Monday, November 13, 2017

The Failure of Modern Science Education

Source: xkcd (Richard Dawkins payed homage to the quote at the bottom in on of his interviews)

It is a common "gripe" you hear quite often around the internet. It goes something along the lines of this: school never taught me how to write a cheque, but I am yet to benefit from, say, Bernoulli's principle in real life. The essence of the complaint is obvious; scientific education, as typically carried out in schools, hardly carries over to the practical life.

To some extent, that is correct. But this is not due to an inherent property of science. And it is not the fault of the method used in teaching science either, but rather it is the incompatibility of the two. Allow me to further elaborate. We are taught theories and principles of science, with minimal, if any, reference to the host of mental processes that produced them. In that sense, we are taught science as if it were history. This is not to detract from the value of history, but rather to allude to the fact that a method of teaching has to be well selected for its subject.

With that in mind, we can crudely think of science in terms of two major components: the knowledge, and the methodology. Our current ways of teaching science put a huge emphasis on the former, while largely ignoring the latter. And while there is no denying that scientific knowledge has great benefits, such as broadening the mind, it is the scientific methodology, by means of which we produce, validate and revise this knowledge, that we are in dire need of today. It is our first line of defense against the propagation of false information that “piggybacks” off our modern information technology infrastructure.

Unfortunately, this said misinformation is spreading so fast and wide that it is in effect drowning the valid information we all should be heeding. And we should not be expecting this to change on its own. Misinformation is fueling a massive economy of products and services with fraudulent claims, which are preying on our human qualities of hope and fear. This economic aspect will only ensure that powerful groups shall emerge with serious interests in further cementing the socially constructed "truth" of such claims.

Educating the public in the methods of science is akin to inoculating them against falling prey to such misinformation. But it is not easy at all. The scientific methodology draws on a number of subjects that are counter-intuitive by nature. This is not to say that they are hard to teach, but that they need special attention when being taught.

Take statistics and probabilities for an example. Despite its utility in fighting misinformation, it is a subject that most of us despise for its inscrutability. But through a modest experience in teaching and lecturing I am starting to believe that much of this inscrutability can be attributed to the typical treatment of the subject in school. It is often introduced to the student via a number of irrelevant and daydream-inducing examples, such as the heights of a town population, or the probability of drawing a red ball from a box of colored balls.

Then take logic as a second example; a tool that can be used to assess the truth of an argument. Typically, school classes on logic put a huge emphasis on the conventions and abstractions of the field with the incidental treatment, if at all, of the intuition or practical value of its principles. In fact, students are usually provided with cheat-sheets that contain statements such as "True or False is True", without any effort to explain to them why is that the case. Yet we somehow expect from them as adults to express sound public opinion and participate in creating informed policies!

The state in which we find our world today because of this failure in scientific education is very worrisome. Anywhere you look, you see misinformed people arguing with vehement. This is no where as salient and dangerous as it is in health and nutrition. People are paying hefty prices for the most useless of things, while at the same time kids are being deprived of the most basic of health rights by their misinformed parents.

If this does not warrant a very urgent visit back to the drawing board of our scientific education curriculum, then the future of humanity might not be as promising and bright as we might like to think.


  1. Well researched post. I think the idea of focusing just on the knowledge or methodology alone, when handling the subject of science is actually the cause of the misunderstanding that is prevalent regarding the positive effect of science.

  2. Haitham I don’t agree with those who deny the good impact of science education. Though I think the government needs to put in more measures to ensure that a curriculum is continuously updated to handle the everyday challenge people face.