Science and society: can scientists really teach, or are the public just not trying hard enough?  

Samuel Morris

Something happened recently that made me think about the public understanding of science. It was on a recent trip to see my relatives when I was shocked to learn that none of them knew that objects fall at the same rate, irrespective of mass. So I started dropping shoes, boxes and balls, all in an effort to educate my family.

On being handed an empty grape punnet to drop alongside a cuddly rabbit toy, I decided it was time to divulge some next-level knowledge: “They will fall at different rates because the plastic tray has a bigger surface area. The air resistance acting on the tray will be very different to that of the rabbit.”

“How does air slow objects? Physics is too complicated for me to understand,” snorted my mum, pushing out some air particles that I had apparently magicked into existence a few moments earlier. “Oh sorry, the tray doesn’t fall as quickly because the earth dragon doesn’t like grapes but loves rabbits,” I replied. “Well it might as well be,” my mum countered. What?! My temperwas wearing thin.

I was desperate. In a last-ditch attempt I said: “There is an equation that explains how objects all fall at the same rate.” My family was terrified. “Oh no, not maths! You know we don’t get maths Sam.” After a forty minute session I gave up and sank away into a corner to do some number stuff with my mystic air resistance hypothesis.

From the above I would not blame anyone for thinking that I’ve already formed my opinion: the public needs to try harder to understand the ‘word of the nerds’. However, watching a recent episode from the science documentary Human Universe made me reconsider. In NASA’s power facility, the largest vacuum chamber in the world, they dropped a bowling ball and some feathers. The ball fell faster because air resistance is greater on the feathers. So the host, Professor Brian Cox, said, “to see gravity’s true nature, we need to remove the air [1].” They did, and both objects fell at the same rate. At this point my mum turned to me and said, “I get it now.” It then dawned on me that my prejudice was perhaps flawed. Maybe the public (family) does try hard to understand, and maybe scientists (me) need to try harder to convey what we mean?

As I delved into the history of science and society’s long partnership, the answer has become less clear-cut. A large survey of the British public in 1989 [2] asked if the public were interested in new scientific discoveries.  82% were, thank goodness! It also measured the understanding of the scientific method. Only 14% identified, when asked directly, what it means to study scientifically. However, quite surprisingly, over 56% could recognise the scientific method in a case study. This would seem to indicate the public have an implicit understanding of science, which maybe just needs (re)awakening.

These results have personal relevance I’d not considered before. I may have felt like my family were not getting how gravity works, but by dropping lots of different objects all they were doing was experimenting and seeing if the hypothesis held for different objects. Perhaps I mistook their eagerness to understand as them not trusting what I said.

Trust is important. In my case, lack of trust causes earth dragons and air resistance to be held in equal measure by my family. In a much broader sense, the public’s understanding of science can have dramatically negative effects if they can’t tell the good from the bad. The repercussions can fray the trust between scientists and society. The MMR controversy arose from the publication of a now-discredited research paper in 1998 [3]. It was eventually retracted and the main author, Andrew Wakefield, was found guilty of serious professional misconduct and struck off the medical register [4]. This is a terrible reflection on science and Wakefield’s paper was lapped up by the media at the time. Several reflective reports suggest that the media gave Wakefield too much credit, and misrepresented the level of support for his, quite frankly ridiculous, view [5]. The public reads newspapers, not scientific journals. If the media reports on bad science, a public with the understanding to spot it might be able to avoid some terrible situations. It saddens me to see the damage the MMR controversy has caused. An Italian mother won a £140,000 court settlement, ruling her son’s autism was provoked by the MMR jab [6]. The fact this happened in 2012, two years after Wakefield’s paper was retracted, shows the fragility of society’s trust in science

The importance of public understanding is crucial for creating a future where more informed scientific decisions are made. I believe that it is up to scientists and the media to help dispelscientific mumbo jumbo The former needs to debunk any fraudulent and statistically insignificant papers early on in the peer review process, and the media needs to report on science with less bias so the public can receive an un-skewed view of how science works.

Perfect! Problem solved. Well, no. None of what I said will happen. Bad research will always get through and the media will always want to report a more sensationalised story over a balanced viewpoint (especially in newspapers; yes, I’m looking at you, Daily Mail). In fact, that is a problem I think some of the public has about science; they think it’s a viewpoint on the world. Although science doesn’t claim to know everything, what it does know is based on rigorous testing, and is the foundation of modern society. The public needs to try harder to understand exactly how science works as it would help people make better informed judgements. They need to be given the tools to do this, though, and I think to achieve this we need to go back to how science is taught in schools.

The number of students sitting A-level physics fell from 55,000 in 1990 to a low of around 27,000 in 2006 [7]. More importantly, most exam boards have very little on current science: quantum mechanics, relativity etc. I say ‘current’, but these subjects have been around for nearly a whole century! Quantum theory is extremely well tested and relativity is at the core of satellite navigation. The exclusion of these is probably because they need maths. The panicked exclamation from my family came to a front in my mind: “Oh no, not maths!”

Could this be it? Are the exam boards encouraging a fear of maths by removing it from A-level physics? Professor Brian Cox says that most of the negative reviews for his book ‘The Quantum Universe’ are due to the inclusion of equations [8]. In addition, hearing radio presenters almost degrade their science interviewees with retorts of: “[on maths] I don’t understand any of that. It’s really, really hard” [9] makes me wonder if it’s the barrier of maths that turns off the public from science. Yet science, especially physics, is best understood with maths. Equations don’t lie! They have no agenda. If I could have shown my family an equation without them cowering away, maybe they wouldn’t have needed the world’s largest vacuum chamber to understand gravity.

Before I get ahead of myself, it must be noted that the numbers of pupils taking A-level maths and science have been increasing in recent years, but increasing numbers is no good if exam boards are stripping as much maths as they can (for example all of calculus) from the A-level syllabus [9]. Whilst I think the public needs to be more open to understanding maths, they can hardly be blamed when education is actively deterring them from using it outside of a pure maths qualification.

I find myself in a very different position than I was when dropping objects for my family’s enjoyment. Whilst their scorning at equations feels like a personal attack at my choice to study physics, it almost certainly isn’t. I feel sorry for them, that their arithmophobia stops them trying to be able to understand the world in depth. Re-introducing maths and current areas of scientific research into the GCSE and A-level syllabus would help wouldn’t it? The next generation would have a greater appreciation for how current science works and why scientists claim what they do. A public with greater understanding would surely make scientists more amenable to listening to the public’s opinion on certain topics like stem cell research and cloning. People with a better scientific understanding could go into media, and be able to provide stimulating but ultimately un-skewed reports on science research. With a greater appreciation may well come greater trust. This would seep throughout society and perhaps, one day, my family will not hold air resistance and my rubbish earth dragon analogy with equal credit.

[1] BBC IPlayer (2014). Human Universe Ep 4. A Place in Space and Time. 39:48-44:38 mins. Accessed on 19/11/2014.

[2] Durant J.R. et. al. (1989). The public understanding of science. Nature.  Vol. 340 pp. 11-14.

[3] Wakefield A. et. al. (1998).  Ileal-lymphoid-nodular hyperplasia, non-specific colitis, and pervasive developmental disorder in children. The Lancet. Vol. 351 pp. 637-641. (Retraction published Feb 6 2010. The Lancet. Vol. 375 p. 445).

[4] BBC News (2010). MMR doctor struck from register. Accessed on 19/11/2014.

[5] Jackson T. (2003). MMR: more scrutiny, please. BMJ. Vol. 326 Issue. 7401 p. 1272.

[6] Mail Online (2012). MMR: A mother’s victory. Accessed on 19/11/2014.

[7] IOP (2013). Popularity of A-level and GCSE physics keeps on rising. Accessed on 19/11/2014.

[8] YouTube. ABC RN. (2012). Brian Cox in conversation with Robyn Williams. 5:35-7:00 mins. Accessed on 19/11/2014.

[9] Youtube. Sixty Symbols. (2012). Problems with High School Physics. Accessed on 19/11/2014.

Science and society: can scientists really teach, or are the public just not trying hard enough?  

One thought on “Science and society: can scientists really teach, or are the public just not trying hard enough?  

  1. rebeccalydiam says:

    really great post, i agree with practically everything you have said. everyone is terrified of maths ! even some scientists in my lab…. i think school does have a role in this, e.g. its pretty unorthodox for the UK to let students drop maths at 16 – but maybe maths just needs to seem more interesting and relevant at every stage of life – and i guess this begins with school
    however i think a big part you have missed out is the role of the government ! the government has a horrendously bad understanding of science with all their PPE/ history degrees. more scientists in government would probably lead to better public understanding too


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