I Blank Science

Twitter is a fascinating look at the current discussion around the world, or at least some segment of it, on just about any given topic. Today, thanks to Zen Faulkes, I came across a little site comparing the phrases “I love science” and “I hate science” on Twitter, and it told me something very, very interesting.

The creator of the site, Rose Eveleth, did this as a little experiment in understanding audiences, especially those outside your own group of friends. In particular, she talks about looking for those you need to win over and those you need as allies. Since I care quite a bit about science, and particularly about communicating science, I think that’s a big deal.

First I hopped over to the “I love science” side. Aside from tweets mentioning this very site, the list includes many of what I would expect, those from the people who are already typically in my feed. These declare their love of science while linking to some interesting new bit of science news, something really cool. For example there were at east two on this topic:

Screen Shot 2013-06-30 at 12.25.58 PMHello. Let’s use one bad, sick-making thing to cure another bad sickness. Science Win!

As I continued my not very-scientific browsing down the list, there were also text-only tweets with statements of opinion. This gold mine can help a science communicator determine what messages to send and tailor to, and where good conversation can be had about the nature of science.

Screen Shot 2013-06-30 at 12.29.41 PM Screen Shot 2013-06-30 at 12.29.42 PM


But then, there were some opinions I didn’t expect to see in this particular search, those we would normally consider the ones we need to win over.

Screen Shot 2013-06-30 at 12.31.55 PM Screen Shot 2013-06-30 at 12.31.17 PM


Oh…kay? I won’t delve too deeply here into the arguments against these tweets, but I think it is clear in the second one, in particular, that the anti-evolution sentiment may not think itself anti-science, yet that’s an assumption that skeptics and science communicators (myself included) very often make. The outright rejection of science is not the problem, at least not of the word “science” or someone’s understanding of it. That, I think, points to a place where the understanding of the nature and processes of science is the attack point on such arguments. The thought of science itself may not be the tripping point for many of those that we are trying to win over.

Then, of course, there are lots of jokey posts, memes, and links to popular science articles that seem to agree with the already existing sentiment of the person. Science shows us beards are great! Science shows us how to make cakes last longer! Okay, these are fun, though a deeper issue is in the quick-bite nature of the science news cycle and how that glosses over the long process of building up models over many, many studies.

Okay, so after that interesting analysis, with a bit of trepidation, I went over to the “I hate science” side. (Note, -fiction was added, probably to keep it topical.) I was unprepared for what I saw… a stream of tweets, most likely by students, declaring their hatred of science and math classes. They include pictures of notebooks, complaints about tests, or simply declare, “I don’t understand any of this.”

Where are we killing the love of science? With science education.

Well, shit.

The “anti-science” crowd in this little study is not against science for moral or religious or philosophical reasons. Those who hate science, according to Twitter, are frustrated students. As an educator, I find this completely disheartening. Maybe it’s the age spread of Twitter that is making this so. But the message is loud and clear, and something we talk about in education circles, and here is a stunning example: We’re killing an interest in science with the way that we teach it.

There is a lot being done about it, mind you. 26 states in the US have written new science standards to make classrooms more like the discovery process and much less about memorizing facts. Science teachers are going to conferences and professional development workshops to learn how to make science education better. Even in higher education, professors young and old (but, sadly, not enough of the latter, IMO) are working hard to make science classes at university less a passive lecture and more an active learning experience. The need for these things, it seems is still very great.

The enemies of science may not be who or what we think they are. If we’re not careful with our education system; the enemies may be ourselves.

Featured image CC by Kevin Jarrett on Flickr.


Nicole is a professor, astronomer, educator, geek, dog mom, occasional fitness nerd, and maker of tiny comets. She is also very loud under the right circumstances. Like what you read? Buy me a coffee:

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  1. As a math major and a person interested in science I have to say that my love of math (and science) is in spite of my education, not because of it. I didn’t particularly like math or science classes.(of course this is all just my experience and it is quite possible I am wrong or don’t have a full enough story to make a good argument) There is a lot of blame to go around for why education (for the most part) sucks, and I think that a lot of the blame that is placed on teachers by frustrated students is misplaced or not particularly thought through, but I do think teachers deserve a big chunk of (well placed) blame. I have been through school, and by quite a wide margin most teachers were not particularly good, and the few that stand out as being great were not even in science or math. Maybe if the system wasn’t so down on teachers I would have had a few more great teachers, but I would be surprised if it would have been a significant improvement. (this is definitely speculative and not from experience)Plus I always felt teachers were in the best position to change things, so even if they did not deserve the blame that they should get it so that they can change the system. One of the things that has pushed me over the edge in terms of thinking many teachers are to blame is that now that I am in college I actually see many of the people who are (math) education majors. I am horrified that these people (again, for the most part) are going to be teaching people math, they don’t have any passion, or interest in mathematics. No wonder all these people hate math, not even the math teachers like math. Its hard to believe that a teacher not interested in the subject can teach it well or go outside the standard curriculum, even if they had a chance (which I think for math is totally possible). Maybe I am putting to much blame on the teachers (I probably am) but I also think we (I am referring to just about any article saying it is is not the teachers fault it this other things fault) are always making so many excuses for them and they always deflect the problem elsewhere. Of course there is truth to the deflection to something that is also a problem (and I am certainly not saying that the teachers are the only thing, or even the majority of the problem) but I think it is silly that none of it is their fault. Eh… I don’t know…

    Sort of related to his general idea is an article “A Mathematician’s Lament” (google it if your interested, also the idea of the paper works equally well with just about any subject). One thing mentioned, and I have a hard time arguing with it, is that we would be better off not teaching math (as is currently taught), at least then the students would have a chance to get interested in it (again this probabably works equally well with any subject).

    1. . One thing mentioned, and I have a hard time arguing with it, is that we would be better off not teaching math (as is currently taught), at least then the students would have a chance to get interested in it

      It’s not just a question of “interested.”

      At one point, when I was an unemployed math PhD, I ended up teaching remedial math classes for local colleges. My biggest obstacle was all the screwed-up ways my students had learned to “do math,” by which they actually meant doing some random junk that would allow them to pass the course. Unteaching this sort of “cargo cult math” is almost impossible. My job would have been a log easier if they had never taken a math course at all.

      1. Hah, I always felt the opposite (in reference to the title of Devlin’s article), I rarely had to remember anything for math classes compared to other classes. Nice article, I will have to get that book he discusses which sounds like it has actually evidence to support Lockhart’s Lament (which is more of a rant that makes sense).

    1. One of the articles quotes the think-tank as saying: “Throughout the [standards], content takes a back seat to practices, even though students need knowledge before they’ll ever demonstrate fluency or mastery of scientific practices,” says a foreword to the report written by Checker Finn and Kathleen Porter-Magee of Fordham.

      They clearly missed the point of NGSS. Stuffing content knowledge into kids’ heads is not helping them to learn science or prepare them for science careers, or even thinking about scientific issues as citizens. The focus on methods and practices is much more closely related to the way that science works, especially in an age when knowledge is constantly at our fingertips.

      1. What we know about learning and cognition is that it’s not enough to have knowledge “at our fingertips”; thinking – including scientific thinking – requires having knowledge in our heads.

        This is clear in the psychology and education research literature, but it’s something that is easy for people who are very knowledgeable about science to forget. They can take for granted their deep reservoirs of knowledge because they can access them so fluently. (The education research literature also has a term for this sort of fallacy: the “expert blind spot”, whereby advanced knowledge in a domain obscures the processes that make mastery attainable for more novice learners.)

        Saying teaching content is “stuffing kids heads” is a loaded and unfair description. The fact is that having knowledge in your head is primary to all that other, more “realistic science” stuff. And, again, learning facts can be plenty interesting.

        It’s not that the processes and skills aren’t important, it’s just that they depend on knowledge and the NGSS fail to recognize that adequately.

        1. I don’t doubt that knowledge is important, and you’re right in that I have all kinds of blind spots that I run headfirst into when doing teacher PD! However, we’ve spent years focusing mainly on content, and yet the science literacy around us is abysmal, despite people’s desire to know facts. So let’s make an effort to include process and methods because those count, too.

          The final draft on NGSS did cut down content significantly from the most recent draft before it. Did they go too far in the other direction in the fear that they’d never get it all into a school year? I’m not sure, but that ALSO gives teachers the ability to insert areas of content knowledge that they find interesting or have expertise in, which is something that many science teachers complain they can’t do under current conditions, at least in many states. So this is (part of) why I’m optimistic about NGSS and the goals of the project. And I’ve already been a part of developing curricula that use its “content” and “process” aspects to make for some really interesting lessons for teachers who are thrilled to bring space into the classroom.

          …Assuming anyone can decipher the color-coded tables of doom. That is… yeah. I get totally that criticism.

  2. This is general problem with education. High school English class soured me on every author I was required to read. After letting my hatred cool for almost fifteen years, I can read Dickens and see what people enjoy about his writing, but only if I avoid the actual novels of his that I was required to read. I feel about the same way about the entire Spanish language, reading sheet music, and dodgeball. Anything that was both compulsory and poorly suited to my abilities at the time was tainted forever. The worse the mismatch, the worse the memory. The more strongly enforced the compulsory aspect was, the worse the memory. Even to this day, if I sit down in front of a piano and try pick my way through certain pieces, I still get a fight-or-flight reaction, complete with nausea, racing heart and crazy swings in core temperature. Trying to play Chopin will almost always gives a massive adrenaline rush, right around where I usually screwed up in front of people. The kinesthetic memories of humiliation and failure are absolutely searing.

    It just so happened that my science classes growing up were fairly synchronous with my abilities. The worst memories I have of science classes are being slightly disappointed that we didn’t talk about some topic I thought was neat.

    The problem here isn’t just science education. It’s education in general. We’ve known for a century or more that children follow a variety of pathways through the cognitive development process, with different abilities coming “on line” at different times and in different orders for different people. The success or failure of a child in school is better explained by how well their particular developmental program matches the curriculum than by their innate abilities. We’ve also known for a long time that this process doesn’t really settle down until a person’s 20’s.

    From my own experience, I noticed that certain kinds of mathematical reasoning suddenly “clicked” when I was about 21. The ability to link symbols with words without the intermediate of sound didn’t kick in until I was about 17; my reading speed jumped by something like ten fold over a two week period (it was so freaking awesome). I suddenly found that I could memorize phone numbers when I was 26. Somewhere in the middle of a problem set in graduate school, some set of neural pathways finished unfolding in my brain that let me unpack algebraic kernels into something like visual space, and all the random junk I learned as an undergraduate physics major suddenly crystallized in one giant HOLY SHIT moment. I promptly decided to become a microbiologist.

    Education only works when the abilities of the student mesh nicely with abilities the educator is pushing. The two gears have to mesh nicely, like a transmission. Each classroom task is like a pair of teeth in a gear chain connecting. it has to be precise. The problem is that educators usually focus on topics rather than abilities, arbitrarily lump students into groups by age, ignore warning signs when things are going badly, and are required to attribute outcomes to the students rather than the methods. The result is that we grind the gears really badly, to the determent of all.

    Look at how educators teach INDIVIDUAL students. In these situations, institutional norms are overridden by social norms. Information is exchanged in both directions until the gears mesh up, and the gear doing the pushing (the teacher) synchronizes with the gear carrying the load (the student). Then education happens. Then look at what happens in the classroom, and you’ll probably see a painful mess in which one in twenty students are randomly engaged, and the rest are chipped to pieces or left inert.

  3. I feel compelled to delurk to defend (good) teachers. I’m a high school Drama teacher, who dropped Science after being taught by a few jackasses that killed my love for it, so I do know how destructive they can be. Here’s the thing – I’m working with amazing Science and Math teachers right now, and their results are phenomenal even though we’re working with an at-risk population. How can they achieve those results? First, I’m in Canada, and therefore no time is wasted on getting religion out of the public school classroom – seriously, America, get it together! Second, we have a curriculum to provide, but a reasonable amount of freedom on how to deliver it – the school I’m at has developed a culture of innovation, and uses research-based best practices – these best practices, quite reasonably, focus on experiential and student-centred learning. Last, even though teachers are definitely not as respected here as they are in places like Finland, we are treated well enough that it’s an attractive profession for people who could have been successful elsewhere, so we’re not dealing with a ‘those who can, do’ situation. We’re also treated well enough that, despite some of the ridiculous crap we have to put up with, a lot of us really and truly love our jobs – the kids respond to that, because why wouldn’t they?

    So, bageer, when you say “Maybe if the system wasn’t so down on teachers I would have had a few more great teachers, but I would be surprised if it would have been a significant improvement,” I have to disagree. Treat teachers better, and they just might do a better job.

    1. Thank you for delurking to say that. There are so many good ones, though they fight daily against a system that is increasingly difficult to deal with. And IMO, teachers are paid total shit for all the work they put in. I feel so fortunate to work with teachers in professional development workshops that are so completely dedicated to what they do despite all that. I also, however, remember going through a string of terrible teachers in school (science, too) and suspect that there are still teachers out there making it worse, not better. And I STILL see that in great amounts in higher ed. But even that may be changing as the job market for profs gets tighter and more and more universities put emphasis on teaching skills.

      “…the school I’m at has developed a culture of innovation, and uses research-based best practices…” <- this I love. This is the movement that I think education is trying to go as well it should.

  4. I often think that education about science begins with the parents (or other responsible caretaker) of a young child. Encouraging children to question their surroundings and, when a parent doesn’t know the answer, working with the child to help solve it is the root that blossoms into adult scientific inquiry. While think this article makes an important observation and while there are certainly many significant improvements to be made in scientific education, I think that the love (or hate) for scientific inquiry begins at an early age with parents and caregivers.

  5. I think they need to teach science in high school. They teach physics, chemistry, and biology, but that isn’t science. It’s a bunch of decrees issued by anonymous experts and enforced by authority figures with threats of harm being done to your future livelihood.

    We need to spend at least a semester if not two demonstrating why we need science and how we do science. Then maybe creationist nonsense won’t be so palatable, and maybe people will actually reflexively figure out the scientific consensus when someone makes a science claim.

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