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Burton DeWilde | USLHC | USA

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Communicating Science and Its Value, pt. 1

In the past I’ve made it known that I’m a politically-engaged person — and not without some commentator controversy. While I generally prefer to keep my science and politics separate, they inevitably intersect in the matter of governmental funding of scientific research and conflicts between groups driving the national dialogue on science policy. Unfortunately, scientists are often left behind in this conversation, resulting in a serious disconnect with the public.

It’s not hard to find embarrassing stories about how Americans are ignorant of basic scientific knowledge: roughly half believe dinosaurs and humans coexisted, 1 in 5 adults believes the Sun revolves around the Earth, and when it comes to acceptance of evolution, we’re out of step with much of the world. On many topical issues — global climate change, nuclear energy, genetically-modified foods, vaccination, cell phones — an abundance of misinformation drowns out the science, or at least muddies the waters. And even worse, many Americans don’t understand how scientists draw their conclusions, i.e. the scientific method, nor do they apply it in their daily lives. A much-quoted survey from 2007 found that 70% of Americans are “scientifically illiterate” (though that distinction, as well as the statistic, is misleading: scientific literacy is not on a binary scale).

I realize that I’m probably preaching to the choir here: You all have made the effort to read a physics blog written by physicists about highly technical topics, which suggests to me that you are either totally awesome science enthusiasts or… scientists. Thanks for reading! :) But from whom does the rest of the country not following Quantum Diaries get its science information?

Well, for starters, there’s Hollywood and the entertainment industry, where scientists are commonly portrayed as mad/evil or awkward geniuses — people to fear or mock, perhaps, but not befriend or idolize — and scientific accuracy is typically thrown out the window in favor of more explosions. There’s also the Internet, where people can and do say pretty much whatever they want without the need for peer review or, you know, facts. Do you remember when unfounded fears that CERN was going to create an Earth-devouring black hole ricocheted around the web? Although the Internet is an incredible resource for information and personal research, it’s treacherously inconsistent. The public also learns about science from the news/media, where sensationalism is routine and “fair and balanced” reporting means giving equal time to scientific fact and wild speculation. Recently, a chemistry publication entitled “Evidence for the Likely Origin of Homochirality in Amino Acids, Sugars, and Nucleosides on Prebiotic Earth” made headlines when, in its final two sentences, the author suggests that advanced, potentially dangerous, dinosaurs could exist elsewhere in the universe. Take a guess on how the media covered it. Unfortunately, most Americans don’t learn about science from scientists, and given the abject mess of these other sources, it’s a wonder that a quarter of the population is “scientifically savvy and alert.”

Well, an explainable wonder: America is the only country in the world that requires undergraduates to take a year of general education — and it makes a difference! Education works, who would’ve guessed? :D However, there is serious cause for concern, particularly with regards to K-12 education. One of the great legacies of the Bush Administration, the “No Child Left Behind Act” of 2001, tied federal funding of public schools to student performance on annual, standardized tests in math and reading (laughably, the law stipulates that all children are to perform above average). Perhaps not surprisingly, educators under pressure are more likely to “teach to the test” to improve scores at the expense of other subjects and skills, such as science and critical thinking. Should we worry about what will happen when the NCLB generation makes it to Physics 101…?

It’s worth pointing out that a post-secondary education in physics, for instance, is also subject to distorted priorities: Our training is extremely focused on skills needed to continue in Academia and fundamental research, while statistics show that a significant fraction of us go on to careers in industry immediately after grad school, and that the most-used skills are not properly developed in the curriculum. Furthermore, in the long term, most of us end up working outside of Academia. Are we better off learning electrodynamics from a glorified textbook on special topics in mathematical methods? I think not.

More to come!

— Burton :)

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8 Responses to “Communicating Science and Its Value, pt. 1”

  1. Andrew says:

    I taught a Jackson class for two years, and its reputation as a “math methods” book (as you say) is ill-deserved. The problem is how it’s taught as a class — too much focus on special functions, etc, and not enough on the electrodynamics that’s really not available in lower-level books like Griffiths. I’m talking about things like derivation of Cerenkov radiation (and other energy loss in matter), synchrotron radiation, and even a discussion of bremsstrahlung. Yes, you need to learn Greens functions in statics to do a lot of the dynamics efficiently, but it doesn’t need to be taught as “math methods.”

    I should also mention that I had engineering grad students in my course, if you want to talk about connecting to industrial applications. Their textbooks laugh at Jackson’s discussion of waveguides and antennae (one of the “math methods” heavy sections of the book). It’s possible that there are better advanced E&M books (though I didn’t find another I liked better), but Jackson is a good book with _a lot_ of good physics.

    I sympathize with your points about science communication, but I think the standard view of Jackson is unfair.

  2. JoeB says:

    Burt,
    You have nailed a topic that I have struggled with for a long time, but in a slightly different arena. Environmental issues and renewable resources fall on deaf ears due to the exact same problems you mention in this post. Too often people are ignorant of what the real science is and what is really available to push these technologies forward. I hope our education systems can wade through the politics and actually teach facts to students who yearn for them.

    The media needs to be “fair and balanced” yes, but why not do it in a way that shows the 1 crazy vs. the 1000 peer reviewed scientists?

    Thanks for this and I can’t wait to hear more.

    JoeB

  3. LeonH says:

    “Well, an explainable wonder: America is the only country in the world that requires undergraduates to take a year of general education — and it makes a difference! Education works, who would’ve guessed?”

    While this sentence may tachnically be correct, let me add that to be allowed to go to university in germany (i.e. to get the Abitur), you have to go through quite a bit of general education – including at least one science class until your last year (Physics, Chemistry or Biology). So I guess I have to disappoint you if you believe that in other countries of the world, you don’t go through general education.

  4. Burton DeWilde says:

    @Andrew: I’m relieved that your only qualm is with my opinion on Jackson’s Classical Electrodynamics. :) Yes, his book certainly has some redeeming qualities (especially as a reference), and one’s experience of the book is, of course, instructor-dependent. For me, though, his presentation is exceedingly dull; the text, dry. Electrodynamics is genuinely interesting, but Jackson manages to suck all the fun out of it! And I spent more time looking up integrals than learning the physics.

    @JoeB: Environmental science and renewable energy definitely suffers from the misinformation machine, maybe more than most fields. I think people who learn about these issues in school get good information (actual data?!), it’s the rest of the public that needs exposure to the (non-political) facts.

    @LeonH: I would be disappointed if German education did *not* include some general education component. I went to a liberal arts college, so most of my undergraduate education was general — for which I am very grateful! :) The point was that American secondary education puts more emphasis on general studies than most other countries, and the result is a relatively high level of “scientific literacy” in spite of cultural and political considerations that might suggest otherwise.

  5. Uncle Al says:

    The California Academic Performance Index is administered to high school students. Results are publicly reported by race to avoid discrimination (ahem). Divide cohort scores by the Caucasian value, then multiply by 100. Take the weighted average for all racial populations: 83 IQ across the state. Los Angeles Times “California section” page B3, 05 September 2008: “A student could pass the math portion of the test without answering a single algebra question correctly.” Ignorance is its own engine of creation.

    Spotaneous homochirality (chiral L-amino acids and chiral D-sugars) is easy. If only resolved chiral crystals form in a racemizing environment (e.g., benzil in ethanol), take an excess of racemic solid over solvent solubility and vigorously stir for a few days. 100% chiral resolution occurs for the solid, (only space group P3(1)21 or only P3(2)21) for crystalline benzil), albeit with random occurance

    Looking glass grass would have a tremendous survival advantage against cows, but Earth’s life is homochiral only one way. If vacuum symmetries observed toward massless boson photons do not rigorously obtain for massed fermions (leptons, quarks), a mechanism is detectable. The probe is crystallography not physics. The apparatus is superb physics sensitive to one part in 20 trillion difference/average,

    http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/erotor1.jpg
    Two chiral Eotvos experiments. If the vacuum is trace chiral toward chemically and macroscopically identical, enantiomorphic atomic mass distributions (but not towards boson photons), the homochirality problem is universally solved. Somebody should look.

  6. Flip says:

    Burt, we’re waiting for your response to the comment above. :3

  7. [...] Communicating Science and Its Value, pt. 1 (quantumdiaries.org) [...]

  8. protein says:

    In my experience education can both prevent communication disputes and also can solve dispute, or help others understand your view.

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