FROM THE PRESIDENT
Science, the Rebel Educator: III
Science, the Rebel Educator: II (January-February, page 2)
concluded with a reminder that we must, as parents, teachers and
members of Sigma Xi, lead students to teach themselves: to directly
observe and study nature in nature, admit and ameliorate collective
ignorance, distinguish authority from hype, detect omission and
distortion. No mandate differs more from this one than does the
methodless invocation of the supernatural called "intelligent design."
Researchers discount gossip and rise above myth. Obliged to publish
primary scientific literature, we write articles in peer-reviewed
journals that "count." Most of us fiercely defend the
integrity of scientific documentation. As the recent retraction of
challenged work on stem cells reminds us, one who misrepresents or
inaccurately reports results does not do "bad science;" he
does no science at all. Our common charge is protection of science
as the search for truth, boring or not.
Conversation, letters, Web data, newspaper articles and
authoritative verbal argument are inadequate as scientific evidence.
Professional scientists insist that primary science admits only one
peculiar authority: bibliographic citation. As insightful and
well-edited as they are, even articles published by scientists in
our beloved American Scientist are inadmissible because our
magazine is not primary literature. The specialized,
reference-studded style of the typical scientific manuscript assures
its rejection by editors of popular literature; generalist readers
are not expected to find the excitement of research science amid the
jargon. Casual science writing or conversation may lead to new
experiments or apt criticism, but no amount of palaver replaces the
primary journal article. Real science with limited, tentative
results is provisional, skeptical and interactive. Arrogant, rigid
authority is inimical to the scientific research we pledge to
Dedication to "learning by doing," understanding nature
directly from nature, contradicts almost every practice of science
education. Most students design controlled experiments, collect data
and analyze results only during Ph.D. training. In earlier
education, the job is to "cover the material," pass the
test and please the teacher.
These problems must exist in secondary science education all over
the world. Yet as far as I know, nowhere but in the United
States do publishers' marketing departments make science-curriculum
decisions, nor do educators derive pay from materials they
officially recommend for sale! In this corrupt system our
science-educator colleagues deserve no blame; they are victims.
Other countries support ministries of education at the national
level, where the task for which scientific-education experts are
compensated is to ensure quality. Educators and teachers
periodically removed and protected from routine duties work, in
principle, for the public good.
Alternatives exist. The U.S. might imitate Japan's flourishing
NISTEP (National Institute Science and Technology Education
Program), where competent enthusiasts—teachers, engineers,
scientists, artists and students—temporarily are paid to
ensure the quality of peer-reviewed science materials, independent
of their immediate salability. The superb post-Sputnik teaching
films of live material and classroom units (funded by the American
public at some 20 million dollars a year from 1965 to 1978) should
be located, converted to digital media and distributed. A senior,
apolitical quality appointment comparable in stature to the
Librarian of Congress might assure a national effort of stability,
continuity and oversight. Until the social structure of science
education radically transforms, please expect our citizenry to
perform abysmally in scientific competency comparisons. And expect
Asian and European immigrants to continue to supply our scientific know-how.
How can Sigma Xi aid? You tell me!