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Scientists Have Been Recommending Changes to Science Education for Decades

The modern education system seems designed to squelch curiosity

Gary Smith describes the problems with today’s science in his new book Distrust: Big Data, Data-Torturing, and the Assault on Science. He recounts endless examples of disinformation, data torture, and data mining, much of which we already knew. Taken together, however, and as I described in this review, they are mind-blowing.

He argues that many of these problems come from things scientists do such as p-hacking during statistical analysis, too little emphasis on “impact” in statistical analyses, outright data falsification, and the creation of the Internet, which can be a huge disinformation machine in addition to a valuable resource. In the last chapter, he also offers some solutions such as ending the artificial thresholds for p-values such as 0.05, requiring online publication of data, and restricting some of the most egregious examples of disinformation.

He also recommends a better science education. A paragraph in the last chapter says:

“Memorizing the names of the parts of cells and then forgetting the names after a test is not scientific understanding. Nor is deciphering the periodic table or memorizing trigonometric formulas. Science is fundamentally about being curious-about how things work and why they sometimes don’t work. Richard Feynman’s journey to Nobel laureate began with a boyhood curiosity about how radios work. He tinkered with them, took them apart, and put them back together. He fixed other people’s radios. He loved it.”

He quotes Richard Feynman because Feynman often talked of science education in the later years of his life (he died in 1988), including what we should know and understand about the natural world. In one video he says:

“See that bird? It’s a brown-throated thrush, but in Germany it’s called a halzenfugel, and in Chinese they call it a chung ling and even if you know all those names for it, you still know nothing about the bird. You only know something about people; what they call the bird. Now that thrush sings, and teaches its young to fly, and flies so many miles away during the summer across the country, and nobody knows how it finds its way.”

In another video, he distinguishes between knowing and understanding. Using several examples, he says that knowing is being able to do calculations that agree with experiments. Understanding is being able to explain the underlying phenomena.

For instance, the Mayans knew positions of the moon and could predict eclipses, but they didn’t understand the reasons for their correct calculations. That understanding did not come until Newton and others explained gravity and its impact on rotating bodies. And the lack of understanding allowed the Mayans to falsely attribute things to gods, and not to physical laws.

Feynman also understood that good explanations are difficult to provide because so many explanations emphasize technical jargon. He says: “When we speak without jargon, it frees us from hiding behind knowledge we don’t have. Big words and fluffy ‘business speak’ cripples us from getting to the point and passing knowledge to others.” Feynman understood that his expertise would prove to be a barrier to his students learning and that as such he would need to take actions to ensure his knowledge was accessible; something all educators should do.

Feynman was also very critical of exams:

“You cannot get educated by this self-propagating system in which people study to pass exams, and teach others to pass exams, but nobody knows anything. You learn something by doing it yourself, by asking questions, by thinking, and by experimenting.”

Knowing vs. Understanding

Today’s educational systems, in most every developed country, focus almost entirely on knowing, not understanding, and mostly knowing names of something, from birds to parts of cells. Exams ask students to repeat names of things ad nauseum, and then the students who perform well are given high grades and accepted at top universities. Whether the students “understand” science or not is peripheral, they are able to regurgitate information better than other students, so they are the ones who graduate from the top universities and are given the best paying jobs in consulting companies, scientific laboratories, and engineering companies.

Parents know this so they focus their children’s efforts on “knowing” the names of things. If their children can’t remember them, send them to after-school classes where they will learn to recite more of these names, and forget the old adage about trying to “expand their minds” or “build character.”

The impact on kids has been known for decades. Carl Sagan, another well-known scientist whose 13-part PBS television series Cosmos: A Personal Voyage was watched by at least 500 million people across 60 countries beginning in the 1980s, once said:

“[W]hen you talk to kindergartners or first-grade kids, you find a class full of science enthusiasts. They ask deep questions. They ask, ‘What is a dream, why do we have toes, why is the moon round, what is the birthday of the world, why is grass green?’ These are profound, important questions. They just bubble right out of them. You go talk to 12th graders and there’s none of that. They’ve become incurious. Something terrible has happened between kindergarten and 12th grade.”

Don’t Kill Curiosity

These problems extend far beyond America’s borders. In Singapore, where I live, the curiosity is gone by third or fourth grade because there are few if any open question-and-answer sessions. Instead, there are weekly or biweekly tests beginning in third grade that go on for years and that drum out any curiosity. When my 10-year old son (fifth grade in 2023) has told teachers he has read this book or that book about some type of science that has yet to be covered (or I have told teachers outside of his school about books he has read such as Immune: A Journey Into the Mysterious System That Keeps You Alive), teachers always tell him or me that the school doesn’t cover that topic until secondary school. There is no attempt to increase my son’s interest in the topic, and my son no longer attempts to converse with his teachers and much of his excitement about science (and school) is gone.

Gary Smith knows that some of the problems with scientific research begin with science education. He rightfully begins his book with what scientists do in their jobs today, showing the over emphasis on p-values and the reverse engineering of these p-values to get published. He describes increases in the number and magnitude of these problems as scientists do more reverse engineering through data mining, and correctly points out the artificial intelligence will likely make this worse.

He only mentions science education at the end of the book, arguing that some of today’s distrust of science indirectly comes from a poor education in science, not only for scientists, but for everyone. In the last chapter, “Restoring the ‘Lustre of Science,'” he recommends changes in the way this science is done, and there will be much resistance to his proposed changes. But we also need changes in science education because the public at large, and perhaps even scientists themselves, are woefully mis-educated at an early age, and discouraged from ever “understanding” science, a prerequisite to making significant scientific advances.

Jeffrey Funk

Fellow, Discovery Institute
Jeff Funk is a Retired Professor and currently a Fellow at Discovery Institutes's Walter Bradley Center for Natural & Artificial Intelligence. His book, Competing in the Age of Bubbles: Understanding the Real Signals of Market Growth, is forthcoming from Harriman House.

Scientists Have Been Recommending Changes to Science Education for Decades