“hard” science

I’m confused and at least a little troubled.

My job is, on the whole, wonderful. In fact, with the exception of when I need to do some accounting, I’m willing to bet that I have one of the best careers imaginable. I get to teach science, as well as work closely with science teachers, research science learning, and just generally promote science education. On the whole, you can imagine that I really like science and teaching, and on any given day they battle for first place in my list of favorite things — with the exception of my family, my dog, and some close friends.

So, you can imagine that I enjoy reading about how we can better promote science and science education with students and the public at large. I wave the Tuesday science insert of the New York Times at my students, rave about work my colleagues are engaged in, and I make them wrestle with their own difficult problems. (Yesterday, for example, we measured a molecule with some cork dust and a ruler.) I subscribe to a variety of posts and feeds along these lines, so it was natural to be referred to this Adam Frank blog piece by NPR as well as several friends. I was intrigued by the title and what scrolled beneath:

I’ve engaged with pieces of this general argument before. It goes something like this: We lose a lot of potential science and engineering majors in their first few years of programs because science is hard, and often we do a poor job of really engaging students in authentic ways. As a result, many of these students get seduced by other fields along the way. It could be that science coursework is too hard or poorly instructed. Or, as this particular argument goes, it could be that science should be hard and we should be getting students to celebrate this. Frank puts it this way:

I let them know they are engaged in a sacred task that connects them to millennia of human effort encoded in their genes. If they can fight their way to the truth, the truth will make them free, just as it did for me …

To a large extent, I’ll cheer on the idea that science and scientific fields are hard, intensive, difficult, exhausting, and the like, as well as being rewarding and emancipating. Science does fight its way towards truth, and yes, science is hard, and it should be. After all, a scientist is trying to figure out details of nature that she can’t directly see. Nature doesn’t give us the answers straight out, but rather gives us just enough hints for us to stay hot on the trail, turning around every once in a while when it goes cold and we’ve realized we made a wrong turn. And, I prefer my neurosurgeons and rocket launchers to have some patience, persistence, and scientific pedigree. We should earn our stripes before we cut into another human being or pull at the loose ends of all the knowledge that’s been knit together already.

However, it is easy to take this too far, and I’m given pause when I read a piece like Frank’s. I deplore the argument of “science is hard” as a way to suggest that other fields are easier. If you’d like hard, try writing. If you want really hard, go into education. Physics, in contrast, is a cake walk. I don’t think this is what authors of these arguments mean to say, necessarily. It’s important, however, to make it clear that we aren’t drawing a line between some elite studies and the others. Implicitly doing so may actually be part of our problem.

But this isn’t the main issue I have with this “hard” science argument. I suppose the primary source of this little writing fit has to do with where we point our fingers when we’re making this argument. Implicitly, if we say that “science is hard and students should celebrate this,” we’re putting the burden of our scientific literacy failings on our students. We, the scientists, are further alienating students who are already scratching their heads at us — even if for the wrong reasons. We need to start pointing the finger the other direction. We need to be sure that we’re taking responsibility for our students’ attitudes towards science. No one else will.

The project, “This is what a Scientist Looks Like,” is one example of this kind of effort. It’s a small drop in the bucket, but it’s at least aiming at having scientists contribute to something to help personify and endorse their discipline as something that is human and inviting. Scientists are doing some hard things, as well as some whimsical and fun and serious and even really hard (and still harder!) things. The basic message is that “you” can be a scientist, because just look at all of the examples of those who already are — surely there’s lots of room for a lot of diverse folks, white males, black females, bike riding astrobiologists, and green haired botanists.

It strikes me, though, that projects like this one tend to emphasize the people that these scientists are, rather than the science they’re doing. This isn’t a critique, because it’s all important. But we should also be paying attention to how we’re encouraging scientific disciplines and the work that scientists do. In that “science is hard” argument, the statement generally gets made that “science is power,” or something along these lines. And, yes, this is true, in so many important ways. Yet this is what falls so very very short for me. This power argument is only motivating to those who have a sense of power already. What about those who are just striving for some kind of equality? What about holistic enlightenment? What about a voice? I think in the “science is power” statement we’re unwittingly speaking to ourselves rather than to the diverse sets of others out there. And we wonder why it’s a bunch of competitive white guys from upper-middle class families in our science classes. Because they’re smarter? No. Because they’d make better doctors? Absolutely not. Because we market science to them with statements like “science is hard”? Perhaps. We need to be careful, at least.

All I ask is that we think carefully about our promotion of science. Don’t water it down; don’t make it something less than what it is; don’t diminish its power or enlightenment or thrill of discovery. At the same time, make sure we’re touting it as more than any of these things. Science is for all. It is, like art, music, and democracy, one thing that distinguishes us as humans, for the better. Let’s make sure that we’re inviting, with wide open doors, more than just the choir of scientists already in. We not only need more scientific thinkers, we need a more diverse pool of them. We need to continue to find ways to make this scientific invitation explicitly open and welcoming to all.

One response to ““hard” science

  1. This is interesting. I have started to think that the “science is hard” argument is really code or obfuscation of what it probably the real core problem, “science uses math, and math is hard.” I’m being guided to this notion because I look at what people do engage with about science — general astronomy classes, Brian Greene books on string theory (you can’t tell me string theory isn’t hard!), public science lectures about all kinds of crazy things. People eat this stuff up — but still, “science is hard.” How do you reconcile the two? The thing that they really think is hard is *math*. Which is highly suggested that no only should we transform the way people think about use science, but really the way they think about and use math.

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