Posted by: Alexandre Borovik | February 23, 2009

The truth about science

Sue Blackmore in the Guardian

Science is not clever and elitist – that’s the message the government wants to give young people, in order to attract more into studying science. But that’s a lie.

This “action to bust myth of ‘elitist’ science” is part of the government’s attempt to make science more accessible, and to show people that science affects everything in their daily lives. The science minister, Lord Drayson, wants to challenge myths such as “the perception among many of our people that science is too clever for them or elitist in some way”. If he is talking about public understanding of science, then I agree with him. Helping everyone to understand some of the science that’s all around us is important, but this should not be confused with the attempt to get more young people to take science A-levels, or to aspire to becoming scientists.

Instead we should be truthful. If you tell someone that something is easy and then they find they can’t do it, they get demoralised. If you tell them something is difficult they are more likely to work at it, if they have the incentive to do so. People don’t climb Everest, train as pilots, or spend years practising the piano because it’s easy. The truth is that science is difficult and challenging, understanding its concepts is hard, and you do need to be clever and dedicated, but then it can be hugely rewarding.

This is the message we should be sending out to young people – that science is wonderful and difficult and if you have the aptitude, the right encouragement, and you work really hard you can be part of it.

Lord Drayson’s fatuous claim made me think of Malcolm Gladwell’s recent bestseller Outliers. With gripping examples from the Beatles to Bill Gates, Gladwell charts what has created success stories through the centuries. His conclusion is absolutely at odds with the government’s pathetic approach to science education. According to Gladwell, you need to be born in the right place at the right time, have the right aptitude or intelligence, get a lot of encouragement, and then you have to work really hard – in fact you have to do something like 10,000 hours of work at your chosen skill, whether that’s playing the piano, sport, computer programming, or science.

Gladwell amasses evidence that the outliers – those exceptional people who have done fabulously well – had just that combination of luck and hard work. As an ordinary scientist I found his book inspiring. It made me think long and hard about whether I had ever spent 10,000 hours doing anything. I concluded that I’m probably about there in writing about science, and about halfway there in meditation practice. Reading this book, with its enormous challenges, didn’t make me think “Oh I’m not clever enough” or “I’m nearly 60, it’s not worth working so hard any more”. Instead it inspired me to do more – to think “Wow, if I do keep going, and try really hard, and go on enjoying the tough self-discipline and long hours, then I will go on getting better at what I do”.

This is the encouragement we should be giving teachers, and schools and kids. The government cannot control the genetic ability of kids, or the kind of home life they find themselves in, but it can provide an educational environment that says “If you enjoy a challenge, if you want to understand the way the world works, if you like asking questions about truth and reality, then work hard at your science lessons, overcome your fear of maths, take the opportunities we’ll give you, and work terribly hard, and then you too could become that great thing – a scientist”.

Do many kids today aspire to be scientists? One survey suggested thatvery few girls do, and another that most want to be celebrities – even though all the evidence tells us, again and again, that fame and riches don’t make people happy.

What does make people happy? As Gladwell points out, doing meaningful work in which effort is reflected in success is what makes people happy. Science is one of many realms in which this can be true. It’s meaningful, it’s important to the whole of society, it’s fulfilling and it’s intellectually rewarding. If you do reasonably well you can expect a life of interest and fulfilment. If you work terribly hard, get the right breaks, and have the right aptitude then you can join that wonderful elite of great scientists. You can have your work published in the very best journals, have everyone want to read your books, be made a Fellow of the Royal Society, or even go down in history.

Please let’s tell our kids the truth about science. It is clever and it is elitist. It’s worth working for. It’s worth aspiring to.

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Responses

  1. Whenever I hear someone say that we need to get more students to study math (or science, or engineering, what have you), I think about how they are really saying that too many students are studying other things.

    I don’t think many math professors would complain to their colleagues in history that too many students are majoring in history. But when they say more people should study math, they’re saying fewer people should study something else. Maybe the math and history faculty could agree that too many people are majoring in English literature, until someone from the English faculty walks by.

  2. John: my personal position is that we need a smaller number of much better mathematics students. Unfortunately, within the current structure of educational system this my proposal is absolutely unrealistic.

  3. Bravo, Alex, there are too many mathematicians with the brains of an accountant!


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