A Valuation of Science Education

“The planet Earth and all of its inhabitants are in a state of Emergency”

The line above looks like something I might’ve pulled from a science fiction novel, or a fantastical newspaper headline. In fact, it’s just something I wrote. It is not, however, fabricated. It is not fictitious. Rather, it represents a consensus of most climate scientists the world over. Turning things around a bit more, it is also what I wish were a headline pulled from a mainstream newspaper or site. That would actually be great. It would be an indicator that they were taking the thing most important to the near-immediate future of humanity seriously. If you think it sounds alarmist and reactionary, you are right and wrong, respectively. It sounds alarmist because I am alarmed and terrified about the future state of the world for my son. It is not reactionary, though, because both the statement and its author are informed by reliable data that says exactly that: we are all of us in a state of Emergency. Yes, that’s with a capital “E.”

My knowledge on the subject of global warming is limited at best. Sure, I just said I am knowledgeable, so to say in the same breath that I have limited knowledge about this climate crisis seems contradictory. But it is not. My training as a scientist allows me to immediately understand the depth and breadth of decades of research behind the current consensus without ever evaluating even 1% of peer-reviewed literature on the topic. My science education gives me the ability to discern pop-science press releases from well-thought out meta analyses. It imbues within me an understanding of the processes behind science research, the slow, incremental revelations, and how these can culminate into a deeper, more full-fledged understanding of a larger truth.

It is not often that the members of a particular scientific discipline arrive at a consensus understanding. Within my own field of neuropsychology, where we study the brain and it’s influence on our perceptions of the world and subsequent, consequent outward behaviors, I can think of few “truths” that we all can get behind. Sure, we all agree that a gunshot wound that enters the left temple and leaves the right is a catastrophic, probably lethal insult to the brain, but what happens if the person survives (and they sometimes do)? How long will recovery take? Generally we say that Maximum Medical Improvement is reached within a 24-month period, but there is no fixed time table. How do we define the person’s recovery? By scores on neurocognitive tests? A return of full motor functioning? A gradual tempering of their personality? What, exactly, was their level of neurocognitive ability to begin with? We can estimate this within certain degrees of confidence, but we generally statistically hedge and arrive at figures like “95% certain.” Even then, a 95% estimate is generally restricted to a statement about their global cognitive functioning and not to any specific ability or skill. For those measurements we’re reliant upon friends, family and documented medical history. Which, if any, of those are the most reliable and valid? That question raises a host of other questions. So, you see, a group of well-trained scientists would have a hard time arriving at an agreement about something as “simple” as the after effects of a catastrophic gunshot wound to the head. And yet, almost all climate scientists publishing in their respective journals have arrived at the same or similar conclusions about the present and future state of our planet. My science education tells me that for an entire field of scientists to arrive at such a level of agreement, the data informing their statements has to be more than just compelling. It has to be alarming. It has to keep them up at night. It has to make them absolutely, irretrievably terrified for their children. I am glad not to be a climate scientist.

If the climate scientists are so frightened, then why does there seem to be such relative calm among the public-at-large? Why are we not demanding to hear more about climate science and change? Shouldn’t our media be working harder to query these scientists? Anyone that graduated high school was required to take several science courses like biology, chemistry, and even earth science, right? Maybe. Right now, though, science education is up against the ropes. Here in Kansas where I live are reports of science education being cut in primary schools. If I am to believe the local media, already 20% of the schools in Kansas aren’t teaching science courses (yet, oddly are somehow still filling out report cards with grades for a science curricula that was never taught). So, what we have is the perfect set up for a future populace that is less scientifically literate than most people are now. What we are faced with is fewer people able to effectively evaluate scientifically charged information. Believe me when I say that things aren’t so great now – when I look around I see and hear people every day swallowing what they are fed by various media sources.

A good science education is synonymous with critical thinking skills. That’s what we need. I am fortunate to have had an incredible science education. Granted, sciences of all sorts have always been appealing to me, which is partly why I sought out the training I did, but one does not need to have intensive science training in order to think like a scientist. One simply needs a thoughtfully planned curricula for primary science education. I know just the people to advise on such curriculum development, and it just so happens that they’re already employed by schools all over the country. Well, at least for now. They’re called science teachers. The problem that they’re up against (in addition to global warming/climate change) is a lack of public interest and funding. That has to change. How? Well, to try and solve that takes more than a simple blog post, but it seems that if parents wanted their kids to have a science education, then they’d go to the school administrators and boards and raise hell.[1] The problem is, again, that we undervalue science education. We put funding for high school football well above sciences, arts, and humanities.[2] Has their ever been a school that cut it’s football program before they cut the band that plays at the half-time shows? No. At least not that I could find. At one point it looked like I found one, but it turned out to be an article in The Onion, mocking the very idea of such a thing. That sounds about right. The other thing parents can do is what I plan on doing: show my kid the amazing world of science and critical thinking. I don’t have to be an expert in chemistry or biology or any other discipline (thank goodness). The way I see it, as long as he sees the value of asking questions about the world, he’ll be okay. That is science at its core. So at the end of the day all I really have to do is encourage him to consider the validity of others’ statements before accepting those statements as de facto gospel. Now that I think about it, that’s going to be a lot harder than I made it sound. That’s alright. It’s worth it. I’m willing to work hard at it, because my kid is important enough to me to where nothing that might benefit him is too hard or too much for me to take on. When it comes to his education, though, there’s not even a question. None of us should be asking that question. Science is too important. We need scientists to guide us in finding a way out of our present planetary crisis. And we’ll need them in 20, 30, 40 yea…forever, to help keep us on the straight and narrow.

So, wake up, because The Planet Earth And All Of Its Inhabitants Are In A State Of Emergency.

  1. Yes, this is grossly oversimplified, but it is reality-based and reflects the legitimate empowerment of the community  ↩
  2. The irony is that football-related injuries render some children brain damaged, potentially lowering their cognitive capacities and possibly their ability to effectively evaluate information and for effective problem-solving  ↩

One response to “A Valuation of Science Education

  1. Pingback: The Upcoming DSM–5: In Distress(?) | The Buddin Research Dynamo·

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