The Pencil Guy: Hourann's illogical blog

Science education has a long way to go

I was going to rant about the PM’s announcement of $1.4 billion over a decade to help manufacturing firms, but after reading his actual speech I realised the things that were annoying me were actually mis-reportings — the policy is more or less sensible, as far as I can tell. (Although while digging that up, I came across the Liberal Party’s eye-gougingly bad excuse for a blog covering the weekend Labor conference.)

So instead I’ll mention the “ha ha ain’t gender politics funny?!” story that buzzed across every commercial news service in the country today, somewhat like chlamydia at a swingers’ party: a study by an insurance company purporting to show women are better drivers than men from claims data and a telephone interview. (The reports are all re-writes of the press release). Applying some real science, I note they’ve said little about their sampling method, and don’t seem to have controlled for other factors … but that never stopped anyone trotting out cookie-cutter “experts” making wild statements like “men are biologically more aggressive”.

I was thinking about this in light of a newspaper letter I saw on Sunday that argued evolution was a “biological and physiological impossibility”, offering solar eclipses as evidence — cos you know, the Sun doesn’t go dark by day because of understandable, observable-with-the-naked-eye, easily-modelled-with-playdoh, people-have-walked-on-the-bloomin’-thing reasons. Apparently, “there is a better chance of finding fairies at the bottom of the garden” than of celestial bodies getting in the way of each other.

Now one of the problems with both evolution and global warming (among others) has been that neither is easily explained with stuff that non-experts can observe: the evidence can seem sketchy if you’ve no experience thinking in geological time or don’t know the indirect reasoning behind things like mitochondrial DNA. But these two examples confirm the presence of much bigger weaknesses in the understanding of science, at least among those in the media (not that I’m discovering anything new — Carl Sagan often spoke of this). I see little hope for meaningful discussion about research when no one knows how to critically assess surveys, or is confused about primary-school physics.

Maybe blogs and other social media give hope for the future?

  1. Agreed, but it’s not just science. Most economics material has the same problem – everyone takes for granted what they’re told, with ridiculous claims such as the government keeping interest rates low if they win the election, and thinking that a single economic study somehow proves something beyond contention, just because they read the abstract.
    And then blame the economists because it later turnned out to be disproven as if somehow we aren’t meant to build on our (limited) understanding. If the same thing happened in science we would all still believe that the Bohr model or worse, that atoms where round pudding type things with charges stuck in them. Or why don’t we go all the way back to saying that everything is made up of only water, fire, earth and air?

  2. I don’t think that blogs will automatically have a beneficial effect on public education; there’s no qualification or ideology required to use them!

  3. Oh, sure blogs don’t have much effect upon formal education (although Wikipedia does!). I was thinking of the informal kinds of education that the media do, like teaching people What’s Good And Bad To Eat. The stuff that (some) blogs publish is way ahead of what you see in your average newspaper in terms of actually understanding the concepts. That said, I admit I was probably conflating those two somewhat.

    (P.S. hi Tom!)

Care to leave a comment?