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Wednesday, March 22, 2006

***Mass media publication of science and technology***

I'm not one to push the blame into the lap of films, television or computer games for people being stupid, playing with matches or thinking the idea to hack their buddies up with a machete, at some point though mass media has to take responsibility for some of people's ideas. I love the TV show, Spooks by the BBC, it's called MI5 in the states. In a recent story they ran a line about computer hackers breaking into various computer systems from the internet and causing havoc. One of the hackers pranks was to alter some traffic lights and set them all the green, cue dramatic camera shot, woman with pram and our hero pushing her out of the way. Watching this I do my "Science being portrayed stupidly on TV shout" (TM). Quite simply this is impossible for reasons I won't insult readers by going into here. To be then told by my fellow viewers,
"Oh yeah it could they wouldn't show it otherwise, people can do all sorts with computers, you can hack into anywhere"
Apparently all you need to type is, "Hack Override" or some other mystic incantation.
Nuclear power always raises heckles, genetic modification of grain, basic kinetics of people flying backwards after being hit by a bullet, the use of a defibrillation machine to restart a heart (drives my medics friends crazy).

The media frenzy regarding the triple vaccine completely ignored the fact that most cases of autism are diagnosed at about the same age the vaccine is administered. Everyone is crying out that some educators want to discuss creationism alongside standard big bang theory, suddenly everyone is horrified that in this non secular (no we're not) country the Church might influence education, despite the fact that the Church stopped civil partnership ceremonies for homosexuals being called marriage, but heavens forbid they suggest that God created the planet.

Technology - AOL recently ran an amazing advertising campaign in the UK, a pair of adverts that in one decried the internet as a pollutant of our world, a portal for sex fiends to abuse our children. In the second elevated the internet to a utopian vision of intellectual freedom a melting pot of ideas, understanding and tolerance. It is the only company I know of to completely trash its product in order to sell it. The first of these adverts tapped into peoples real fears about technology, that the computer (yes the actual computer) can cause you harm, it can poison your thoughts, turn your teenage child into a terrorist, make your son or daughter a slave to sexual deviants in eastern Europe. All these things are the computers fault, (I blame the mice and all that cheese), not the users, not the society that drove the disgruntled disaffected youth underground in the first place; it is the machines fault. More hysteria to follow soon...

Currently the UK is having somewhat of an energy crisis, OK we're not in crisis mode yet (See even I'm at it) but given various wars in the Persian Gulf we're in a worrying situation. Some believe one answer is to renew / restart the Nuclear building program. Yes those
glowing green dangerous radioactive installation that teeter on the edge of meltdown waiting to bore through the ground and leave a steaming hole in the earth poisoning the water for a thousand years.
"We know it can happen look what happened in Russia."

This falsehood is an extreme view but the unease about science, be it nuclear, biological, biotech, mechanical exists. People have an inherent distrust, partly caused by ignorance pig headiness and fuelled by the mass media. I realise that if you made all these programs as realistic as possible or even portrayed the ideal levels of safety the engineers would like to display, it would make for a very boring 60 minute episode of (Insert random science / geek / tech program here) indeed. Even so allowing for some artistic license it can be dangerous to promote these kind of hysterical ideas. Why are the plebs not equipped to defend themselves from this onslaugt of crazy talk ?

This all isn't helped by the lack of solid science grounding in our education system, I'm not decrying the status of science teaching, more is the worrying upsurge in those studying the social sciences. Obviously we need people who study sociology, psychology et al. The problem is if we lose our capacity to perform the hard sciences the truly ground breaking research we in turn lose people to educate the next generation in physics and biology that is how we increase teen pregnancy, because as most 14 years olds know you can't get pregnant the first time. If we don't have people to teach maths it means that kid in Pizza Hut can't work out 10% of my bill in his head. Small end of the wedge, what happens when this all comes full loop ? When we attempt to build our next nuclear reactor in house, since really the only people capable of doing it properly are ex soviet scientists hiding out from the Ukraine Mafia in South Africa is that: someone believing the current party line and making up that last 1% to reach a target of 50% in FE decides to try their hand at Nuclear Physics. This someone ends up getting some power of ten wrong and does in fact cause some form of apocalypse akin to that horrid Jane Fonda movie, frighteningly self full filling isn't it ?

This country is currently offering bucket loads of money to become a maths teacher. It's not working. This country is fantastically devoid of intelligent lucid people wanting to enter the public sector and educate the masses in the hard stuff. Part of the blame must lay within the assessment system itself. Some subjects you can train to pass exams, more and more time of teachers is spent training for exam questions, this isn't the teachers faults, given performance related pay, then measuring performance by exam results and tying funding to said results all adds up to a system devoid of the real aim that is teaching the masses to think.
Engineering, maths and physics are hard, learning by rote a load of precedents isn't. A very intelligent psychology grad. said to me, most of her masters heck most of her degree was common sense. Those that choose to enter the sciences work hard, why would they ever bother do all that and then decide to get paid sod all to try and convince a bunch of kids that this stuff is worth learning so that they in turn can be told by the humanities students that nuclear power is evil and will destroy the planet because they saw it on a science program last night, narrated by Jane fonda.

The answer isn't merely a sound bite about education^3, nor throwing more money indiscriminately into the current secondary education system allowing people to just pursue the "easy options" from 16 because maths is too hard, no what is required is a well rounded whole education system covering a more all encompassing system crossing faculties. In the biggest shake up of the post 16 education system the current administration introduced Curriculum 2000. This changed the value of year one study at advanced level. It mandated that advanced level students taking A-Levels would take 4 half subjects in the first year and in the second year increase 3 of those half AS levels into full A-Levels. The hope as I am aware that it would induce people like myself to take along side my Maths, Physics and Computing A-Levels a fourth mind expanding subject, English, psychology, drama ? What actually happened ? Rather than causing students to emerge like beautiful well formed well rounded butterflies with a wide reaching intellect, my lots (science geeks) just added further maths and the English lang, Psychology sociology kids just added... English lit... that's progress for you. This for some has damaged irreparably the post 16 English education system the death knoll has sounded and some are calling for a bold move to a truly well rounded education system like the IB. the problem is from a government stand point... the IB is hard, very hard - and no one can be seen to fail, can they ? Unfortunately there is not and never will be a one size fits all, we've tried all that before. It is correct that some kids, do hard subjects, some do not so hard subjects, some do academic courses, some do hands on vocational courses - the important thing is to take the time to ensure the right kids do the right course and learn about enough of the right stuff. Maybe then when they watch TV they might have a chance a distinguishing science fact from science fiction.


Pepperpot said...

Rant-tastic. If your rumoured podcasts are half as good I will download them and listen to you when Mark Kermode is on holiday from Radio Five Live.

IMHBALIO, the probelm with mass scientific and mathematical illiteracy will not be solved at the level of post-compulsory education. Kids need to understand simple maths (significantly, estimation and probability theory - see Innumeracy by John Allen Paulos), the basics of scientific method, the limitations of science and some elementary sociology of science, and then two more things: they need to be able to READ and they need to understand the fickle and manipulative nature of TV. Consider a person who thinks, having watched Channel 4's 'The MMR vaccine ate my children!' (note: this is a made-up documentary), that they will no longer get their kid vaccinated (maybe they also spent some time on the WWW - so add 'discrimination' to my previous list of the essential school curriculum.) How can you convince them that they are wrong? They either need to read the original scientific papers, weigh them up and learn some elementary epidemiology (which is complicated - I've tried)... or they need to start analysing the modern media and learning not to trust things that are obviously being spun for dramatic effect.

SO I'm basically back to my Campaign for Universal Media Studies (which can't be promoted too widely because it has a rude acronym)

2:02 PM  
M said...

Media Studies isn't that one of those oft mentioned soft subjects we hear so much about these days ? In fact yes, i'm told it is solely responsible for falling standards and an increase video player crime, last week a DVD stole my mothers purse.

2:28 PM  

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