Why do science?

The West is losing its scientific lead in the world and governments are looking for ways to attract more young people to the laboratory. But can they succeed against the attractions of a consumer society?
Carolyn Moynihan | Oct 22 2005 | comment  

This year has been a busy one for the scientific community. It marks 50 years since the death of Albert Einstein and 100 years since the annus mirabilis in which he published papers on such fundamental ideas as quantum energy and the special theory of relativity, at the same time giving the world the famous equation, E = mc², that even the scientifically illiterate among us can repeat as a kind of tribute to the great twentieth century genius.

To mark these anniversaries the International Union of Pure and Applied Physics declared 2005 the World Year of Physics, to raise public awareness of physics and physical science generally. One of the goals is to create enthusiasm for physics among young people and attract the more talented into scientific study and careers. There is concern not only among scientists but in industry and among governments that science education is failing to keep up with the need for research and innovation.(1)

Intelligent design debate
But 2005 has also been the year of “intelligent design”, making it an annus horribilis (to quote Queen Elizabeth in another context) in the eyes of many scientists. The intelligent design movement says the evidence of design in nature makes it reasonable to teach this as a scientific theory alongside Darwin’s theory of natural selection. A school board in Dover, Pennsylvania, that voted last year to incorporate this approach in its curriculum for the ninth grade, is now being sued by 11 parents in federal court. The outcome will affect similar moves in other states.

Basically ID is a new attempt—efforts have never really ceased—to challenge evolution as the ultimate explanation of the world and to reopen science to God. In the minds of most Americans, this is not a problem: a USA Today/CNN/Gallup Poll this month shows that a mere 12 per cent believe that human beings evolved without God having any part in the process. Many scientists are believers too, but most, apparently, without wanting to bring the idea of creation into their scientific method. Is this a gap that needs to be bridged? And is intelligent design the way to do it? The Dover court case may settle the question at one level, but the debate is nowhere near over.

A British experiment
Has this debate any relevance to the question of getting young people interested in science? At first blush, no. It seems, rather, a distraction from the real issues of the day. Faced with growing competition from rising economic powers such as India and China, which are turning out large numbers of graduates with scientific backgrounds, the United States, Britain and other developed countries worry about declining interest in science courses at university level, and the way science is being taught.(2)

In the United Kingdom, applications for degree courses in chemistry, physics, mathematics and engineering have fallen by as much as 30 per cent in recent years, with 10 universities closing chemistry departments for lack of demand. The chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England, Sir Howard Newby, said this week the trend is a “huge worry” and could affect Britain’s economic future.(3)

According to Sir Howard, there is evidence that “up to the age of 13-15, students are quite switched on by science and technology” but then something switches them off. Those who remain interested are more likely to take courses with obvious career prospects. Medicine, biological sciences, electronic engineering and computer studies are still in demand. Forensic chemistry is enjoying something of a boom and Sir Howard jokingly suggests this is thanks to a popular BBC television drama, Silent Witness. But without sufficient people pursuing science for its own sake, where will the new Einsteins come from?

Much of the blame for this dilemma naturally falls on the school system. Experts have told the British government that teaching science to young people as though they were all going to become scientists only burdens the majority with irrelevant facts and makes the subject boring. What science teaching in the twenty-first century should do, in the words of one report, is give everyone “sufficient knowledge and understanding to follow science and scientific debates with interest, and to engage with the issues science and technology poses”.  Alongside that, schools should teach "science for scientists". (4)

Accordingly, from next year, secondary school pupils working towards their General Certificate of Secondary Education (taken at year 11) will no longer have to master “hard” science, such as basic scientific laws, but they will be required to learn “soft” science, such as the benefits of genetic engineering and healthy eating. Although this includes some scientific knowledge, traditional hard science will be an optional extra.(5)

There has been plenty of criticism of this move, from both scientists and lay people. An emphasis on social concerns opens science to “dogmatic and moralistic agendas”, says Spiked writer Sandy Starr. Airing controversies over childhood vaccinations, GM food scares, and human genetic research (all mentioned in the curriculum) would give the “unscientific side” of each controversy “undeserved credibility”.(6)

It could just as easily, however, be an occasion for indoctrination from the “scientific side” which, when commercial motives are taken into account (one thinks of embryonic stem cell research), is not free of its own prejudices. It rather depends on the teacher and the resources he or she uses.

The fact that the curriculum also calls for “an understanding of the scientific approach to inquiry” and an appreciation of “the power, and the limitations, of different kinds of scientific knowledge”, also worries Starr, who regards the intelligent design debate in the US as an “ugly” example of what could happen.

Need for philosophy
But this fear of philosophy, including ethics, being applied to science tends to show exactly why it is necessary, and therefore the relevance of the ID debate. Such perspectives should indeed be part of everyone’s education. The only question is whether they belong in a science class or in a philosophy class, and there does seem to be a case for the latter.

Keeping science classes for “facts” does not mean they have to be dry, but the most lively school lesson may seem dessicated compared to the competition academic work faces today. And this is where some answers to the crisis of science may be found.

If adolescents are switching off subjects involving abstract thought and the mastery of a body of knowledge, it may have something to do with their being used to receiving information packaged as entertainment. When everything worth knowing seems accessible at the tap of a finger, why subject your mind to the labour of learning the periodic table or the meaning of E = mc²?

Given that hard science involves hard work, what would motivate a young person to take it up? There are, after all, easier paths to a lucrative and prestigious career. Service to humanity has always been the noblest reason for scientific research—one thinks of Louis Pasteur’s huge contribution to individual and social well-being through his work on controlling infections—but the ethic of service is also something difficult for young people when so much conspires to turn them into consumers of goods and services.

Again, a solid motive for selfless service is elusive in a world where religious faith and idealism are suppressed or are experienced largely as sentiments unrelated to daily life.

But the sidelining of religion also undermines science in another way. If everything is, in the end, just physics, or the observable world without ultimate causes, the world is a less interesting place than if there were something more—metaphysics, or the possibility of investigating those ultimate causes. Not only is it less interesting, it also devalues reason, which becomes simply a by-product of irrational processes. It devalues love, making it neither the beginning nor the end of all things but, again, only a by-product of material processes.

In other words, the world becomes meaningless and the only rational response is to consume as much of its material goods as one can. Societies that want young people to dedicate themselves to science will have to offer them a better account of the world than this.

Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet.

 (1) World year of Physics, www.wyp2005.org
 (2) See, for example, “Panel Sounds Alarm on Science Education,” Washington Post, October 13
 (3) “More warnings over decline in science students,” Guardian Unlimited, October 20
 (4) Beyond 2000: Science Education for the Future, Nuffield Foundation, 1998, p.5
 (5) “Nigella ousts Einstein in school science,” Times Online, September 25
 (6) “Anti-science lessons,” www.spiked-online.com
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