This is really a very long complementary comment to a blog post by author Vandana Singh, On Why People Don’t Like Science, Especially Physics.” It was too long to post on her site (and be fair to others). Read her post first, then, if the mood strikes, read mine. Reading me first will result in a “whatever” (not the fun John Scalzi blog) and probably keep you from VS’s blog.
In the west, we’re very product oriented. Science is not a product, it’s a process, so what good is it for me (the crowd of me, not the me of me)?
We also don’t see it as romantic. We like romance (I don’t mean love stories, I mean anything that produces a swell of emotion).
We, the people, like mythology (religious or otherwise) much more than science. Why is that? The diversity of “magical” or mysterious or “alien” or beautifully complex things in the “real” world make the shallow mystique of most stories/myths (and I include anything that insists on explaining our universe as a magical (by)product or project of supreme beings) look like kids crayon work (which has its place, perhaps as a starting point but not as a primary source of wonder).
We also like to look at pictures (because we like romance) and see most of the world this way. There’s a well known Feynman anecdote where he compares what he sees when looking at a stunning cloud formation with what the nonscience-minded see. The latter see the pretty picture, slightly animated in its rolling elephantine (and alien) movement–Feynman saw that, too, but he also saw elements working together in fantastic and beautiful complexity to make that picture happen not just in the sky, but in the light that travels to our eyes, and how we process that light as information, and feel about it, and–good lord you fools, do you not see it! In other words, he saw something that engaged him on all levels and that, ironically, was more far romantic than a sky painting. I read that anecdote when I was much younger, and have never looked at anything the same since. (Or, more accurately, when I see something as a just another pretty picture, I use this anecdote to kick myself.)
There’s another very large set of people, who like to know about science, in a popular sense–these sciency things are out there and they are very cool, and I can read about them in very slick periodicals, on websites, and watch amazing digital videos available everywhere. Now that’s entertainment! Well, it’s a step in the right direction. I’m a member of that audience, but I know it’s not science that I’m watching; it’s a science-related product.
We think science is expensive (and often it is), and must be funded, mostly by corporations (who, and I say this without cynicism, do almost nothing that is not attached to their bottom line). We’re often told that we only need simple tools and often nothing more than our senses and perhaps a recording device (pencil and paper, cheap camera). But those aren’t romantic and are not pushed as science products in the places where we shop. We’re all about the products.
When we’re kids, we don’t need a reason to investigate something. Or, we have the reason we need–because the thing or event is there, or it isn’t there. And why isn’t it there? Or why is it? Then, as we get older, we encounter the “so what” factor–useful if we enter business or other funded worlds but one that has less use in everyday science. Perhaps it’s that factor that parents, teachers, and others need to address or help us discover as we grow up. Great teachers do that–my high school chemistry teacher, a purposeful eccentric, didn’t spend much time on telling us the “so what”–but he did help us figure it out for ourselves. My father, a deep thinker (his ongoing labor of love), lives in a world of science, but it took me years to understand what he gave my brother and I in our tromps through the woods, our visits to science museums, and other places where he exposed us to the world and its complexities (or, sometimes, beautiful simplicities–because systems aren’t always complex, at least on the surface). Now I see that he was/is a “citizen scientist”–a person who incorporates science into his daily life, and that he was so caught up in it privately that he was unable to express what he saw and felt for his children. We thought he was boring and a pain (he’s still a bit pedantic, but that’s his chosen communication style, and I can kid him about it). Older now, I have an inkling of what he still sees everyday, and realize that we do not have to be fantastic teachers of science to our children–that if we embrace the world ourselves, doing the least, dragging our children into the world, as we did in their first moments, we’ll increase the odds that those kids will think science is so frikkin’ cool that they eventually, like us, weep when they consider how little time they have to learn even a little about a bit.
(Note, I’m not an atheist or a particular sort of agnostic, or a scientist, but I am saddened by people who hold spiritual beliefs that intentionally limit their view of the world. My wife and I encourage our children to accept and not shun those people–we know a bunch–but not be held back by them, either.)
Return to Vandana’s post and the other reader comments.
Postscript: I’ve made Feynman’s anecdote my own over the years. The version I read long ago is not so elaborate or excitable, but is no less meaningful to me.