27 February 2012

Thought of the day: Speculation on why the public has no interest in science

I haven't made any progress figuring out ways to convince the public that science is cool or worth learning. So I thought I'd do the opposite and list all the reasons why science is such a tough sell with the public.
  1. Science is hard and takes a lot of time to learn. It requires sequential knowledge. You need to know math before you can tackle any scientific subject and that alone is a huge hurdle. Most people learn science and math for one of the following reasons: a) their parents said it was important, b) if they don't do well in those subjects, they won't get into Harvard, c) it was a relatively easy subject for them and made them feel smart. Deep ideas in science aren't typically taught until college (maybe even graduate school), so you have to brainwash people until you can get them to the point when they know enough to appreciate the beauty of science. How many kids have you met who sincerely want to grow up and be a scientist? There are only a few sexy scientific endeavors. The ones I could think of are inventing cures for diseases and going to space. Sports and performing arts look cool, even to a five year old kid. Watching a scientist pipette or sit at a computer does not look cool.
  2. People can get away with not knowing any science in their daily lives. They don't need to navigate ships at sea, write computer programs, or farm their own food. There's a mass-produced machine or product to do anything they desire or need. At worst, they can hire a repairman. Yes, science is taken for granted... until the next celebrity comes down with a life-threatening illness.
  3. Let's face it, people want fun, fame, and money. Fun has been eliminated in item #1. Scientists are not famous unless they build atomic bombs, cure caner, or invent a limitless energy source. I guess there is some money to be made in science (even if we don't consider technology companies like Google). For some reason, the idea of scientist as the money-making profession only seems to resonate with Asians.
  4. The practical uses of science consist of either a) modeling the world and using the models to make predictions or b) testing designs by experimentation. Modeling is abstract and not people friendly. You need to know math (it rear its ugly head again!) Experiments? Yes, you can build cool stuff and write nifty code. But it's hard to get into that stuff when the chemicals they used to have in educational kits are banned; schools don't have the budget for equipment or don't want to be liable; there are more interesting distractions like TV, video games, internet, Facebook.
These are just a few "guesses." I don't have any research to back this up.

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