Monday, 20 August 2012

Still living in Snowland

Well, the Olympics are over and there's a sense of national regeneration in the air here in London, but
I'd just like to remind you of an aspect of our culture that still needs to be raked out and stamped on. But first a few questions:

Do you, noble reader, consider yourself well educated? If you do, then answer the following:

1) Do you know what a ribosome does?

2) Could you state any one of Kepler's laws of planetary motion?

3) Are you able to write down an example of a differential equation?

A big "no" on all three? Don't know even where to begin? It doesn't matter, you can always Google it, right?

Actually, you shouldn't be having any trouble, because these are all pretty basic questions if you have a nodding acquaintance with science.

We are still living in the Snowland of 1959, C.P. Snow's divided culture, and you should look him up on Google. Suffice to say that Snowland is a place in which the properly educated make the half-educated feel uncomfortable, and the ignorant are marginalized without knowing it.

Only a fool misunderstands the difference between stupidity and ignorance. In this context, "ignorance" means having never learned any science or maths, while a true fool is one lacking the ability to understand either. Fortunately, there are many more in the former condition than there are in the latter. The basics of science aren't hard to grasp, they aren't hard to teach and they aren't hard to recognize as important. They can be taught generally, while engendering a tremendous sense of wonder in the student, but most importanly this stuff must be taught to the kind of people who go on to form our elites. If it isn't obvious why, then you really are a fool.

In a society that will soon have to make its living once again by knowing how to profit from understanding how the world works, comprehending the works of Michael Faraday is going to be far more important than digesting the works of John Keats. The point here is an important one. All the scientists I know (and I know a few top ones) have usually had a representative exposure to poetry, but the literati I've know have absolutely no idea about science or maths, and what's more: they tell you so with a degree of pride.

Not only does this educational black hole make them dangerously ignorant, it often makes them resentful. The BBC, and especially its Radio 4 "Today" Programme, became notorious for slighting comments about newsworthy science items, with shy-away phrases like: "We'll have to get a boffin to explain that to us", and: "All rather beyond me, I'm sure." Announcers who had no trouble pronouncing the name of an obscure African dictator, would stumble over the most commonplace scientific term, and the stumble would be worn like a badge of pride rather than the stigma of ignorance it actually was. The sub-text running through this kind of treatment is, "Neither you, Dear Listener, nor I, know what these outlandish people (the aforementioned boffins) are talking about, and we don't really want to know, do we? But we've been aked to report it, so there it is."

Not really good enough, is it?

Some years ago I had reason to visit a cubicle in the lavatories of one of Oxford University's science labs on South Parks Road. A wag had drawn on the wall an arrow pointing at the loo roll; above that he had writtten, "Humanities Degrees, Please Take One."

Be warned.

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