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The science at the heart of the matter

  • Published at 12:01 am September 7th, 2016
  • Last updated at 01:04 pm September 7th, 2016
The science at the heart of the matter

“You’ve been tremendously deceived by people who say the Earth is not flat” tweeted rapper BoB on January 25 -- the starting point of a bizarre showdown between the popular rapper BoB and the eminent astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson.

When the latter intervened to correct former’s regressive and erroneous views on Twitter, it escalated into a full blown rap battle, with BoB throwing in a diss track titled “Flat-line” and Neil deGrasse asking his musician nephew, Steve Tyson, to respond with “Flat to Fact.”

After the whole thing settled down, I did sigh in relief knowing that BoB’s bold and horrendously wrong proclamations did not kick start a new dark age of total misinformation. However, what particularly distressed me was that amidst those on the right side of this strange exchange, people had the tendency to equate a basic piece of knowledge with being mundane.

Yes, every child knows of Earth’s rotundity.

But do they know that this conclusion was reached by the Greeks in the absence of modern technology, and the spherical nature of Earth’s shape was deduced through ingenious reasoning?

Do they know that one of them, Eratosthenes, went so far as to produce a remarkable estimate of Earth’s size with nothing less than shadows and sticks, and quite a lot of walking (done by others)?

Do they know that the Arab polymath Abu-Rayhan Al Biruni did an even better job at this with nothing more than a sextant and basic trigonometry? Do they know that Newton correctly predicted that Earth is actually not a sphere due to the ramifications of its rotations around its axis? Do they know that the prodigious weight of Antarctic ice sheet has a bearing on Earth’s shape? No? Let me rephrase the question, did you know it?

The chances are, all this is not entirely common knowledge. But it demonstrates the intended point.

A topic deemed so basic and simple that we include it in elementary school syllabuses and once learned, we never think twice about it -- failing to realise that there is a rich historical narrative involved.

In learning the narrative, we can appreciate the true power of the concepts that we take for granted, since it is only then we learn that our current, neat, and crystal clear modes of thinking were due to the genius of our predecessors and not as obvious as we think them to be.

And this brings me to my next point: Obvious. Even the most basic ideas staple to typical schooling syllabus were not obvious at all, and their elucidations often took years if not centuries.

For instance, unbeknownst to most, the deal with gravity was not solved when the apple hit Newton’s head, and things got all the more complicated when Einstein showed gravity is not what we think it actually is.

And I reckon this is rather telling of our educational values.

It seems that our emphasis is on facts rather than the steps required to arrive at them.

If my own K-12 education were anything to go by -- mathematical proofs were seldom provided, the science syllabus could easily be rote learned, and the system had an amazing knack in understating the nuances, sublimity, and aesthetics of concepts included in the syllabus.

And therein lies the problem.

Failing to understand that some of the most basic well-known facts occupied the minds of the greatest thinkers, and providing only a cursory derivation of the said concepts means very few can appreciate their true strength and utilise them effectively.

Worse yet, once the K-12 years are past us, then the very conceptual framework around the facts, if they are even a part of the syllabus, that we are taught falls victim to the decay of time and we are left with nothing more than a series of disconnected pieces of information.

End result?

Here is what the resultant “science” educations boils down to, as every child knows the Earth is round. Why does it matter? Well, here is why: When the whacky conspiracy theorists invokes mystical forces, shady organisations, and other equally nutty ideas to explain the world, and runs well-established facts through a gauntlet and indeed asks intelligent questions, one would fail to produce an intelligent rebuttal to the dubious YouTube video.

Most may not be swayed by the argument presented, only because of the every child-knows-gravity-makes-apple-fall-down sort of reasoning which is hardly any reasoning at all, but merely parroting what we had been told is true.

The others, in the face of a conceptual vacuum, might readily accept the pseudo-scientific explanation masquerading as science and the truth.

Thus, conspiracy theorists survive. Thus, anti-intellectualism persists. Thus, century-old hoaxes are believed in.

In an era where science and technology is ubiquitous in everyday life, this is unacceptable. This type of ignorance is perilous. Especially in an era where democracy is fashionable, when popular franchises dictate the nation’s policy on potential cataclysmic issues -- global warming, climate change, deforestation, the destruction of nature, the search for renewable clean energy, overpopulation -- the citizenry is required to know the science at heart of these matters.

Sadly, our education gives us the former, a collection of facts in a near conceptual vacuum. The faculty of critical thinking, and assessment of information is not trained at all. Hence the confusion about which body of scientific authority to trust

Yet, often mass confusion and collective ignorance is all we have, and no, they could not be equated with democracy. Not because there is dispute on the importance of science, but rather the question of what constitutes as science.

A quote from the legendary Henri Poincare is of particular relevance: “Science is built up of facts, as a house is with stones. But a collection of facts is no more a science than a heap of stones is a house.”

Sadly, our education gives us the former, a collection of facts in a near conceptual vacuum. The faculty of critical thinking, and assessment of information is not trained at all. Hence the confusion about which body of scientific authority to trust.

Also given the immensely technical and complex nature of the sciences, it is nigh impossible for any given individual, be it a scientist or the merely science-literate person, to construct a scientific explanation from scratch.

Hence the need to rely on the knowledge of others, to stand over the proverbial shoulders of giants to see a bit further and perhaps clearly. But the required climbing skills, unfortunately, cannot be gained from how we treat science as of now.

A better mindset is one that Atul Gawande told of in a commencement speech he delivered at Caltech this year, and something from which the education system can take note: “If this place has done its job -- and I suspect it has -- you’re all scientists now.

Sorry, English and history graduates, even you are, too. Science is not a major or a career. It is a commitment to a systematic way of thinking, an allegiance to a way of building knowledge, and explaining the universe through testing and factual observation.

The thing is that it isn’t a normal way of thinking. It is unnatural and counter-intuitive. It has to be learned.”

Syed Raiyan Nuri Reza is a freelance contributor writing from Tehran.

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