Orwell distinguishes between science as a method and science as a body of facts. I think most of us accept that. Both Orwell and Vincent seem to be in favour of teaching the method but not the facts.
The demand for more science education, as Orwell astutely perceived, reflects an underlying political agenda, based on the naive belief – falsified by history –
Although what those facts are has changed. Vincent writes:
In Orwell’s day, it was seen as a Good Thing that students should learn about “radioactivity, or the stars, or the physiology or their own bodies”; nowadays, educating our young about Darwinian evolution, sexual health for kindergartners, and global warming is deemed to be the latest Good Thing. The focus has changed; but sadly, the paternalistic mindset of the “powers that be” hasn’t.
And the reason is we should avoid teaching scientific facts is because all science is political and the naive belief – falsified by history – that we’d all be better off if scientists ruled the world
The first thing to say is Orwell need not have worried. Our countries continue to be ruled by people with humanities degrees and lawyers. Most scientists seem to be happy not to be politicians. Western governments worry incessantly about the poor level of science education in the population. Science non-facts thrive from MMR to homeopathy to YEC. If someone has a political agenda that we’d all be better off if scientists ruled the world then they have been remarkably unsuccessful.
But I would also argue strongly that the population would benefit from knowing a good level of science fact. Governments often argue for it from an economic and practical point of view. We need basic science teaching to generate enough science and technology graduates for industry. But I think it goes deeper. Without understanding about electromagnetics television becomes magic, without understanding about DNA and genetics the very discussions we have here and on UD would not be possible. We need to know science just as we need to know about arts and humanities and economics. It is part of our culture.
I suspect Orwell might well have changed his mind had he lived another 50 years. He was writing shortly after the first atomic bombs were dropped and he is quite open about his fear and disapproval of the project. This leads to him to write some things that by his standards are rather childish:
Just before writing this, I saw in an American magazine the statement that a number of British and American physicists refused from the start to do research on the atomic bomb, well knowing what use would be made of it. Here you have a group of sane men in the middle of a world of lunatics. And though no names were published, I think it would be a safe guess that all of them were people with some kind of general cultural background, some acquaintance with history or literature or the arts – in short, people whose interests were not, in the current sense of the word, purely scientific.
Actually Oppenheimer, for example, had an extraordinarily broad and deep education. And:
In England, a large proportion of our leading scientists accept the structure of capitalist society, as can be seen from the comparative freedom with which they are given knighthoods, baronetcies and even peerages. Since Tennyson, no English writer worth reading- one might, perhaps, make an exception of Sir Max Beerbohm – has been given a title.
Scientists do get titles but nowadays so do artists, sports stars, bankers, academics.
Had he lived through the next 50 years he would have seen first the rise of scientific and technological optimism in the 50s and 60s (still ruled by humanities graduates and lawyers) and then the disillusionment of the 70s and 80s and the subsequent rise of anti-science and pseudo-science.
Vincent is concerned about the teaching of evolution, climate-change and sexual health for kindergartners. But does he oppose the teaching of radioactivity, or the stars, or the physiology of their own bodies i.e. the things which concerned Orwell? He seems to muddling the case for teaching science facts from disputes about what are the facts and when it is best to teach them. Yes some science has political implications. If climate change is true then there are political consequences. And faulty science has been taught for political reasons. But the answer to this is not stop teaching science facts. We need both facts and method.