Skipping Science Class, Continued

Three years ago, I posted about some disturbing trends in UK science education:

Instead of learning science, pupils will “learn about the way science and scientists work within society”. They will “develop their ability to relate their understanding of science to their own and others’ decisions about lifestyles”, the QCA said. They will be taught to consider how and why decisions about science and technology are made, including those that raise ethical issues, and about the “social, economic and environmental effects of such decisions”.

They will learn to “question scientific information or ideas” and be taught that “uncertainties in scientific knowledge and ideas change over time”, and “there are some questions that science cannot answer, and some that science cannot address”. Science content of the curriculum will be kept “lite”. Under “energy and electricity”, pupils will be taught that “energy transfers can be measured and their efficiency calculated, which is important in considering the economic costs and environmental effects of energy use”. (The above is from John Clare’s article in the Telegraph.)

A couple of days ago, the Telegraph had an article about the Government’s new national science test and the unbelievably simplistic questions it contains. For example:

In a multiple choice question, teenagers were asked why electric wires are made from copper. The four possible answers were that copper was brown, was not magnetic, conducted electricity, or that it conducted heat.

This question can of course be answered without knowing anything at all about either electricity or copper. Demonstration:

Why is unobtanium used to summon the Gostak?

1)Unobtainum is purple
2)Unobtanium is not magnetic
3)The Gostak has a strong affinity for unobtainum
4)Unobtanium is attractive to gnomes

It’s pretty clear that the desired answer is (3), even if you don’t know what unobtainium is or what (who?) the Gostak might be. The question on the U.K. “science test” might be a test of the ability to read and perform very simple logic; it has nothing to do with the measurement of scientific knowledge or the understanding of scientific methods.

In my 2005 post, I wrote:

At least in the U.S., the vastly-increased spending on education over recent decades has been driven in large part by the conviction that we are living in a more scientific and technological society, and that schools must provide students with appropriate knowledge in order for them to be able to succeed in the job market and to fulfill their roles as citizens. I feel fairly sure that the same kind of reasoning has been used to justify educational expenditures in the U.K. So, the schools have taken the money on pretext, and are now failing to perform the duty that should go with it.

Melanie Phillips, in her post criticizing the new U.K science program, said “The reason given for the change to the science curriculum is to make science ‘relevant to the 21st century’. This is in accordance with the government’s doctrine of ‘personalised learning’, which means that everything that is taught must be ‘relevant’ to the individual child.” To which I responded in my post:

“There are so many things wrong (with the U.K.’s new approach to science education) that it’s difficult to know where to start. First of all: it’s a natural human characteristic to be curious about the universe you live in. Schools should encourage this curiosity, not smother it in the name of a fake “relevance.”

In A Preface to Paradise Lost, C S Lewis contrasts the characters of Adam and Satan, as developed in Milton’s work:

Adam talks about God, the Forbidden tree, sleep, the difference between beast and man, his plans for the morrow, the stars and the angels. He discusses dreams and clouds, the sun, the moon, and the planets, the winds and the birds. He relates his own creation and celebrates the beauty and majesty of Eve…Adam, though locally confined to a small park on a small planet, has interests that embrace ‘all the choir of heaven and all the furniture of earth.’ Satan has been in the heaven of Heavens and in the abyss of Hell, and surveyed all that lies between them, and in that whole immensity has found only one thing that interests Satan. And that “one thing” is, of course, Satan himself…his position and the wrongs he believes have been done to him. Satan’s monomaniac concern with himself and his supposed rights and wrongs is a necessity of the Satanic predicament…

One need not believe in a literal Satan, or for that matter be religious at all, to see the force of this. There is indeed something Satanic about a person who has no interests other than themselves. And by insisting that everything be “relevant” and discouraging the development of broader interests, the educational authorities in Britain are doing great harm to the children put in their charge.

35 thoughts on “Skipping Science Class, Continued”

  1. What we have here is the attempt by articulate intellectuals to shape all subjects to their benefit. A science education about the politically neutral ideas of science does not benefit them. A science education that focuses on how the sociology of science does. Also, people without a firm grounding in science are easier to manipulate and control.

    We’re seeing this as a broad assault across our culture. It a slow motion version of what happened under fascism and communism. Everything is being bent to politics and by extension the needs of the political class.

  2. Shannon: We’re under assault on all cultural fronts.

    I’m very confident the national Democratic Party is deliberately destroying this country and they’re following the example of Europe.

    One of the most dysfunctional aspect of European politics is how certain topics are considered unmentionable. Multi-Culti is a major example. In some countries the Left has completely poisoned the vocabulary so that to even try to discuss it reveals one to be racist.

    The Democrats are doing more and more frequently,especially that lightweight fraud Obama

    Nothing can be discussed, problems canot be identified, solutions can not be proposed.

  3. If someone who deals with something concrete doesn’t know what he is doing,it becomes obvious to the world and even himself.An intellectual is someone who deals with ideas,but nowhere in the package is there a guarantee that the intellectual knows what he is doing, or is in anyway competent. Government is a honeypot for these people,where they can not only live happily on our toil,but tell us how to live and what to think.

    Some ideas? Get gov’t out of running schools,they have gotten progressively worse at it. Do not permit the growth of an entrenched political class. Also while no one will accept this now,the franchise should not extend to those who are living off the gov’t teat,or are employed by the gov’t.Electoral politics doesn’t adequately protect us from the depredations of our rulers.

    The Smithsonian had an excellent transportation exhibit but much that was interesting was removed;having a part of CTA elevated car does not make up for removing all the models of Railway Equipment and other exhibits. The real tell which gives the game away: On the floor map I couldn’t find the Transportation section and had to ask at the desk. “Oh ,you mean America on the Move”.Real clever that one.
    Maybe no one with real gov’t authority should have it without having done something useful in the private sector first.
    By the way,is there anything the gov’t hasn’t gotten progressively worse at?

  4. I believe Shannon Love is correct, but I think most educationists who think this way are disguising their designs for control even from themselves. Such people are convinced that the values they want to imbue are good values, and a necessary counterweight to those “others” who are attempting to control their poor prolet – I mean citizenry. It is the way of the narcissist and the antisocial – they do not see themselves as attackers, but as victims, fighting the good fight against the forces of evil.

    It is an intoxicating draught that they drink, and quite addictive.

  5. Medical school curriculums often include courses such as ‘medicine and culture’, and the like, these days. While the topic certainly has merit, and some practical application, I am worried about the watering down of the rest of the curriculum. An interesting study might be a survey on how many hours a year medical students spend on such ‘cultural’ subjects compared to how much time they spend, on, say, learning about some surgical subspecialties, etc.

    Also, what in the heck goes on in those medicine and culture classes? I’m sure some of it is useful, but, I can also imagine some nightmare scenarios.

    *I often joke with my residents and co-workers that the reason so many doctors are actually looking at socialized medicine in a benign fashion these days is that the business culture of medicine is so bureaucratic and creaky, with all sorts of PC cant, overhiring of middle level administrators, and government regulations, that it doesn’t look any different that a totally government run hospital!

    Some of you will be surprised. Docs are so unhappy, some of them actually think working for the government will be better. Thank you hospital administrators! And doctors (we are part of the mess, too).

  6. Okay, I love to blame hospital administrators, but, it’s important to remember docs seem to love intellectual fads as much as the next person. We are sooo a big-time reason for the mess.

    We don’t, or won’t, fight the nonsense.

  7. Fortunately for the world there are millions of students still getting rigorous science training. Unfortunately for the West most of them are in Asia.

  8. Has it always been this bad? Posts like this make me want to home school my little boy more and more every day. (He’s 22 months, I have a while to think about it).

  9. I think Shannon has a point here. “Relevant” to what? Basically they’re taking a universe of people who could be producers or consumers or aficionados of science, and are trying to snuff out anything and everything scientific that doesn’t bear on science as it pertains to a lobbyist, a lawyer, or a politician. Three categories notorious for their scientific illiteracy, but of course the three categories who make most of our decisions about how to educate a child.

    It also sounds depressingly like the crap we used to hear (and sometimes still do hear) from the post-modernist crowd. I thought Alan Sokal had popped that balloon, but I guess I was mistaken.

    A child could care less about some he-said, she-said dispute about some media-driven political spat du jour. The purpose of school is to establish an understanding of the process of scientific inquiry, the results of scientific inquiry, and to develop an appreciation for science.

  10. I I think I can shed some possible light on the subject.

    I don’t trust my senses, in the way that a scientist must. words, I understand, and can learn. Recognizing stones, identifying the structure of a cell, I never believed what I was seeing. Essentially, the component of my brain that learned through tactile and nontext interaction doesn’t work for me that way. I did well in genetics, for some reason, but I had problem identifying fruit fly eyes. — recessive and dominant traits. I avoided formulaic sciences and hard sciences – chemistry, physics, like the plague. I pulled a C in geology.

    If I had been unable to find ways around it, the best I have ever been able to do in a “hard” science course was probably going to be a “C”. Ever. And that would have been busting my ass. More likely, I would have been a D student. I live with this, just as I live with the fact that I will probably be the first put on the ice flow in any natural disaster, as I have few mechanical skills.

    I think a lot of people like me who are less scientifically oriented have come into ascendency in education, which would not be a problem, except that they have come into ascendency at a time when we have internalized the idea that every child should be able to obtain an A in a course if they work really hard and are bright, regardless of aptitude. Therefore, I think that at some level, they are trying to make science easier for people like themselves.

  11. Business organizations have to gain more resources than they use (make money), so they develop measures of production and efficiency to guide them. If they don’t make money, they must find more effective measures. Making money is a hard fact that cannot be faked or explained away. Not for long, anyway.

    Schools administered by government are a bureaucracy. Bureaucracies don’t make money, so they are free to develop measures of productivity that show success, and also redefine their operations to create success.

    Such schools started by testing for knowledge, which is disappointing.

    They discovered that the tests results could be “renormalized” to a “curve”, which standardizes the results to show 70% success in all courses. This is explained as merely adjusting for the different abilities of the students and their teachers. No matter how bad the subject matter or the teacher, the measure shows good results. Educational failure is distributed silently to the students, and no effort goes into follow-up studies that would reveal the failures.

    Unfortunately, even grading to the curve is disappointing. It is hard to explain why students get an “A” for answering 60% of the multiple choice questions correctly, or a “C” for answering 30%.

    Now, in the later stages, government schools realize that it is easier to show success if you construct the questions as described in the post. The students aren’t benefitting from the classes anyway; the smart kids will learn on their own if they need it. The schools design the classes to be about social relations, which everyone understands, and they design the tests to guide students to the correct answers. Grading on the curve gives the same results, 70% success, but at least an “A” is set at answering 85% correctly.

    Who cares about what material carries electricity the best? When you go to buy the wire, it is made of copper.

  12. If people send their children to you with the expectation that you will teach them how to add numbers together, or that you will help them to understand the structure of covalent bonds, or that you will explain to them the history of South Yuck, Texas, you have placed yourself at risk, because the children’s success or failure to learn such things is easily and objectively established through testing. If you’ve coasted and slacked, the “3 + 5” question is going to say something other than “8.”

    If, instead, you promise to help those kids to be comfortable and secure in the face of their ignorance of math, or to embrace the belief that “knowledge-ownership awareness” is more important than true knowledge, or if you strive towards ensuring that all of your minor charges remain equally ignorant – without regard to race, gender, gender-affectional preferences, body weight, accent, economic status, belief in the righteous power of C4 to do gawd’s will, or whathaveyou – ignorant of all of the “hard sciences”, ignorant of the history of the world, ignorant of the heat-sink effect of black bodies, and ignorant that, five hundred years ago, “5 + 3” was also represented as “8” just as it is today . . .

    . . . but you instead work to teach them that science lacks validity if you – yes, you there, in the hat – if you don’t feel as if the answers obtained through science work toward your advantage or preconception or if it implies a lack of merit about some aspect of yourself, or that mathematics provide a tool for the subjugation of unmathed peoples and nothing else . . .

    . . . well, your job just got a whole lot easier, didn’t it?

  13. Renminbi asks…..

    By the way,is there anything the gov’t hasn’t gotten progressively worse at?

    Our military is certainly more professional and capable than it was during the Viet Nam era, even though it is smaller.


  14. Scientists are not alone.

    The Volokh Conspiracy, a Law Prof Blog notes:

    “Bizarre Harvard Law Review Student Note [aside: with no fact checking, though as noted by some wag: The Harvard (Law Review) Bluebook (the standard for footnotes in any Law Review) does not cover citations of STATUES!]:

    “Not for the first time of late, the HLR has published a student piece that doesn’t quite fit the genre, called NEVER AGAIN SHOULD A PEOPLE STARVE IN A WORLD OF PLENTY. To give you the gist, the author writes:

    ‘You have now read this Note and you are equipped with the knowledge that $200 can save a child’s life. No claim of ignorance can be supported at this point. In fact, if you would like to make a donation, the toll-free number for UNICEF is 1-800-486-4233. They take credit card donations over the phone, or you can go online at Here is some time to call right now. ****’

    “If there is any traditional legal analysis in this Note, it’s not obvious (though I admit that I didn’t read the entire thing).”

    [And as noted in the comments section:]

    “The most hilarious part about the article is that the author took his Note title from a statue in Cambridge Common. He said that it described an aristocrat in rich clothing separated by inches from a poor woman in rags, and that the statue depicts ‘intergenerational inequality.’

    “In reality, the statue was dedicated by the Irish president (HLS alum) as a memorial for the Irish potato famine (hence ‘a people’ in the statement). The ‘aristocrat’ was actually the family’s poor son fleeing the famine to go to a new world. His rich clothing consists of rags and going barefoot. Best of all, all this information about the statue’s true subject was written in huge block letters on the other side of the statue, which the author failed to notice.

    “Thus, the author literally fails to see the other side of the issue, and he literally didn’t recognize poverty when it is staring at him in his his (sic) face.”

    Author admits mistake.

    [But note his unrepentant, rather hilarious whine at the end of his defense of his inexcusable sloppiness of form:]

    “Despite my erroneous interpretation of the statue, I honestly do not believe that it affects the bottom line of my Note. There is plenty else in Cambridge which can be depicted as supporting the thesis in my Note, including examples of frivolous activities which cannot be justified under any plausible moral calculus; time permitting, I might just decide to start a blog in support of my Note.

  15. The entire premise of the program seems to be “science is something other people do, not the likes of you lot!”

  16. Note that this is not just about science. History, geography, literature, languages, art and music are also under attack.

    Many “educators” seem hostile to the whole idea of *knowledge* as something that is to be valued.

  17. I suspect that these people prefer to address the “relevance” of science rather than science itself because they (1) do not themselves understand science, and are therefore fearful of it, (2) are envious of the authority of science and (3) are uncomfortable with the power that accompanies knowledge (apparently preferring the power to impose ignorance — don’t expect reason among this set).

  18. I can’t speak to public education or curriculum in Britain. In the United States however, it would help markedly if all teachers -including elementary teachers – were required to have at least a BA/BS in a traditional content field ( history, mathematics, biology, chemistry etc.)rather than being allowed to major in “Education”. That really means ” gen ed major” and not even a very good one at that.

    The next reform would be to require that at least 25% of elementary school teachers would be majors in mathematics, science or history so that these subjects are taught reasonably well ( or in the case of science and history, taught at all which is often not the case in grades k-6). Very hard to teach something well that you have not learned yourself.

    It’s not “the unions” by the way that created this mess, or at least not all of it. The states set the standards for licensure and have universally opted ( for decades going back before the rise of the NEA and AFT in the early 70’s) for large quantities of Ed graduates with minimal GPA requirements because it’s preferable to have a steady supply of cheap, warm bodies to provide subsidized daycare than to go the more expensive route of demanding a well-trained workforce and experiencing the labor shortages that would arise immediately and last for years.

  19. Speaking of C. S. Lewis, he took some pretty good shots at education in England in the 50s in “The Abolition of Man”.

    Evidently things haven’t improved much in England.

  20. there is little doubt that we are going to hell in a handbasket. I do recall–I am old–that during the 60s and 70s, we carped about how teaching had to be made “relevant.” That was the operative word! And look now at what it has brought about…Our science and medicine are just no longer worth while.

  21. “Also, while no one will accept this now, the franchise should not extend to those who are living off the gov’t teat, or are employed by the gov’t.” -Renminbi

    I agree about the gov’t employees! I’m sick of gov’t mail carriers, firefighters, police, EMTs, secretaries, district attorneys, safety inspectors, and kindergarten teachers being able to vote. It’s just… ridiculous! You’re totally right.

  22. ee cummings was a guest lecturer at a university, and a student turned in a paper with improper capitalization. He marked it wrong, and when the student said, “but you don’t use normal capitalization!”, he replied, “My dear, first you have to learn the rules before you can learn when to break them.”

    This anecdote applies completely to the teaching of ethics and cultural relevence of science. It’s fine to have such courses at the graduate level, being taught to people who already understand science and are looking for wider context. But to teach it to children who have yet to learn what science really is will simply confuse them and turn many away from science before they even have a chance to understand it. It’s simply the wrong place and time for advanced material.

  23. Jack,

    How long do you think a publicly traded company would last if employees got to vote themselves their own salaries. Wouldn’t the temptation to loot the company be overwhelming? They would eventually go after not only the companies profits but its assets as well. The market would discipline such behavior to some extent but imagine that company now has a total monopoly. Want external discipline would exist?

    Powerful public employee union create a circumstance very similar to this. They have a concentrated block of voters who can and will vote for higher taxes to fund their own salaries and benefits. 20 million people work for government at all levels. All those people coerced into unions and funded with dues paid from compulsory taxation makes for a very, very dangerous feedback loop.

    People can instantly see how stupid this would be in the private sectors but when it comes to government, they seem to suddenly switch their brains off.

  24. I remember PSSC Physics where the good students were supposed to be able to answer 50% of the questions. BTW the questions were principle based. If you understood the principle you could answer the question. The outstanding students got 75% right. The super brains scored near 100%.

    There is nothing magical about 70% = C. In PSSC Physics that might be an A. And 90% = A+.

    Note: the test was biased to find the top people to send them on to more demanding work.

    It all depends on what you want to sort for. 70% = C gives you better definition of C, D and F work.

    A 25% = C test gives you better definition of B and A and A+ work.

  25. “It also sounds depressingly like the crap we used to hear (and sometimes still do hear) from the post-modernist crowd. I thought Alan Sokal had popped that balloon, but I guess I was mistaken.”

    That’s an excellent reminder that there’s no winning with these people, because they’re activists, and interested only in power. You cannot defeat their “ideas” by showing that they are wrong or nonsensical because ideas are not the point. They no more care about ideas than a troll cares about ideas. If they lose one, they’ll be back, with their “ideas” repackaged in some other form.

  26. Thanks for explaining, Shannon. I’ll let you be the one to tell my kid’s new teacher that she can no longer vote.

    “Sorry, Miss Jones, we just can’t trust you. We know you’ll vote to increase your own salary? What do you mean you can’t vote on your own salary? You vote to raise taxes, don’t you? Which is just like a publicly-traded company…no listen, this is a good analogy. Miss Jones? Wait! What? You voted for Bush? Hey – don’t get me off track. And don’t give me any of that guff about educating tomorrow’s generation – we know just how greedy your are. What? You say your new husband wouldn’t want higher taxes either – he likes keeping the money he earns? Miss Jones, your lies get you no where. You will be assimilated.”

  27. If doctors and lawyers can have “guilds,” I see no reason why teachers ought not have unions–or govt workers. As a VP friend said who worked at G.E. and whose job it was to keep unions out: a place only gets a union if it deserves one.Most unions came about as a counter-veiling force against robber barons and their companies.

    Kirt Vonnegut’s son Adam, a pediatrician connected to Harvard served on the admissions board for Harvard’s med school. He said if admissions offices were truly fair at Harvard, at least 50% of the new entrants would be oriental women.

    Want to fix education quick? eliminate Schools of Education. Hire teachers based on what they know in the fields they are to teach, not on a batch of how-to courses they are forced to take to protect schools of education and keep them functioning. Home schoolers who do ok do not need to have parents with certificates from schools of education to teach their children.

    When we just put a space ship on Mars, and we sequence this and that genome, and we make so many medical breakthroughs, and I see some test results of those going to our better universities, then I am not convinced that our young are going down the academic tube into a cesspool.

    Be of good cheer. Remember not that many years ago you did not have to go to a law school to become a lawyer or to dental school to practice dentistry.

  28. This is a subtle application of political correctness. What they are trying to do establish a correct context for what is otherwise value neutral information. At best, it presupposes that unaltered neutral scientific analysis is suspect, and must pass through proper social and moral filtering before exposing the student. At worst it is the beginnings of imposing a larger ideological framework upon scientific knowledge itself. Instead of scientific knowledge having intrinsic value in itself it must be tailored to the greater cause and adjusted for acceptable use.

    This mode of thinking is a direct challenge to enlightenment principles in which the study of nature itself was of intrinsic value. Systems of ethical and value judgment were a separate venue applicable to the use of technology and the human condition, but did not directly impinge upon scientific appraisal of the world.

    Here we see yet another example of the systematic bending of all knowledge to fit a greater moral framework. This sort of systematic correcting is akin to medieval religious systems of thought or the forcing of a modern evangelical viewpoint on all human thought. Academia seems to be in the troughs of a soft inquisition under which bodies of knowledge must justify their relevance to the new political and ethical order.

    The academic practitioners aren’t much different from their most hated religious enemies. After all raw knowledge has no intrinsic value to their cause and worse may lead to incorrect and unacceptable thought and action.

  29. I always like to see what the other parts of the world are doing when it comes to education. It seems that we have been burdened with the role of making silk purses out of sows’ ears. While I am lucky enough to teach a non-tested class (art and art history) my colleagues are increasingly bombarded with materials for their classes that are far more concerned with the ability to take the test as opposed to actually learning any material and applying it in a meaningful way. Likewise, our science programs are full of the politically correct agenda that presses politically shaped science over what I like to call real science. Sadly this agenda has created an entire generation of students who read just enough to pass the test and learn only what they need to for that year. Then like a cheap PC, their memories are cleared for drinking, drugs and partying. I weep for the future.

  30. Jack, you’re the worst type of internet commenter. You completely ignore a valid argument and go off on an whiny rant exaggerated to the point of ridiculousness.

    Anyway, if teachers are going to vote to almost eliminate history, geography, literature, languages, art and music from their teachings, then maybe they SHOULDN’T vote.

  31. “There is indeed something Satanic about a person who has no interests other than themselves.”

    Yes, and indeed, how much worse is it when large groups who are deluded enough to believe that pursuing their self-interest is positively related to the overall good of society.

    Tangentially; the persistent public belief in the value of higher education, the growth of the education “industry”, and related special interest groups has, possibly, resulted in an educational “bubble”. That is that to say that (with exceptions in the “hard studies”), the average 16 or 17 year veteran student has not received something close enough to what he or his parents have paid for (the ability for critical thinking and actual intellectual superiority to those who did not attend an institution of higher learning). This, or it’s extent, is not generally acknowledged to this point and hence the bubble.

  32. tyouth…see An Academic Bubble?

    Also see this from Business Week’s chief economist, Michael Mandel:

    “For the last 20 years, a college degree has been the rarest of anomalies–a low-risk, high-return asset…However, as a general rule, high-return, low-risk investments are ephemeral.”

  33. “Jack, you’re the worst type of internet commenter. You completely ignore a valid argument and go off on an whiny rant exaggerated to the point of ridiculousness.

    Anyway, if teachers are going to vote to almost eliminate history, geography, literature, languages, art and music from their teachings, then maybe they SHOULDN’T vote.” -Jeff

    Thanks for the kind words, but I think you missed my point. Show me some hard numbers that a majority of teachers vote for higher taxes, let alone vote to eliminate history, geography, and so on, and then we can talk. Until then, you’re talking out of your ass.

  34. Hi there I like your post “Skipping Science Class, Continued” so well that I like to ask you whether I should translate into German and linking back. Answer welcome. Greetings Kroatien

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