a teacher who got me involved in helping with his Master’s Thesis project. Essentially, by listening to me without pressure, he gave me the opportunity to relax and come up with some novel solutions.

  18. says

    Up until about sixth grade, there was no doubt in my mind that I wanted to be a “scientist”. (There was never a specific field, I just wanted to be the dude in the lab coat discovering and creating things.) Then I started reading the Bible more…and talking to people about it…and science started to look like something hostile. Basically, I ended up wasting years of my life on extreme creationist Christian idiocy. The whole of my highschool experience was wasted on this, and because of that I didn’t pursue anything scientific.

    After high school, I had a bit of a revelation, and of course am now an atheist/evolutionist/science loving heathen. Luckily, what little science instruction I had was good enough that I can get along fairly well by myself, learning through books, online, etc., but I will forever remain resentful about the substantial chunk of my life taken by religion.

  19. says

    Ah, LisaJ…Welcome to my soap opera.

    I feel the exact SAME way..maybe more so. As an African-American the response to science, math, and education in general I think the problem is worse. I work to show people that science is important, easily accessible, and quite relavant. I post/rant about this aversion to science all of the time on my blog.

    I think it’s our American obsession with bling and not brains. It’s also about class issues. I’m willing to fight all of those obstacles.

    Doing my part to make a dent.

  20. Steve LaBonne says

    Another vote for seeing the problem as one that goes well beyond science; it’s US culture’s general aversion to any kind of intellectual effort. In my daughter’s “good” suburban high school, some of her acquaintances just can’t understand why she’s always reading serious nonfiction books on various subjects that are not assigned. The idea that such reading is pleasurable just doesn’t compute. And these are A students, not stupid kids at all.

  21. Doug Little says

    I think that a majority of it falls on the parents. They are the ones who have to at a bare minimum read to their kids from an early age. My whole love of science, mathematics and engineering came from that initial seed. Of course you have to read books that are going to stimulate the kids curiosity. These days there really isn’t any excuse with the vast amounts of very easily accessible information that we have at our finger tips not to find something that is going to stimulate your kids. Of course it is then up to the teachers to enhance and shape this curiosity into learning potential, so a good education system is also required.

    Finally, I believe that more so than any other country idolization of sports and entertainment has a large negative impact on kids academic interests. If science was portrayed in a more positive light by the mass media and sports and entertainment was downplayed somewhat (yeah right), then you would eventually get more of the,

    “I want to be Brian Greene when I grow up” vs
    “I want to be Tiger Woods when I grow up”.

  22. Thanny says

    Some people just aren’t interested in science. Even if you get rid of the obstacles (science presented as drudgery, peer pressure against seeming too smart, etc.), there will always be plenty of people who just don’t care about how reality works.

    It’s similar to the situation with women in science. There are still obstacles here and there, of varying degrees of surmountability, but in the end, with a completely unobstructed path, there would almost certainly still be fewer women in the sciences. Not across the board, of course. Clearly some sciences are more attractive to the average woman than others, with some likely to have a feminine majority with all barriers removed.

    The overall point is that the goal of instilling scientific literacy only is the more important one. Those who are capable of being productive scientists are already more likely to pursue that career path. The gains to be had by funneling more people into that channel are miniscule in comparison to the potential gains of simply making the voting populace more scientifically literate, whatever their actual interest level is.

    How to achieve that is another question. Short of holding exams for registered voters, the only option is to get them in school. The improvements to be made there are fairly obvious – stop the rote learning, and focus more on theory and practice. Any improvement that successfully boosts general scientific literacy would also likely increase the number of students that actually pursue scientific careers.

  23. Kylgar says

    I wholly blame pop culture (as an addict and having many friends that too are addicts, and, I like to think, not all too ignorant in science, I would argue vehemently that it’s not “video games” that are the cause at all; but that’s not for this post).

    We have two major contributing factors, in my mind. One, which has been touched on several times, is the instant gratification need. I place that side by side and synonymous with the “it’s too hard” argument. People want it easy and they want it now… Science is, unfortunately, usually neither.

    The second thing I want to throw out there is the reverence we give to people that are not that bright. Or at the least, act that way. Think of all the “cool” kids in school; all the “cool” characters on TV; all the celebrities that are, or put up the facade of being, complete imbeciles. These people make us laugh, seem like they would be great fun to be around, and we, as social animals, strive to emulate that in the hopes we too will be seen as humorous and good company.

    Yes, I know that is a very sweeping generalization, but let’s face it, how many more people out there (not to say here, though!) know the names, say, Paris Hilton, as opposed to Jamie Hyneman?

  24. Greg Esres says

    what is at fault for making our culture so scientifically averse and what we can all do to help promote greater scientific literacy.

    Part of the problem is that most scientists make science seem boring, because they are boring.

  25. John C. Randolph says

    We are a culture that largely breeds an aversion to science.

    It’s not just science. History, economics, music and literature are all sadly neglected by far too many people.


  26. dreamstretch says

    What’s science ever given us?
    Please note that I’m not typing this, I’m projecting an image of words into your brain using telepathy

  27. Donovan says

    Just my two cents:

    When we teach math and science in early education, we tend to teach rules and only rules, with the understanding that the basics must be mastered before moving to the ‘juicy’ stuff. This is great, and very accurate, for programming computers or perhaps AI robots. But it is absurd in aplication to children.

    Imagine learning to read. The only thing you are exposed to for the first 9 years of school is pages and pages and pages…

    c-a-t cat

    d-o-g dog

    f-o-x fox

    r-e-d red

    b-l-u-e blue

    a-n-t-i-d-i-s-e-s-t-a-b-l-i-s-h-m-n-t-a-r-i-a-n-i-s-m antidisestablishmentarianism

    p-a-n pan

    No child would enjoy reading. No adult would enjoy reading. But we do exactly this in math. We never let math tell children a story. We never let them explore the world using scientific methods, insisting they memorize scientific laws.

    Don’t teach children addition and subtraction as a subject. Teach them to measure recipes with too small cups and spoons, then show them the trick of addition and subtraction. This lets math be the story, a full circle that makes sense and applies to the world. Teach children to apply scientific method to what color to color a dog. Every lesson should be taught the way we teach reading. Here is the story, and look, here is a word that is new to us! Let’s look at the word and then get back to the story.

  28. Alma says

    We should not only focus at parents or school for providing answers to children.
    Nowdays, they’re mostly influenced by other things, bombarded with billions pieces of information. Apparently, the information that attract kids more is the one for commercial use; until we’re ready to spend billions of dollars in heavy advertising for science, I don’t think we should expect much.
    Nowdays, it’s not cool to talk about science, it’s cool to know what color was Linday Lohan’s dress when she got drunk last Saturday, what specifications does your Ipod have, or what level you got on your video game…

  29. says

    There’s just so much that competes with science as being “really important.”

    Religion is one, but there are sports, the sense that one has to settle on a career and spouse fairly soon (science is best done as a kind of play), and politics that are “really important.”

    Science is all fine, and Americans think highly of it (why do you think ID claims to be science?), but it’s really for those nerds, who will give us the right answers (unless they conflict with “really important” claims from religion and other quarters–in which case it’s biased (and nerdy)). The true importance of science and of science-like thinking to the entire structure of society (and not just great gizmos) is lost on people.

    I think that history lessons should probably focus more on the importance of science and empirical thinking. The other stuff, of course, but the fact that we wouldn’t even have democracy with science and its associated primacy of the evidence, needs to be spelled out better.

    Glen D

  30. stephanie says

    although very interested in science, I’m avoiding going into research now because it seems like it’s a whole lot of work just to decipher the smallest tiniest cog in an enormous machine. on the other hand it’s awesome to read research that shows how the tiniest parts are essential to major functioning.

  31. Doug Little says

    Ben, Have you considered maybe going back to school?
    I myself would like to knock over a mathematics degree, since when doing engineering and computing science I really didn’t have a great grasp of the subject. I actually considered it a mild necessary evil to get through my courses. After graduation my weakness prompted me to learn more about maths and now I feel like I really missed out on something.

  32. MissyAnne Thrope says

    Sadly, D, it’s not just the ‘southern boondocks’ where that sort of anti-intellectualism run rampant. There is a 10-lane highway of intellectual laziness that runs straight through the heart of American society.

    We have schools that equate inquisitiveness with disruptiveness, parents that expect far too little of their children and devalue the importance of curiosity and intellectual achievement, and I don’t think I have to tell anyone here how religious indoctrination sucks people dry of any bit of curiosity they may have thought of having.

    The wonder is that anyone survives wading through the molasses swamp of mediocrity that is modern America with their sense of wonder and curiosity intact.

    Sorry, this is just one of those subjects that really depresses me.

  33. says

    I have to second Epinephrine’s thoughts. My version is that I think science should be taught a lot more closely to how it historically developed. I remember as a kid marveling that if I drop a tennis ball and a basketball off of something they hit the ground at the same time, and that if I ran around on carpet in socks I built up a static charge (both of these activities were due to my father asking me leading questions and pointing me in the right direction to figure out something like the scientific method on my own). Kids are naturally curious, and science developed originally without much in the way of tools we have now, just with curious people who decided to try to be careful about things.

  34. Lycosid says


    A big f dash dash dash to NCLB. I teach in Pennsylvania and they started throwing those standardized tests at us last year. We’re being forced to teach to the test now, instead of developing the capacity for critical thought and an appreciation of science our children so desperately need.

    While I can see the need for accountability in our school systems, this is the wrong way to do it. We need an accountability system that holds the bad teachers accountable, and lets the good teachers paint with a free hand. Also the focus needs to be shifted so that the brightest students are just as important in the accountability scheme as the lowest performers. Basic economics demands that you invest heavily in your strengths, and we’re not doing that. Though our lowest performing students are a worthy cause and should continue to receive support, our brightest are left in the cold.

    I need caffeine.

  35. BMcP says

    For several individuals, the various and numerous disciplines of science, not to mention the theories, are difficult to understand. They may have some desire to understand some of the aforementioned, but in today’s rapid paced and busy world, they may lack the time.

  36. David says

    I think the real problem in science education is that we tend to skip the basics and move straight to rote memorization of complex Latin words. Science courses often offer as much new vocabulary as english courses, but also require a greater application of conceptual understanding to interpret. I know that if my teachers spent more time agonizing over the scientific method and why it was important, instead of just trying to pound in hypothesis, materials, methods, results, conclusion, a lot more of my peers would have seen why even english majors MUST know basic science. After all, we can all get the concept of skepticism, but not everyone cares about knowing the symbol and name of all 100+ elements of the periodic table. You’d probably see advances in a lot of fields that have been on the fringe, too, if more students came out of high school with minds that were able to critically evaluate things. For example, many anthropology majors at my school come up with wild speculation based on tiny amounts of data and assume that because they measured things they did science. Someone who is their own worst critic often makes more valuable insights than those whose knee-jerk reaction is to think outside the box.

    I also second the idea of gen-ed science courses (requirements?) available for students in non-science fields. I know many students who are turned off by all the requirements of scientific courses, and think it is too hard. If colleges offered classes that didn’t dumb-down, but rather covered a narrower topic more thoroughly and for a general audience, I think a lot of people would be more inclined to pursue their interest in science, rather than tossing it aside as “outside my expertise” or “beyond me”.

  37. James Crooks says

    [blockquote]That phrase “It has the power to explain anything you want to know about the natural world…” bugs me since there is no reason or evidence for another kind of world. What does the word natural add to that sentence?[/blockquote]

    It separates the Natural Sciences from the Formal Sciences and Philosophy. The Natural Sciences (Biology, Chemistry, Physics, etc.) describe the world as we see it. The Formal Sciences, particularly Mathematics, describe all possible worlds for which a set of given axioms is true. If one adopts the Platonic view that Mathematics describes an “underlying universe”, then the inclusion of the word natural speaks to the restriction that Science only consider observable phenomena, while Mathematics (for example) may speak of things that are real and yet not natural, i.e. abstract constructs. (I should like to add that this is not, and never will be, an argument for the so-called supernatural. Such a thing does not exist.)

    As to the topic at hand, I can only speak from my experience, but I’ve found that many of my (age) peers have an ingrained dislike of science. I’ve seen the range from those who merely consider themselves incapable to those who seem to be proud of their ignorance and actively reject learning. It is the latter that are saddest to me, for the former can often be shown the beauty that science holds (the beauty of Mathematics, alas, is more elusive and harder to show to another).

    I must admit some disappointment in even those that I consider my scientific peers, for many of them hold disdain for some other area of science, some to the point that they will actively avoid it, and others disdain for the arts and humanities, which I find to be just as important in one’s education. But I’m used to people not even wanting to understand by now; even the physicists give me a hard time about studying pure mathematics.

  38. negentropyeater says

    In France, we start really teaching Sciences at the age of 12/13.

    By then, you can already tell, in the maths class, many are already lost. They have some blockage somewhere with basic arithmetics, and we keep on pilling stuff on top of, hoping that it’ll make it dissappear. I used to teach remedial maths courses for kids that age when I was a student, and it was obvious to see this.

    Just do the test, go in any supermarket and ask 20 random men and women above 30 to add 1/2 + 1/3, if you find more than 4 or 5 than can, you’ve got a lucky sample.

    I just don’t see how we can make people really interested in Science, if the very foundations, basic arithmetics, are so full of holes.

  39. Epinephrine says

    Nowdays, it’s not cool to talk about science

    Was it ever?

    I agree that having more role models of the cool scientist type would be helpful – but I’ll argue that we actually HAVE that.

    Sure, we unfortunately still get a heaping side order of clutzy scientists, geeky mathematicians and socially awkward engineers presented to us, but one really great thing has come out of recent TV – CSI and spin-offs.

    Now, like many I hate CSI’s magic answer box, and it definitely isn’t an accurate portrayal of forensics, but it has attractive, fun, likeable people doing science. The use all sorts of technology, and one gets introduced to concepts like DNA, chromatography/mass spec (or at least the idea that one can identify what was in a sample), trajectories and so on.

    It’s not the best science, but it’s actually good for encouraging kids to go into science. I heard a lot of kids talking about careers in forensics, and trying to figure out what courses they’d need. Suddenly chemistry is more interesting. Should we present these glorified, sexy versions of careers to people? Why the heck not – that’s what nearly every profession does anyway. The Army recruitment adverts don’t show a soldier craping his guts out because of dysentery, or getting blown up by an improvised explosive device; football players are shown showered in glory and making plays, not nursing their injuries and complaining about their blown ACL/concusion/back problems. Lawyers on TV/movies don’t have huge pit stains, comb-overs, and sit in tiny cubicles going over boring case summaries – they’re out living the good life, partying, winning landmark cases.

    So why do we insist on portraying science as insular, geeky, unatractive? CSI (and the like) may be one way to bring science to the masses.

  40. Doug Little says

    David, I think that you hit on a good point. The rote learning method, which we are all victims of, definitely has a lot to answer for. It takes a lot to break out of this way of thinking. We need to teach kids the underlying theory and application of the theory rather than just firing a bunch of different types of examples at students for them to learn. Science becomes a whole lot more attractive when you actually understand it.

  41. says

    James, that’s the joy of being interested in mathematical physics…the mathematicians disdain you for working on something “applied” and the physicists dismiss you as just a mathematician. Though fortunately I’m faring better in grad school, this (as well as talent regarding specific subjects in math) is part of why I’m studying algebraic geometry instead of mainstream mathematical physics

  42. Epinephrine says

    I should proof-read. Crapping, concussion, and unattractive. I think that covers my typos.

  43. Jams says

    A few thoughts and questions:

    1) I think it’s perfectly reasonable to use “natural” with “world”. One wouldn’t want to imply that science can tell us everything we want to know about the world of Middle Earth.

    2) Are people less interested in science than they aught to be? How interested aught people be?

    3) The American resistance to intelligence, I believe, stems from characterizing intelligence as a characteristic one is born with. In a meritocracy obsessed society, characteristics one is granted at birth are worthy of scorn rather than praise. Like inheritance, intelligence is seen as a quality unearned and undeserved (the expense associated with earning certification doesn’t help the case that intelligence is earned rather than inherited/appointed).

  44. Margaret says

    Much (most?) of the USA is highly anti-intellectual, and that attitude is enforced by the schools. Science wasn’t taught at all in the grade schools I went to, and I didn’t get to take physics in high school because, though it was officially listed, it wasn’t actually taught while I was there since no one except me wanted to take it. I’m not sure I’d even want science to be taught in grade school since it would be taught as incompetently as arithmetic, where the main lesson seemed to be that it was hard and useless.

  45. ompompanoosuc says

    Imagine how frustrated I get when my sister does not encourage my niece to learn math, while simultaneously going bankrupt because of the silly and confusing % symbol. Exactly WHAT should someone know when they receive a HS diploma? I mean, what is the minimum? When I helped with my niece’s homework a few times I interacted with my sister first and found her math to be somewhere around 7th grade level. How depressing. Could this explain the “mortgage crisis”? (it’s a MATH crisis!)

  46. James Crooks says


    Ah well, at least you’re a step in the right direction! In all seriousness though, I’ve always found the tension between “applied” and “pure” mathematics a bit silly. I only describe myself as “pure” to piss of the physicists (i.e. most of my friends) anyway… Oh and because I once spent two days on a road trip with a Biomathematician-in-training, and her lack of respect for the more abstract areas of mathematics somewhat annoyed me. Ah, well.

    I take it you’re in grad school for Mathematics then, rather than Physics yes? Mathematical Physics is one of those disciplines that can be hard to find, although I suppose the Physics departments usually only go about as far as Theoretical Physics.

  47. says

    Pop-culture has been mentioned, and rightly so. But I blame a lot on journalism. Aside from the occasional war, the really big news that affects our lives is about science and economics. The importance of science is well understood in this crowd, but economics? Sure — what industries are flourishing, which ones are declining. And why, and what it means, etc. Very important stuff, and interesting too.

    But those two subjects are rarely reported, and when they are, the reporting is abysmally ignorant. So the newspapers and TV news shows are filled mostly with irrelevant fluff.

    Is this because the public wants fluff, or because that’s all the journalism people know?

  48. ompompanoosuc says

    …taught as incompetently as arithmetic, where the main lesson seemed to be that it was hard and useless.

    Bravo, exactly. Some parents get this across nicely too.

    My HS guidance counselor literally told a girl in my class to take the easy courses and that she “wasn’t college material”.


  49. SEF says

    “It has the power to explain anything you want to know about the natural world…” bugs me since there is no reason or evidence for another kind of world.

    Yes, there are other worlds than the natural (real) one – the imaginary worlds of fiction (including religion) and the human construct worlds of language and named geography and (non-natural, ie human) history. Science doesn’t really tell you what some bunch of humans are going to name a given river or settlement, or where they’ll draw an arbitrary state boundary, or which undergarments King Henry VIII wore on a given human-named date.

  50. says


    Yeah, PhD program in math, and interested in problems arising from physics (for instance, I’m fascinated by mirror symmetry). A lot of my friends are physicists, and I found that the quickest route to create respect for mathematics in them is to show them a nice trick that solves a painful problem. My favorite is using representations of D_n to work out the normal modes of oscillation for n identical masses joined by n identical springs in a n-gon…the ones I knew would go through action principles to solve it! Horrifying! (for details on how it works, it’s one of the first posts in my blog)

    Biomath is actually beginning to fascinate me, though. Phylogenetics is feeding some interesting problems into algebraic geometry, and it’s a shame that more people don’t know about it. But then, I’m still telling my friends who are artists that projective geometry is all about vanishing points…I usually disdain the word “holistic” because it’s proponents have rendered it meaningless, but education needs to be more holistic. Have art students do a bit of projective geometry, or have geometry students look at Picasso and Dali to see where things are applied, mix history of science into science classes, a bit of science into history classes, etc. I was lucky, and my high school attempted something like this, but the only way it’ll become the norm is a massive restructuring of the education system…

  51. says

    It has the power to explain anything you want to know about the natural world…”

    “Natural” is a word that is used in various ways, as most know.

    Science does not (by itself) explain the “human-made world”, like law, the structures under the city of Boston, or C.S. Lewis’s novels. In a world of complete and perfect knowledge, presumably it would.

    But the human-made world is natural? Sure it is, if you’re talking about “natural causes”, like the fact that humans are part of the “physical world”. But when someone writes that science explains “the natural world,” he or she is simply saying that science explains what happens outside of humanity and its artifices.

    The fact that the IDiots (deliberately at times, I’d bet) confuse the various meanings of the world “natural” in order to imply or directly state that humans (and any kind of “intelligence”) are outside of the natural order of things is no reason why we can’t use the word “natural” in one of its common senses, this being a reference to that which occurs without human intervention (although sometimes “human nature” is included in the “natural”).

    It is common in journals to speak of the “natural world” as LisaJ did.

    Glen D

  52. tim Rowledge says

    Donovan @ 29 – I’m happy to say that the way I learned back in infant/primary/secondary school was mostly via the exploratory way you describe. It was widely disparaged by parents and the all-important ‘Red Top’ newspapers in UK as “New Math’ and “new fangled rubbish”. IIRC the maths and science was the Nuffield curriculum and it concentrated largely on learning principles and techniques instead of rote memorisation of trig. substitutions and algebraic foo-raw. We even did basic set theory. It certainly wasn’t perfect but it was reasonably enjoyable and had served me well over the years. I *did* have some trouble during y first degree because the maths course assumed a traditional maths background of knowing all those trig. rules etc – but in the second year they introduced difficult things like ‘matrix algebra’ (wooooooh) which totally phased most students and simply took me back to 11 years old.

    In these days of google I think having been taught more in the ‘how to think and work things out’ that ‘you must know these 150 rules’ is a significant advantage.

  53. says

    Actually, I could add to what I wrote in #56 that we regularly talk of “natural selection” as if human selection is not “natural”.

    It’s not, of course, that we really think that “artificial selection” is unnatural in the strict sense. It’s that “natural” often means “without human intervention”, and we’re kind of at a loss to come up with another term (we probably could do so, but it wouldn’t be a better one).

    “Natural selection” is what happens in the “natural world,” in one sense of the meaning of “natural”.

    Glen D

  54. Amber says

    Anti-intellectualism seems to be a cultural thing from the top to the bottom. In the USA at least, intellectual pursuits are looked down upon as uncool while physical or high power money making careers are glorified. Children have their curiosity and desire to learn smothered by parents disinterested in answering questions or finding answers to questions they don’t know. Once in school, the typical student culture denigrates and marginalizes the “nerds”, those poor social outcasts who actually enjoy learning, regardless of any innate intelligence. Add to that other cultural/religious pressures to not question, think, or learn. In school curriculum, facts are taught but not critical thinking skills and even the facts are simplified and dumbed down. It’s not just science, it’s everything. Don’t teach this, it might offend somebody. Don’t try that, it’s too hard. Don’t bother learning if it can’t turn an immediate buck. Don’t make the effort to expand your mind, what’s the point? Let other people do your thinking for you, you poor slob.

    Knowledge is power folks, it’s your first line of defense against being a sucker.

  55. James Crooks says


    Oh, I shall certainly go through your post on normal modes, particularly as I’ve recently been asked to study up on it a bit for my lab–we do molecular modeling. It’s more Chemistry than Math, but I’m an undergraduate still, and it’s more fun than doing nothing (less fun than going through A book of difficult Combinatorics problems I recently picked up however).

    Biomathematics is a wonderful subject, I do hope I didn’t cast any doubt on that, it is merely the attitude of some individuals, that they would reject some area of learning, that both mystifies and frustrates me.

    I fully agree with taking a more ‘holistic’ approach to education. I’ve found that when I lecture (for want of a better word) on Mathematics, people are more interested when I put things into an historical context. Even simple things, like square roots in carpentry, become interesting when you describe their applications and origins. In this vein, I’ve recently picked up a very interesting Analysis book, A Radical Approach to Analysis, which teaches Analysis through it’s historical developments. Even as someone is who already interested in the subject, I appreciate learning the context and following the development of the subject from Fourier, dipping into the Archimedian understanding of infinity and then back to Cauchy and so on.

    Ah, but I really ought to show up to lab sometime this week!

  56. Amar says

    I think Phillip B. #5 is on to something. I think the video game example he uses is representative of a larger trend in this country of constantly sheltering our children from any sort of negative experience. Many parents take this to the extreme as can be seen in the example of some parents suing their elementary school districts to stop them from playing dodgeball, or picking teams for kickball at recess because they don’t want their children to experience losing. Math and science are somewhat different from the other academic subjects in that there is less room for interpretation, and thus a “right” answer and a “wrong” answer. In a literature or history course, there are always more accepted views of the facts and discussion always centers on interpreting the words on the page. There is not always a “right” answer. Conversely, no amount of interpretation is going to affect the number Pi. Since so many of these children are protected from ever being told that they are wrong or that they have made a mistake, when they enter a math or science class and are all of a sudden confronted with their fallibility, it can be quite a turn-off. There was a post on one of the other science blogs last week (i don’t remember who but you can look for it) that was titled something like “Science makes me feel stupid!”. To that poster, that was the beauty of science. With everything he/she learned, she learned that there was so much more to be learned and thus so much that she did not know. Not to mention the hundreds of thousands of hypotheses that are thrown away everyday after testing. Today’s children are not really prepared for that kind of rejection.

  57. Chris Crawford says

    I’d like to offer an explanation that will dismay some. Science really *is* hard, because it requires a mental specialization that the brain doesn’t do well: sequential thinking. First, let me define my terms. I break cognition up into two basic forms: pattern-based thinking and sequential thinking. Pattern-based thinking is what the brain is built to do, and it does it very, very well. Sequential thinking is a kludge built out of pattern-based neurons, a kludge that is horribly expensive metabolically but has enough adaptive value (in small quantities) to be useful. Mammals and birds both use it; reptiles and fish don’t. Its primary use is path-tracing. However, in hominines its use expanded dramatically (why do you think we needed such big brains?) and one of the most elaborate uses of sequential thinking was language. But then the Greeks came along and “invented” rationalism, the exaltation of sequential thinking done properly. Then Aristotle formalized rationalism into logic, and Western civilization was on its way to the moon. Nowadays we have taken the concept of sequential thinking very far indeed: much of the strength of Western culture lies in its deeply ingrained systems of sequential thinking. However, we are pushing our brains to the limits of their capabilities with sequential thinking as we now practice it. Sequential thinking is to the brain as yoga is to the body; you have to twist your brain around like a pretzel to do it correctly. And most people give it a whirl in early high school and are repulsed by the mental pain required. So they walk away.

    However, good sequential thinking is economically valuable, so we richly reward the minority that keeps their noses to the grindstone. The majority never learn it — but we never really needed a majority of experts in sequential thinking — the number available to the economy was adequate.

    Yet even those who are well-trained in sequential thinking still manage to screw it up when they stray outside their field of specialization. They permit their emotions to intrude into their reasoning, and end up saying and doing stupid things. We humans just aren’t very good at this.

    So, what should we do? There isn’t much that America can do at this time — nobody changes unless they’re in pain, and Americans are too comfortable to consider any serious changes in their thinking. It will take an external force to get Americans to wake up. Sputnik did it in 1958, but the effect was short-lived. There are plenty of processes underway that will show that America is losing its lead, but most of them lack the shock value of Sputnik. If the Chinese make a huge leap in stem cell technology, that might help. But my pessimistic opinion is that there will never be a single dramatic slap in the face that gets Americans off their butts. I fear that we’ll slowly slip into mediocrity, bitching and moaning every step of the way.

  58. Genuinely Doug says

    Donovan said:

    … Teach them to measure recipes with too small cups and spoons, then show them the trick of addition and subtraction. This lets math be the story, a full circle that makes sense and applies to the world. …

    Funny you mention that cup problem in math. It made me recall this blurb on Scientific American
    Traditional story setups might hinder math learning

    They showed college students a mathematical pattern using either a concrete example (in this case, measuring cups filled with water) or an abstract example involving symbols, then had them play a game that drew on their new skills. The subjects who saw the abstract example performed significantly better in the game than did those who learned the pattern with measuring cups.

    Nevertheless, I agree with your premise that we should not teach children to think of science as a set of facts to be memorized.

    I am not sure what turns me on to science. I tend to be skeptical of everything, and science is applied skepticism. Furthermore, there is nothing more awesome than when the scientific consensus is overturned.

  59. CLP says

    I hope this is a useful contribution to a deteriorating discussion.

    In any discussion of this topic, there always seems to be too much “From what I can see …” or “In my experience ….” All of this is well-intended, but there is too much reliance on correlation as a source of explanation. Where are the hypotheses that we are actively seeking to invalidate? None of this seems very scientific; instead, it sounds like various appeals to “common sense”, whatever that is, and this is from those of us who think science and scientific thought processes are essential to a fulfilling life.

    Where in all of this is discussion of:

    (i) thought as an emergent phenomenon, which is unlikely ever to yield to our vain attempts to explain thought with simple mechanisms?

    (ii) the centrality of feedback mechanisms between how we act and how media are organized to sell us what we supposedly want?

    Deep interest and emotional investment in science, or any field of study, seems to be a specific instance of how the brain works in general to perceive the world as a whole. So, can we reasonably hope to explain why some people care about science while others don’t, without knowing the true elements of cognition? Probably not. Can we explain why the 80-20 (or pick your favorite ratio) rule always seems to govern the behavior of groups in any endeavor? If anyone can, please let me know.

    All I am saying is that until we can explain more completely how the brain works, any attempt to account for “why” too many people seem to care too little about science is a waste of effort. Whether the brain is even able to understand itself is a larger philosophical concern that I’ll ignore for now.

    Markets exist because there are too many details for any individual to gather, assess, and act on. We have markets for knowledge and skills, and markets often drive people to decide whether they should bother caring about any particular thing when they have no other means of choosing what is important. Yes, pure science, math, and engineering are hard. Or is it the signals sent by the market? Law and medicine are hard too, but they typically get more respect, which includes money, but also the intangibles we seem so wrapped up in when we try to explain why nobody seems to care about what we care about.

    Games, stories, etc. are great for getting kids to care about the wonders of the world, but apparently not so great when it comes to choosing a major. Why? Humans are complex at small scales, but often simple at the gross scales we perceive in daily life. Whatever the base causes are, the only statistical observables seem to be (1) interest, (2) willingness to work (i.e., invest effort in order to obtain some future benefit, which might or might not involve money), and (3) self-image. But even at this simple scale, I don’t think these factors are independent.

    My hypothesis is that, at least for now, we should focus on the market incentives, because based on the objective evidence, these seem to be the most effective means of generating true interest, i.e., interest that comes from raising one’s place in the world as measured by the factors I suggested above. What can be done to test this hypothesis?

  60. LisaJ says

    I just have to say that I feel very special that woot has posted his boobies in the comments of my post. Thanks Woot :)

  61. says

    Is this because the public wants fluff, or because that’s all the journalism people know?

    It’s because they can’t report it any better anymore. I’m currently reading, “Flat Earth News” by Nick Davies. If you want an excellent stab at why journalism stinks, and lets down its audience, I highly recommend it.

    Anywho. Personally I think that people aren’t interested in Science because it’s simply presented as a body of facts that has to be remembered for a test. And only ever going to be the ability to recall that collection of facts that’s going to be measured or noted to be used to determine a school’s fate or a child’s fate. Certainly in the UK, there is simply no room to discuss Science as a process, and that the process led to these incredible facts.

    Without the process – with the experimentation, without ariving at wrong results, and without an understanding of how science works< ?i> – who in their right mind would be interested in just learning a huge volume of information, across three separate, broad, disciplines that they have no hope of ever learning.

    I also think the process is slightly dishonest – at least when I was in school. For three years, we were taught, “This is Physics:”, “This is Biology:”, “This is Chemistry”. Then we did another two years “specialising” in one science (I chose physics). But there was never enough information for the truly curious (and my Biology teacher was really creepy). I’ll give an example, which has driven my interest in quantum physics:

    When I learnt about light as a kid, we were taught that it was a wave, just like water is a wave. And just like water is a wave, it has an amplitude and a frequency. But we were also taught that in the wave created by water, the water didn’t move, but the wave was propogated by the movement of the water molecules. If that was the case – I wanted to know – what is it that propogates the light wave. “Nothing, it’s in a vacuum, but it really is exactly like a water wave”. Not a terribly satisfying answer to a 14-year old :-)

    Strangely, I was rather glad when I later discovered that it’s hugely complicated, and no-one really knows exactly what’s going on. I just wish my old physics teacher had told me that!

  62. negentropyeater says


    wait until the LHC starts cranking results, maybe Americans will wake up then, but you’re probably right, it won’t be enough for Americans to realise that Europe is back in the lead again after more than 70 years interruption…

  63. Clarissa says

    Yes, Science is beautiful (although this is a psychological, not scientific observation) and can enrich our lives in many ways.

    It may also kill us all.

  64. Arthur says

    I think that universities must have improved a lot when it comes to teaching science to non-scientists, at least in the good universities. At the University of Washington, I took an Astronomy 101 course, and I thought it was amazing. The class started with the basics of what we see when we look at the sky, and ended with how Hubble and other astronomers figured out the Big Bang Theory. The course was very interactive, and extremely interesting. I think if we could teach science like that in high school, a lot more students would want to become scientists, or at least maintain an interest in science throughout their lives.

    Unfortunately, there is also an anti-science trend within universities in the humanities departments, in which any claim to objective truth is undermined and deconstructed. Steven Pinker talks about this in his books, saying that deconstruction is an anti-scientific dogma, and I think he’s exactly right.

    But I think the biggest problem in our culture when it comes to science is that people have stopped reading, and even most people who do read tend to avoid the kind of books where they might learn some science. If people read at all, it’s usually for entertainment. Another problem is that in many bookstores, the pseudoscience section is bigger than the science section, indicating that even when people read “non-fiction,” they’re not getting a whole lot of accurate information.

  65. says

    Parents who don’t have an interest are partially to blame. I put much of the onus on schools. People keep telling me I need to go back and take some more college classes. But I prefer to teach myself. Once it becomes a class the subject is often ruined. The focus becomes homework and testing and memorization instead of actually learning what you came to learn.

    Another argument could be made against our lifestyle. I grew up out in the country. I got to strip down washing machines and watch tadpoles develop in the ditch. I swung a hammer and worked a saw. Now I live in DC. These kids can’t go fishing around for crawdads. They can’t work a wrench. The alley way is their playground. People claim that kids don’t play outside anymore. But where do they suggest the kids play?

    I want to start a science show starring Dr. Bunsen Honeydew and his assistant Beaker. I want it to explain the really advanced subjects to 2nd graders. And I want to air it after The Simpsons. I’ve got a few crude outlines in my head for episodes. I really want to do a sketch where Beaker interviews Sputnik.

  66. Monkey says

    Perhaps what is missing is the understanding from the general public that science matters – they (we, I – with the exception of every mac product in the list!!) want their iphones, satellite tv, medicine, high efficiency vehicles, air purification techniques, solar energy, organic gardening, … , but they are totally blinded by the process that got us these things. This is not a discors about our mass-consumptive society, but about how our brain can figure stuff out. That is the key. The process.

    I remember taking a 2nd year astronomy-for-non-scientists course in uni. It. Was. Wonderful. I was a science student who had a blossoming fascination with astophysics, but this course made the whole idea that I had not yet immersed myself in (I was an earth science/ecological biology major)easy for digest. It made a huge idea make sense. Our prof was teaching arts students, language students, history students, anthropology students, and science students all together. All on the same page by the end of class, but no messy, fussy equations and “science” that would scare some off. People learned, people understood, and no one got hurt.
    Equations and “science” are unquestionably important, but in the likes of many popularizing science books (you know the long, and increasingly long list of awe inspiring authors who never drop a formula in their text….) there needs to be a link – a corpus collosum of education – that initially doesnt scare off those inclined to be scared.

    I teach science, and mopst of my classes start with ne or two students being overheard muttering “man, I just dont get science”.

  67. Paul Meade says

    This is one of the most interesting threads that I have read on Pharyngula. Even JCR made a point that no one disagreed with. Chris Crawford comes to the heart of the matter @ #63: Many people shy away from science (and mathematics, social studies, art, music etc.) because they have extreme difficulty if not aversion to comprehending the material. Several posters have bemoaned the fact that courses in “science-lite” or science for the non-scientist is not offered. Others have commented that they connected with science or math (this can be extended to any subject) because of the person who taught the subject.


    That pretty much sums up the problem, does it not? Children have an innate curiosity much of which is stifled by the adults around them starting with parents, relatives, baby sitters, teachers and later as they grow older friends, classmates, peer groups they aspire to and so on.

    So unless the whole of society can be reformed at the core, we here in the good ole’ USA can look forward to a steady decline. But not to worry, our attitudes are infecting everyone else in the world so they will not be far behind on our slide down to intellectual laziness and mindless acceptance of whatever the extant power structure wants to foist on us.

    I continually think about “The Marching Morons” by Cyril Kornbluth. Everyone posting here should find a copy of this short story, read it and reflect on it. To me this dystopian picture of the future seems closer now more than ever.

  68. Chris Crawford says

    CLP, you seem to be suggesting that markets do not offer sufficient inducement for people to learn science (correct me if I have misinterpreted you). I don’t think that’s the case. Yes, scientists in universities don’t get paid as much as scientists in industry. But scientists in industry *are* well paid, and scientists in universities have lifestyle benefits to counterbalance the lower monetary inducements.

    Besides, in a true market system, we can’t mandate salaries for scientists. The economic benefits of a science education are pretty clear to most people — there aren’t many PhD physicists driving taxis. True, a lot of PhD astronomers fail to get a job in astronomy, but most land on their feet once they look beyond astronomy. The inducements are there. I think that the problem lies deeper in our culture. The culture hasn’t caught up to the fact that our population is slowly bifurcating into two subpopulations: an educated, wealthy population and an uneducated poor population. This is extremely unhealthy for the culture as a whole, and must be corrected. Fortunately, we have the means to correct it: our educational system really can churn out educated people. But there is a lot of friction in the system coming from many directions. The most important factor, I think, is the lack of emphasis on education among Americans. Until people once again realize the simple equation Education = Wealth, we’ll continue with this problem.

  69. Azdak says

    I think a big part of the problem is that the human brain just isn’t naturally wired for critical thought. We do our thinking and discrimination the quick and lazy way, via a variety of heuristics. Critical thought is a discipline, and it takes work to learn and maintain it.

    Logic is hard, let’s go shopping!

    I’ve always been a big proponent of starting to teach formal logic at an early age to lay the groundwork for critical thought, but it’s been my experience that the sort of people who teach children of that age, while usually lovely people, aren’t really up to doing that sort of curriculum justice.

  70. Quiet Desperation says

    Three fairly straightforward things.

    1. The default state for a human is dull and lacking inquisitiveness. Active intelligence and curiosity are the exceptions. Too much of a downer answer? Sorry. If you disagree, you are probably a smart person and know mostly other smart people. Biased sample.

    2. The media depiction of smart people and science. Goofy geeks and nerds and outcasts playing with all that wacky science that always blows up in their faces.

    3. The pressure to conform. Science and math are not what the cool kids are doing.

    I teach science, and mopst of my classes start with ne or two students being overheard muttering “man, I just dont get science”.

    Many just don’t. I tutored algebra and calculus in college. There were times when I simply didn’t know how to get a basic concept across to some people. Nothing worked. It’s like their brains were actively resisting the new knowledge. I got them through their tests, but it was a struggle.

  71. says

    I don’t have the time to read through the responses today – I apologize for saying what I’m sure has already been said:

    People want to feel like they’ve found “truth” without actually having to go search for it. They want easy answers, and they want to feel like they’ve figured out stuff that smarter people were unable to.

    In essence, they value the feeling that they’ve found it more than they value actually finding it.

    This applies not only to science, but also politics and philosophy and religion and the education system etc ad nauseum. People desire to feel important and intelligent, and look for easy ways to aquire the feeling – rather than the harder route of actually being more intelligent and important.

    Pablum, folks. We’re dealing with intellectual pablum.

  72. Quiet Desperation says

    That phrase “It has the power to explain anything you want to know about the natural world…” bugs me since there is no reason or evidence for another kind of world. What does the word natural add to that sentence?

    Take the red pill and find out. :-)

  73. Quiet Desperation says

    or what level you got on your video game

    Hey! Watch it! Some of us smart folken are big gamers. :-P

  74. kitsunerei88 says

    I find it astounding in this day and age, with the many grand scientific discoveries and advances we’ve seen and in our increasingly technologically dependent world, that a large proportion of our population (at least in Canada and the US, with which I have more personal experience) seems uninterested in understanding and learning about science.

    I remember bringing this up in one of my high school classes; I said something along the lines of “I don’t understand how people can just . . . leave science” (which, admittedly, was completely did not express my intentions), and one of the other girls just started yelling at me. I remember it being something along the lines of “You can’t SAY things like that, not everyone is like you . . .” It was very long and to a certain degree unpleasant.

    I think (echoing many sentiments already expressed here) that a lot of the aversion to science comes from lack of exposure to it when people are younger. I remember a lot of my own interest in science and engineering was a result of attending a summer engineering camp designed for kids from grades 5 through 8. I’m not sure how common camps like these are, but the experience was great, and aside from promoting science, it gives summer jobs for us university students.

    (PS – I did a double take when I read “London, Ontario” because I currently attend UWO here. :p)

  75. says

    I’m going to suggest that the word “natural” is equivalent to “tangible” in this case. The natural world is anything that, when the question “Why is it like this?”, the answer is found in the physical sciences.

    An example of an unnatural world might be a software environment, whether its a video game or an enterprise application being used and customized by a coprporation. It certainly follows the laws of physics in its operation, but the Why of it is answered by application manuals, or by developers who can explain its behavior.

    Just taking a shot in the dark here…

  76. SteveM says

    Yes, Science is beautiful (although this is a psychological, not scientific observation) and can enrich our lives in many ways.

    It may also kill us all.

    Maybe that’s the problem, people are more aware of the dangers of science than the benefits. No one talks of how many lives have been saved as a direct result of science, only the numbers of dead at Hiroshima. Science doesn’t just “enrich” our lives, it keeps us all alive while only potentially being able to “kill us all”. It just makes me so angry to read science described like that, “its benefits are nice but relatively trivial while its dangers are immense”.

    An axe that fells trees to build a house and cut the wood to heat the house can also be used to kill, so should we fear the axe for that or should we celebrate it for the houses it builds and heats? Science is a tool just the same and can be used for good or evil. It is not science that is dangerous, but the person who uses it for ill.

  77. Danio says

    The default state for a human is dull and lacking inquisitiveness. Active intelligence and curiosity are the exceptions.

    I totally agree, QD, if you are referring to adult humans. Children, on the other hand, are natural experimenters. I think our education system sets itself up for an epic fail by systematically strangling this natural, open-ended inquisitiveness by drawing sharp lines around the learning process, and placing severe limitations on what and how subjects must be taught.

  78. Helioprogenus says

    Why limit the ignorance to science? Just look at the basic skills that people (at least here in the US and Canada I presume) lack in geography, math, rudimentary economics, etc. These are all essential skills to have to navigate through the complex global world that we live in. Yet, we have policies like “no child left behind” which bombards students with quizzes and tests to determine which schools perform well, and thus, can expect increased federal funding. This unfortunately ties the hands of teachers to move beyond just simple English and Math. Yet, even those skills don’t pass muster with students today. We’re still ass-backwards in our education when compared to the rest of the industrialized world. They don’t have “no child left behind” and they seem to be doing just fine. I guess part of the problem is the lack of standardization in Education. Some schools have access to many different books, novel materials, newer supplies, while others just struggle to have enough materials for all the students. Another key is the teaching of critical thinking skills. We are often spoon fed information, without having to really think through a problem. Given multiple choice questions and true-and-false, instead of essay based questions further reduces our critical thinking skills. In a society based on ignorance, and a political machine that operates on people’s lack of education, why would the elite want critical thinking skills of everyone? Those are grounds for a revolution (when more people can better determine that they’re being misled through deception for wars that could be avoided, and policies that infringe on our inherent rights as human beings).

  79. Mr.Pendent says

    In response to (and in tandem with) ompompanoosuc (#16)

    I agree that it has to do with the vast array of equipment that surrounds people (kids) today, but I disagree that it is because it intimidating.

    I don’t think kids think that it’s too hard to understand, but rather that it’s not worth the effort, when there is something fun and easy at hand at all times. Why try to figure out how a CD player works when you have 300 DVDs and 400 TV channels? Why try to learn to program when you have 50 different Xbox games to play, and who-knows-how-many achievements to earn?

    In addition, while we (myself included) bemoan the lack of interest in science, reading and learning, our society does not reward those who do these things. Naipaul isn’t rich, or on TV. Pinter isn’t wearing a diamond-studded grill or drinking from a gold chalice. Gunter Blobel has yet to get his own TV show.

    Note that I don’t support this state of affairs. I just see it as the problem. It’s not that the science is too hard–it’s just that there’s easier stuff to do that is more fun.

  80. says

    Gah! My post got cut in half just as I was leaving work!

    If everyone could just pretend that post #67 continued on to say something deeply profound, I’d appreciate it, as I’ve completely forgotten what I wrote!

  81. Chris Crawford says

    I’d like to offer two constructive suggestions, neither original to me.

    The first, presenting education in the form of games or play, dates back at least 500 years. For example, I remember learning algebra as a stupid little game. You have to be fair to both sides of the equation. If you multiply one side of the equation by something, you have to multiply the other side by the same thing — it’s only fair. And so on.

    The second concerns the notion of power. One of the big factors motivating children is their sense of powerlessness. Adults are always telling them what to do, and they want to feel that they have power. This is one reason why simply telling children, “You must learn this because I say so” is a surefire way to insure that they won’t learn it. But one thing that appealed to me as a child was the notion that with science and math, I had power. I still remember, in the sixth grade, how I could calculate the height of a flagpole by using simple proportions of shadows. I didn’t even have to climb it — I could figure it out from the ground! That seemed to me like a kind of power. And off I went…

    If we can successfully present science and mathematics as a form of power, we won’t be able to hold them back.

  82. Epinephrine says

    Danio, re: lack of inquisitiveness.

    I totally agree, QD, if you are referring to adult humans. Children, on the other hand, are natural experimenters.

    I’d go farther than that – in most species this holds. Lambs gambol and explore, climb piles of hay bales; kittens likewise are playful and curious when young, but older cats nearly invariably are more sedate and aloof. Probably has to do with being programmed to learn when we are young. In some ways, scientists are very young at heart.

  83. peaches says

    I wonder if anyone has read “The Homework Myth” by Alfie Kohn. I haven’t read it but I’ve heard a few of his interviews about it. His argument is that we’ve bogged children down with so much work that we’ve sucked the fun out of learning. A lot the blame lies in forcing schools and teachers to teach to the tests instead of to their student’s needs. But he also makes the argument that the basic assumptions most people make about homework (that it’s necessary for kids to learn the curriculum and that it speeds learning) aren’t true based on the evidence. Basically, he’s saying that we’ve turned learning into non-stop work for kids. They get it 6 hours a day in school and then we force them to come home and work for 3 more hours at it in what should really be their leisure time. Learning is no longer about satisfying their natural curiosity. Instead it becomes just another chore that they can’t wait to be done with. Once they’re adults, all they remember from school is how boring/what a pain in the ass ‘learning’ was.

  84. Owen says

    This is a fascinating thread. I have a 4 year old son, so all this stuff about preserving and nurturing inquisitiveness in the face of a school system that says “cooperate” when it means “obey” and “disruptive” when it means “not 100% passive” has real immediate significance. Got to work on those leading questions… Anyone have some to share?

  85. negentropyeater says

    I really recommend reading this two page article on this Finnish Lower Comprehensive School (see my post #60).

    Why could such a system not be implemented at a national level all over the USA ? Of course you’re going to need profound reforms of the educational system, the rest is just little plasters on holes everywhere.

    The only thing that stops these reforms, is will power, the “oh, but we can’t, this is the USA, it’s different” attitude.

    The solution you can adapt and learn from those who do it best, the Finns.

    The key problem is NOT the solution to the problem, but getting a majority of Americans to say,
    1. Yes, we have a problem,
    2. Yes, we can do something about it,
    3. Yes, we should learn from the best educational systems in the world and implement it here

    That’s an attitude problem, not a problem of looking for a solution.

    By the way, we have the same problem in many W.European countries. And now the Germans are actively thinking of adapting the Finnish system, even in France we are starting to have discussions. But it takes time.

    So, when do you guys start, on the other side of the pond ?

  86. says

    Check this out. I saw a sign in front of an Episcopalian Church in my neighborhood for this “Power Lab.” This brainwashing is what too many Christians think is Science. There is no critical thinking happening in these classes.

  87. CJO says

    A major problem, in the US anyway (and this goes for schooling in general, not just in the sciences), is that the public schools are not primarily educational institutions. Over the last 50 years, the public school systems have become the front lines in terms of social services for young people. We’ve loaded the system up with so many expectations (first and foremost has always been essentially babysitting so the folks can work) that actually producing well-rounded, educated adults is less than an afterthought. It’s just not what the system is for. Hence all this mealy-mouthed talk about “accountability” and one-size-fits-all bureaucratic solutions a la NCLB. It’s a delusional attempt to legislate into existence something that our society does not value anymore, except to give lip service.

    Every well-rounded college entrant with critical thinking skills represents a triumph, an improbable victory over the oppressive forces of enforced mediocrity. Of course, as many have noted, the genuinely curious and clear-minded adult has always been a minority, so it’s not like a perfect education system would start churning out little Sagans or anything. But, as things stand, how many young people with the potential just had it squeezed out of them by the drudgery of factory schooling that didn’t even have “education” per se as its primary reason for being?

  88. Rick Schauer says

    Hypothetically, what if you had a secret friend who offered to make your life easy…simply by offering to accommodate your every need whenever and wherever you wished.

    You don’t need to work hard or study or to know really anything…the only thing you physically needed to do was believe and have faith in your secret friend and participate in occasional secret-friend worship with your family and all would be well.

    Heck, to top it off, once a year you celebrate the birth of your secret friend’s son and you receive all kinds of presents from another secret entity who is closely associated with your REAL secret friend…is this cool or what?

    Additionally, your parents and extended family are also reportedly being helped by your secret friend, too…so things don’t seem out of sorts and you play and do want you want at least early on in life.

    Soon however, your hypothetical parents are urging you to perform in school so you can go to college or get a good job and an uneasy pressure begins to mount. For some reason or another you don’t listen to their urgings; instead you trust your secret friend to get you through and thus you remain playful and leisure but you start to pray to your secret friend for your parents to quit their urgings-turned-to-nagging to get educated. BTW, praying to your secret friend doesn’t seem to work to improve your grades or reduce the pressure or uneasy feelings you get from your parents but you have faith something good will happen eventually.

    As you and your parents continue to pray to your secret friend for help, your grades drop like rocks and things slowly get more ugly…still no worries…you and your parents were promised by your secret friend’s old book that the secret friend will help you all through ANYTHING…just have faith and believe in the secret friend.

    As the days turn to years, you suddenly find yourself on your own without prospects; no job or real education. Since your faith in your secret friend has gotten you this far, you begin to settle into a pattern of behavior. Just pray, believe and do the minimum necessary to get by and the secret friend will pick up the slack and make things right somehow.

    But things still aren’t going right…your parents keep nagging and oh, by the way, they suddenly tell you they don’t have the money to send you to college…and you don’t have the grades to get into a college either …so, don’t worry you begin to look around for ways to meet these new challenges to life and living and keep praying for something to happen. Afterall, trials and tribulations are part of the “game” the secret friend has for your life.

    One way you notice, however, to get around this living “game” is to join a group of young men and women who “defend” your country and its prolific “secret friend society” by learning to kill other people from other countries who worship a different brand of secret friend from your secret friend…or at least that is what you think and are told.

    Furthermore, you are urged by all kinds of people you trust that by joining this group it is the ultimate sacrifice to your secret friend who has, by-the-way, done so much for you and the country you love. Also, there are all kinds of monetary and education promises associated with joining this group of highly trained killers that it seems like a great idea for you and your secret friend worship that you sign-up. Your secret friend worship group you grew up at home even blesses you after you join the killing group…what could be better than that?

    Your secret friend’s old book has made other promises to you, too. One of those promises is to give you life forever…even AFTER you have died or been killed. Your secret friend even killed his own son to prove it! So with all these promises on your side from Uncle Sam and your secret friend you head off to far-away places and do what you now know best which is to kill other people who worship a different kind of secret friend from yours. You see lots of bad things: water boarding, torture, death and dismemberment of body parts that you become detached from your senses and become a zombie-like appendage to your group of killer friends…but faith and belief in your secret friend continues and the secret friend eventually returns you to the society you left.

    You find a partner and begin to have a family and you tell your children about your secret friend who helped you get through all kinds of war, trials and tribulations and the cycle begins to repeat itself.

    Hypothetically, where would a science education fit into this pattern of socially acceptable behavior?

  89. Chris Crawford says

    One useful piece of advice for a parent to give a child is Mark Twain’s: “I never let my schooling interfere with my education.” Schooling is most emphatically NOT education; schooling is an attempt to merge two incompatible goals: education and evaluation. The conflict between these two goals insures that both are badly compromised.

    My advice, then, would be “School is what you must endure; education is what you must do for yourself. The fact that school sucks doesn’t mean that learning sucks; it means that school doesn’t know how to help you learn. Teachers that really help you learn are loads of fun; most teachers aren’t that good. So don’t let school ruin your education; that’s YOUR responsibility.

  90. says

    Pfftt… Evidence, it is not everything… I don’t know what got into you guys.

    Evidence is the Only Thing! ^_^

  91. tony says

    Sorry for not reading all of the posts.

    I find I agree with LisaJ: It’s much easier to engage a 12 year old about science than a 20, 30, 40+ year old.

    My son (almost 13) just started 8th grade, and was really excited to be doing ‘physical science’ – “because that’s how things work” he said.

    I like to claim some small credit – when he asks questions I try not to give an answer, but to engage him in a dialog (why?, what do you suppose makes it do that? How would it work otherwise? Can you think of…) Sometimes it drives my wife nuts – but I’ll continue because it’s important to learn to think, not just to recite.

    I think it’s that lack of dialog that is missing from most education, and most families today. Dialog seems to be a missing element among my neighbors, my extended family, and my son’s classmates.

    What I do see is ‘rote answers’.

    An example of one question: Why is the sky blue?

    level 1: scattering of light makes the sky blue.
    level 2: it’s called Rayleigh scattering, after the discoverer.
    level 3: so what makes the blue predominate – why isn’t it just white? (intro to basic optics, hypotheses, experiment, observation, deduction – SCIENCE)

    The latter is where we go with our dialogs (getting into all sorts of ancillary topics)
    The former is what I hear from most everyone else (if they can get an answer at all).

  92. says

    Owen #91: my sister just gave birth to her first, and we’ve all been discussing home-schooling, and how to get my niece interested in science and art, etc.

    Our approach (and yes, Sis wants me to be involved as long as I’m interested) is to surround my niece with the stuff we’d like her to be interested in. As for science, there’s some *great* stuff in here that you could do with your son:

    Its hard to come by these days, but I myself really enjoy this. The experiments range from simple/fun to very difficult/dangerous. There are lots of great web links to scientific apps you can download & play with.


    David #93: There’s a 7th Day Adventist church I pass each day on the way to/from work, and they’ve been advertising this VB Powerlab course for several weeks now. It’s maddeningly depressing to find out what it’s all about.

    Wow, the voice narration on this site is making me physically ill. No joke.

  93. negentropyeater says

    No nead to reinvent the wheel : the best pedagogical system in the world :

    “Finland’s school system, which was first in math, reading, and science in the international OECD examination PISA, is based on Freinet’s teachings.”

    BTW I’m from Vence, little town on the Cote D’Azur, where Freinet opened his first school in 1935. And No, I didn’t study there, this was a private school, and I studied in a public school. The french government has still resisted to implement this method nationwide for public schools, but now that Finland has done it, and gets so good results with it, 80 years later, they are starting to think about it…

    Yes we have stubborn bureaucrats, like in the USA.

  94. Feynmaniac says

    I am one of those people for whom math and science comes easier than the humanities. Doing problems sets to me was kinda like playing a game, almost fun. Writing essays was a chore.

    Growing up I came to realize I was in a minority. My English class was packed while my math courses had plenty of empty seats. People felt quite free to talk about literature and politics but bring up science or math and it got real quiet. I’ve grown used to this. I figured, if they were unable/unwilling to see the beauty that was their lost. I enjoy it, so it really doesn’t matter if other do or do not.

    However, from a purely practical point of view, given the importance of science and technology in our everyday life the degree of science illiteracy in our society is appalling. How can you possibly make an informed decision on stems cell research or whether ID should be taught in school if you don’t understand the basic science behind it?

    Doug Little #23,
    “Finally, I believe that more so than any other country idolization of sports and entertainment has a large negative impact on kids academic interests.”

    Agreed. If someone were to update Hofstadter’s 1962 materpiece ‘Anti-Intellectualism in American Life’ they would probably include this to the original agents; egalitarianism, religion, and a pragmatic outlook on life.

    Thomas Friedman (who I disagree with on alot of things) said it best I think:

    “In China today, Bill Gates is Britney Spears. In America today, Britney Spears is Britney Spears-and that is our problem….”

  95. Lana says

    When my son was in elementary school in Virginia, there was an after school program called “Hands On Science.” Once a week, an adult (in this case someone’s mom who was also an engineer) would meet with the kids to do fun experiments. He loved it and frequently said that science was his favorite subject. Now, physics is his favorite. He heads off next week to college to major in engineering and physics.

    Hmm. I should check with the school to see if that program is still around. There was a small fee required. I’ll offer to pay the cost for a couple of kids as my tiny contribution to the love of science.

  96. Doug Little says


    I think that above all else, not enough attention is given to critical thinking. When completing my higher education one of our professors told us that the point of our degrees was ultimately to provide us with the tools to learn quickly and efficiently, it was the understanding that was important the content was just a means to an end.

    I agree with what you said @63 BTW. We are inherently pattern matching which makes the break from rote learning a difficult one in later years, So more critical thinking skills and less rote learning at an early age should help.

  97. IceFarmer says

    The problems for us (Canada & the US especially) are that we are bombarded with other, simpler, toilet papieresque material that gives you some interesting bit of info for a short period of time that has no true use to the average joe/jane, then goes on to another topic. Look at the info avaiable for celebnews, missing white chicks and scaremongering about diseases & crime.

    The other issue is that the science technology avaialble to us is compartmentalized into it’s own little social niche. Computer info doesn’t seem to cross over into biology, etc. People take scientific technology and its development for granted. Everyone wants the newest TV/tech gadget but the technology isn’t put out in an interesting way to the masses unless you actively go looking for it or the company marketing it spends a lot of money to get it out there (look at Apple’s marketing). Media info, in part because there is so much of it, tends to focus on what will grab attention quickly because what’s “hot, new and fresh” is easier to sell to the public. It’s all like the “keeping up with the Jones'” analogy, yesterdays news is old and uninteresting. The concept that science moves slowly (sometimes it does) seems to bore people. There isn’t very much patience in the McDonald’s generation for proper scientific method with testing and reviewing.

    I would postulate a solution for this as follows:

    1. Starts the kids learning when they are young. All of your core subjects, not just science, must begin in the class room at an early age to give them a good learning base and involvment.

    2. Project based learning with classroom interaction. If you want to keep kids interested, you have to keep them moving. Projects set goals for kids to accomplish and good interaction with each other and instructors will keep kids interested. Challenge is something that yound minds yearn for even if they say they hate it. What do children know about what they want? Give them problems, help them a bit, force them to think and watch them flourish. Science would be one of the easiest subjects for this. Talking at kids all day allows them to switch off and not wait to get the hell out.

    3. School time structuring. Class times shouldn’t be more than 45 minutes without a short break or a change in topic(beyond that boredom ensure and kids lose interest). It will keep kids and teachers on focus and maximize learning. School times may need restruction too. Kids don’t necessarily learn well at 8 am. Starting off with physical education to wake up bodies and minds, as well as having other phys ed sections throughout the day will help keep kids in good shape.

    4. Year round schooling. They can accomplish and retain much more. They’d still have as much time off as summer vacation but it wouldn’t be a solid block of 2 months of nothing for July & August. This large of a gap allows their brains to go unchallenged and spongey.

    5. Good teachers with supportive parents are the biggest keys to success. If the teachers are poor (rare but it can happen) learning will greatly suffer. Bubble wrapped kids with overbearing and over protective parents damage their kids beyond belief. This is the single greatest threat to good education there is. Parent need to make sure that their kids work at what they do, allow the teachers to do their jobs, and don’t make excuses when their child fails or performs poorly. The focus in schools is getting kids to learn and think, not learn how to get out of doing what they’re supposed to by playing the mom card.

    6. Give them a couple of hours of play time and a couple hours of structured school work. Kids need time to relax, unwind and have fun. They also need to work on what they have learned alone or in small groups. They can expand on what they know and/or review what they have been. This is a big parental issue since teachers have no control once the kids have gone home.

    It’s not complete but I think it would be a good start. And to qualify, I have been an educator in both Canada and Asia. Neither system is perfect but could synergize some elements together and expand on a few things to allow for greater learning.

  98. says

    Now I’m not saying that I think everyone should become a Scientist, I just think it’s sad that more people aren’t embracing the wonders of science into their daily lives.

    When I grow up, I want to be a Baker. Or maybe a Captain on a Fishing boat.

    Come on, what’s with the capitalizing of the word Scientist? Maybe when we all grow up, we should become English Teachers, eh.

  99. says

    @ IceFarmer – All good ideas but you missed one …
    Pay teachers more!
    If you make it competetive to get teaching jobs, more people that could be great teachers would consider the profession.

  100. Die Anyway says

    With regard to some of the comments about parental involvement… my parents were not science oriented nor did they push me toward science yet I enjoyed those subjects and majored in Biology. When I had children I tried to instill a sense of value and appreciation for science and although both girls were nearly straight-A students and took many science courses they both professed a disinterest in the subject. I am just not sure how much a parent can do. Both girls have gone into career paths that are at least somewhat science oriented… one a veterinary technician and one still studying Sustainability in Architectural Design.

    Someone above mentioned the market place and remuneration for scientific endeavors. Although I took my degree in biology, I was never able to find a decent paying job and so re-trained as a computer programmer (Engineering degree) in order to support my family. Maybe there were/are good paying jobs but my experience with a BS in Marine Biology was competing with PHDs for a 20K a year job. They were willing to take any menial lab job so as not to spend another year selling shoes at the mall.

    Eat well, stay fit, Die Anyway.
    P.S. re #66 – everyone talks about Woot’s boobies but in fact there is only one booby at the link. Woot should post a picture of multiple boobies so that the plural is appropriate.

  101. 2-D Man says

    I have a suggestion, although I don’t know if these kinds of things have been suggested: How about get the students involved in a bit of engineering (guess what I do)?
    Get them to show off the neat things you can do with a little scientific knowlege. For example, at a school dance have the physics class put on a laser light show. It’s not hard. It takes two motors, some placticine or playdough, two mirrors a power supply and a couple dimmer switches for each laser you want to have in the show.
    Or, if you’re feeling particularly daring, see if the chemistry students, with a little bit of guidance from the teacher, can design a magnesium flare. (I know that it sounds like a bad idea on the surface, but if it’s done ahead of time, you can put in enough safety procedures to make sure no one gets hurt.)
    My physics teacher would do a term project of building various things like elastic band-powered cars, catapults and the like. He always used to say, “Physics has the best toys.”
    If you can get the students to show off neat stuff, I think it helps. If you can get students to see the stuff they learn make something it helps connect the classroom to the world outside.

  102. IceFarmer says

    @ S. Scott,

    That’s one of the reasons I don’t teach and am not in the science field directly. I’m in sales because I like the pay and there isn’t any political BS. I was talking about it as an approach to get students into their work.

    @ Die Anyway,

    Kids aren’t going to like every subject. Some will not like something just to be different from their parents but you obviously did something right by instilling your daughters with a good work ethic and getting them to use their brains. That’s what many parents miss. Whether they like it or hate it, it’s not up to the kid not to do it. Too many parents become enablers in their childs academic failure. There are days we all hate our “F’ing” jobs but we have to do it anyway. The bills have to be paid, people have to eat. A little adversity is good for them. The job of a parent with respect to their childrens education is to provide encouragement, aid, insight, some structure and the occaisional pushes (figuatively speaking) to help their kids succeed.

  103. Doug Little says

    Kobra, Everyone loves it, they just don’t know it. What I mean by that is I don’t think many people actually ask themselves any questions about the technology that they are privileged to be enjoying. How many people would you say when buying a blu-ray disk player ask themselves questions like, What’s the difference between a blu-ray disk and a DVD?

  104. Costanza says

    I think D (#9) has identified a significant part of the problem. Historically and culturally there is a pervasive anti-intellectual cast to American society (I have no idea if this is true for Canada). Those professions that are valued are either those that have immediate and practical applications or are highly paid (or practical and highly paid). You can see this attitude in (for example) our reverence of the “self-made man” or NBA stars. Teaching, science, the arts (unless we’re talking star power here) simply don’t qualify. Worse, there’s no really effective way to remedy this.

  105. Tim says

    Don’t have much to add on “How do you break schools of pounding square pegs into round holes”, seems a little more time with how the curricula fits with the outside world (Or doesn’t) would be in order, for instance, wheeled vehicles involve quite a bit of math, even when they’re not moving. Ever wonder about bicycle wheels?, Jobst Brandt wrote a book on the subject. Have gearhead students? (Not sexist, look at Shirley Muldowney!), Kevin Cameron’s TDC column in Cycle World has a level of detail to it that should keep them happy. Many Science Fiction writers are, or have been practicing scientists and try to write scenarios that are mathematically possible (With the exception of unreasonably strong materials and hyperspace). Direct their attention to the mass and tensile strength of metals and let ’em figure out why the halo may always be fiction, but Niven’s smoke ring might not. The math they pick up from outside will still be math, applicable to other problems. The bigger solution will involve respect for both brains and sweat.

  106. cyan says

    A team of students at the local high school won the regionals in a nation-wide science competition: their’s was chosen the best project of high schools in the 8-state area.

    They won hefty prizes, and the sponsors of the competition put their photos and names in a national newspaper. Those sponsors sent a representative to award the prizes and gave a winning banner to the school.

    The principal is a former athletic director and former football coach. Banners from winning area sports competitions are put up in the most prominent public areas in the school and never removed. The science competition winning banner was not allowed any display.

    When a sports teams wins any county-wide competition, there is an all-school assembly for them, and all the athletes get continuous attention from the principal and school board members.

    For this multi-state winning science team, a school assembly to recognize their accomplishment was refused.

    Sports teams are bussed daily to practice, but buses for science field trips are refused because “it is too hard to schedule buses”. Music students can take trips as a school group to New York city, LA, & other out-of state places, but science students were denied going to Space Camp as a group during spring break, using non-school funds & with volunteer science teacher chaperoning “because its out-of-state”.

    When administrators have such disdain for science, it reinforces to the community & students that not even educational institutions consider science important.

  107. IceFarmer says


    Excellent point! If you can score touchdowns you get sunshine blown up your backside. If you are a great science student that wins awards, who cares. I played High School Football and it was the same thing. We won the Junior V. City Championships. There was a lot of attention given to the team. I did well at the science fairs etc and no one cared. You were labelled a geek. I’ve heard things are worse in the US. I was strange because I wrestled and played ball but was an honour student as well. As time went on, my focus was more academic anyway. Supportive administrations would be great, it all goes back to engaging students in a positive way.

  108. says

    Posted by: D | August 12, 2008 10:20 AM

    In my limited anecdotal experience, it wasn’t just anti-science, but anti-education/anti-elitism. This was of course in a good ol’ southern boondocks. It wasn’t so much the teachers, many of which were very good and all, but in general culture and in the school administration. It was generally assumed that most the students would not go on to anything more than a 2 yr program. Students that actually wished to get a 4 yr degree were discouraged from applying to any college more “elite” than the general state school, which was even considered a bit ambitious. Fortunately my parents, as well as a few others, were big on education, but for most of the people around it was treated as generally pointless except for the very few who were going to be doctors (physicians) or lawyers, the only acceptable smart people routes.

    This is fascinating to me because I had the exact opposite experience. In my school district it was assumed that almost everyone would go on to a four year college. Those students who weren’t suited to that environment, some of whom would have greatly benefited from a two-year technical school or trade program, were neglected to some extent. The message from school administrators was clear: if you want to get anywhere in life, you have to go to college.

  109. says

    I really wish I’d taken that path less traveled back in college. I’m not sure why I didn’t. I was really good in chemistry. Hindsight’s 20/20, and if I had to do it again, I would follow that path of science. I just never found my passion for it back then. Even right now, I’m (re-)teaching myself calculus, and reading up on all sorts of things, and I’m getting a rekindling of my love of astronomy, too. We definitely need more encouragement of the sciences among those who are starting college. I got the encouragement even back in grade school, but it just waned. :(

  110. LisaJ says

    Cyan @ #116. You bring up an excellent point. It’s incredibly sad but true that accomplishments of a high school’s sports team are generally regarded with much mroe regard than any academic acheivements. Ugh, so depressing. There’s so much wrong with this world.

  111. Spaulding says

    “Science” can refer to a process of building understanding by testing hypotheses, or it can refer to a body of facts acquired in that way. I think there’s so much emphasis on teaching the latter, that people loose sight of the former. And that’s a problem. Elementary school kids should learn that science means “try it and see!” because that’s something that they can apply to their everyday lives, and it’s something that is not remote or suspicious. But if they learn only that science means “smart guys in lab coats,” then that is a remote appeal to authority, and it’s understandable if suspicion develops.

    So, my suggestion: lots of lab experiments, even (especially) about silly stuff, in early elementary years, to teach the application of the scientific method as the core concept. “Let’s grow a crystal” is not an experiment, nor is “let’s collect leaves” or “baking soda can be made to look like a volcano.” Actually start with a question, and let the kids offer hypotheses. Then test, and determine if the hypotheses are supported or undermined.

    Also, no more articles about fad diets in the science sections of reputable newspapers.

  112. JoJo says

    Most of us writing on this thread have a science, math or engineering background or at least an interest in science. We’re a distinct minority. We know that science is both interesting and fun. But most people remember science and especially math as drudgery.

    I was an instructor at the Navy Nuclear Power School. My students had all volunteered to learn about nuclear engineering. Unfortunately for me, I wasn’t teaching the fun stuff like electrical systems or valve repair. I taught physics and the math necessary to use the physics. Whenever I’d say things like “half life relates to mean lifetime in the formula t1/2 = ln(2)/λ” and most of the students’ eyes glazed over. And these were students who realized they had to know what I was teaching.

    Several people here have suggested ways of making science and math more interesting. We certainly need to do something.

  113. says

    Epinephrine @13 -I want to take all those classes. They all sound fun. I generally enjoy science. And math. And history, english, art, etc. Ok, I’ll be honest, I generally just like to learn. I really do. Unfortunately, sometimes, especially in math and science, the prerequisites are substantial. So far I haven’t been able to convince anyone to pay me to go to school for the rest of my life, or I could take all those prerequisites. Wait, you, all the way in the back, are you raising your hand or just scratching your head?

  114. Strakh says


    I left education for exactly that reason. I was Mathematics Teacher of the year, I had become department head and as president of the Union had helped broker a wage hike across the board for all teachers in the district.
    But I was incredibly naive…I was that kind of nerd who actually believed that people really were curious and that all they needed was a good teacher…
    I would lay on the floor staring at the ceiling while I told the kids how Decartes had come up with the concept of the X-Y graph (Most people puke on their shoes in a hangover-he developed a whole new branch of mathematics-now that’s a genius!) I presented the reasons behind each and every concept in the field we were studying and the up-to-date applications, from computers to artificial hearts.
    The results:
    My home and car were vandalized.
    My wife and daughter were terrorized.
    I was fired upon (this has been happening for years, why the media suddenly figured it out is another story).
    I had parents calling me up at all hours of the night bitching about why I had flunked their kids, whom had never even showed up after the first day. These same parents actually stated that as long as the kid was enrolled, they should get at least a C! Everyday I was insulted, and that was by the adults, who felt their children didn’t need “no fucking math, look at how far I got without it, asshole.”
    The list goes on… I would wake up screaming (something I didn’t do even in the service) I was losing my hair, and I was turning into what I had hated from my youth: one of those mean bastard teachers who seemed to hate kids.
    After much hard thought, I left the dream of my entire life and went into the health care field. My hair grew back, I smile more, and I even wake up laughing sometimes, and I earn 4 TIMES what I would have been earning as a teacher.
    Do I regret my decision? Absolutely not. Why?
    Because my students and their parents taught me much, much more than I ever taught them: What was fun and engaging for me was damn hard work for the vast majority of people. Not impossible, but just damn hard work. And as long as there are nerds, why bother doing the work? There’s drugs to take, sports to play, TV to watch, etc., etc., etc.
    Watch Mike Judge’s excellent movie, Idiocracy. Besides the fact that America is now in its fall as an empire, this movie will help you to see that there is no future for reading, thinking, or doing anything above the level of watching idiot shit on TV.
    I never stopped my own education, of course, that’s what makes me, me. What I learned since then has enriched my life and helped me to realize that I truly was expecting too much from the majority of humanity. Most people are good for nothing better than keeping genetic diversity up, beyond that, they are wastes of space, air, and tragically finite resources…
    Those students who are worth being taught will learn and progress as they always have throughout history. They will be, as they always have been, the doctors, the scientists, the teachers, the writers, the leaders in all their fields who drag the huge waste of the rest of society into the future. I’ve learned it was no different in the past, it is the same now, it would be ridiculous to suppose it will ever change as long as this particular evolutionary version of man is in existence.
    Don’t worry or fret about it. Instead, focus on your own education and the education of those who are worth being educated. It will be you and them who will change the world by leading and doing, not wasting your entire lives trying to help people who are, simply, evolutionarily incapable of ever achieving anything more than producing the next generation.
    As for those who disagree: good for you! We need your naivte and energy to at least keep up the appearance of trying to educate the stupid and willfully ignorant. It helps everyone to feel better and helps them ignore the reality of the futility of the effort.

  115. says

    To throw a log or two on to the fire …

    Children are natural scientists. They have to be. If they weren’t they’d kill themselves stepping off cliffs etc. So the question isn’t ‘how do we make science interesting’. They already know that it is. The question is ‘how do we stop teaching them to not like science.

    Here in talking about science, I don’t mean either the memorizing of facts (though at some ages kids are fascinated by that so I encourage some of it to provide a background) nor the formalized version that’s taught as The Scientific Method — a formalism I’ve never used nor seen anyone use in doing science. As an ad hoc description after the fact it’s not hideous. But is isn’t what we’re really doing.

    What science is is the process of trying to understand the universe in a way that can be shared with others — regardless of their religious, et al., preferences. It starts with kids seeing something and saying ‘Isn’t this neat!?’.

    It often dies after enough rounds of parents, teachers, etc., saying ‘No. Go away and don’t bother me.’ A correct response is ‘Yes. Why do you think it is like that?’

    Also good comments are:
    “I don’t know; let’s find out!”
    “I don’t know; how would you find out?”
    “Do all bees (dandelions, clouds) do the same thing?”

    For the engineer earlier — if science is finding out how the universe works, engineering is doing something useful with that knowledge. Kids, given chances to experiment and figure out how to get things to work together, have a ball with making devices. Again, have to start young enough that they haven’t been taught to not want to do things to take control of their environment.

    I have quite a few more thoughts on the topic (as, it would seem, do many here!) and some of it will be expressed over at my blog moregrumbinescience. Now, it’s called that because grumbinescience was taken by my sister a couple of years ago — she’s a jr. high science teacher. She’s got more than a thought or two on the topic herself. (Her blog is aimed at her students, not general science.)

  116. Mooser says

    Science is beautiful, and to embrace it is to enrich your life dramatically.

    Science is a bunch of poisonous chemicals and jars full of smelly things to cut up. It has been used from its inception as a tool for oppression and murder.
    It’s just science.

    It’s like it was a religion to you, or something. You gotta watch that, it’ll give you a bad case of grandiosity.

  117. Strakh says

    See, LisaJ?

    #126 illustrates my point 100%

    Even if it’s in jest, for it represents the prevailing attitude of those incapable of rising above being anything more than breeders and incubators on the hoof.

  118. scrabcake says

    I actually dropped out of the premed programme at my alma mater, mainly because even in the most fascinating classes, the emphasis was on memorizing facts and technique names. I felt that most of the professors didn’t want anything to do with the undergrads they were lecturing and just wanted to “get it out of the way” by writing on the board with one hand and erasing with the other. I’m terrible at memorizing facts if I can’t connect them in my head. If I can’t imagine a framework in which all the facts fit and from which they can be derived, there’s no chance I’ll remember it for the test. So, while I was fascinated by mechanisms and pathways, and I could picture how they worked physically as a sort of rube goldberg machine in my head, I couldn’t ever remember the names of the specific reactions, etc.
    I think that the medical programmes especially encourage memorizing the textbook and discourage actual understanding of the material and WHY things work the way they do.
    I found it astonishing that a lot of my premed acquaintances had no passion for the subject at hand, or desire to thoroughly understand it.
    From my experience the learning experience at the university level can be a huge turn-off, especially since the professors, at least at a lot of the big colleges are much more interested in their research than teaching peon undergrads and fostering a love of the material.
    Let’s not even talk about highschool. We had a preacher come in and talk about how there were alternatives to evolution. That’s pretty much all I can remember about higschool general science. I didn’t even get into biology until college.

  119. ngong says

    Is it possible that many folks don’t wish to emulate the personalities of the sciency types they find in high school? At least in my high school, a number of the students who excelled in sciences definitely did fit the dorky stereotype.

  120. LisaJ says

    Strakh, yeah #126 was a special one, wasn’t it? In response to that, I actually find science quite humbling, and in no way am I suffering from a bad case of grandiosity. And do we really need to go over the science not being a religion thing again? Seriously, give me a break. I’ve done religion, and embracing science is not the same thing – basically, it’s just about using your head and checking into reality.

  121. LisaJ says

    ‘Yes. Why do you think it is like that?’

    Also good comments are:
    “I don’t know; let’s find out!”
    “I don’t know; how would you find out?”
    “Do all bees (dandelions, clouds) do the same thing?”

    Robert, I totally agree. If only more adults would think to answer children’s question this way instead of brushing them off. That’s the first step downhill.

  122. Strakh says

    In every case of an exceptional student in my classes, there were interested parents involved.
    Every other teacher I’ve talked to admits to the same thing. Gee, do you think there might be a connection?

  123. deang says

    What’s at fault for making our culture so scientifically averse?

    I don’t know about Canada, but in the US it’s a combination of irrational religious beliefs in many regions and a “science is for geeks and nerds” anti-intellectual pop culture in all regions.

  124. Sven DiMilo says

    Try trying to teach premeds for a few years and see what happens to your opinions of both students and physicians.

  125. PurpleTurtle says

    Ok, haven’t read the comments, so scuze me if I repeat points…Uk based too, so possibly a different perspective…I was never that interested in science, being focused on artistic academia + practise, plus I accepted scientific word + theory as being factual. No arguement = no interest for me, i.e. it was true whether I cared or not.

    However, this has changed since I became actively interested in my own atheism (and began studying religions). Apologetics, in their various guises, often address scientific principles + theory. This bothered me, since I knew that on a lot of the subjects, scientific theory either completely refuted, undermined or rendered religious beliefs incomprehesible/unnecessary, and I wanted to know (and be able to explain – working on it!) why exactly this was.

    I guess the point for me is that in the UK at least, knowledge is something you not only have to accept, but is an active process you have to feel the need to participate in. And for that need, there has to be an impetus. Which tends to be sorely lacking in the majority of UK teachers/schooling systems.

  126. John C. Randolph says

    Even JCR made a point that no one disagreed with.

    Remind me to smugly patronize you in a similar manner sometime.


  127. John C. Randolph says

    Try trying to teach premeds for a few years and see what happens to your opinions of both students and physicians.

    I know that pre-med students have a reputation for high ambition and competitive behavior, but isn’t this a bit of a broad brush?

    I’ve had quite a few physicians in specialties ranging from ophthalmology to orthopedics for customers, and I’ve found all of them quite pleasant to deal with. I didn’t know them as students, but they all struck me as motivated primarily by their desire to help their patients.

    I’ve met one pre-med who fit the stereotype, and from what I could tell she was motivated almost entirely by a desire to top her parents (she was at Harvard, and her parents were both Harvard Med graduates who went into psychiatry.)


  128. John C. Randolph says

    We never let math tell children a story. We never let them explore the world using scientific methods, insisting they memorize scientific laws.

    I suspect that math instruction could be far more effective if it always came with its applications. I learned trigonometry at work the year before I encountered it at school, and I learned it as AC power theory.

    When I got to trig that fall, the graphs of the functions were already familiar to me. If I’d had to learn trig without context as most of my classmates did, I think the subject would have bored me out of my skull just as it did for most of them.


  129. says

    Exitus said at #7:

    …one of my classmates declared that evidence isn’t important to her – She would much rather just think what she wanted

    The immediate retort is whether evidence is important in say, medicine… should her surgeon use evidence to be sure that their favourite surgical technique works, or should they just perform surgery any way that they feel? Should her doctor prescribe medicine that has been shown through trials to actually be effective, or should the doctor simply prescribe whatever occurs to them (or more likely, whatever is the most financially rewarding for the doctor)?

    One wonders if she has ever taken modern antibiotics…

    Should the professional she employs to tile her bathroom use adhesive that trials have shown actually keeps them on the walls through myriad cycles of getting damp and drying out — or just stick them on with spit, because they feel their spit should be plenty sticky enough?

    Has she ever flown on a plane? Should the safety inspectors actually carefully inspect the planes to make sure they are safe to fly, or just okay all the red ones, because they look extra cool?

    When you start pointing out to people that almost every aspect of their lives (food, transport, medicine, engineering, the courts…) is predicated on evidence, and the potential consequences of its loss… they tend to lose their enthusiasm for its absence.

    Unfortunately, some of those sort of people are so carefully and artfully deluding themselves, some of them either refuse to accept that evidence in fact does lie behind almost everything they do, or that there would be bad consequences to its removal.

  130. travc says

    I agree that a lot of the problem is the way science it taught… but have perhaps a slightly different angle on that issue.

    Science literacy and critical thinking skills are not ‘science’ as it is taught. Really, most people don’t need to be able to derive the formulas of classical mechanics or be able to recite the organelles of animal and plant cells.

    What they do need it the ability to understand (and critique) a scientific explanation. It that requires looking up a bunch of unfamiliar terms (which it does most of the time even for ‘working scientists’), that is a good thing! It is grasping the overall concepts and seeing weak points and open questions in the explanations which really is ‘science literacy’… not a vocabulary or math test.

    As for the terminology and basic mathematics, learning those come naturally from being able to grok the scientific concepts.

    The too rare good ‘science for non-science majors’ courses (‘physics for poets’ (at UT Austin?) is the classic IIRC) are a good model for all K-12 science education. Students in K-12 should not get special prepping to ‘become scientists’ beyond a general understanding of what science is (almost a philosophy course there), critical thinking skills, and a conceptual level understanding of major natural processes (with copious factual ‘trivia’ only as illustrative examples.)

  131. John C. Randolph says

    I was astonished recently in a Philosophy class of mine, when one of my classmates declared that evidence isn’t important to her – She would much rather just think what she wanted.

    How many lawyers, hearing that, would strike her from the jury pool?


  132. travc says

    How many lawyers, hearing that, would strike her from the jury pool?
    Probably very few, at least in the US. It is a bit off topic, but lawyers seek the most gullible jurors. I’m sure they would like to pick ones biased in their favor, but the other side won’t allow that… so they go for the people they think are the easiest to convince.

    Which is why I would be very afraid of being falsely accused of a crime here in the US. A jury of MY peers would be fine, a jury of credulous morons, not so much.

  133. travc says

    As for general ‘anti-elite’ and administration/parents pushing down students ambitions… On a very small scale, that can change quickly in my experience.

    My cohort in high-school blew past institutionalized ‘lowered expectations’. It started with a group of us who were tracked into mid-range math classes (precluding ever taking calculus) convinced a good math teacher to support us in changing the rules to allow taking two math classes simultaneously. Lots of administrative pushback, but a couple of parents behind us and some waivers not to blame them if we crashed and burned prevailed. (We ended up comprising something like 6 or the top 10 in both classes.)

    Anyway, that group, along with some others who were already in the ‘fast track’ (ending in 1 very lousy calculus class… not exactly ‘fast’ IMO) ended up going to some very good schools. At most one or two students from my HS each year would end up going to an out of state school, and very rarely a big name one. We had Dartmouth, Johns Hopkins, Caltech, and a few others. The trend continued for at least a few years, with one younger friend of mine going to Harvard a few years later (she was confident/insane enough not to apply anywhere else).

    Just a personal story, but breaking the expectations (especially tracking) can be done on more than a one-person basis. Sadly, there is institutionalized as well as cultural pushback against it.

  134. Rick Schauer says

    Nice post, very well said. (..former K-12 sp.ed. teacher also in health care currently, I understand completely)

  135. Scrabcake says

    Yeah. I agree. Premeds are grade grubbing little bastards. Reason 2 I dropped out. My condolences.

  136. Scrabcake says

    How is that for painting with a broad brush?
    I’ve been to a lot of doctors, and I’ve met a handful who seemed to genuinely want to help their patients. Likewise, I knew a handful of premeds about whom I thought, “the world is going to be lucky to have them as a doctor. I hope they stay with it.” I also knew a lot of tools who would act like their life was over if they got a 97% average instead of a 99%, and I knew even more who treated learning not with fascination but as a numbers game.

  137. says

    A curious question to ask is, “Why are people so interested in pseudoscience?” I’m sure there are experts on alien abduction and voodoo dolls who could tell you little about cosmology or biology, but are experts in what interests them.

    Getting the larger public interested in science has been a long running task. There should be some breakthrough combination of social engineering and marketing which will break the spell, so to speak.

  138. Just Al says

    I’m going to apologize in advance, since I’m another of those who hasn’t read all the responses and still wants to mouth off with my two-cents ;-). The thread is great, and the responses thoughtful, considerate, and long! Lots of stuff to think about.

    Two points I wanted to make. The first is, we toss around the term “science” and are comfortable with it ourselves, even while realizing that the word itself might be what’s causing the discomfort in others – or at least the connotations that have become affixed to it. Perhaps a start would be to remind others, as well as ourselves, that science is simply learning, but with experiments. It’s not a body of knowledge available only to the higher-educated, but a process anyone can use. And frequently do without realizing. And one of the basics of it all is critical thought, which is something that needs more attention in schools anyway.

    Second point, or observation. Where I work (as a distinct non-scientist, mind you) we just finished a summer day camp for kids, wildlife and environmentally oriented. While anecdotal experience may not count for much, you would have a hard time convincing me right now that any of those kids resisted science. Even the kids with the obvious attention-span problems, flitting rapidly from one subject to the next, still stuck largely to related topics – the connections were there even when the desire to follow through was not.

    If you asked me, we dealt with a lot of science, and those kids ate it up. But if you asked them, we never even broached the subject. This wasn’t an intentional omission, we just covered what we came across and developed some fun and informative activities based on that. To a certain extent, the kids led the camp where it went, with the counselors steering gently.

    I suspect a lot of difficulty with schools right now is, they’re curriculum-oriented and aren’t very open for inquiries, side-tracking, and multiple directions of interest. In some ways, this is necessary. But learning has to take place from the desire and interest, and the opportunity for this doesn’t pop up too often. I was undoubtedly a science geek in high school, but in some grades I did absolutely terrible in science. I never really tumbled to why, but right now when I can sit down at a computer and follow a topic of interest through as far as I like, I’ve learned far more than I ever would have in high school. Is quantum entanglement going to mean anything at all to the career of this GED student? Not in the slightest, but I devour it all the same.

    Those successful science shows (on the TVs we want to drag the kids away from) almost always work by demonstrating something interesting, and then explaining what it was we saw, and the best ones have someone enthusiastic about the subject. Dust explosions? Cool! What just happened?

    Methodology is good, and an important part to learning, but I think the madness needs to come first. And I think that anyone who teaches should understand that it’s not up to the student to provide this, but the teacher to encourage it.

    LisaJ, nice topic! You’ve eaten up most of my evening with it…

  139. llewelly says

    A curious question to ask is, “Why are people so interested in pseudoscience?”

    I don’t know why, but I find pseudoscience fascinating. My fascination began with the realization that Immanuel Velivosky was not a merely a weird fiction author – Velivosky *really believed* that Jupiter had vomited up Venus and sent it flying past Earth in historical times. Shortly after I had a similar realization involving Erich von Däniken. Then I read James Randi’s Flim-Flam , and I was hooked.

  140. Robert Byers says

    The kettle calling the frying pan black.
    Who does more to stop the desire for learning in science then a elitist establishment which says the average person can not understand science and conclusions about it as evidenced by the rejection of creationism or scepticism of evolution.
    You can’t tell people to be interested in something when they must only draw the right conclusion even though common sense tells them otherwise.
    As the movie EXPELLED showed there are greater agendas then seeking truth through science. The people smell science is uninteresting as long as it denies free reflection.
    The censorship of the past decades and attack on the great Christian faith must to some extent be affecting the common peoples perceptions of science.
    Freedom of though, enquiry, and speech before any audience is what is needed to make science important and not for just different people.
    The error evolution is breeding.
    The cause of creationism is in fact breeding more interest amongst Christian kids.

  141. nicknick bobick says

    This is a subject very close to my heart right now. Yesterday I received an email that had been forwarded 9 times since early June, with hundreds of recipients. It linked to a video of several groups of people purportedly popping popcorn by surrounding kernels with cell phones. (Google ‘cell phone popcorn’ if you haven’t seen it: it is quite amusing).

    I immediately thought, “Wait a minute…” Within two minutes I had determined that it was a hoax, and sent an email back to the sender (and other recipients) saying how sad it was that anyone would believe this without researching whether it was possible, and that it did not augur well for the general level of science education in the country. I haven’t heard back from any of them yet, so possibly it will at least result in fewer idiot emails in my inbox.

  142. Pimientita says

    Great post LisaJ!

    Based upon my own experiences, I think one of the main problems is that educators and other adults, especially in the younger years, do not make the connection between a specific childhood fascination and a possible career choice. Most of the career choices that seem available to kids are pretty vague (doctor, lawyer, police officer, veterinarian, etc). How many times have you heard a kid or even a college age student say, “I want to study viruses” or anything remotely specific? Of course, asking kids to specialize early is probably not such a good idea, but what if, after finding out what kids are interested in, we encouraged teachers to ask follow up questions or at least give out information on the specific areas of specialization within a certain field instead of focusing on the generics? I had a remote sense of what kinds of jobs might be out there because I was always asking “how does this get done?” but I didn’t even begin to learn how many choices were out there until after I got out of college!

    As for science, I think that less focus on standardized testing and more focus on practical application would help. Also, spending part of the year focusing on the problems currently being worked on in scientific fields and the future of the field instead of focusing solely on the static science of the past. Learning how to apply what you’ve learned to test current and possibly controversial hypotheses is one surefire way to get the attention of anyone even remotely interested in science. Make it relevant and interesting and exciting (without being patronizing or overly cheesy).

    This is a problem across all subjects. We focus so much on rote facts and neglect to make it relevant to their daily lives. Some teachers try (I remember having to do “current events” presentations in history class without ever having any of the events tied in to anything I was learning. Some of it I just naturally got, but most of the time it was just busy work without any connection to the classwork) but I think a greater effort needs to be made to show kids how the world works and how what they are learning applies to it and can possibly make it better.

    Oh and keep the geeks are sexy meme going! I think it’s catching on :)

  143. Pimientita says

    I think that history lessons should probably focus more on the importance of science and empirical thinking. The other stuff, of course, but the fact that we wouldn’t even have democracy with science and its associated primacy of the evidence, needs to be spelled out better.

    I agree with this, but I think this idea should be expanded even further.

    I’ve had this idea floating around in my brain for awhile that the subjects taught in a particular year (this would probably only be realistically done pre-high school) should all overlap each other in some way and work to keep each subject relevant to the other. This would encourage critical thinking and possibly help to get the student that isn’t all that interested in history excited about how much it was affected by science and literature. Include stories about revolutionary mathematical concepts in history class and work current scientific theories into math class. Work across departments to give a truly well-rounded education by tying different concepts into the classwork which will help students understand how inter-connected these things are. To help them see that these disciplines are not static and do not exist in a vacuum. That societal attitudes as reflected in literature affect the course of science and history and vice versa. And so on. It doesn’t have to be emphasized all the time, but enough to make the web visible.

  144. says

    I am a science teacher and I’ve been working on a computer simulation of a virtual science laboratory for high school students in an attempt to use kids’ enthusiasm for video games as a way to teach them science.

  145. Strakh says

    Ah, ya know, you can hardly take a walk these days without stepping in dogshit, and you can hardly blog without that dogshit popping up again:

    Welcome to your evolutionary betters, Robert Byers!

    You speak of the “Great Christian Faith,” Byers. Exactly which one? The one that had gays eviscerated? The one that had women drawn and quartered because they were just too tempting for the perverted priests? Or the one that currently stated in South Dakota that a 12 year old child MUST bear the god-given child implanted in her womb by HER OWN FATHER? Ah, yes, Byers, the “Christian Faith” is great, isn’t it?

    I think you need to see a doctor, Byers, you suffer from Encephalopathic Proctolgia, a condition believers suffer from…and when they are cured of this curious condition, they grow out of believing the stupid shit you wrote.

    It’s always a great sight to see when they are cured, and the POP! as their heads pop out of their asses is a fun sound, as well…

    In the meantime, take a hike, you are personally one of the biggest reasons America is taking a back seat to virtually every other country in the world in science education: you are vigorously trying to shove our students heads as far up their asses as yours is up your own…

  146. cyan says

    Robert Byers,

    common sense is a conclusion about the best way to to think about a topic that is based on both personal experience and the explanations your most trusted others have been telling you since you were born, and what those others tell you is based on both their own personal experiences and what their trusted others told them, and on & on backwards into the past

    so what is common sense in one community may not be common sense to another group of people

    doing science and the technologies which have come from those people thinking scientifically are the result of trying to let go of that common sense view of a topic and instead looking at it with fresh eyes: “if one doesn’t assume that this phenomenon is due to what I’ve always assumed it was due to, then what physical mechanism or mechanisms could it be due to?”

    and from that abandonment of common sense thinking eventually have come the scientific theories of gravity, heliocentrism, the big bang, the cell, , evolution, atoms …. etc.

    all of which the use of these scientific theories have led to both more technologies and even more unanswered questions

    The average person certainly can understand science and conclusions from it if they understand that this is what scientific thinking. and thus science, actually is.

    Since the process of scientific thinking has led to ALL the technology that allows us to live differently than, for example our H. sapiens Cro-Magnon ancectors: the products of science are incredibly important.

    People who are inculcated throughout their lives with the idea that the things most important to their lives are those derived from unchanging, authoritarian “solid facts” find it difficult to reconcile what science is with their dependence on science.

    Hence the attempt by many to change the definition of science, which if successful would result in no new technologies (be careful of what you wish for). But its not going to be successful because there are always going to be people who test the boundaries of what is considered common sense.

    The average person certainly has the mental ability to understand science. It is the effort of thinking scientifically that is lacking in many.

  147. says

    The reason more (most) people aren’t interested in science is very basic and arguably childish… in our culture, it’s just not cool.

    In Canada and the US, children learn from a very early age that the objective in life is to be cool. If you’re cool, you get the babes. If you’re cool, you get on TV. If you’re cool, the good life finds you – you don’t find it.

    Science, on the other hand, is for nerds. Science is for the D&D club and the chess club… Guys who won’t kiss a girl until they’re 27. Overweight guys who don’t bathe often enough and play Magic: The Gathering at lunch.

    Science is for the outcast. Stephen Hawking is a cripple… he may be a scientist, but can he run a football 75 yards and hump a cheerleader? If you can’t add a column of numbers, well, math is hard, you know. If you can’t throw a baseball, you’re a girly-boy and a loser, worthy of wedgies and abuse in the locker-room. Acing biology won’t get you street-cred in the ‘hood.

    We’re surrounded by messages that education is not necessary or relevant. Paris Hilton has no education, is dumb as a post, but she’s famous. Even Bill Gates dropped out of university. The president of the United States is quite clearly not the fastest modem on the rack and probably thinks a Klein bottle is a container for German wine, but he runs the world.

    These are the cultural attitudes that children are exposed to that must change before a love of science will become the feeling of the majority of people. The game is already lost on the population old enough to read this. To fix it, we have to work on the people not old enough to read this so that by the time they’re our age, attitudes will have changed.

  148. says

    The matter of cultural view of science and scientists, the nerd stereotype, it being ‘ok’ to assault science types (in popular culture), etc. Is something my wife (a non-scientist) and I (uber-geek) talk about fairly routinely.

    One of her questions is — Just how many of your examples of negative stereotyping and response to science-types (engineers can be included here) occurred to people over the age of, say, 22? Happened to you personally or that you witnessed first hand?

    How much of it was in jr. high, versus high school, versus college? If your peak for the events was jr. high, how did the math club’s results compare to, say, the poetry club? (There’s a lot of bad behavior all around at that age. Was it really worse for science types than poet types (and all others)?)

  149. says

    Just how many of your examples of negative stereotyping and response to science-types (engineers can be included here) occurred to people over the age of, say, 22?< ?i>

    Plenty happened to me personally. Hell, the nickname that I use to this day: “Squid” was the slang for a computer nerd when I was in university.

    I have been made fun of for being a nerd at work for not using a calculator to do relatively simple math and arithmetic… and I work in high tech and am a lot older than 22.

    Another example, software developers are often treated like slaves in business – it is assumed that they have no lives outside of work… they’re just geeks.

    How often do you see the science-guy looking glamourous/sexy in mainstream media? How often do you see him marginalized? Hell, I just realized as I typed that – I’m doing it to… I assumed “science-guy” when it could just as easily be “science-girl”. How often do you see the science-girl AT ALL?

  150. IceFarmer says

    @Robert Byers

    There will always be elitists within any group. The doors of science are open to everyone. Scientific communities tend to be both open-minded and skeptical all at the same time. Science is open to new ideas and information but you have to have evidence to back it up. It’s a community that revolves around discussing and arguing ideas to squeeze out more information, to learn more, to accomplish more.

    If you disagree with an established theory or law in science, you had better not be talking out of your back end. You need to bring some proof with you. It would be like me walking into a conversation trying to prove that the tooth fairy existed. If I proclaim that the Tooth Fairy existed simply because I felt it were true, I would probably be laughed at and ridiculed. If I were able to make a substantive case for the existence of said fairy with physical proof, a discussion of my evidence may begin.

    You also speak of common sense. Two points here. Firstly, common sense isn’t so common or at least it’s lapsing. Anyone around long enough has seen this in action. Secondly, common sense can be wrong. Just because most people believe something is true does not mean it is. Aristotle believed and taught that objects of greater mass fell faster than objects with lesser mass. It was widely accepted as common sense for thousands of years until the likes of Galileo and Newton proved differently.
    In many ways, science is like boxing, you have to walk the walk and talk the talk. Making unproven statements, affirmations of faith in the face of evidence to the contrary won’t get you very far. Newton and Galileo backed up their ideas, with experimentation following scientific methods.

    The attacks on the Christian faith and censorship are not as you claim. Christianity, nor any other religion has the right to force it’s views upon others. The reluctance of certain sects of Christianity to resist adapting to new information and get with the times is nothing new. But they have become more savvy in the courts. Science is about fact, that’s why it is taught in schools the way is has been (if you see my posts in other threads you can see that I’m for revamping education to make it more effective in general, especially science education).

    As for EXPELLED, I have never seen such a blatant propaganda film that twists and distorts facts through blatant lies, misinformation and omissions in my life.

    I do not have a problem with you wanting to believe what you do, but don’t walk into a rationaly discussion with irrational evidence and expect to be on the same footing as those who have brought their suitcase of information and proof with them. “Freedom of though, enquiry, and speech,” as you put it are fine. They allow for everyone’s beliefs and opinions to be expressed openly and freely, whether they are true or not. If you wish to educate the general public, you need more than that. What the teaching and study of evolution has allowed for is greater understanding of the natural world and the quest for more knowledge about it. It is a door opener in the mind and in science. It has small but great humble beginnings with Charles Darwin and the Theory of Natural Selection 150 years ago. Scientific study has brought evolutionary theory a long way since then and more doors are being opened, more questions are being asked, answers are being found, debated and bringing up new questions. This is the beauty of good scientific research. Creationism has its hold due to the indoctrination of young children by religious means. They are taught that creationism is true and evolution is a lie and they are encouraged by their parents, church elders and clergy to fight evolution not through understanding nor based fact but that it disagrees with written and spoken religous teachings.

  151. Robert Byers says

    Icefarmer post 162
    You said many things but the thing is still that censorship, prohibition, and aggressive teaching against the historical beliefs on origins by the state must have a impact on
    large percentages of the population on their view os science as something to be interested in. Today only those who see themselves with some ability to easily comprehend sciences are early motivated to be interested to a great extent.
    The state is insisting , by way of the schools, that the bible and so christianity is false in its presumptions.
    The state is forcing a opinion of religion on the kjds and society.
    The state is breaking the separation clause while using this clause to prohibit other ideas on origins.
    No way around it.
    If the schools can’t teach Genesis in the science class because of a separation concept then the state can’t teach Genesis is wrong.
    The answer is freedom to pursue the truth wherever she leads. No censorship.
    I can’t see where my reasoning is wrong.
    Yes I do believe evolution would get a thrashing in the opinions of the kids.
    Too bad for the bad guys.

  152. octopod says

    LOL@#163. “You said many things but the thing is I’m just going to repeat what I said before because I don’t want to read it and possibly be tempted into deviating from my talking points.”