Mad, Beautiful Ideas
Science Education

A few weeks back, Powell's Books posted an editorial article by Theodore Gray, author of "Mad Science: Experiments You Can Do At Home -- But Probably Shouldn't", asking if Science is an important as Football. On the surface, the question seems ridiculous, and I can't think of very many people who would dream of saying that Football is more important than Science. Mind you, the people I know are a non-random sample, but even on a large scale, I don't see most people viewing Science Education as less important than school sports.

This discussion isn't about funding, though that is certainly an issue. Science instructors do tend to find their budgets for specimens, equipment, and chemicals getting leaner, while sports programs (especially football) are almost always able to get the money they need to continue operating. More than that, however, is how Science education has consistently gotten less dangerous, and consequently less exciting.

Safety is important, but when science becomes boring, kids don't get interested in science. When people don't have an interest in Science, we end up with a systemic societal problem where people honestly believe that evolution is a lie, the Earth is flat, that lighting it on fire is an effective means of igniting PETN, and that global climate change doesn't have any anthropomorphic causes (the degree of humanities involvement in climate change is under debate, but no real climate scientists claim that humanity hasn't impacted the environment). Plus, we delay the progress of Science, since fewer people are interested and participating, progress is slowed.

Gray really bemoans the fact that these moderately dangerous experiments (which aren't that dangerous when done correctly) have been abolished, but other dangerous activities, Football, are not only sanctioned, but celebrated. And kids do get injured, some badly, every year. Most aren't bad, but then, neither were most classroom-accidents either.

Being so close to Academia, I'm really afraid that we're moving more and more, at least in the US, to the kind of world that Neal Stephenson described in Anathem, where the scientists are sequested away from the rest of the population, who mainly continues to operate in ignorance and fear of things that they don't fully understand. The worst part is that a fair amount of it comes from within Academia itself. Academics strongly stigmatize people who do outreach. People who write for non-scientific publications. People who reach outside of Academia to help the general populace understand why what goes on within Academia is so important.

After all, isn't a little ridiculous that the most well-respected writer on food science issues, is a journalist?

Some scientists break that barrier, as Carl Sagan did in the 1980s, but only after becoming well established in their career, and often with plenty of derision from their contemporaries. Unfortunately, Carl Sagan has been dead for 13 years, and the no other Scientist-Author has risen who has been able to make the topics as accessible, or as fascinating as Sagan. Others who have tried have focused on issues that have made their writings far more controversial than was necessary, or even helpful.

As important as it is that Science begins reaching out to the public, making people understand their work, essentially arguing for their very existence... Isn't it just as important that the schools do their part to keep science interesting as they lay down that basic educational, and foundational, framework that they impart upon young people? Certainly parents must play a role here as well, but every child, every student deserves to be exposed to the wonder of Science, the excitement of discovery, and, regrettably, not all parents are up to the task of revealing these wonders.