Wednesday 29 September 2004

Science and knowledge.

Perry links to this piece by Dr Christie Davies, saying that it's "interesting stuff". And he's right: it is. It's very interesting, and utter bollocks.

It's tempting just to leave it at that. The commenters to both Perry's post and Christie's article have said most of what needs to be said: that teaching kids the scientific method is invaluable, that there's more to education than learning facts that you will use in your job, that some children find English and history boring and love science (I did), and that most of the problems are with the way science is taught rather than the subject itself. So I shan't bother. But I do have an additional observation.

One of the most interesting things I have ever studied is the history of mathematics. It was an optional part of my degree, but I think it should have been compulsory, because of the astonishing insight it gave into the workings of the human mind and the development of science. And one of the most surprising things I learnt from it was just how highly mathematically educated most people today are — even those who flunk maths.

These days, to be really good at maths, you need to get your head around imaginary numbers, integral calculus, topology, group theory, and other insanely tricky things. But there was a time, really not long ago at all, when the world's greatest mathematicians were the tiny handful of people who could solve quadratic equations. A few hundred years ago, there were only two people in the world who could solve cubics. They are famous to this day for their ability to do something that most A-level students can now master. The concept of a negative number was once as bizarre as the concept of imaginary numbers is today: most people, including mathematicians, simply refused to accept the idea of negative numbers. Even once negative numbers had been accepted, resistence continued to zero: how can zero be a number when it isn't anything? And then there was infinity, a concept that great thinkers such as Descartes got totally wrong. The continuous number-line that all children are shown in school at a very early age — that simple straight line with zero in the middle, negative numbers stretching away leftwards to infinity, and positive numbers rightwards to infinity — is the culmination of centuries of hard thinking by the greatest mathematical minds of the age. Today, we teach it to six-year-olds, and it is considered so basic and easy that it forms an integral part of their reasoning skills for the rest of their lives. Even the ones that are "bad" at maths understand it.

And don't underestimate the power of notation. Those simple numerals and function symbols revolutionise the way we think. (There have been some amazing experiments on the way that teaching chimpanzees to read numerals affects their behaviour.) The Romans had all the thinking and reasoning skills, the curiosity, and the industrial need for great mathematical breakthroughs, but they were held back by Roman numerals, which aren't much use for maths. Again, pretty much every child in our society understands what was once incredibly advanced scientific knowledge.

Yes, mathematical and scientific teaching was a hell of a lot better a few decades ago than it is now. But that isn't to say that today's standards are crap: your average Briton today has a level of scientific understanding beyond the comprehension of his ancestors. No, standards are just a little less incredibly high today than they used to be.

The important point is this. When Davies talks about doing away with science education, he doesn't know what he's talking about. He thinks he means playing with test tubes in school labs, but there's more to it than that. The basic scientific and mathematical concepts we learn in school are so fundamental to our way of thinking that we don't even realise that it is a way of thinking. We may think that the populace are scientifically ignorant now, but they are paragons of rationality compared to what they'd be if we stopped their scientific education.


Anonymous said...

I'm pretty sure Davies was making a "modest proposal," a la Jonathan Swift. That is: He was kidding. He's a science professor, after all.

-- Joanne Jacobs

Squander Two said...

I'm not sure being a science professor automatically puts him in favour of science education. A lot of people like to guard their expertise from the masses.

But, yeah, it might have been satire. Tricky to tell, sometimes. But hey: either I'm refuting his nonsense or backing up his very good point, but, either way, I'm right.