In which I blame teachers for things

In light of recent news, and after a brief exchange I had when I shared this picture yesterday, I’ve been thinking a lot about science and science education. I blame teachers for this mess.

I used to teach science. I even taught Science, which is different than science, after one of my freshman biology students, a Christian and a creationist, asked to learn more about evolution. She didn’t actually want to understand the theory, I quickly discovered. What she wanted to understand was how a seemingly educated and intelligent guy like me could be so completely duped by a patently false idea.

So I agreed to show her. But not by teaching evolution. I told her I wasn’t going to do that. At all. Not even a little. As it happened, my graduate training was in Biology, but my undergraduate emphasis was on the history and philosophy of science, and I saw that what she really lacked was not FACTS. It was understanding. So I said I would merely teach her how to evaluate scientific reasoning and she could take it from there.

I went online to see what tools were available for students and teachers at the high school level. And there ain’t much. Don’t get me wrong. There are some. But it’s pretty sparse compared to almost anything else. You’ll find a great deal more teaching tools for something specific like molecular genetics, for example, than for teaching about Science itself, which is just insane. It does a student no good to learn about operons and their regulation, or the neutral theory, without a firm understanding of what science both is and ISN’T.

I had an epiphany just then. We don’t teach Science in this country. At all. We teach its content. We teach science: Avogadro’s number and coefficients of friction and chordate anatomy and the pH scale and sine functions. As if memorizing the citric acid cycle somehow teaches you to understand Science and why it’s so powerful. Facts and tables can reinforce that understanding, but only if it’s already there. If not, nothing you learn in high school or almost any college Gen. Ed. requirement will gift it to you.

Students come burdened with language. They learn passively from society that science is an occupation — like accounting, or carpentry — and also a collection of experimental outcomes organized into big tables that have to be memorized to get a job. They learn that a theory — “Well, that’s one theory, I guess” — is just a hypothesis and a hypothesis is a shot in the dark. Educators spend about five minutes at the start of the semester correcting that and then launch right into the subject material. Is it any surprise then that voting citizens who couldn’t come up with three sentences to describe the hydrological cycle will tell you with absolute certainty that human-caused climate change is a hoax?

If that distresses you, I would question how much you’re really paying attention. Consider this: asking students to draw conclusions from a list of facts they’re required to memorize but are incompetent to evaluate isn’t education. It’s indoctrination. Science class is nine months of “Trust me. I’m right.”

And so here it’s the 21st century and Science denial is all the rage. We all know about the anti-vaxxers and their ilk. But it’s not just a problem with the Right. It’s NOT. The debate about GMOs, for example, has become so politicized, it’s lost all connection to science and reason. So it is Bill Nye (the science guy) — one of the country’s foremost science educators and a more competent scientist than you or I ever will be — reversed his opposition to GMOs after careful review, and rather than taking that as evidence of the scientific process, of free an open inquiry, he was pilloried for being a “tool of Monsanto” — because part of his consideration included taking a tour of their labs to, you know, actually observe for himself what they were up to rather than just reading a second-hand account on Mother Jones.

Look, Science is potentially dangerous. It’s always been potentially dangerous. And the public has always been just a little bit worried about that. The very first work of science fiction, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, captures that fear, and even seems to warn us that some lines of inquiry were just not meant for man, following the lesson of the earlier myth of Doctor Faustus that learned dudes in long robes will set loose monsters from their ivory towers and we’ll all suffer. It’s the plot of every Cold War-era sci-fi movie, in fact — that an irradiated ant will eat Las Vegas, that the machines will become self-aware and kill us, that we’ll become self-aware and kill ourselves.

The debate shouldn’t be about prohibitions and controls. It should always be about transparency and oversight (such as peer review). I take it as an axiom that before too long the world is gonna need a stable, tested, drought- and pest-resistant source of food. I take it as an axiom that we should be looking for ways of curing childhood genetic diseases like cystic fibrosis and Tay-Sachs. I take it as an axiom that we’re going to do a lot more damage to the environment before things get better, and that breeding a strain of Deinococcus radiodurans that could clean up nuclear waste would be awesome.

All of those lines of inquiry carry risk. And a not insignificant amount. So it is we have people on both sides of the political spectrum arguing that Science should be curtailed or prohibited because they’ve decided — as laypeople, in advance — that some problems are just not soluble, and anyway it’s just not worth the risk.

Because, you know, there are monsters.

(“Just Say No” has never been an effective strategy to curb anything, by the way. All it does is drive it underground, where there’s even less visibility and control. The surest way to ensure a rogue gene makes it into the wild is for industrialized nations to place such steep roadblocks on GMO research that it’s driven to the Third World, where there’s no oversight at all.)

I blame teachers for this mess. I really do. I know that’s not popular. But it’s true. Don’t get me wrong. Science educators fight valiantly — and that’s not sarcasm; I mean it — against efforts to gut science education. They fight valiantly to continue teaching the content of evolution. But never the vessel. And then we wonder why, year after year, a majority of Americans — high school-graduates all, and even a high percentage of college grads — doubt climate change. Or evolution (roughly the same percentage as Islamic states like Turkey, by the way). We ask them to drink from a well they’re being told is poisoned, and then we wonder why they refuse. Regardless of anyone’s best efforts, that’s the actual, real, practical outcome of science education in this country.

And my student, by the way — the one who wanted to understand how it was I got duped by science — totally came around after just a couple months, and all without me ever even saying the word evolution.

  1. I eventually settled on Ronald Giere’s “Understanding Scientific Reasoning” as the textbook for my sessions. I’m sure there are others, and I’m sure there are people out there who can steer you appropriately.
  2. And if you’re one of those people who’s chest spasms at the thought of stem cell research or GMOs or whatever, read David Deutsch’s “The Beginning of Infinity” and repeat the following to yourself every time you get nervous: “Problems are soluble. Problems are soluble. Problems are soluble.”
  3. Edit to include the comment from social media: All of this is because the purpose of the system is not to educate but to serve the power structure, which means the purpose of compulsory, state-sponsored indoctrination is to churn out skads of minimally compliant, technically-competent office workers to feed the post-industrial economy. It’s important that they know how to memorize and regurgitate, how to pass tests and certifications, how to follow rote instruction, such as what is required to service machines made from interchangeable parts. It resembles education sometimes, but only enough to make sure people won’t realize what it actually is.

(cover art by Beeple)