Science Education Under Attack: Simplicity vs. Complexity

Last time I wrote about how we humans are terrible at comprehending really large and really small numbers. Check that: we can’t. And when we try, either the names for the numbers become just words we sling around, or our brains go TILT!

Unfortunately, scientists tend to work in arenas where they need very large and very small numbers to describe the scales of the objects they’re studying, from billions of light years to fractions of a micron.

That’s not the only obstacle science faces when trying to be relevant and understandable to the general public. Another is complexity. Here’s an example we can all relate to: the human body. On the surface, it seems simple enough, right? We breathe, eat food, digest it, excrete the waste, stand, sit, walk, pick things up, talk, sing, listen, watch, think, all without having to think about how we do it. At least, that’s true for most of us.

A “Black Box?”

Our bodies seems like they’re “black boxes”; they do many things but their inner workings are a complete mystery.

Wondering whyOver the last few centuries, some people have not been satisfied with the “explanation” that these things just happen. Or that God makes them happen. They wanted to know how they happen. When something doesn’t work right, or a person gets sick, why does that happen? And can anything be done about it? If so, what?

That curiosity led to the first explorations of the human anatomy, with graves being robbed and bodies dissected. The result was the discovery of all sorts of different organs, the networks of blood vessels and nerves, the skeleton. What did each one do? At one level, some things were obvious: blood vessels carried blood around the body. Food moved through the digestive tract. But why? And how?

That led to the discovery of cells, and that the cells in different organs did different things. Further, the cells in any given organ were not all the same. Why were they different? What did they do? How did they interact with each other?

That led to the study of individual cells, and the discoveries that cells had stuff inside them: a nucleus, structural elements, even smaller, cell-like bodies. And the surface of the cell wasn’t just a bag: it had pores that opened and closed (when? why?), and it had layers. Some of those things were generally the same when you compared, say, liver cells to muscle cells, but they were different too.

And what about those X- and Y-shaped bundles inside the nucleus? And those other blobby things? They turned out to be mega-molecules: molecules made of molecules. Incredibly complex.

The deeper biologists have examined the bodies of humans (and other animals and plants), the more they’ve found both similarities and differences. And more and more questions: Why are all living things made up of cells? What, exactly are viruses? Are they living? What does “living” actually mean?

There have been large-scale questions too: How did multi-cellular bodies form in the first place? How does the interaction between millions or even billions of brain cells result in the things we call consciousness and intelligence? What is consciousness? What is intelligence? Are non-human animals “intelligent?”

More Learning, More Questions

The more we’ve learned, the more we’ve discovered there is to learn, and the more and more complex the systems being studied become. Scientists have had to focus their work more and more narrowly, yet the complexity continues to grow.

StressedThat’s a problem for the ordinary citizen. Scientists with Ph.D.’s know so much they seem to  have 50 pound brains and IQs beyond the triple digits. And yet sometimes they can’t explain why grandma has cancer. Or why their attempts to cure her didn’t work, and meanwhile she had to suffer through miserable chemo or radiation treatments, or both. “Don’t they know anything?

Well, it’s complicated.

This complexity is what the scientist characters—indeed all of them—are up against in my novels: how can we understand the incredibly complex chains of reactions and interactions that go on by the billions in the human body every day, and what can we do about them if they’re doing things we think are bad?

No Questions Allowed?

This is where religion finds its foothold. Where science offers incredible complexity (“incredible” in both senses: extremely large, and not believable), religion offers simplicity: “it’s God’s will,” “our lives are in God’s hands,” “God has a plan for us” (which might include terrible injury or illness). When God has control, we humans don’t need to know anything about how, for example, our bodies work. Or how humans came to be (“God made us just the way we are”).

Knowledge, especially scientific knowledge is not only unnecessary, it’s undesirable, even dangerous.

At least in the minds of some. I don’t mean to paint all religions and all religious people with this same brush. Within the Catholic Church, the priests of the Society of Jesus, otherwise known as the Jesuits, engaged in scientific inquiry, founded universities, and explored the universe. They still do. All within the context of Catholic teachings.

The problem is with those with a religious bent who wish to deny any validity to scientific inquiry, to turn the world back into a collection of mysterious black boxes whose inner workings are not only unknown but are not for humans to know. And for some, that means attacking the teaching of science and scientific principles in schools. That can’t be allowed to continue.

Science education faces another problem: a language barrier. I’ll write about that next time.


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