Science: Rarely a Love at First Sight (June 2006)


One of the saddest things I heard from a student this year is that chemistry class made him feel stupid. When I was in university, and when I worked for the government, I met a few people in science who tried to make others feel inadequate, but most university professors and scientists were not like that. In fact, it is not an intelligent habit to make others feel stupid because it usually backfires. Such offenders either alienate people or cause their victims to seek revenge.

Perhaps the wounds were self-inflicted. After all, when asked to elaborate, the student did mention that everyone seemed to know more or catch on faster than he did. His perceptions and conclusions are quite common. Too many people, adults included, consciously or unconsciously regard math and science classes as ways of separating the intellectually gifted from the have-nots. But a science course should really be an opportunity to see the world differently, a way of challenging so-called commonsense notions, which are often not consistent with reality. In this process, different brains unlearn and then reconceptualize at different rates. With the right motivation and persistence, most of us will eventually succeed. And that’s all that matters. It is not a good investment of energy to worry about how well others are doing or to be in obsessive pursuit of good grades. It is unfair to both individuals and to the culture of science to let basic courses serve as branding irons.

Because of an emotional backlash rooted in our high school experiences, our society has become deeply anti-mathematical and anti-scientific. Someone told Stephen Hawking that each equation in his cosmology book “A Brief History of Time” would cut sales in half. With just one equation, it made the best sellers’ list, but most people polled admitted to never having finished the book.

Today at our graduation ceremony, someone announced that one of our students won a Chamber of Commerce silver medal but never mentioned that it was for science, or let alone that it was for an environmental chemistry  project. The winner of the award, in his valedictory speech, ironically stated that school field trips were far more memorable than the facts of a cell. Personally, I too have pleasant memories of long bus rides with school friends, but I still can’t forget the grade 7 joy of understanding why the earth has seasons. Would I have had the courage to admit that to a graduating class? Probably not. I lived in the same antiscientific society that blinds us today, a world where we put up satellites in space so people can gossip on cellulars, and yet where few of us care enough to find out what makes these gadgets work.

These are the biggest obstacles to succeeding in Health or Pure and Applied Sciences in college. It is not easy to love science for what it is and not to hate it for what the majority erroneously perceives it to be.