When you’re a graduate student in the sciences, it’s a given that you think about science a lot. Even my friends who aren’t scientists know how science-driven my thoughts are, because they know:
- She’s in lab at all kinds of odd times when the rest of the world is hanging out, and
- No matter what you talk about, she’s going to bring science into the conversation at some point.
Early in my graduate career, I felt a bit guilty about my science leaking out all over the place. This is a rather silly notion, now that I sit and think about it from the perspective of a senior student. If you’re passionate enough about a subject to earn a graduate degree that takes roughly 20% of the total time you’ve spent on this earth thus far, of course you’re going to be excitable about the subject. You’re going to bring it up all the time. It’s like asking a man in love not to speak of his beloved, to suggest that one shouldn’t want to talk about their work.
This excitement does serve a greater purpose, though. NPR’s 13.7 blog recently posted on the importance of scientists talking to the public in order to keep science and the way it informs our worldview in the public dialogue. They give a great historical overview of how changes in science have changed the way we understand ourselves and humanity as a whole.
One line that particularly struck me was:
Only a well-informed population is able to make well-informed choices about science and the environment that will shape our future.
If that’s not a mission statement for scientists considering engagement with public policy, I don’t know what is. It’s almost a call to arms, to take off the lab coats and put down the furiously scribbling pens, leave the lab on a semi-regular basis, and take up conversation with some people who haven’t thought about science lately.
So much of the current frustration in the US – from all sides – reflects the current futility and deadlock in the political process. The civil discourse of days past seems to have left us for hyper-political soundbite wars. If we are to ever restore the national dialogue to something other than a cacophony of simultaneous monologues, we must:
- Restore critical thinking to its proper place in education, which could also be stated as “teach and apply the scientific method.” If the populace knows how to ask critical questions, analyze the information available, and evaluate actions based on that information, they are emancipated from the need to accept soundbite “facts” at face value. This raises the bar for those who dispense soundbites and gives people a rubric through which they can think for themselves, instead of trusting someone else to think for them. Thinking people will draw a wide variety of conclusions, but they’ll be able to back them up with something other than “someone I heard on the radio said so.”
- Teach the science and mathematics required to understand the problems facing us in the modern world to all students, not just those who go to college and specialize in those particular subject areas. Looking forward into the genomic era, it’s an absolute shame that most universities do not require students outside of the life sciences to take biology in some form. Moreover, not everyone goes to college, but everyone faces important medical decisions that require understanding some fundamental things about biology and risk. How can a patient actually give privacy-related consent for a genetic testing procedure if they don’t actually understand how testing relates to their own privacy and the privacy of their family members?
In order to accomplish this goal, we would need to raise standards for how we teach science and math and for what we expect from all students. Yes, people have different interests and abilities. We have to stop telling people that math and science are for the super-geniuses, and instead treat math and science as fundamental skills that one is expected to have to function in society. Reading does not come naturally to every student, but stopping at picture books is not an option our education system permits. The same should hold true for math and science. Math and science are critical to functioning in our modern world, but we are willing to let students stop at the mathematical equivalent of The Cat in the Hat because they find math hard. Training your brain to work in new ways can be hard work, but to skip out on the task is to sign up for far more difficult work.