Most everyone agrees that Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics education in the U.S.A generally sucks. We often rail against Teh Stupidz of the masses and their ignorance of basic scientific concepts and principles and in doing so we frequently make the masses out to be lazy. I don't think they're lazy necessarily, I think the public school system and society as a whole have failed them. And to a degree, by extension, we as scientists have failed them.
Certainly, we can spend our time debating the global warming deniers and proponents of creationism or the vaccine-autism link. A vigorous debate is necessary to discredit the dishonest irrationality of the opponents of scientific knowledge and progress. However, I posit that directing the bulk of our attentions and energy to this task is stupid. Stupid because it is ineffective, like waiting in the wings with a tourniquet and bone saw as we watch clumsy children try to juggle chainsaws. When we spend so much time interfacing with and disproving the few loud idiot voices in the crowd, we are doing a disservice to that crowd by ignoring it. In effect, we are fighting the flawed output instead of striving to better the input. Doing so would stem the tide of ignorance and intellectual laziness.
I'm not saying that this is all on us scientists' shoulders per se, at least not exclusively. We're a busy profession, trying to
Our society has forgotten the value of independent, creative, critical thought and replaced it with iPods and whatever clothing brand is popular today (Baby Phat?). We make public school students jump through the flaming hoops of standardized tests of regurgitated facts and teach through prime-time TV advertisements that instant gratification and consumerism are far more valuable than meaningful education or thoughtful pondering. We teach the dates of the important battles of the War of Roses or the American Civil War, but we neglect the causes of why those factions marched on each other in the first place and we fail to examine the consequences of those battles and wars. We teach the DNA is a double helix with 4 different nucleotides that pair specifically, but we don't talk very well about why a double helix is optimal or what difficulties it might pose. We teach physics as ballistics fun fun time and don't talk about how the application of electromagnetism has revolutionized the entire world.
Ultimately, we are substituting meaningful discourse on the Whys, the Hows, the What Ifs, and most importantly the Why Nots, for boiled-meat-and-potatoes Whats and Whens.
This represents a deep and disturbing failure to teach Critical Thinking and to foster Curiosity.
We as scientists, ostensibly working for society, have an obligation to make that society smarter, or at least more curious. Why aren't more of us out there on lecture circuits in local libraries and community centers giving layman's presentations on basic scientific concepts, such as the nature of electromagnetism or what a gene actually is and how it works? Yes, we are nerds, but we are damn
We should be! So get to it!
I believe that TV is a useful barometer of cultural conditions, especially children's TV. I still watch cartoons, and I have noticed that the science content in cartoons has sharply declined over the past 10 years. 10 years ago we had Dexter's Lab, Pinky and the Brain, and Bill Nye reruns. Then for a couple years there was Jimmy Neutron. And now all that remains is Johnny Test, who is the favorite guinea pig of his twin scientist big sisters, and the "science" in these episodes is just plain stupid. I mean, even stupider than Dexter's Lab, which was at least entertaining. So do you think that maybe the absolute decline of children's science programming is reflective of a devaluation of the place of science in society?