Thursday, September 27, 2007

I'm sorry, I must have missed it when you said "and geology"

I was reading two articles on the New York Times Science section today (in 12 minute bursts, keeping in time with the machine I am running). I had first thought of posting about the intersection of the two. The first article was about a creationist film crew that allegedly tricked actual scientists into taped interviews. The interviews were done by entertainer, eye-drop enthusiast, and noted blowhard Ben Stein*. The scientists involved are now raising a ruckus, although I am not sure why they'd agree to be interviewed for a project they didn't know much about. The second article was talking about when Sputnik was launched, and how it made the US realize how behind it was in preparing future generations of scientists. This led to a big push to improve American science education back in the middle of last century. Unfortunately, we have once again seen American students fall behind much of the world in science education. As a country, this threatens our competitiveness, and I thought the first article did a decent job highlighting just how bad our national science education is. The ID crowd is just one symptom of a broken system of science education, and in my opinion their attempt to include supernatural powers in the definition of science is an enormous threat to the U.S. (for more on my feelings, check out my very first post or a letter to the editor I wrote.)

OK, so I was getting all riled up about this, but then as I finished the second article, I came across this

Some experts on science education also point to the typical sequence of high school science instruction: biology, chemistry and then physics. It would make more sense in reverse, these people say, because the principles of physics underlie chemistry, which is crucial for an understanding of biology.

Perhaps the leading champion of this “physics first” approach is Leon M. Lederman, a particle physicist, Nobel laureate and former director of Fermilab whose focus lately has been on improving science and math education. He said the current biology-chemistry-physics sequence dates from the late 19th century, when “we didn’t know enough” and biology was considered a “descriptive” subject.

In fact, Dr. Lederman said, “biology is the most complicated of all subjects, and it is based on chemistry and physics.” And, he added, “there is nothing in chemistry, no fact of chemistry or process of chemistry that if you ask ‘Why does this happen?’ you don’t go back to physics.”

While I don't disagree with the premise of teaching physics first, where the hell is geology? Seriously, we want to build up to inclusive and interdisciplinary sciences that are important for the problems of the world, and no one mentions geology? For f@#k's sake! I am sure we can all post for years about why geology or even the generic earth science are not considered important disciplines (even by Nobel Laureates, and in the same article that worries about global warming), but what this makes me most frustrated about is our inability as geoscientists to sell the significance of our work. As Lederman points out, biology used to be thought of as a descriptive science, so it came first. Is that the problem with geology? Are we thought of as describers of rocks and finders of oil? I've heard this before, that geologists are seen mainly as suppliers of products (minerals and oil), and not as scientists. OK, time for Thermochronic to get some air...

*By the way, Stein is apparently trained as an economist, where did he pick up his scientific background? What makes him qualified to comment on the subject at all? What's next, Ben Stein tells you how to treat Alzheimers? Ben Stein debunking the myths, cigarettes are good for you? Ben Stein talks about the pros and cons of Pfeiffer and Varian roughing pumps? Shouldn't you actually have some expertise in a subject before you spout off strong opinions? Should I be telling Loose Baggy Monster about literature or history? Perhaps I can be called upon to give my opinion on the effect of American corn subsidies on foreign currency markets? Hell, I have a Ph.D., somebody get me a camera! Stein discussing the biological sciences must look a lot like the panelists on the video below

Situation In Nigeria Seems Pretty Complex


BrianR said...

I went to high school in New York State...where it was Earth Science, Biology, Chemistry, and Physics in that order.

To this day, I am thankful that NY required earth science...and the 9th grade is a great age for a class like that.

When I found out later in life that other states don't require earth science at anytime in high school (e.g., California), I was astonished.

CJR said...

I live for the day when people will realise that geology is the best possible starting point for teaching people about science, and not only because it covers Physics, Chemistry and Biology is a very hands-on way. What are kids interested in? Volcanoes and dinosaurs, that's what.

Thermochronic said...

Brian - I know, I grew up in California, perhaps the most geologically active state we have, and my "earth science" was almost non-existent.

CJR - "What are kids interested in? Volcanoes and dinosaurs, that's what" you forgot to mention thermochronology, kids love thermochronology.

Kim said...

Even Scienceblogs is guilty of forgetting geology. Last summer they had a survey of reader interests, which included a bunch of boxes to check if you wanted to read more about certain topics.

Geology wasn't listed. Neither was earth science.

We can make noise, but we've got to get other scientists acknowledging that we exist. No, there is no Nobel prize in the earth sciences. So there's an entire scientific revolution that is not recorded in the list of Nobel prizes. Doesn't mean it wasn't important.

Also: yeah, my four-year-old gets excited about argon. Um. Well, no. He's got a stuffed T. Rex and draws pictures of volcanoes.

Harold Asmis said...

Maybe in the States, it's better to start with physics. Then, there might be a chance for the kids before the rednecks get a crack at it! After all, they can't argue with the way a bullet flies...

Anonymous said...

It's everywhere. Just yesterday I was reading a book by Ranulph Fiennes about his Antarctic feats; it had a short appendix talking about scientific research conducted on the continent, and everyone (meteorologists, atmospheric scientists, biologists, glaciologists, &c) gets a mention, with the conspicuous absence of geologists and geophysicists.

I'm tired of clicking on 'Earth Science' categories online, only to find a label of 'Climate Science' would have been more suitable.

BrianR said...

anonymous above...I agree! Because climate science, for good reason, is getting a lot of attention and press, it seems reasonable to include it within "earth science"...but, I wonder if it should be separated (within the context of science news reporting) somehow...I'm not sure the best way to do this.

The ongoing see-saw of categorizing specialties, then combining them back into a more holistic systems view, and then separating them back again...maybe the see-saw is the answer?

Chuck said...

Aren't chemistry, physics, and biology simply the tools that are needed to practice geology?