02 January 2012


Physicist Lisa Randall in her CNN essay American Can't Afford To Lose Its Grip On Science 

"If current political discussions are any indication, America is in danger not only of losing scientific leadership, but also of losing respect for the scientific method itself.  This is at a time when the type of clear and rational thinking that science teaches us is more relevant than ever.  Given the challenging problems we face today, our country needs to embrace the scientific values that have served us so well.

"Much of our economy, from the ever-tinier and more powerful products of our electronics industry to the most cost-effective manufacturing processes to the latest marketing and advertising tactics, has emerged from scientific advances and reasoning.  So have many sensible government policies and programs, even if they are often also politically compromised.

"The scientific method lets us see how various policies have fared elsewhere (through observation and experiment) and in other cases we can anticipate the expected results of various policies.  Of course political factors enter too, in policy debates in which actual scientific facts don't necessarily dominate the decision-making process.  But in all cases, having a logical framework with which to move forward makes sense.

"Science is difficult in many cases.  The shortcut to presenting reasoned arguments is to present the conclusions of scientists rather than the detailed logic and reasoning that went into their decisions .... Though scientists rely on expert opinions, the opinion of any scientist, no matter how important, ultimately has to be verified through facts.  Everyone who is interested is free to examine date or evaluate ideas.  A promising direction or an objection to existing suggestions will ultimately be heard.  The key currency in science is reputation.  Scientists know they have to pay attention to both good ideas and to objections, because science is unforgiving.  Golden parachutes don't exist."

At the learning level, I discovered a NYTimes article that made me wish that I was still pursuing my degree today ~ Online Textbooks Aim To Make Science Leap From The Page.  In addition to definitions, diagrams, and discussion, virtual texts (see image above, click to enlarge) "are replete with punchy, interactive electronic features ~ from dynamic illustrations to short quizzes .... to audio and video clips woven into the text."  Imagine, seeing an interactive image of the human brain or a map of an oil spill, and being able to manipulate the image to explore details and relationships.  Further, when you purchase digital texts, they all fit in your handy IPad or other device.  

Still in the realm of competitive education, take a look through 10 Lessons American Schools Can Learn From China.  It was true thirty years ago, and is even more true today, that Asian students attending American universities enjoy a clear advantage in the preparation they've undergone before ever matriculating.  In China ~

~  Education is a top priority.
~  China is cutting out college majors that don't pay.  (I have problems with this one.)
~  Teachers are retrained before being dismissed.
~  Education spending is growing.
~  China increased teacher pay and training to success.
~  There is reduced emphasis on rote learning, more on problem solving.
~  Non-attentive students are not tolerated.
~  Extracurricular activities are downplayed in favor of more studying.
~  Chinese students spend more time in school.
~  Schools recruit and retain key professors.

U.S. universities do practice a few of these measures, but in our society as a whole there is clearly a lack of understanding and support for quality higher education for every student.

As one small step toward correcting the situation, I offer How To Argue With A Scientist:  A Guide.  Jacquelyn Gill has "collected the most commonly used phrases and turned them into everyday English, so that the next time you argue with a scientist, you'll not only better understand their arguments, but you might learn how to make yours better, too."  Core concepts explained include ~

~  sample size
~  anecdotal evidence
~  the scientific method
~  peer review
~  bias
~  consensus

She ends as follows:  "Insert many caveats about generalizations and oversimplification here.  This is meant as an introductory guide, not a thorough treatise.  Historians and philosophers of science will likely cringe, but the goal here is the edification of the layperson."  Let's hear it for edification !

No comments:

Post a Comment