Fri 30 Apr, 2010
Science, the cause of all manner of nearly miraculous developments amongst the peoples of this land and others. Science, the engine that drives progress. Science, responsible for all manner of improvements for the human condition, from penicillin to pacemakers, from automobiles to automatic rifles. Science, one of the most necessary of pursuits for our continued survival as a species.
Science, about the most poorly-taught, misunderstood, poorly reported, and all around poorly understood disciplines in the United States today.
Granted, most scientific fields are extremely technical, so that even the basic vocabulary is difficult for those not trained specifically for that field to understand. Granted, also, that one does not need to be trained in the disciplines of science to reap the benefits of the discoveries that are made by the scientists. However, in this country, there are a number of less-than-useful behaviors connected with the public perception of the sciences (usually based on faulty understanding and training); the result is generally a losing proposition for both scientists and the public, as the scientists are unable to carry out their research due to excessive regulation or lack of funding, while the public is denied the improvements that could otherwise be made to their lives.
Science reporting, as it is practiced today, does not help this tendency. It is immediately obvious to anyone conversant with a field which an alleged science reporter has written an article, in most cases, that the science reporter usually has little to no idea what they are reporting on–often to the point where the reporter will misrepresent the material that they are attempting to report.
This is one of the symptoms of a lack of proper science education, a situation that has far-reaching effects beyond the simple poor quality of reportage upon subjects of a scientific bent.
How shall this situation be rectified?
There is no quick and easy solution–for most things of worth, there never is. Instead, a systemic and consistent effort by the scientifically conversant to encourage “good” science and discourage “bad” science (the scare quotes denoting the appalling imprecision of these terms) must be the basic foundation behind a constant and consistent push for a positive change.
Too often, in the vain hope of spreading a hunger for scientific knowledge, the “science fan” will push a “gee whiz” sense of wonderment over anything vaguely scientific-sounding, hoping to gain more “science fans” to marvel over the progress that science hath wrought–this is almost entirely useless. The “science fan” in general tends to put enthusiasm before fact, and will accept even the most addle-pated pseudo-scientific claptrap as a valued addition to their store of knowledge and, even worse, pass this unfortunate miscarriage of knowledge on as a valued piece of truth–see “The Secret” for a rather extreme (and unfortunate) example of the result.
Instead, anyone who wishes to encourage scientific learning ought to first be very sure they fully understand the topic that they’re trying to encourage (yes, even learning the mathematics and formulae behind the nifty-keen pop-bottle rocket) and carefully teach others to approach science in a respectful and proper manner–to discourage the frivolous use of words like “theory” and “experiment”; to reject as unsound the “experiments” of popular science-esque television shows (e.g. the Mythbusters, who display very poor rigor by frequently having neither sufficient repetition of their experimental procedures nor sufficient controls to ensure valid results, amongst other sins); to pass along to others only that knowledge which they are reasonably sure is correct and they are reasonably sure they understand completely.
There are more than enough “science fans” in the world today. What the world needs is more -scientists-.