Unscientific America

Well, looks like the blogosphere has been busy since I’ve been gone. I’ve been particularly interested in the brouhaha between PZ Myers et al versus Mooney and Kirshenbaum regarding Unscientific America, recently published by the latter. I haven’t had a chance to read more than the excerpt posted on the Unscientific America web site, so I’ll reserve judgment on which side I favor. In the meantime, I have some comments of my own regarding what I suspect the root cause is: American education. Not that we’re failing to do it well enough, but that our entire approach to education is fundamentally flawed in ways that make widespread anti-intellectualism inevitable.

Let’s think back to our high school days. For some of us, that takes a bit more effort than for others, but I think we can all remember it fairly clearly. You go to a classroom, you sit and listen to a lecture, you read a textbook, you do some homework exercises, and then you take a test. Each test and homework assignment is graded, and your work is evaluated on a scale of A, B, C, D or F, where the “F” stands for “Fail.”

Our attitude towards academic work is inevitably shaped largely by the tremendous pressure we feel to get the best grades possible. Those who get straight A’s are praised and rewarded, by teachers and parents if not always by their peers. Those whose grades aren’t quite as good are told to work harder, because they’re not measuring up. Even if the grade they get isn’t quite as bad as an F, if they get less than an A, then have failed in some sense.

And let’s not kid ourselves: students are competitive. Even the ones with the “bad attitude,” who make a show of not caring, are responding to the peer pressure they feel regarding grades. They may have given up, they may be rebelling against the system and the whole concept of trying to measure up, but that’s only because they’ve concluded that they have no hope of succeeding, and are just trying to minimize the pain of failure.

So let’s apply a few exercises in Obvious Math. In a school system like ours, 80% of the students are going to perform less well than the top 20%. 90% will fall short of the top 10%. 99% will be “inferior” to the top 1%. For a relatively few people, academic achievement will be an area where their attitudes are shaped by the experience of success and of coming out on top, and for the rest of the class, for the vast majority of the class, the intellectual experiences of public schooling will leave them with attitudes shaped by years of coming in second place, or worse.

Science is hard. Math is hard. For 12 years of a kid’s life, and progressively more so as they near graduation, the feelings they associate with math and science and other hard subjects are feelings they feel in the context of working hard and still failing to compete as well as the honor role students, academically. The good feelings are more likely to arise through the cameraderie and fellowship of commiserating with their fellow average (and/or below-average) students. “The smart guys just make me feel stupid and look bad in front of the teacher, but my friends don’t care about that stuff because it’s not really important.”

And then they graduate, and become part of the voting public.

This isn’t something we can address by making textbooks better, or by improving teacher training. Nor will it feel much of an impact if scientists somehow become better at public relations. Our system of education is inherently going to create a context where most students’ experiences leave them feeling happier joining their friends (i.e. the majority) in denying the importance of something that’s hard and confusing and that has no apparent connection to the life they actually live after high school. What benefit would there be in admitting they tried, and failed, to do as well as the “good” students? Just tattoo the word “loser” across your forehead, eh?

The problem is that our approach to education is built on top of a foundation that was originally designed, not to promote a scientific approach to life, nor critical thinking, nor freedom of thought, but to preserve and promote religion. The first schools in colonial America were founded, not to turn children into skeptics and humanists and scientists, but to make sure that they could read the Bible, and would learn to obey its teachings. The basic model for American education thus is not the laboratory, where discoveries are made, but the catechism, where children learn to repeat stock answers to predefined questions.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not anti-education. Far from it! My degree happens to be in French teaching, and I’ve always loved being in the classroom even though I’m not working there now. But I do feel that a lot of the problems in our educational system stem from the catechistic approach to teaching, where the goal is to repeat back to the teacher the things that the teacher will accept as being the right answer. This is an approach that is not only ineffective, but unnatural. The way we learn what we really know and believe is by discovery, not by rote indoctrination.

Richard Feynman once wrote that he spent a semester studying biology, just to see what all those biologists were up to, and concluded that much of biology education was a waste of time. The students spent most of their time and energy memorizing the names of things, and being tested on their ability to use the terms correctly. That’s not terribly surprising, and in fact it seems to me that a correct knowledge of the terminology would be very valuable to a biologist. But Feynman’s point was that you can look up stuff like that if you ever need to know it. Thus, as a physicist, it was a waste of time for him to memorize the vocabulary.

I got A’s and B’s in high school science, and I spent a fair amount of time memorizing technical vocabulary, but if you asked me to describe the Krebs cycle, I’d have to look it up. I’m not a biologist, so I rarely if ever need to apply that particular knowledge to my life. Much more important to me is acquiring the skills needed to understand how the Krebs cycle works. And that’s true for everyone. Your success or failure in public education should therefore depend, not on how well you memorize rote answers (the “what”), but on how well you learn to think and to apply what you know (the “how”). A discovery-based educational system would make it possible to make this kind of education possible.

But we can’t fix the current, catechistic educational system to provide this kind of educational experience. It’s fundamentally not the right kind of system, in the same sense that fish are fundamentally not mountain climbers. I haven’t figured out what all the technical details would be in a working discovery-based system, but this is where I’m looking. The old way is broken beyond repair, and until we replace it, we’re going to keep on publishing books about the pervasive anti-intellectualism that will continue to dominate American society.

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Posted in Current Events, Education. 6 Comments »

6 Responses to “Unscientific America”

  1. GaySolomon Says:

    Hi DD,

    Welcome back.

    This is an interesting explanation for anti-intellectualism in the USA, however, I am not sure it accounts for the apparently different levels of anti-intellectualism across countries with similar educational systems.

    Specifically, is anti-intellectualsim as prevalent in Canada and the Nordic countries as it is in the USA and the UK? I would be interested in knowing if anyone is aware of any studies that explore this question.

    From my POV, anti-intellectualism is nothing new and exists in most cultures to some extent. I suspect it may also have its roots in low relative social mobility. Envy by those who do not advance through education may be a key driver to anti-intellectualism.

    This study suggests social mobility is rarer in the USA and the UK than in some other countries. Might this be a driver?


  2. José Says:

    Our attitude towards academic work is inevitably shaped largely by the tremendous pressure we feel to get the best grades possible…. And let’s not kid ourselves: students are competitive. Even the ones with the “bad attitude,” who make a show of not caring, are responding to the peer pressure they feel regarding grades. They may have given up, they may be rebelling against the system and the whole concept of trying to measure up, but that’s only because they’ve concluded that they have no hope of succeeding, and are just trying to minimize the pain of failure.

    I think you might be incorrectly projecting your own feelings regarding this. If parents have low expectations, or a student doesn’t really care about his parents expectations, there’s a very real possibility a student will be indifferent to their grades. There’s no significant pain to failure.

    Science is hard. Math is hard.

    I think that to a great degree, things are only hard when we’re not interested in them. I’ll add that not being interested in something is not the same as anti-intellectualism.

    What benefit would there be in admitting they tried, and failed, to do as well as the “good” students?

    Take the average Bible thumping creationists. They aren’t anti-intellectual because they couldn’t get good grades, but rather because they belong to a club with a set of rules that fundamentally contradict science. I don’t think that anti-intellectualism stems from nerd envy. Most people who got bad grades really don’t care.

  3. Hunt Says:

    I’m not sure why this comes to mind, but has anyone here watched the BBC series “Rough Science”? Unfortunately it’s a little “Survivor”esque, but it’s infinitely superior, and basically delivers science in an amusing and “discovery” oriented way. I think we have to stop regarding people as objects of homogenous mental capacity and start realizing that we all have talents and deficits in our make-up. Not only does that make us feel better about ourselves, it makes us far more effective in a team environment, where everyone knows that others will probably be better than them in many areas, yet it won’t detract from what we are good at. In other words, I think your idea should include the reintroduction of a full-spectrum individuality. A person need not excel in everything to be complete and self-esteemed. When I was in HS I was crappy at athletics and great at science, so it because a matter of humiliation on the field and haughty superiority in the classroom. In each venue people made the inferiors look bad, when instead we should have accepted that every person is good in some areas, bad in others.

  4. Deacon Duncan Says:


    I think you may have a point, although I would counter with the suggestion that students who don’t care about grades are students who have *lost* interest in academic success, not students who never had any. Failure is failure, whether it hurts or whether we just shrug it off. It may not consciously bother us, but I think it makes us less likely to feel any need to emphasize the importance of what we’ve failed at.

    I’m not talking sole cause, of course, but I do think it’s a major contributing factor that is under-recognized. Lack of caring about science and so on in high school grows into lack of caring about science and so on in post-graduation life, and that means we’re more vulnerable to the influence of things that do succeed in making us care, like creationism or anti-vaccinationism or New Age woo of various stripes. Science could give us guidance and leadership in these areas, but we don’t turn to science, or we take its advice lightly, because our academic apathy affects our sense of which is more important.

  5. darlene Says:

    I think you are spot on. I remember, with great frustration, asking a high school math teacher WHY we were using a particular formula–what did the formula mean, how did we find it, what do all the bits do…and she said to just memorize the formula, that the rest didn’t matter. And this was a prep school!

    Math became something to get through, not something to learn.

    I now home school, and to maintain a love of learning is a large part of why I do. When a 13 year old boy asks for a copy of “On the Origin of Species” for his Christmas present because “I should read what was actually written so I can understand why all the fuss”, I feel like I’m doing my job.

    And when that boy reads the thing, pausing often to relay some really cool thing that is being mentioned, and asking about others, and overall being fascinated with the process of how science proves this or that…that is what education should be creating

  6. Rick Says:

    Excellent post! I agree completely with what you are saying. I believe that learning can be likened to mathematics, where there are axioms and proofs. We must simply accept the axioms, but from such elegant roots we derive a wealth of information. This is far more satisfying than treating every theorem as an axiom to be memorized. It is the discovery–the making connections between things that inspires a scientific mind and a love of learning.