The science of reality

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    The setting was a restaurant in deepest Grey Lynn on a busy Sunday. A grey midwinter sun oozed over a group at a long table deep in conversation. Suddenly, everyone in the room gasped.

    I was sitting next to the victim, Ken, without a clear view, although I saw a horrified ‘o’ form on the lips of the person opposite, and heard smashing glass, a sound which went on for a long time. 

    A young waitperson had arrived with flutes of prosecco on a tray balanced ambitiously on the tips of his fingers – quite the flourish, if you can pull it off. But his tray tilted a fraction too far, and one by one, six generously filled glasses of chilly wine poured over Ken’s trousers. 

    It would be fun, if I was a mathematician, to work out how the angle of the tray coupled with the weight distribution led to the waste of so much wine, although my maître d’ friend had a solution born from long experience. “There is a lot to be said for popping the cork, and filling flutes at the table.” 

    I’ve always loved Niels Bohr’s quote: “An expert has made all the mistakes that can be made in a very narrow field” because it applies to gardeners and writers and restaurants as well as theoretical physicists like Bohr. 

    We don’t usually need to understand equations to avoid catastrophe, as long as we trust the people who do. We don’t need to understand how a ferry engine works to know it will get us safely from Auckland to Mātiatia. 

    But on social media, we need to be able to tell real experts from fake ones. Who we trust affects who we vote for, whether we get vaccinated, what we read, or even if we let the cat out all night.

    In 2022 I interviewed Dr Stuart Ritchie, the Scottish author of a brilliant book about the scientific method: Science Fictions: Exposing Fraud, Bias, Negligence and Hype in Science. I asked him if he thought the basics of scientific literacy could be taught at school. 

    “I definitely think the ‘how science is done’ stuff should be taught alongside the ‘what science has told us’ stuff”, he told me. 

    “Kids in school are taught the knowledge that we gain from science, but I don’t think they ever learn how we found it out. It often takes until well into a science degree at university before people understand where scientific papers come from, and what the associated process is, with journals and peer-review and so on.”

    If the pandemic has shown us anything, it is our reliance on people who know what a double-blind control experiment is. And these are not ‘just’ science graduates. “Highly complex issues – the climate crisis, the emergence of artificial intelligence, disinformation and political extremism, race and gender prejudice, and social inequality – are not wholly amenable to technical fixes,” Richard Shaw, a Professor of Politics at Massey University, wrote recently. These require well-conducted local research, and journalists who can understand academic papers and explain them to the rest of us.

    So it is worrying to see so many of New Zealand’s universities suffering deficits apparently so hopeless they are axing legions of staff (10 percent in some cases). Would-be students, challenged by high rents and the lack of research opportunities are voting with their feet. Domestic enrolments in the country’s eight universities fell by some 5,000 (4 percent) in full-time equivalents in 2022 and will probably fall by the same amount this year, according to Wellington Uni’s Jonathan Boston, writing in Newsroom. He blames the government, which controls 80 percent of universities’ revenue. Research funding which employs students and graduates has also been chronically low for years. (How low? Expenditure by our universities on research per full-time equivalent student is, says Boston, barely two-thirds of the OECD average.)

    Last month the government promised an extra $128million for the tertiary sector during 2024 and 2025, but, as Boston explains, “though the extra funding is welcome, unquestionably it is inadequate.”

    Most of us care deeply about the nature of reality – or at least, our own cherished version of it, even if we think, in the words of Simon Schama, that public health measures are “a plot; that bacteriologists and epidemiologists are an alien elite, and that the microbe and the scientist are in cahoots against homespun wisdom”. 

    In July, the early draft of a proposed science curriculum reignited furious debate over school science teaching. Many teachers worried the draft was too vague, while defenders insisted it was an exciting path to wider science literacy. The complaints, though, were hard to dismiss, coming from the Association of Science Educators, the Institute of Physics education council, Secondary Chemistry Educators New Zealand and Auckland Uni’s respected Professor of Physics Richard Easther, who fumed: “apparently stipulating that young school students should learn about atoms is a ‘a purist, siloed approach’”.

    At least everyone agreed on one thing. As Sara Tolbert – a defender of the draft – wrote in The Conversation: “A meaningful and robust science education is increasingly important for all students, not just those who want to become scientists.” • Jenny Nicholls

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