Unscientific America on Bloggingheads With Carl Zimmer

By Chris Mooney | July 11, 2009 6:56 am

Here it is, and I think it may be the best diavlog we’ve done yet:

These are the different segments of the conversation, and we actually had some significant disagreements about the role of education in solving our problem, and other matters. I think it was a great talk:

Science Saturday: The War on Ignorance
Chris’s new book, “Unscientific America” (02:23)
Carl vs. Chris on how to fight scientific illiteracy (16:03)
A brief history of science’s image problem (09:10)
Do we need another Carl Sagan? (04:46)
If bloggers can’t make science cool again, who can? (09:17)
The culture gap between Hollywood and the scientific community (08:38)

Carl is also going to be introducing me when I give a book talk in New Haven, CT, on July 21. Details here.

Comments (28)

  1. Arj

    I agree with Carl that a crucial part of “literacy” is much better basic science education at the high school level (have always thought we ought reverse the amount of English and science classes high schoolers are required to take ;-) should even be much more science at elementary levels.
    But science needs to be taught as one way, one very fascinating, productive way, of approaching knowledge, NOT as the black-and-white solely correct or absolutist way to view the world — that is what turns off a lot of students at an early age, especially if they have initial difficulties with it. The history of science has lots of flaws and those need to be acknowledged along with its successes.

  2. Peter Beattie

    I think it would benefit the debate if we could actually try and define what we mean by ‘scientific illiteracy’. Judging from the conversation with Carl, what I understand your position to be, Chris, is that mainly there is a lack of factual knowledge, which is a thing easily ascertained in a poll. A little later in the conversation (around 7:30), you say that when it comes to isses like climate change and evolution we can ‘in no way’ blame what’s going on there on a lack of factual knowledge or even a lack of education. There again you seem, at least to some extent, to equate education with a knowledge of facts.

    The first thing that strikes me in the climate change and evolution debates is that generally people don’t even know what the word ‘fact’ means. That’s surely a pretty important idea to bear in mind in science. The second point is that science is not even primarily a body of knowledge. Just as much as literacy doesn’t mean to be able to tell different letters apart but how to connect them and how to make sense of them, by scientific literacy we should mean the ability to connect facts about the world and make sense of them. The third point is that there is one intellectual stance that is absolutely central to anything to do with science: the willingness to specify conditions that would lead one to change one’s mind.

    It is, as far as I can see, this third point that in the George Will affair as well as in the evolution debates is the elephant in the room. Scientists are willing to say, ‘Convince me that there are rabbit fossils in a pre-Cambrian stratum, and I’ll happily renounce Darwnism.’ We have yet to see creationists do anything that even comes close. Couched in the words of Richard Feynman, “Science is a way of trying not to fool yourself. The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.” If there is a single principle at the core of science, I would submit, it is exactly this; pretty much everything else follows from there. And it is this principle that should be at the heart of science education, of scientific literacy, and may I suggest discussions about scienctific literacy as well.

  3. Heraclides

    @1:

    I agree this is a key element, but I don’t think it’s a complete solution. People do take on religious views later in life and as long as there are adults willing to lead kids astray because of what they believe in, they will.

    @2:

    Certainly modern science is generally regarded as much as, if not more, about the process than the “facts”. (After all, our understanding of the world moves on with more information and testing.) The “facts” view stems from the historical origins of the word, to my mind. It’s quite common to see some religious people define science entirely in terms of “gathering knowledge/facts” with no mention of the process used to sort out what is likely to be correct.

  4. I’ve listened to the “history” and the “blogging” sections, will listen to the rest later.

    On one of the threads here, someone asked if anyone had ever considered the role that the rise of computers had played in where young people put their focus now. I’d add the rise of materialism (in the consumer sense) that went along with the conservative ascendency. A lot of kids who might have gone into science, or other less profitable topics went into finance of one kind or another. The importation of people with science credentials, sort of migrant workers for that sector of the money machine isn’t only to drive down the salaries of domestic scientists, it’s also a result of talent going after money instead of after knowledge.

    The focus on religion, other than the problem of biblical fundamentalists messing with the public schools, is so off base. There are problems with some religions and some aspects of society, as well as beneficial effects of other religions, but what gets the most focus now is entirely over the top and generally off base. Maybe that’s because taking on the commercial establishment is so much more daunting than taking on the relatively innocuous liberal churches.

    Heraclides, who are the people you say “lead kids astray”. Mostly, their parents? You’ve been reading too much Plato. You might want to read what I.F. Stone says on his ideas about child rearing in The Trial of Socrates.

  5. Heraclides

    who are the people you say “lead kids astray”

    It doesn’t matter: different adults for different kids. So what’s the real point in your question? Not much, that I can see! ;-)

  6. Soil Creep

    My 8 year old daughter declares emphatically that there is no god – but she firmly believes in Santa. There’s empirical evidence for Santa!

  7. Heraclides, you think you’ve got a better idea of where “astray” is than a child’s parents? I’ve got a feeling that just about every one of them might figure it’s none of your business. And, short of law breaking or rights denial, they’re right.

    Soil Creep, with what’s happened to the concept of “empirical evidence” in the hands of the new atheists, I can understand how an 8-year-old might be confused.

  8. Ben Nelson

    I’ll admit it: I wouldn’t pretend to be able to compare an electron and an atom off the top of my head. That’s largely because I don’t generally care. Shame on me. I know it’s the scientific equivalent of not knowing Shakespeare, but that’s not helpful; Shakespeare is by and large uninteresting (Hamlet aside). Double shame. If queried about either of these things, I have a vague set of deferential instructions I can give: go talk to these kinds of people in lab coats and tweed blazers, they know how to satisfy your curiosity.

    However, I do have standards of intellectual trust as far as truth goes. I don’t trust preachers, I don’t trust politicians, and (now) I don’t trust economists. But I do trust natural scientists. I trust these scientists to tell the truth about the things they care about, because I have the plausible notion in my head that if they’re caught violating that trust, the climate of the ivory culture is such that they’ll catch unholy hell. Hence the importance of being militant against bullshitters (Frankfurtian sense). Without it, there’d be no magisterium.

  9. Jennifer B. Phillips

    My 8yo doesn’t believe in gods, and has known ‘the truth’ about Santa for nearly two years, but still choses to affect belief in the latter because “it’s fun”. I don’t see this as a form of ‘confusion’ at all, just selective indulgence in the joys of make-believe.

  10. Ben Nelson

    Jennifer, in that case, your son/daughter has made their beliefs compatible by recognizing their incompatibility and indulging in it. That’s healthy, in some sense or other; and certainly a better kind of substantive “compatibility” than whatever Francis Collins has in mind.

  11. If Francis Collins mental state is “unhealthy” where the empirical evidence of debility?

    “Empirical evidence” to the new atheists means just about whatever they want it to mean on any occasion. I’m waiting for someone to take a really close look at science in the hands of the new atheists and the damage that they’re doing to it. They could start with what they’ve done to logic, which is pathetic.

  12. Ben Nelson

    Anthony, if you’re asking what motivates the claim, then I’d be happy to share. During a period of untreated clinical depression and various illnesses, I was (quite understandably) drawn to supernatural and superstitious ideas — anything that could draw comfort and meaning. As a means of adapting, I could not have been faulted, but it was an unhealthy state of mind (paranoid, mildly delusional) that resulted from an unhealthy situation.

    I am now in a healthy situation, and those inclinations, while still there somewhere in the cognitive soup that is my mind, are usually not dominant. Chiefly because I was painfully aware, even while in that period, that these delusions were delusions; and worse still, I intuited that these sorts of thinking bred the kinds of narcissism that created the idiotic conflicts in the real world situation. Still, I also knew that I had to believe them anyway or else.

    So I am willing to say that superstition is a healthy response relative to that particular kind of unhealthy situation. But that is not saying much in its favor; it only recommends quietism about mere belief, while primarily serving to condemn the situation and its idiotic causes.

    I’m not sure you really want me to engage with your claim about logic. Which damaged logic you referring to? Modal or predicate? Standard or para-consistent? Monotonic or non-monotonic? Formal or informal?

  13. What you’ve told us is your experience, which is entirely your property and so I will not comment on it except to point out that just because that was your experience doesn’t mean that it is relevant to other people.

    Francis Collins’ experience is his property and, as his career in science, administration and writing show, he’s functioning at an admirably high level. You have no rational reason to believe that he is in any way “unhealthy”. Nor do you have any empirical evidence that the vast majority of human beings who are religious are mentally ill. You have no rational reason to assume they are, unless you can produce evidence that they are. Your experience doesn’t apply to them.

    What the new atheism has done to logic is a long discussion. You can start with their habit of consistently making accusations of fallacies in the arguments of their opponents and just about always getting it wrong. “Ad hominem” is one of the favorites. You can go on to their general replacement of assertions of bigotry and shared prejudice for evidence of all kinds.

  14. Ben Nelson

    Well Anthony, you’re right to point out that my attempt was only to focus on what motivates the claim. I decided to go this route because if I had tried to read your inquiry in any other way, I would be interpreting you as asking a question that has been answered ad nauseum. Incidentally, I introduce it into public discussion so that you can engage with me on that level, within some bounds, if you like. Once I bring it up, it is absolutely fair game to examine. My experiences are not sacred — frankly, nobody’s are — and so they are not necessarily beyond discussion, especially when it comes down to a matter of explaining the context of intuitions.

    But if you are interested in what I mean by “unhealthy”, and what evidence I might have for such a claim, I first need point to the answer I gave in my motivational account above: it is unhealthy to tolerate self-delusion when there are alternatives. Jennifer’s child understands the difference between fantasy and reality, and seemingly expresses no need to make them more “compatible” than that; no delusion there. The beliefs are in harmony, because they recognize and tolerate the contradiction in terms of truth and play.

    You might argue that delusions are not unhealthy. If so, that would be the end of the argument; we would simply disagree.

    You might argue instead that religious claims are not delusions, since they deal in “truths” that cannot be confirmed by evidence. A delusion is the belief in a thing in spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, and in accordance with some wish. Some epistemologies would agree that belief in something that is under-confirmed by the evidence is equal to delusion. But for the sake of argument, I’m willing to agree that we can have to ourselves an epistemology that agrees that the abstract idea of god(s) is consistent with, but underdetermined by, the evidence. However, there is surely no evidence in favor of faith, either (that kind of defeats the point), unless you count the ephemeral sort of evidence, which is not evidence at all. In order to make sense of the wide gulf of evidentiary support between those kinds of beliefs that need god(s) and those that do not, and so long as the felt harmony of beliefs in the secular and in the religious is based on anything besides a recognition of their epistemic incompatibility, it seems quite right to call the non-evidentiary belief an illusion, at best. And while illusions are not necessarily unhealthy so long as we protect ourselves from the consequences of those illusions, delusions all and for the most-part inculcate vices in a person. I named narcissism above. An attitude of indifference to relevant evidence, and the ability to recognize such forms of evidence beyond learned rote scripture, is perhaps more appropriate for our discussion.

    So what happens when we Mr. Collins at his word and try to make sense of his personal experience? http://www.truthdig.com/report/item/20060815_sam_harris_language_ignorance/ What evidence or logic recommends the trinity? By its nature, the trinity is a three-way-contradiction. Moreover, what evidentiary link lies between the triple-frozen-waterfall and the trinity? We can presume that Collins was thinking to himself a great many questions during his hike, and then came to notice the triple-waterfall, taking it as a sign of three-ness from the powers that be. Had it not been a waterfall, what makes us think that he would not have found three-ness in a clover, or a split cloud, or anything else that his mind needed to see? If it was a matter of what his mind wished to see, and it is the unique episode in his life that decides whether or not his belief shall stand or fall, then we are back to delusion again. And if the episode is dismissed, and we go back to talking about “mere faith” (abandoning revelation and so on), well, we’re not Mr. Collins.

    I do not know exactly who your target is in your concerns with the status of logic. But I rather think that if we take logic seriously, then the instances in which people commit fallacies should remind us exactly why those instances *are* fallacies. And so logic herself muddles along as she always has.

  15. — You might argue that delusions are not unhealthy.

    Now your true colors are showing. You have no more of a basis for judging the experience of other people, other than arrogance and prejudice. Certainly not Francis Collins who hasn’t been caught in deluded thinking in his professional or administrative work and, to the best of my knowledge, has never had his sanity questioned by an HONEST, QUALIFIED, and UNBIASED observer of his behavior otherwise.

    The only people I’ve heard question his stability are anti-religious bigots who have no credibility to do so.

  16. Heraclides

    Returning to the topic at hand… Regards my response to poster 1, my apologies for framing my reply only in terms of religion. Re-reading it now, I should have replied in more general fashion. (Hey, it was in the wee hours when I replied!) I’m with the point you make, either way.

    I think there is a need for the public to better understand the process used in determining what is considered our best understanding of the subject at hand. Having apparently competing sides proclaiming “facts” is confusing otherwise.

    From the interview, I think that you need to distinguish between a general “formal” education—as the surveys use as a correlate—and and education specifically in the topic at hand. It would, for example, be useful to know precisely what the higher education of the Republicans was compared to the question being asked. If they proved to be mostly, say, post-graduate engineers and the question is on knowledge about evolution, this apparent inverse correlation might not be particularly linked. Carl touches on this, and I have say I agree. (I have a view that essentially all questionnaire surveys are flawed! As a practical matter is seems to me that it’s essentially impossible to eliminate unwanted confounding factors. But then, I’m a pessimist…)

    Is it not a requirement for high science teachers to have undergraduate science degrees in the USA? If that’s so, that may be a very critical issue right there. I sure I’m correct in saying that in my country they have to. (I”m very surprised by the claim that many don’t have science backgrounds, to be honest and the implication that it’s not a requirement for the position.) A related issue to the previous point, might be that ideally they need a basic degree in the relevant science, a biology degree for the biology teachers, etc.

    My “broadcast” of the interview cut out at around 10 minutes in, so I’ve have to leave it there, but perhaps that’s a good thing!

    On another issue, it would be interesting to consider if there needs to be better management of “factual” content in newspapers, etc. One issue I see repeatedly is material being poorly presented (even completely misrepresented), opinions presented as fact and so on. Investigative journalism in the sense of political journalism, revealing corrupt business people, etc., requires that the last word be the reporters and their editors. By contrast, in matters of fact, particularly within science reporting, the last word really ought to be those with the relevant expertise? With that in mind, perhaps it would help if a model obliging newspapers (etc.) to verify that the scientists have been reasonably represented be developed, and that some form of “gentle encouragement” be put into place to ensure that it generally happens. This will probably apply to other article genres than science reporting, so this perhaps is better seen as a more general issue? Perhaps the editorial level might be a particular weakness in existing process that needs addressing?

    I sometimes get the impression that the current model has a progression from expertise (the scientist) to increasing non-expertise in the specific subject matter being reported (the reporter, then the headline writers, the editors) accompanied by increasing “power” to alter the representation of the material. I can’t claim to offer practical solutions (not having worked in a newspaper), but I have a number of thoughts, none of them well developed enough to present as “final solutions”. I’d be interested in others’ thoughts on this.

    @7: You appear to not want to read my own meaning (which was very general). By all means read your own meanings, but please don’t make them out to me mine. I’m not going to take this further as it’s irrelevant to what I was saying.

  17. Ben Nelson

    Heraclides, the problems with the modern newspaper are so overwhelming that it’s difficult to articulate. One problem is time: if you’re expected to report instantly, your factual quality will be poor, and if you’re expected to create a quality product, then you will be behind in the times. The cleverest idea I’ve seen so far has been to create a business model that is a fully functioning hybrid blog/newspaper. The Christian Science Monitor has developed an interesting model in response to financial problems by only producing print papers every week, and switching their daily coverage to the internet. This way they can cull and consider the daily stories, increasing for quality control.

    The other problem is integrity, which has to do with funding sources and the culture of the paper, which are both subjects that are too depressing for me to comment on.

  18. Heraclides

    @17:

    the problems with the modern newspaper are so overwhelming that it’s difficult to articulate

    I get that impression, too.

    By time, I’ll read you as meaning ‘time-to-print’. I hope that’s OK. While time per se is also an issue, it’s a different issue. Many (most?) science articles aren’t so topical that they need to be reported “yesterday”. These articles don’t really have the excuse that time-to-time was critical (?), yet we still see examples of terrible articles. It’s part of the reason I brought up the different model issue: it seems to me that time-to-print is more an issue with subjects like political reporting, but science reporting appears—to me—to be falling under a model designed to deal with that, a model that doesn’t seem to suit more measured factual reporting. (?)

    The other problem is integrity, which has to do with funding sources and the culture of the paper, which are both subjects that are too depressing for me to comment on.

    I understand, it’s an “’nuff said” kind of subject. Leaving aside funding, it might be fair to say that the role of editor is key here?

  19. Christina Viering
  20. John Kwok

    @ Chris –

    A most fascinating discussion, in which two things really stood out for me.

    I endorse Carl’s emphasis on high school science education for the very reasons he stated, of which maybe the most important one is the fact that many do not have any exposure to science once they are in college (except maybe for a rare introductory course, whether it is for science majors or not).

    I think we do have people like Carl Sagan now. Some examples include astrophysicist Neil de Grasse Tyson, physicist Brian Greene, physicist Lawrence Krauss and evolutionary biologist E. O. Wilson, to name but a few.

  21. GrosBec

    “Is it not a requirement for high science teachers to have undergraduate science degrees in the USA?”

    No, generally it is not a requirement. There are several pathways a person can take to become a certified teacher in any subject. Let’s say you are a certified english teacher and would like to teach Biology. In my state, taking 30 hours of biology course work or passing the PRAXIS exam in biology will get you certified to teach biology.

    I agree with Carl. Science teachers do need to be better trained in the USA. Things have gotten better since I entered the profession 17 years ago but more needs to be done. A good place to start WOULD be to require an undergrad degree in your subject area. One of our state universities is trying to encourage just such a thing, offering a dual degree in education and a science degree. But it is entirely voluntary.

    I disagree with Carl’s focus on high school. Good science education needs to start earlier. I think maintaining a high level of curiosity (about science and the world) is important. Many students have repressed (or lost) their natural curiosity by the time they get to high school. Elementary and middle school teachers get even less science training than high school teachers, although this is changing. Several of the national science teachers organizations have been trying to address this issue for a while now (and doing a good job in my opinion). Ultimately, it is up to individual states and universities to up the requirements for teacher training.

    There are many more issues concerning science education I could go on about. But then I’d be writing all night!

  22. Ben Nelson

    Hera, you read me right. And you’re right as well about the simple lack of interest in these topics, which is reflected in pragmatic bludgeoning that’s passed as editorial control (ostensibly for the sake of column space and so on). But innovative hybrid solutions like that at the CS Monitor show some hope on that front, in their daily web format. There’s no need for editing for the sake of column space when you’re really only taking up server space.

    Do you remember the opening sequence of Get Smart, where Max has to go through one wall of iron after another in order to get to HQ? That’s the best way to think about the process of newspapers, as far as I can tell.

    I was personally able to substantially change the quality of output by my university paper in a single year just by attending the vote for new editors and loudly campaigning against the outgoing editor for being a right-wing lunatic. Still, it’s one wall after another. The new editor was either afraid of losing advertising, or afraid of taking risks on stories; or so I must surmise, since he’d mysteriously axed two fully crafted stories on issues related to consumer advertising / politics even when he was desperate for stories, despite initial enthusiasm.

    It’s not an isolated problem of course, or even one single isolated problem, but an intertwined spaghetti of problems. Take Canada’s sterling newspaper, the Globe and Mail. Reporters at the Globe have in the past reported on having story ideas, completed stories, etc., and just having them junked by the editors. Most news dies a stillbirth. That’s not surprising, considering that the paper has clear implicit ideological criteria for management hiring. Hence, for example, a terminally unpopular op-ed creature like Margaret Wente finds herself with a management position. When occupying this position, she gets caught engaging in rogue hiring, ignoring the union-employer agreement that lays out fair hiring practices. This was not unique to her; evidently, the union has a history of grievances along this line towards management. I doubt ideology was coincidence in that case.

    That’s not even getting into Chomsky-style Manufacturing Consent filters, which themselves are plausible, at least with respect to the select topics in foreign and political affairs that he’s interested in. And yet the strongest arguments against Chomsky take the following form: “Yes, we here in the newspaper industry sure aren’t perfect, shucks we’re a humble bunch, but we don’t suck because of the reasons Chomsky talks about. Rather, we suck because reporters are lazy, people hate real news, etc.” When one realizes that the explanations are not either/or in the sense of mitigating one another, but instead pile up one after the other, one can only (rightly) conclude that the people that run this business are scary and do scary things we should run away from them forever.

  23. Heraclides

    GrosBec,

    As I understand it here it’s a specialist subject degree followed by a one-year Graduate Diploma of Teaching (Secondary) or a combined specialist subject degree and secondary teaching qualification.

    Basically you do an undergraduate degree in an appropriate area, followed by a teaching diploma, or a merger of the two. Sounds as if nobody gets a free pass :-)

    One thing that strikes me with the easier routes to teaching science in the USA is that you’d want the teachers to be at least a couple of years “ahead” of the final-year students in the field you teach. I couldn’t imagine how they could genuinely teach them otherwise.

    I presume the better schools voluntarily set higher standards that the minimum requirements as a matter of course?

  24. Heraclides

    Hmm, I’d love to know what trips the moderation! My reply to GrosBec is held up, but I can’t see anything obvious that’d flip out a keyword scan. Maybe it’s the smiley??

    Anyway…

    Ben (@22):

    Uh-huh. (And thanks for the reply.) I remember the opening of Get Smart, used to watch it… :-)

    While there’s no need to edit for column space, I hope they still edit for at least some brevity, or all their pieces will end up like my rabbitting on! (My computer dictionary doesn’t like the word ‘rabbitting’. Whatever.)

    Editors have a lot to juggle. Fair point. There is also a lot of “game playing”. Sounds like a lot of other industries to me. (Not a justification, just a familiar feeling, as it were.) I have to admit as a user, I get a bit frustrated. For what it’s worth I miss reading the better London dailies. That’s not saying they operate better internally (I haven’t a clue either way), but the output was a sight better than what I get in my little country. Then, again, that was some time ago and things have moved on considerably. Seeing I’m down to waffling aimlessly, I’ll clam up! :-) Thanks for the reply.

  25. GrosBec

    Heraclides,

    I agree. Thorough knowledge of subject is paramount. Equally important are management skills. I’ve known people who knew their subject well but couldn’t manage students effectively. There was not much learning going on.

    Yes, better schools do sometimes have higher requirements. I know of one system that recruits only teachers with masters degrees (in education). There are also schools that do a great job without higher requirements and degrees. I think it really comes down to the individual teacher. A highly motivated individual with a love for their subject will transcend the poor training they may have received and teach science effectively no matter what kind of system they are in.

  26. Gaythia

    Which individuals get hired as teachers is dependent on the evaluations of school principals and administrators. Content standards and teaching expectations come from school district boards and state boards of education. Funding comes from local, state, and federal levels. Alert citizens interested in science education need to be attentive to all of these. Enthusiasm is important, but it is also very important to know what the teacher is enthusiastic about and to ensure that appropriate and accurate scientific information is being conveyed to students in the classroom.

  27. Heraclides

    I’m biased to my own ideas of how a school system should be (aren’t we all?) but I have to admit I it sounds to me as if the high school system in the USA needs a huge overhaul.

    There should be national-level minimum qualifications to teach at high school (or any school level for that matter). Relying almost entirely on the “naïve” skills of individual teachers seems a very dodgy proposition. While I’m sure there are individuals that will do well regardless of training, relying on this without some sort of standards is surely flawed, especially if you want to raise the overall standard and provide any sort of consistency for parents and students.

    Very few people, even with the best of intentions, can teach a science subject unless they know it (much) better than the students. Science at any one level is “explained” in terms of things occurring at the levels “below” it and to the contexts they fall in. Animals can be described in terms of their organs and body structure; their organs can be described in terms of their cell types and organisation; cells can be described in terms of their organelles and cell types in terms of their particular cellular features and chemical pathways; cellular biochemistry can be described in terms of molecules; molecules can be described in terms of… Animals can also be described in terms of the there interactions with other animals of their own species, other species and the environment. Those in turn can be described… Ditto for computer science. Ditto for physics. A teacher without a degree-level background is unlikely to know the next levels “below” what the student is required to learn or the larger context, but just know the “level” the student is supposed to get and little more. It might at first blush this might seem sufficient, but it’s wrong when looked at properly.

    I’m not expecting teachers to know everything (of course), but I think it’s reasonable to ask that they have a genuine appreciation of what the context of what they are teaching sits in.

    If you want to raise the overall standards across the board, you really have to provide a means that parents know that education is held to some minimum standard. Realistically, this means you need a national minimum curriculum and national minimum teaching qualifications.

    That the USA lacks the latter is very surprising to me. But I have to say, if this is right, I’m no longer surprised why religious issues in the USA impacts so badly on science teaching!

    Perhaps the USA would struggle with jumping directly to a full degree + teaching diploma qualification, so an interim level of a set number of relevant papers at, say, 200 level in the relevant science (or arts) should be set (lifted later to a degree in the relevant science/arts/humanities), along with a one-year diploma on teaching (classroom planning & management, teaching skills & strategies, etc.), accompanied by a planned phasing out of those without formal qualifications (i.e. they have a number of years to bring themselves up to the formal standard, with support from central government). I know very little about the system in the USA, so maybe some of this is already in place. I hope so!

    As for a national (minimum) curriculum, I’m surprised that higher education (e.g. universities, polytechniques, etc) and employers—especially those who employ across state lines—aren’t demanding it. I can’t help speculating that why USA university first-year courses are considered “soft” by other nations is because they are having to bring the students up to a more uniform standard before teaching them the more advanced material. (True? I’m getting this via “general gossip”, so I can’t claim to know for certainty.) It also strikes me that the entrance examinations for universities (colleges) are symptomatic of the weakness at the high school level. In other countries the school curriculum and examinations are standard enough that the marks from these are used.

    (Enough for one day…)

  28. Heraclides

    Guess I said too much, eh? Sorry about that.

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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by Salon.com and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs. For a longer bio and contact information, see here.

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