Science and the Public

I’m not a scientist by learning, or particularly by disposition. However, I believe in evolution, that smoking cigarettes is harmful to health and that global warming is caused by man and is a real and genuine danger to human life in the future if not adequately addressed. The reason I believe those things is because I’ve had access to the work of scientists freely available in the public domain in a free society, read or watched a reasonable amount and then made up my own mind.

There’s a fascinating question that is a very live issue right now. That is the extent to which scientists should become public advocates for a particular perspective. This has become a hot topic as the new American government seeks to gag and sideline scientists who speak out about global warming and climate change.

The viewpoints of the opposing sides, and probably the most appropriate way forward are set out very articulately in this podcast:

ABC Radio – The Science Show – Can a Scientist be a Sentinel?

This is valuable material to share with science students who may never have really have reflected very deeply on the ambiguity, at times, of scientific facts, dogma and the ways in which science gets co-opted to put forward particular views and perspectives by those with an agenda.

Brain to Brain Communication

So, here’s one to get your head around – the first succesful demonstration of human brain to brain communication – a kind of computer assisted telepathy!

Gizmodo – Brain to Brain Communication – Article

As the science in this area evolves, what are the implications for education? What are the wider implications for society and how we live our lives? How would we ensure that the potential outcomes of such technology are positive for humanity, not exploited for negative purposes?

Teaching Science

To think about how we teach science in our schools, we first have to think about what science is (and isn’t), think about the motivation and confidence of the learners and think about what we want them to be able to do after learning.

Seth Godin, through his recent blog post has given some interesting thoughts about how we should be teaching science and also hints at where, too often, it goes wrong;

Seth Godin – How to Teach Science

The list of things we don’t want to hear at the end is partcularly interesting – haven’t we all heard science teachers say these things?

Thinking Like a Scientist – Lessons from Elon Musk

Firstly, for many of the regular readers in UAE and India it’s Diwali – so Happy Diwali, Happy New Year and the very best of everything you wish for yourself and your loved ones for the coming year.

As it’s Diwali and a holiday, that gives lots of readers some extra time on their hands, which is why I’m taking this opportunity to share with you an article which is quite long, but fascinating and truly will stimulate your thinking in many ways.

Wait But Why – The Cook and the Chef – Musk’s Secret Sauce
(Click on this link to open the article.

(This is the sanitised U rated version (the original, which can also be found on the ‘What But Vhy’ website uses more ‘adult’ language and is somewhat more blunt in parts.)

As I said, the article is long and you’re going to need to set aside a bit of time to read it. But, if you do, my feeling is you won’t be disappointed and it will prove well worth your time and effort. Having only finished reading it in the last 24 hours, I know I can still benefit a great deal more from reflecting on it and working through the mental process of how it might contribute to living a more meaningful life.

I felt it was right on with regard to understanding science working from first principles. It immediately made me think of the fundamental problems that exist in the way science is taught – a simple set of dogmatic certainties to be memorised and reproduced.

Later the article goes on to explore a concept of chefs (those who originate new recipes, starting from first principles) and cooks (the vast majority who, to a greater or lesser extent, stick to recipes which have already been outlined by someone else). This caused my thinking to broaden to all the other issues about education today, what are the first principles and what would chefs be doing to create the education today that will enable young people to grow up successful and to live meaningful lives. Are our schools all being set up by cooks and not chefs? Is there even a societal inclination to keep chefs away from education because they are likely to cause youngsters to question more, challenge more and will expect an overall handing over of ‘control’ in schools.

Much to ponder on. For anyone else with the stamina who does read the whole article, I’d love it if you would share your thoughts here, whether they are directly related to the applicability of these ideas in the education arena or not.

I had to laugh when the article, towards the end, draws on the analogy of the Hans Christian Anderson story of the Emperor’s New Clothes as part of the explanation of the difference between chefs and cooks (and why there are so few chefs). One thing he doesn’t talk about – our education systems are clearly designed to perpetuate dogma and to mould young minds in to the cook mould.

So, the question I’m left with – what would learning for children look like, if the objective was more chefs? What would education look like if we were designing it completely from new, starting from first principles and unbound by the orthodox?

More Subtle Than ISIS or Al Qaeda

All decent minded people were shocked and horrified my the Al Qaeda inspired attack on the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris. The claim is that these attacks were launched due to a moral outrage on the part of devout Muslims against the depictions of their prophet in cartoons. The debate subsequently has rarely been about the artistic or literary merits of the cartoons themselves, but rather the overarching right to freedom of speech. The allegation of course is that the attack and senseless slaughter of the people in that office was a form of censorship – the denial of freedom of speech.

This is a freedom that is tom-tommed frequently by Westerners – we say that we have it and people living in totalitarian or dogmatic states or societies are denied it. But is that really true? Are there ways in which people in so-called democratic environments are ‘silenced’? Ways that are adopted to ensure that certain things are not said out loud or in the public domain? Are there words that are not safe to be spoken, questions that shouldn’t be asked or thoughts not safe to be thought, or those who would make themselves the arbiters of what we should or should not hear or be exposed to?

As educators we live and work in the world of thoughts and ideas, questions posed about the world around us and the search for answers to such questions. We seek to encourage children to grow to be lifelong learners and, in my view, that means young people ready to challenge and question dogmas and

Well, I would urge people to see the attached article and to watch the three videos listed there before coming to an opinion. In the case of the first two I make no statement or judgement about the scientific veracity of the claims made. However, what I’m sure of is that if my science teachers at school had exposed me to such thinking I might have been far more enthused about science overall. Instead, the steady stream of inviolate ‘factoids’ to be remembered, memorised and regurgitated in examinations left me cold. I so wish that exposure to the ways in which scientists question and challenge current perceived dogmas had been a part of my learning then.

The Mind Unleashed Website – Censored TED Talks
(Click on the link above to open the article, then click on each of the three videos to watch them)

As far as the final video, many may question the plausibility of the arguments from political, economic or philosophical perspectives, but i struggle to see why anyone should be scared or intimidated by what’s said.

In the end, should we conclude that maybe ISIS are not the only people who want to undermine the rights of free speech or dissemination of ideas. Maybe, others are just more subtle about how they do it?

Making Science Accessible

Here’s a quick post that i hope contains some interest and inspiration, particularly for all science teachers. It’s a set of seven lectures given by the renowned physicist, Richard Feynman.

Seven lectures by Richard Feynman
(Click on the link above to see all seven lectures on a single page)

The Beauty of Science

I loved this and just had to share. For every student who, somehow has come to believe that science is all boring, dull and lifeless stuff – here is a selection of amazing images to change all those perceptions.

Popsci Gallery of 2010 Science Images

Some of these amazing pictures truly show that art and beauty come in many forms.

Honest Education

Man is responsible for increased carbon emissions. Increased carbon emissions are warming the planet. The planet warming up is going to be disastrous. Man is heading towards creation of a calamity.

I believe anyone who sells such simplistic understanding of a scientifically complex world, especially as educators working with children is engaging in a deception at least as bad as the fundamentalists in America who demand the teaching of creationism and rejection of evolution.

The fact is that education should not be afraid to open even quite young children up to an understanding that humans are very complex beings living in an infinitely complex world governed by science wherein there are vast realms where we do not have all the answers.

Further, an understanding of science’s past should lead all learners to contemplate on how much they should trust today’s certainties. it is not enough to just enjoy a smug titter over the fact that people once believed the earth was flat or that illness could be eliminated through the letting of blood.

Education is not a ‘sales job’ whereby we tout today’s simplicities and quick recipes as blocks of digestable knowledge, (tested through a simple regurgitation process called exams!) Young learners should be actively encouraged to question anything and everything, building their awareness and skills for how to question and how new possibilities are postulated, researched and affirmed or rejected.

Returning to where i started with global warming here are two fascinating articles from the BBC. The first opens up for the learner many of the complexities of the issue that are so often left out, especially in material written for children. The second article is an editorial piece explaining some of the controversy resulting from the first.

BBC Article 1

BBC Article 2

Science Can Be Tricky

The following are all alleged to be things written by students in science exams and assignments. Whether completely true, or not – they are amusing for a Sunday morning!

“The body consists of three parts – the branium, the borax, and the abominable cavity. The branium contains the brain, the borax contains the heart and lungs, and the abominable cavity contains the bowels, of which there are five – a, e, i, o, and u.”

“To collect fumes of sulphur, hold a deacon over a flame in a test tube.”

“Water is composed of two gins, Oxygin and Hydrogin. Oxygin is pure gin. Hydrogin is gin and water.”

“The moon is a planet just like the earth, only it is even deader.”

“A super saturated solution is one that holds more than it can hold.”

“Mushrooms always grow in damp places, and so they look like umbrellas.”

“A permanent set of teeth consists of eight canines, eight cuspids, two molars, and eight cuspidors.”

“The tides are a fight between the Earth and moon. All water tends towards the moon, because there is no water in the moon, and nature abhors a vacuum. I forget where the sun joins in this fight.”

“Liter: A nest of young puppies.”

“Rhubarb: A kind of celery gone bloodshot.”

“Vacuum: A large, mansion where the pope lives.”

“To remove dust from the eye, pull the eye down over the nose.”

“For a nosebleed: Put the nose much lower then the body until the heart stops.”

“For dog bite: put the dog away for several days. If he has not recovered, then kill it.”

“To prevent contraception, use a condominium.”

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