A Newsletter of Scientific Literacy. February 2005

freedom and truth

President Bush used the word “freedom” 24 times in his 2nd Inaugural Address. Whether you agree with his means or not, it is hard to disagree with his end—a world of free nations. A world of free people. To my thinking one of the best ways to pursue this end is through a dramatic expansion and improvement in science education world-wide. As a wise writer once said, “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”

And what human activity has a firmer grasp on truth than science.

Aha! There is the catch. Truth with a capital T (whether it comes from religion, politics or science) is just the kind of truth we don’t need. This is the kind of truth that for many sad centuries people have been killing one about. One group, that is, thinks they have the Truth, while their adversaries are just as certain that they have the Truth.

What kind of truth then does make us free?

Answer: the kind of truth (with a small “t”) that science at its best gives and promotes.

two sides of science

Science has two sides. One side I call the power part, technology that is. This is the side that can lead to power (and wealth). Unfortunately it can also support tyrannical governments as it did in the 20th century in Germany, in the Soviet Union and as it does today in much of the Middle East (oil, dirty bombs,.kalishnikovs, etc.)

But technology is only half of science. The other half I call the wonder half, the soul of science. This is the side of science that leads to tolerance, to wisdom, and to freedom and to democracy. This is the side of science that the jurist Learned Hand was thinking of when he said “the spirit of liberty is the spirit that is not quite sure it is right.” Or that the Nobel prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman was talking about when he said that we should above all teach “doubt.”

Richard Feynman

In Feynman’s book “What Do You Care What Other People Think?” he explains the relation of science to democracy this way.

“Through all ages of our past, people have tried to fathom the meaning of life. They have realized that if some direction or meaning could be given to our actions, great human forces would be unleashed. So, very many answers have been given to the question of the meaning of it all. But the answers have been of all different sorts, and the proponents of one answer have looked with horror at the actions of the believers in another--horror, because from a disagreeing point of view all the great potentialities of the race are channeled into a false and confining blind alley. In fact, it is from the history of the enormous monstrosities created by false belief that philosophers have realized the apparently infinite and wondrous capacities of human beings. The dream is to find the open channel.

“If we take everything into account--not only what the ancients knew, but all of what we know today that they didn’t know--then I think we must frankly admit that we do not know.

“But, in admitting this, we have probably found the open channel.

“This is not a new idea: this is the idea of the age of reason. This is the philosophy that guided the men who made the democracy that we live under. The idea that no one really knew how to run a government led to the idea that we should arrange a system by which new ideas could be developed, tried out, and tossed out if necessary, with more new ideas brought in—a trial-and-error system.”

how to teach the soul of science

How best to teach this soul of science to young students in high school and college is the tough part. Certainly one way not to do it is the way many schools in Islamic countries choose. They hope to teach and get the benefits of science on the technology side without letting the wisdom of science challenge their fundamental religious dogmas. In the worst of their schools the students study only the Koran. Unfortunately this approach is also present to a lesser degree in some fundamentalist schools in the west, including the United .States, where the Bible is considered the final authority not only on all moral questions but on scientific questions as well.

One of my own modest suggestions for all schools is to spend far more time teaching the history of science than we have in the past. All three of the major science curriculum projects-- AAAS Project 2061, NSTA’s Scope, Sequence and Coordination of Secondary School Science and The National Science Education Standards—strongly urge schools to teach more about the history of science. (I also recommend you take a look at the November, 2004 issue of The Science Teacher which features articles on “The History and Nature of Science.”)

more history of science needed

The more students learn about how we found out about atoms, about stars and galaxies, about germs, about genes, about weather and climate, about animals and plants and ecosystems, about our own bodies and brains and emotions, the less susceptible they will be to people and to movements that claim to know it all. The more they will respect the power of evidence. The more they will respect the virtues of tolerance, of doubt, and of ignorance. The more they will realize the power of free inquiry. And finally, the more they will appreciate the value of freedom.

This integration of science history with the nuts and bolts of modern science technology is central to our Keys to Scientific Literacy Series of videos and DVDs. Each member of the series has two parts. Part One relates the history of how the concepts were discovered in human history. Part Two explains the state-of-the-science today. See our web site: www.hawkhill.com for more information on programs like THE ATOM, ECOSYSTEMS, TOXIC WASTES, NUCLEAR POWER, THE GENE, EVOLUTION, SCIENTIFIC METHODS AND VALUES and many more.

quotes for the bulletin board

“Blessed is he who learns how to engage in inquiry, with no impulse to harm his countrymen or to pursue wrongful actions, but perceives the order of immortal and ageless nature, how it is structured.” Euripides. 406 B.C.E.

“Nothing could be more obvious than that the Earth is stable and unmoving, and that we are in the center of the Universe. Modern Western science takes its beginning from the denial of this common-sense axiom.” Daniel J. Boorstin, The Discoverers.

“Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts.” Richard Feynman in The Physics Teacher.

“I seem to be a verb” Buckminster Fuller

“I wouldn’t have seen it if I hadn’t believed it.” Anonymous

“Hell, if I could explain it to the average person it wouldn’t have won the Nobel Prize.” Richard Feynman after winning the Nobel Prize.

“Don’t always follow the crowd., because nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.” Yogi Berra

“No matter how much evidence exists that seers do not exist, suckers will pay for the existence of seers.” J. Scott Armstrong.

“It has been for me a glorious day, like giving sight to a blind man’s eyes: he is overwhelmed with what he sees and cannot justly comprehend it.” Charles Darwin on first seeing tropical forests.

“Any idiot can face a crisis. It’s the day-to-day living that can wear you out.” Anton Chekhov.

Richard Feynman on refusing to read his own obituary before his death. “I have decided it is not a very good idea for a man to read it ahead of time. It takes the element of surprise out of it.”

In a cartoon of Sidney Harris, a beautiful maiden is seen speaking to a hard-working scientist. “I’m your guardian angel and I think it’s time you knew that for the past 37 years you’ve been barking up the wrong tree.”

did you know?

If the earth were smooth, all the land would be covered with seawater to a depth of about 8810 feet, or 1/1/2 miles. Marilyn vos Savant in Parade Magazine.

“If a 747 aircraft crashes, the news spreads rapidly, the incident is investigated thoroughly; and the press follows the incident, the victims’ stories, and the compensations with ghoulish interest. However if half a million children die each year worldwide from rotavirus—the equivalent of several 747s full of children each day—the story does not sell a single paper. Similarly, another killer virus, influenza, remains underappreciated, and despite the availability of an effective vaccine, we still have 37,000 flu-related deaths in the United States each year.” Bill Gates, quoted in an editorial of Roger I. Glass in Science, 14 May 2004.

international news

We at Hawkhill are trying to do our small part in advancing world-wide science education – as well as making a living in a good free-market way for ourselves. During the last few years we have seen some of our programs translated into German, Finnish, Hebrew and Turkish. English language versions are being sold in Hong Kong, Malaysia, Taiwan, Australia, Scotland, Canada and South Korea. If any more of our foreign correspondents would like to import (and/or translate) our programs, give me a call.

new Great Lakes series

Closer to home we have just released a new updated version of THE GREAT LAKES. Like most of our other programs it combines history and science in a three-part series that AAAS Science Books & Films claims is “very effective as a group, giving and integrated approach to the geology, history and ecology and the largest chain of fresh water lakes in the world.” See our web site for more information: www.hawkhill.com

Editor: Bill Stonebarger
Hawkhill Associates, Inc.
125 East Gilman St.
Madison, WI 53703