The Trivialization of Science Teaching

A U.K. physics teacher writes about the destruction of his subject by the new government-estabished syllabus.

(via the excellent Natalie Solent)

See my related post from 2005, Skipping Science Class.

SECOND UPDATE: An interesting collision between science and “Theory,” as the latter is practiced in many university humanities departments, can be seen in the episode known as The Sokal Hoax. (More here.)

Also, these books are relevant to this discussion: Higher Superstition and Fashionable Nonsense.

FIRST UPDATE: From the Telegraph:

The curriculum in state schools in England has been stripped of its content and corrupted by political interference, according to a damning report by an influential, independent think-tank…No major subject area has escaped the blight of political interference, according to the report published by Civitas.


Civitas casts doubt on the value of much of what children are now “taught”. History has become so divorced from facts and chronology that pupils might learn the new “skills and perspectives” through a work of fiction, such as Lord of the Rings, it says…Teenagers studying for GCSEs are being asked to write about the September 11 atrocities using Arab media reports and speeches from Osama bin Laden as sources without balancing material from America, it reveals.


Designed to make science more popular, the results of a study show (that the new science curriculum) has had the opposite effect, with pupils less interested in the subject and less keen to pursue it in the sixth form than they were under the previous, more fact-based lessons…Future scientists will be even more likely to come from independent schools because the new GCSE courses will leave state pupils ill-quipped for further study, it says.

This story via Dr Sanity, who writes about similar trends in the U.S.

27 thoughts on “The Trivialization of Science Teaching”

  1. I would estimate that about 1/4 of my son’s high school biology textbooks actually covers political matters. That is a textbook selected by the conservative state of Texas no less.

    The politicization of science education serves three purposes: (1) Turns schools into indoctrination centers (2) it make science easier to teach by dumbing it down meaning worse educated teachers can teach it (3) following (2) it makes it easier to claim to have “taught science” to more students by making it easier for students to score well without doing all that icky math stuff.

    Science represents a serious threat to the class of articulate intellectuals. They exert influence in the world by making everything seem malleable and arbitrary. They seek to create an intellectual environment in which reality is whatever they say it is at any particular time. Science directly threatens that power. For the last century really, (it started with the Communist) they have been waging a war to make people think of science as nothing more than type of social process no different from a debating society and whose conclusion have no more predictive power.

  2. This is one of the more frightening things I have ever read. We’re a devolving culture, as explicated by this quote from the poor man’s comments:
    Pupils are taught to poke holes in scientific experiments, to constantly find what is wrong. However, never are the pupils given ways to determine when an experiment is reliable, to know when an experiment yields information about the world that we can trust. This encourages the belief that all quantitative data is unreliable and untrustworthy. Some of my pupils, after a year of the course, have gone from scientifically minded individuals to thinking, “It’s not possible to know anything, so why bother?” Combining distrust of scientific evidence with debates won on style and presentation alone is an unnerving trend that will lead society astray.

  3. Physics is no longer important! Just look at how almost all these world leaders, except for about three or four, got to where they are by studying and mastering fluff!

    Margaret Thatcher (ENGLAND), degreed in Chemistry
    Angela Merkel (GERMANY), PhD Physical Chemistry
    Nicholas Sarkozy(FRANCE), degreed in Law and Political Science
    José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero (SPAIN), degreed in Law
    Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (BRAZIL), 4th grade
    Romano Prodi (ITALY), degreed in Law, studied Economics and Political Science
    John Fredrik Reinfeldt (SWEDEN), degreed in Business and Economics
    Jens Stoltenberg (NORWAY), degreed in Economics
    Geir Hilmar Haarde (ICELAND), degreed in Economics and International Relations
    Anders Fogh Rasmussen (DENMARK), MSc Economics
    Felipe Calderón Hinojosa (MEXICO), degreed in Law, Economics and Public Administration
    Vladimir Putin (RUSSIA), degreed in Law
    Steven Harper (CANADA) computer programmer, M.S. Economics, first PM since Lester B. Pearson (1963) with no law school.
    John Howard (AUSTRALIA), Bachelor of Laws
    Ehud Olmert (ISRAEL), degreed in Psychology, Philosophy and Law
    Hu Jintao (CHINA), degreed in Water Conservancy Engineering
    Manmohan Singh (INDIA), doctorate in Economics

    John F. Kennedy: B.A. International Affairs
    Lyndon B. Johnson: B.A. History and Social Science
    Richard M. Nixon: B.A. History
    Gerald R. Ford: B.S. Political Science and Economics
    Jimmy Carter: B.S. Naval Academy, graduate work in nuclear physics at Union College
    Ronald Reagan: Majored in Economics and Sociology
    George H.W. Bush: B.S. Economics
    Bill Clinton: B.S. Foreign Service
    George W. Bush: B.A. History

    Roberts: History
    Stevens: English Literature
    O’Connor: Economics
    Scalia: History
    Kennedy: Economics
    Souter: Philosophy
    Thomas: English
    Ginsburg: Government
    Breyer: Economics
    Alito: Public and International Affairs

  4. Errm, I hate saying it but this has been going on for years in every subject in Britain with teachers going along possibly because there were no alternatives or because they do not know how to deal with the decades-old rot.

  5. My Dad was pushed out of his long-time calculus-teaching gig when after years and years of complaining about this stuff. It has been going on for decades.

  6. Jimbino…I wouldn’t assume that a non-science degree is *necessarily* fluff…it might be, but probably is more likely to be fluffy if it is fairly recent. Indeed, I suspect there are quite a few people who didn’t major in science but got at least some meaningful exposure to it via required courses with substantive content.

  7. You cannot assume that non-science people are stupid.

    The problem is people who are supposed to be teaching science and math who are NOT doing so.

  8. your first mistake was leaving the lucrative private sector
    you could use the proceeds to start a private school ;p

    the only place real math and science are taught these days is the home

  9. “For the last century really, (it started with the Communist) they have been waging a war to make people think of science as nothing more than type of social process no different from a debating society and whose conclusion have no more predictive power.”

    I think the Roman Catholic hierarchy, not the Communist Party, started that particular political rumble. And in America today, it’s primary exponents are advocates of “creationism” and/or “intelligent design.”

  10. Mr. Suess-Barnkey is absolutely wrong about the Catholic Church’s position on the validity of science as a way to know the truth about God’s creation. St. Augustine made that clear, to pick one example.

    Also, he is off point, but could not resist the urge to indulge in some anti-Catholic bigotry.

  11. Oliver Suess-Barnkey

    I think the Roman Catholic hierarchy, not the Communist Party, started that particular political rumble.

    Actually, no, religious conservatives occupy the opposite pole in which an absolute concrete reality exist whose nature is immediately evident to members of the faith. They violently reject the idea that any human construct can approach the ultimate truth.

    Creationism is a relatively minor annoyance compared to the threat poised by post-modernism. Creationist argue (incorrectly) that evolutionary theory doesn’t meet scientific standards. Post-modernist essentially argue that science itself doesn’t really exist and that the information that the scientific method produces is no better than that produced by any other method.

  12. Three of the men running for president as Republicans have said they don’t believe in evolution. Schoolboards from Kansas to California are under pressure to officially pretend “Intelligent Design” is science. Granted, these efforts represent a narrow, though extremely vocal, minority in America, but I think they could have already become more than a “minor annoyance.”

    I have no idea who represents the “post modernists” to which Shannon refers, nor am I aware of any examples where they’re posing a meaningful threat to science in America. Perhaps he can provide some examples.

  13. I’m guessing that the spam filter is suppressing comments with links, so let me try this link-free. For an interesting example of a collision between science and postmodenism, google “Sokal Hoax” or “Sokal Affair.”

    Jonathan: Your comments were caught by the spam filter, perhaps because of the URLs. I just found them. I missed them earlier because I was searching on your name with “case sensitive” inadvertently checked. Apologies.

  14. And the situation in Amerika is not about to get better, if the science skills of the field of candidates are taken into account. Here is an indication of their skills as indicated by their undergraduate degrees. All graduate degrees in Law have, of course, been omitted for lack of relevance to science. The only ones to have shown any interests apart from pure fluff are Ron Paul (medicine), John Edwards (technology) and Brownback (Agricultural Economics).

    Hillary Clinton, B.A., Political Science, 1969, Wellesley College, with departmental honors
    Barak Obama, B.A. Political Science, Columbia University, 1983
    John Edwards, B.S. Textile Technology, North Carolina State University, 1974, with honors
    Joe Biden, B.A. History and Political Science, University of Delaware, 1965
    Christopher Dodd, B.A. English Literature, Providence College, 1966
    Dennis Kucinich, B.A. and MA in Speech and Communication, Case Western Reserve University, 1973
    Bill Richardson, B.A. French and Political Science, Tufts University, 1970; M.A., International Relations, Tufts University, 1971
    Mike Gravel, B.S., Economics, Columbia University, 1956
    Newt Gingrich, B.A., History, Emory University, 1965, M.S., PhD, History, Tulane, 1968
    Chuck Hagel, B.A., History, University of Nebraska at Omaha, 1971

    Rudolph Giuliani, College Board scores of 569 verbal and 504 math
    John McCain, [At Annapolis] McCain’s grades were good in the subjects he enjoyed, such as literature and history. [Roomate] Gamboa said McCain would rather read a history book than do his math homework. He did just enough to pass the classes he didn’t find stimulating.
    “He stood low in his class,” Gamboa said. “But that was by choice, not design.”
    Mitt Romney, Brigham Young University, B.A. English, 1971, first in his class with a 3.97 GPA.
    Ron Paul, Gettysburg College, B.A., 1957, M.D. Duke University, 1961
    Fred Dalton Thompson, Memphis State University, B.A. Philosophy and Political Science, 1964
    Tommy Thompson, B.A. Political Science, University of Wisconsin-Madison
    Tom Tancredo, BA, Political Science, University of Northern Colorado, 1968
    Sam Brownback, B.S., Agricultural Economics, Kansas State University, 1979, with honors
    James S.Gilmore III, B.A., Foreign Affairs, University of Virginia, 1971
    Mike Huckabee, B.A., Religion, Ouachita Baptist University, 1976
    Duncan Hunter, B.S., Law, Western State University, 1968
    Tom Vilsack, B.A., History, Hamilton College, 1972

  15. Somewhat off topic but related:
    As a junior college we see as one of (if not the) main purpose of our advising to get people into and then prepare them to do well at a 4-year college. To transfer to the business college at either of the flagship colleges or better private ones, students need (on average) a 3.8 (out of 4) for their 60 hours from us; to get into some engineering majors, it can go well below 3. Both of these colleges (engineering & business) have relatively narrow & specific requirements. So business is getting specifically prepared students and our best in terms of general coursework. (Our department chair is likely to give us a “talk” if we consistently give more than 10 or 15% A’s.)

    On the other hand, engineering doesn’t care as much about their grades in other areas while looking more closely at theose in math and science, as well as expecting completion of much more difficult courses. (For instance, they want students who have taken the harder, calculus, track and are two or three classes above the ones both business and arts & sciences accepts – and that is the beginning of the math the engineers take, while our math courses complete the requirements for those in business and arts & sciences.)

  16. The Sokal hoax is a good example of how distant and peripheral the threat to science posed by “postmodern” humanities wackademics is. Sokal had to stoop to submitting his paper to an obscure humanities journal that had no peer review. That’s because he knew peer reviewed publications, i.e. mainstream academia, would reject his piece out of hand. Moreover, he was apparently asked by the journal to make changes aimed at clarifying his thesis, but refused, another sign of how low he had to go to carry off his hoax.
    Meanwhile, the Christian creation myth and its drag-wearing cousin, intelligent design “theory,” are bullying their way into school SCIENCE textbooks, even as critics say such supersitions are worthy of inclusion in texts on politics and other social studies.
    I certainly applaud Sokal for exposing how badly humanities wackademics misunderstand science. But I think his hoax shows how far, not how close, these people are from the mainstream of American academia.

  17. I think the theory of intelligent design is hokum. But I am amused at how many of the educated people who agree with me about ID are quite credulous WRT empirically unsupported fears of man-made pesticides, anthropogenic global warming, nuclear power and other fashionable bugaboos. There’s a lot of PC junk already in textbooks, as Shannon points out, yet only when ID is introduced do many self-described educated people become concerned about the corruption of science.

  18. Indeed, superstition is wherever you find it. Nevertheless, there’s no meaningful parallel between intelligent design theory and concerns, even those that are inflated by dubious science, about manmade climate change, nuclear waste and pesticides.

    Al Gore, for example, bases his analysis of climate change on what scientists have told him about it. He may well be cherry picking results and/or misrepresenting them, but science is nevertheless fundamental to his claim. Intelligent design is fundamentally anti-science, claiming that the leading researchers around the world are participating in some kind of conspiracy to promote evolution. By contrast, Gore’s thesis that climate change is a significant man made threat is by definition wide open to challenge by contrary scientific evidence.

    That’s one reason many people who dismiss intelligent design are apt to take Gore’s message seriously. The other, of course, has to do with taking responsibility. If Gore’s correct, the consequences of inaction are potentially catastrophic. If he’s incorrect, the costs of restricting greenhouse gasses seem far less threatening to the planet’s survival.

    Compare that with intelligent design. What are the potential consequences of teaching that the theory isn’t science? I think it’s pretty to easy to see why Americans tend to be far more concerned about keeping poison off their apples and radiation away from their cities–and toleratnt toward the inevitable exaggerations–than with maintaining politically convenient supersitions.

    Surely you embrace that bias, Jonathan. Consider the threats to humanity posed by “rogue” nations like Iran. American history overflows with examples of the exaggeration of outside threats. Yet there is widespread tolerance of such bias, on the simple theory that the consequences of underplaying such threats are far greater than for overplaying them.

  19. “Three of the men running for president as Republicans have said they don’t believe in evolution.”

    I can’t speak for them but I have met people who believe in the evolutionary process but that it is guided by god and so the self-identify as creationists. If someone says they believe in god should they be disqualified for believing in an unscientific myth?

    Personally, I don’t care. As an atheist I despise ID but I really don’t think evolution as the creation of species is very important. It just hasn’t come up in my daily life. (however, Natural selection is a vital idea)

    Call me when someone starts arguing that cars are intelligently designed by a higher being and appear on car lots by the omnipotent power of god.

  20. Given the way our political system works, the beliefs of a US president WRT to contentious local issues such as the teaching of evolutionary theory (or re abortion or same-sex marriage, etc.) aren’t very consequential. OTOH, the President has a great deal of influence on our foreign policy.

    Gore’s demagoguery on scientific issues matters as a political power play and because his behavior makes clear that he doesn’t have his priorities straight. Of course the positions he takes also contribute to educational malpractice.

  21. Thanks for dropping by my site.

    The lack of content in curricula is going to drive more parents to put their children online for at least some of their courses.

    I have heard educators and commenters protest that there is x,y, or z missing from the online and/or homeschool models, which will prevent them from ever being more than a secondary phenomenon. They forget that parents are usually evaluating educational opportunities in terms of “what does my child need at this stage” not “what model do I prefer.” Folks might think that K-12 public school is the best general model, but find their local offerings inadequate and switch to a different option. As more schools show glaring inadequacies in particular areas, students will be quietly moved out, a few each year.

Comments are closed.