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Publisher's Letter

Australians’ knowledge of science is abysmal

For a long time now, we have been very concerned about the standard of teaching science in Australia and indeed, the low priority it appears to get in Australian secondary schools. Never mind the fact that Australian scientists like Brian Schmidt, Peter Doherty and Elizabeth Blackburn have recently won Nobel prizes for their work because the average Australian’s knowledge of science is abysmal. In fact, if you asked the average Australian who these three scientific giants were, you would get a blank stare.

Sure, Australians love technology but very few have more than a superficial understanding of how it works. I was reminded of this recently when I watched a program on Stephen Fry’s “100 Greatest Gadgets”. Stephen Fry is no mean intellect himself but he still managed to trivialise the whole 2-part program and ended by naming the top “gadget” as the cigarette lighter! As he waded through the list, which seemed to have no increasing significance in scientific development, it occurred to me that neither he or most of the (likely limited) audience would have much ability to explain how any of them worked. How depressing!

But even more depressing is an article in The Australian newspaper on Tuesday, July 10th, on the new syllabus for physics, chemistry and biology for Years 11 and 12. Just read this quote from a statement introducing the syllabus:

“Science is a social and cultural activity through which explanations of natural phenomena are generated.”

“Explanations of natural phenomena may be viewed as mental constructions based on personal experiences and result from a range of activities including observation, experimentation, imagination and discussion.

“Accepted scientific concepts, theories and models may be viewed as shared understandings that the scientific community perceive as viable in light of current available evidence.”

Well, what a lot of meaningless, mealy-mouthed, politically correct drivel! In fact, it is just drivel. If that is how the syllabus authors regard science, then heaven help us. They clearly have no concept of what science is about or how it has developed over centuries. It is just this sort of thinking which is so prevalent in the so-called consensus on global warming, being that the “science is settled”. It isn’t and it probably never will be.

Thankfully, this vacuous view of science outlined by the Queensland Studies Authority was rubbished by the Australian Council of Deans of Science, representing the heads of science faculties in Australia’s universities. Their language was not as strong as mine but at least it was along the same lines. We need a much more realistic view of the importance of science and its teaching.

My attitude to science is this: if you don’t understand basic science, you cannot have any understanding of the environment around you. If you do not understand science, you cannot understand how any of today’s technology works. If you don’t understand science, you are utterly reliant on other more educated individuals to ensure your survival in the modern world.

If you don’t understand basic science, you might just as well be living in the middle ages! But with the wonderful resources of the internet, not understanding basic science is not a matter of lack of intelligence – it is laziness.

Leo Simpson


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