Afternoon InquisitionParentingScience

AI: One Giant Leap Out of a Textbook

Well, the lovely and multi-talented A. Kovacs, who normally poses your Afternoon Inquisition on Tuesdays, is on the road yet again, and unfortunately she’s trapped in an Internet-unfriendly O’Hare airport. So you all have to put up with me today.

Hey, look at it like I’m a substitute teacher. Just don’t put any rocks or pointy things in the spit wads you shoot at me when I turn toward the blackboard.

Anyway, before I pose today’s AI, I want to remind all the Houston area skeptics that Jeff Wagg of the James Randi Educational Foundation will be speaking tonight at the Downtown Branch of the Houston Public Library, which is at 500 McKinney. His talk is titled Challenging Claims of the Paranormal. Things kick off around 7pm, so come on out and join us.

Okay, speaking of Houston and Texas, Eric Berger, a science blogger for the Houston Chronicle reported Friday that some parents and teachers in Texas have suggested Neil Armstrong be removed from a “science strand” in a 5th grade social studies book. They say he’s not a scientist and they don’t want to inundate children with too many names.

I suppose technically he’s not a scientist, but he’s an aerospace engineer. And he’s effing Neil Armstrong. He is the most recognizable figure associated with one of the most amazing scientific achievements ever. So what do you think?

Does Neil Armstrong belong in a 5th grader’s textbook? Is an engineer a scientist? Should A. Kovacs get a new travel agent? Who threw that?

Sam Ogden

Sam Ogden is a writer, beach bum, and songwriter living in Houston, Texas, but he may be found scratching himself at many points across the globe. Follow him on Twitter @SamOgden

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  1. Neil Armstrong is a good figurehead for one of the greatest scientific achievements of the 20th century. He may not have been the one who did all the mathematical heavy lifting of sending humans to the moon, but he was definitely willing to participate in testing the question of “Is all this shit gonna work?” with the hypothesis of “I really fucking hope so.”

    If that’s not cutting edge science, I don’t know what is.

  2. Leave him in… he promoted science. It isn’t like he is just some random guy we are forcing our kids to learn about for no reason. He was vital to our space program for goodness sake!

    Oh and yes, yes and Masala threw it. I saw her.

  3. I can see where an engineer or scientist in Texas might feel the need to hide; but in a 5th grader’s textbook? C’mon! I mean, every fundy in the state must be poring over them, looking for things to complain about.

  4. My question is; why does he have to be a scientist? to be mentioned? Should Charles Lindbergh be left out of a discussion of the history of avionics just because he was a pilot, not an inventor? Or should Babe Ruth be left out of a discussion of the history of baseball because he was a player, not a coach?

    It seems like they’re trying to remove Neil Armstrong because he was on the applied end of the space program, rather than on the conceptual one. They really need a balanced look at both–what good is just talking about the concepts of space travel and what it could do if you don’t talk about what it was actually put to use for, including the people that bore the fruits of its efforts.

  5. Tracking back to the original article and reading it, I’d like to add this to my statement;

    Stop dropping fucking names and start mentioning them at the end of discussions of what they were involved in. Don’t just say, “Neil Armstrong was important,” discuss human space flight then mention how Neil Armstrong was involved in it. I’m fine with working in the other direction by starting with their name and working back to why they’re important. But I don’t want to just see a roster of important people, that’s next to useless.

  6. Is Yuri in the textbook?

    The “science strand” of a “social sciences” textbook… I think the first person to walk on the moon could safely qualify for that, regardless of quibbling about who is or is not a scientist. If nothing else, he is the major name associated with a significant scientific endeavor.

    If they cover space exploration in general, and not just Apollo, then I think Yuri should be included if Neil is included. That probably wouldn’t be a popular view in Texas.

    It probably comes down to space in the textbook and questions of focus (avoiding too many names, as they say in the article). I would have to know what is being left out in order to include Armstrong to really know if they are making a good decision. For example, if they can include either Watson and Crick or Armstrong, I would probably go with the Dynamic DNA Duo.

    Engineers are not necessarily scientists. That is, engineering is not a sub-disciple of science. A lot of individual engineers would qualify as scientists, and most of them probably use scientific thinking routinely in their engineering work. Even a good ‘software engineer’ uses a scientific approach routinely.

    I am a Hedge

  7. I don’t have time to check the original story, but I believe the proposal is to remove Neil’s name from the required list of names in the teaching standards. I don’t have a problem with this. The text book authors should be free to include or exclude who they like and the state should butt out.

    This being said I think that text books should include mention of notable people in space flight including Armstrong, Sheppard, Von Braun, and Gagarin. It’s a nice mix of science, politics, and history.

    Class time discussion: was Sheppard an astronaut or Spam in a can?

  8. Neil Armstrong’s inclusion in the textbook should be on the strength of his history as an astronaut – not as an engineer. On the subject of actual engineering, though, I’ll say this:

    I’m an engineer, and I wouldn’t generally identify myself as a scientist. I *use* science – that is, things that other people have figured out via experiments and so on. There are a lot of engineering professors out there that do science, via experiment, hypothesis testing, etc., and they publish their findings in the various reference books and magazines that I use. I, on the other hand, don’t really have the luxury of experimenting, when I design my HVAC systems. Mainly, I try to accomplish certain objectives, given my best knowledge, experience, current technology, and the budget of the owner. Then I wait for it all to get built, and hope that it works. Sometimes problems come up, and I figure out how to deal with them, and thus sometimes even learn something new, but that’s probably the closest that I get to actual science.

  9. I probably wouldn’t call Armstrong a scientist. Technically, the only scientist who walked on the moon was Jack Schmitt on Apollo 17. But Armstrong, along with all the other potential moonwalkers, did receive training in geology. Quite a lot of it in fact. And it was a combination of his engineering background and his geologic training that made Armstrong very useful to geologists when he was up there gathering samples.

    From Neil Armstrong’s authorized biography:

    [Armstrong said], “The geologists had a wonderful theory they called the ‘theory of least astonishment.’ According to this theory, when you run into a particular rock formation, you hypothesized how it might have occurred and created as many scenarios as you could think of as to how it might have gotten there. But the scenario that was the least astonishing was the one you were supposed to accept as the basis for futher analysis. I found that fascinating. It was an approach that I had never experienced in engineering.” Yet it was precisely Armstrong’s engineering approach that Jack Schmitt connects with Neil’s geologic capabilities, citing Neil’s collection of rock samples as, “the best that anybody did on the Moon.”

  10. @Im a Hedge: Engineers are not necessarily scientists. That is, engineering is not a sub-disciple of science. A lot of individual engineers would qualify as scientists, and most of them probably use scientific thinking routinely in their engineering work. Even a good ’software engineer’ uses a scientific approach routinely.

    I don’t think much engineering is science-based and almost no software engineering is. There are a few people in white coats who bend metal bars and crush concrete and they write down the empirical rules that everyone else applies. Follow these rules and do the math right and your building stands.

    Software engineering is almost all gut-instinct and trial and error. I’ve never had time to take a scientific approach nor would I necessarily know how to. The program stands when no one can knock it down any more.

    I was thinking about this yesterday when Steve Novella asked why a disproportionate number of scientists who don’t accept evolution are engineers. I think the simple explanation is most engineers are not scientists. We are skilled tradesmen. The brick-layers of our age if you will. We do tend to be very logical, but our sort of logic is particularly susceptible to garbage-in/garbage-out.

  11. A huge part of education should involve arousing curiosity and inspiring students with examples of what science has achieved. The most dog eared and smudged pages of our world book encyclopedia set at home (1972 edition, I believe) was the space section, with aviation a close second. I am still a sucker for anything to do with the space program. Inspired me to pursue a career in science, before I got sidetracked. Now I’m a science enthusiast.

  12. In my inconsequential opinion Engineers and Scientists need to stick together. So while an engineer may not be considered a scientist in many circles, the difference shouldn’t be something we care about right now. There are far more pressing issues. I sound like a tool right now. I should go…….


    *runs away*

  13. @davew:
    By “use scientific thinking” I mean to include much more than doing formal experiments followed by publication. I mean an approach to a problem, and how to identify an effective solution for the problem. You develop a hypothesis, then you develop a test based on the hypothesis and interpret the results.

    If you are familiar with programming, consider the process of debugging. This can be done more … theologically, but I think a scientific approach is more effective.

    “If this problem is here, the if I add a printout statement there it will not print.” Then you see what happens.

    It depends on how inclusive a definition of ‘scientist’ you are using at the moment. It probably also depends on what kind of engineering we’re talking about.

    I think we can probably agree, along with @sowellfan, that engineers are typically using the results generated by scientists rather than doing science themselves.

    But everyone can use scientific thinking.

    I am a Hedge

  14. @Im a Hedge: “If you are familiar with programming, consider the process of debugging. This can be done more … theologically, but I think a scientific approach is more effective.”

    I accept this as generally true. Usually a bug fix has to be accompanied with a complete problem description and an explanation how the fix repairs the problem. Close to scientific.

    Design and implementation is usually not rigorous, however. We don’t have time to gather data on competing solutions to see which one is best. Nor do we take the time to prove the solution is correct.

    From what I’ve heard NASA’s coding practices are much more scientific and almost hellish to work under.

  15. “Does Neil Armstrong belong in a 5th grader’s textbook?”

    If it’s talking about achievements in space flight? Yes.

    ” Is an engineer a scientist?”

    Multiple point of view on this question.

    From a resume/union/job application perspective: No. The degrees required are very different, and the things those two job slots are asked to do are very different.

    But you can also look at them as disciplines that someone performs. I can draw a stick figure digging a hole with a shovel. It’s not Great Art, but someone can look at my drawing and see that it’s a person digging a hole. Thus I’ve accomplished “drawing”, although not well.

    Neil was not professionally trained as a scientist, but he performed some science on the moon. His primary purpose was to be a test pilot/systems engineer, and those two capacities he was very very good at. He and Buzz would have died if he wasn’t.

    Really, I think the whole is-a-scientist/isn’t-a-scientist distinction is a false one that plays on notions of elitism and is frankly dangerous and damaging to our society’s idea of what science and engineering are.

  16. Depending on where you live, there are restrictions on whether you can call yourself an engineer. There are certification processes and academic qualifications governing the use of the term (usually “Professional Engineer” or similar). The exact requirements vary from country to country. The term is further confused by weird grandfather clauses that allow (for example) locomotive operators to use the term.

    As far as I know, the only restriction on the term “scientist” is that you use the Scientific Method. Most people would probably add that you should also have at least a Bachelor of Science degree.

    Given the work he’s done and the fact that he has both a Bachelor of Science and a Master of Science degree, I see no reason why Neil Armstrong couldn’t be called both an engineer and a scientist.

  17. Let’s leave Christopher Columbus out. And what the heck, George Washington, since he didn’t write the Constitution or anything.

    This is full of stupid, I’m sorry. In fact, it’s so far from stupid the light from stupid takes 8 years to get there.

  18. Being a scientist isn’t about what your title is or even what you do or how you do it. It’s about why you do it.

    And, science doesn’t always involve rigorous method. Sometimes the most important step comes down to “let’s see what happens.” Yes, the hard part comes after – the understanding, the trial-and-error, the rigorous testing – but that first moment of whim is just as important as the rest.

    As one person mentioned about the Hubble deep field photography, “We pointed the most powerful telescope ever built by human beings at absolutely nothing, for no other reason than because we were curious…”

  19. I can’t speak for the textbook standards, but if I were a teacher I’d definitely mention Neil Armstrong — partly because I’d hope that some students had heard the name already, and integrating what you hear in class with things you already know is an important way to solidify learning, and partly because, as others have noted, being able to walk on the moon is an amazing and inspiring thing that can encourage people’s interest.

    I agree with the point about mentioning Yuri Gagarin as well, though.

  20. Engineers and scientists are two different things. Scientists are concerned with the natural; engineers the artificial. And yet, one could also argue that engineers are really just applied scientists. In any case this is all a moot point, because it’s NEIL FRIGGING ARMSTRONG. He should stay in.

  21. Does anybody else think that leaving Neil Armstrong out is just the beginning of the leaving out the Walk on the Moon stuff. Because we all know that there is a large faction of teh stoopids on the Texas Board of Edu that don’t believe man ever walked on the Moon.

  22. Of course engineers are scientists. I have a degree in engineering, but my job title is “spectroscopist”. I can do any job that a chemist or biologist could do. One thing I can’t stand is science snobbery. Engineers “count” as scientists, as do people in the “soft” sciences like sociology.


    Scientists are concerned with the natural; engineers the artificial.

    That’s quite a false dichotomy there. What about scientists who develop synthetic drugs? I’ve worked in several R&D jobs, and there’s a major overlap between people with degrees in engineering and people with degrees in “pure” science.

  23. @jeffreyellis: Not quite a proper description of scientists. I’m a scientist (chemist, more specifically, supramolecular chemist even more more specifically), and I’m concerned with taking the natural and using it as a basis for the artificial that fits my own needs.

    There are two kinds of scientists; theoreticians and experimentalists.

    Theoreticians are scientists such as Albert Einstein, Stephen Hawking, etc. Often physicists, or even mathematicians, who concern themselves with thinking the big thoughts about nature and its properties.

    Experimentalists are scientists such as Nikola Tesla, B.F. Skinner, and the bulk of other scientists, who concern themselves with designing experiments to test, and then modify, the theories put forth, and create new ones out of it. They also deal greatly in taking what’s known and modifying and changing it, as you suggest engineers do, to create new ideas and technologies.

    Most scientists aren’t purely theoretical or experimental, and you could say that most all mathematicians are theoretical while most all engineers are experimental. Either way, it’s hardly a divide of natural vs. artificial. Otherwise I’d count as an engineer, as I work on designing molecular sensors, which is hardly science by your definition.

  24. @Imrryr:

    Whether you like him or not, Newt was a significant figure in US politics, and his impact is still apparent today. There is not a problem with including him in a curriculum as such. A problem may arise when you consider who is not being included in order to allow room for covering Newt. I don’t think that Neil Armstrong and Newt Gingrich should be considered versus each other, as they are so unrelated. You would consider Armstrong versus other science-type people and Newt versus other political-type people.

    I am a Hedge

  25. Hey Teach (Sam),
    I think the engineers and scientists need to take this outside, they’re disrupting the class.

    I’m not an engineer or “scientist” in the strict sense of the word (tho as an experimental psychologist I do use the scientific method), but teaching 5th graders about the space program – in the city where it was *launched* seems like a no-brainer to me. But hey, I’m just a no-good Yankee.

    Oh, and if you really want to lose your lunch read this comment by ttyler5:

    Wow…just, wow.

    There’s only one thing left to say:

    “Houston, we have a problem.”

  26. Obviously. I mean, what has Neil Armstrong ever done. Or Gagarin. Or the Mars Rovers, or Cassini.

    But Rush Limbaugh on the other hand …
    Fuck Khufhu and Cleopatra; Phyllis Sclafly is the most important political figure to teach 5th grade kids about.

  27. Neil Armstrong belongs in a 1st grade textbook. In fact, every child should know who he is before even starting school.

    Engineers may or may not be scientists depending on the engineer in question (how’s that for a cop-out answer?)

    A. Kovacs should get a 3G USB dongle thingy (“thingy” is the technical term engineers use).

    I don’t know who threw that. Ask Sylvia Brown.

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