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11:17 am
Wed May 29, 2013

Ira Flatow: "We live in a science-challenged world."

Listen to the interview here.

In this interview excerpt, Science Friday Host Ira Flatow makes the case for why we live in a science-challenged world.

IF:  How do you present science to a science-challenged world?

RLH:  Now why are we a science-challenged world?  I thought the Obama Administration was just starting to pump money into STEM initiatives…

IF:  Well, I just showed you this Congressman, right, who thinks that – he can’t figure out where the science comes from and how few scientists are in Congress and how little people know – but love science.  They

There was a really interesting study that showed people love science.  And we know that from our show and I know that from when I go speaking around the country.  When we talk about science, people show up.  They show up in record numbers.  They love to hear about it.  They love to talk about it.  But they don’t understand where it comes from.  They think scientists are very important.  Teenagers – when you poll them – they’ll tell you that scientists, doctors are very important people that they respect the most.  But they don’t know what scientists do.  They haven’t got the slightest idea what a scientist does or how science works.  And that’s a big problem. 

When we teach science in school, we don’t teach what the process of science is.  And science is really a method.  You know, people think science is in a big book – in a giant dictionary – you know – here – page 58.  Here.  They’ll tell you how this works.  That’s not what science is. 

Science is a method of discovering the truth.  And people have very little understanding of how that method is – they have very little understanding of how being wrong in science – coming up with a wrong answer is very important.  You know, we don’t teach kids to make mistakes.  Making mistakes is very big in science.  Eliminating things that don’t work by doing experiments that don’t yield the results you need.  They’re very important. 

RLH:  You know, it is interesting.  That’s almost completely against our current culture.  I spoke with a scientist, last week I think it was, who was proud of the fact that he’d figured out that a couple of treatments for Alzheimer’s didn’t work.  And he was being serious.  And I can certainly appreciate where he’s coming from now, but…

IF:  Yes.  Yes.  Yes.  You know, no one remembers who lost the Super Bowl.  Right?  We’re only concerned with the winners.  But it’s the losers like this scientist – he’s not a loser in science.  He’s a loser in the public – it didn’t work – his experiment didn’t yield any positive results that you might think of in the general terms.  But he knew that eliminating things that didn’t work was very, very important.  

I look at it like doing a sculpture.  You have this big piece of stone.  And you eliminate all the stuff on it that doesn’t need to be there.  And the thing jumps out.  Oh!  It’s inside there all the time.  You just have to eliminate all the stuff that doesn’t belong.  And that’s what science does. 

Science makes a prediction.  When you do science, you come up with an idea.  And then it has to make a prediction that’s testable.  If it’s not a testable prediction, it may hang around for a while, but it’s not science.  It’s not scientifically valid any more.  You have to be able to say what experiment you can do and test it out.  And if you can’t do that, then it becomes religion.  You believe in it.  I believe in this.  But religion’s not testable.  And science has to have something that’s testable.  There are theories that hang around for years – you know – string theory.  That’s been around for 30 years now.  It makes predictions.  But a lot of them are not testable. 

And there are scientists who are saying, “Okay, let’s move on.  You may like string theory.  It may work for you.  But it’s making predictions that – for 30 years now – we have not been able to test because we don’t have giant particle smashers that are big enough.”

RLH:  Is this just a problem with children – with students in our society?  Or is this a bigger problem?  Do we have an intellectual problem in America?

IF:  You know, students, kids are natural born scientists.  You know, a kid is 2 years old, 3 years old.   He takes a Pop Tart and throws it in the VCR, he says, “Oh, how come that’s not working?” 

That’s an experiment.  Kids are natural-born experimenters.  They try things out.  They experiment with things about them.  The problem is keeping them interested in science.  Because they don’t have good role models.  If you talk to anybody who’s been a successful scientist, you’ll find that they had somebody – a teacher, a parent, a friend – who was able to keep them interested in stuff that they were doing and able to channel that.  Teachers are the most important part of that chain, I think.

RLH:  So what’s happening there?  Where are they going?

IF:  We don’t have teachers who are taught to be science teachers.  There’s a difference between being a good teacher and being interested in the subject or not interested in the subject.  On one level, we don’t have a mechanism for training science teachers.  We take social studies teachers, whatever, and we say, “Now, you’re teaching science.”

And they’re lost themselves.  And then we have good teachers who are interested in science but we haven’t taught them, exactly, the best way to teach science.  And we need to do that because people love science.  They love to stay interested.

And a third ingredient, I think, is that we don’t teach people how to appreciate science.  When you’re in school, you have a program – an art appreciation course.  And now with budget cuts, they don’t appreciate art or music or anything – but that’s another story. 

But you were taught why was Picasso a great artist.  How to appreciate Van Gogh.  All this kind of stuff.  And we know that you’re never going to be that artist, but we know that it’s important for you to understand why that’s part of civilization and why that’s an important part of civilization and who these people were. 

We don’t teach science that way at all.  We don’t teach you why some of the great scientists exist – Louis Pasteur, Madame Curie – even living scientists.  We don’t teach you what was important about their work and how science works – this process we talked about.  We don’t teach that.  And we need a way of teaching of the appreciation of the value of doing science. 

RLH:  One of the notable things about Einstein, I think, is the fact that he would ask a lot of questions that could have been perceived as wacky or trivial, and yet he had enough respect for his own process of thinking that outside reaction didn’t have much impact.

IF:  Right.  Yeah.  You have to have a lot of self-confidence, maybe arrogance.  You have to be very self-confident.  You have to be a little crazy.  You know, Louis Leakey believed that the origins of humans were in Africa.  This was at a time way back in the ‘30s and ‘40s and ‘50s when they thought maybe the origins of people were in China. 

He said, “No, it’s in Africa.” 

He went to Africa and he spent 30 years as my professor once told me, “lying on the ground with a toothbrush in one hand and a stick in the other to bat away the scorpions”.

He got sick one day and it was actually his wife one day who discovered this jaw that became very famous.  It was Zinjanthropus that showed that Africa was actually one of the seats where humans evolved. 

You have to be a little bit crazy like that to believe in these theories and stick to them even though people are saying that you’re wrong. 

You have to be very inquisitive.  I. I. Rabi who was a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, when he was getting his award many years ago, he said, “Who was your role model?  What did you do?”

He says, “Well, you know, my mother – instead of asking me ‘did you do okay in school today?’… after I got home – before I left she would say, ‘Okay, don’t forget to ask a good question in school today.’” 

Ask a good question.  And asking those questions, you know, that’s what science does.  It just keeps asking more and more questions and finding a way to find out if those are the right questions or yield any results.

RLH:  If you were King of the World, [laughter] and you could address this science-challenged part of it, you would create a teacher training program, how to teach science to kids.  What else would you do?  What do we need to do? 

IF:  We need to value science as much as we value entertainers.

RLH:  Why?  Why can’t we just rely on the scientists?

IF:  Because scientists don’t believe it’s their job to speak out.  Some of them do.  You had famous scientists who spoke out a lot – like Carl Sagan and people like that.  They’re speaking out a little more. They think it detracts from their real work and the way other people respect them – other scientists respect them to speak out.  So what we need to do is create the same sort of buzz about science as we do about other things.

For example, the President for the first time in the history of the country, the President, now he’s done it three times, the President had a science fair at the White House.  he said, “I bring all these athletes in – you know – Super Bowl winners, World Series winners.  They always get a picture with the President.  And they get celebrated.  We should do this for kids in science fair projects.  So they do that.  And they’ve been doing that for three years.  We need that kind of exposure. 

We need people to talk about science in the news every day.  There’s virtually no science on the news.  When I watch the news – sometimes I just want to keep a blog of all the stories that happen that day that you never heard about.  Right? 

Because the news business doesn’t believe that they’re in the job to educate you.  They’re not going to educate you about these things.  And they’re not really adequately staffed to recognize a good science story and to follow it through.  And they made that decision.  You know, there used to be 70 newspapers with science sections in there every week.  And now there are very few left.  Whenever there’s a problem in the media, could be newspapers, could be broadcast, science is always the first thing that gets cut.  The coverage of science gets cut. 

RLH:  You said that the New York Times did away with the environmental desk.

IF:  Yes, they did away with the environmental desk last year.

RLH:  Why?

IF:  I imagine it was money.  I know some of the bloggers there.  and they were shocked.  It’s still reverberating around the science-journalism community.  But they owned the Boston Globe and they did away with the science section in the Boston Globe.  They said they would move their reporters around into other sections and I imagine that’s the same kind of thinking they’re having here. 

CNN – when President Obama was elected, it was sort of interesting.  As the President was saying, “I’m going to restore science to its rightful place,” CNN fired the whole science staff, including Miles O’Brien who wound up on PBS, saying, I guess you know, it costs too much money.  No need to cover science – have a science staff – just when science is more important now – than coverage of it probably ever was. 

Now, during the age when I grew up as a kid, we had a political motive.  We had the race to the moon.  You know, that really was a political race.  But along with it came the science and technology and engineering that the teachers and kids were beneficiaries of.  We don’t have a political race like that.  We don’t see that we’re in a race to create green jobs or we’re in a race with China for technology or India.  We don’t look at that as a kind of political race.  Maybe if we did, we’d take it more seriously.