Monday, January 3, 2011

Science and Adults

Science had an interesting essay published:
http://www.sciencemag.org/content/early/2010/12/01/science.1186994

"Without a basic understanding of how science works, the public is vulnerable to antiscience propaganda, which engenders distrust of science when it comes to social issues, consumer choices, and policy decisions."

A profound statement. Sadly this is a core problem since we must consider that the scientific method is taught, at a minimum, from grades 3 to at least 10. Thus having any education in science should yield at least cursory understanding of how science works.

However education advances very slowly whereas the speed of science is accelerating. I think most people in a classroom in high school would acknowledge that the smart kids stand way out because they are continually challenged, whereas the rest prefer to not be challenged. Sometimes it is the education system itself which leads to a demoralization ... especially as teachers expect less from underachieving students. We are leaving behind students and advancing others ... this produces a gap.

Science itself produces gaps as increasingly complex problems become addressed by a self selected few (lets call them really intelligent scientists). This type of accelerated learning is happening in all fields due to the growth of science itself. It used to be in discrete leaps (think Einstein and his peers followed by the government development of nuclear weapons). It takes real hard work to follow in these folks footsteps. Consider that a particle physicist may spend 10 years getting a PhD! Contrast that with a meteorologist (a relatively young field of study) who may spend 3-6 years.

Now consider that, as is the current state of affairs, such gaps begin to effect science policy and fiscal expenditures. Some may say we lack the financial fortitude to increase our science spending, and they would be correct in their analysis of available funds. And in doing so they forget that research precedes development. In fact, industry does research specific to its problems. Interestingly enough, some of the largest practical science developments have occurred in the process of researching very different problems. So in order for big technological advances, the government funds research precisely so that development can ensue. Consider a quote taken from:
http://www.latimes.com/news/opinion/commentary/la-oe-mooney-science-20101226,0,4203638.story
"And we need to recognize that the cost of basic science, and the time it
takes, require a sustained government commitment because industry can't
be relied on to fund incremental and high-risk science for its own sake
without any guarantee of a payoff."

Industry seeks profit. This should not be a surprise nor a negative. Industry must be profitable to sustain itself. And even more profitable to fund its own research: think Bell labs!  The terms high-risk high reward should be common knowledge. Are they? Most people should also know how expensive incremental science is, since that is how we fund graduate students in most fields. Sadly they do not.

So, we have some work to do on both educating our students so as to produce science-literate adults, and also scientific communication such that as the gaps continue to grow we have intelligent people keeping those with whom science is foreign or too difficult, in touch.