Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Go! Learn Things!

By Peter Bowditch

Knowing about science is more important than doing science because it helps you separate sense from nonsense.

One of the highlights of my year is to give a short talk to the amazingly smart school students at the annual Young Scientist Awards organised by the Science Teachers’ Association of NSW. This is what I had to say this year.

I would like to congratulate everyone here tonight: the students who are winners just for getting here, whether they win first prize or not; their parents, because without their encouragement the students would not be here; and the teachers for their skills and dedication.

I’m not a scientist, in that I don’t do science for a living, although I write for a science magazine, Australasian Science, where I’ve had a regular column since 2003. I did very well in science at high school and my friend Graham and I shared the top two places in every test, assignment and exam throughout our time there. Unfortunately there was nothing like these awards then to encourage and extend us. If we wanted to do anything extra, like run experiments, it had to be done in our own time after school (depending on the availability of a teacher) or in lunch breaks. It is encouraging to hear that from next year class time will be available for the sort of work we’re celebrating tonight, and the work will be assessable as part of the general curriculum.

After school I became a computer nerd, but I never stopped learning about science.

In her message in tonight’s printed program, STANSW President Margaret Shepherd talks about “the value of failing in order to learn”. I’m an expert at that.

The real failure is giving up. (It is rumoured that Thomas Edison tried 8000 different ways before he arrived at a working light bulb.)

I had a couple of unsuccessful attempts at getting a science degree, and finally settled on doing psychology and philosophy. The philosophy taught me about ontology (the sort of things that we can know) and epistemology (how we can know the truth of the things we know). The psychology part was largely about statistics and scientific methodology.

Science is the application of epistemology. It is skepticism applied to the real world.

Knowing about science is actually more important than doing science, because it helps you separate sense from nonsense, and there’s a lot of nonsense out there. Every day I see advertisements on TV or in the press that claim scientific backing for some claim, but a closer look shows that the “science” is either non-existent or totally misrepresented.

Also, science has been under attack for a long time, and knowing what it is lets people like you resist the attack. On the Origin of Species came out in 1859 and contains the most important theory in biology ever conceived (some have argued the most significant scientific theory of all time). It triggered an attack on science that still reverberates. The 19th century evangelist Dwight Moody said that reading was unnecessary and that learning was an impairment to faith (he owned a publishing company, so he must have seen at least some value in reading), and the current US Secretary of Education seems determined to undermine education and science. (Her considerable family fortune is based on the assumption, fact actually, that most people don’t understand basic arithmetic, specifically geometric progression.)

I’m a science groupie in that I like to hang around with scientists and people smarter than myself, which is one of the reasons I’m here tonight (the young people have a few years to forget things and catch up with me). The word “scientist” was actually invented by a science groupie, the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Another non-scientist friend of his, Humphrey Davy, invented the lamp that saved many coal miners’ lives. (I have a Davy Lamp hanging in my lounge room.) Darwin himself would not be considered a scientist by today’s definition.

Now that I’m talking about literature I have to say that we can learn a lot from fictional or imaginative works, not just text books. Great literature survives because it contains messages that teach us things about ourselves and human behaviour. One of the things we can learn from Coleridge himself relates to his most famous poem, Kubla Khan. If you are about to write something down and there’s a knock at the door, write the idea down before answering the door or you might forget what it was.

I want to finish with a piece of advice from some ephemeral fiction that will be forgotten 10 years from now. One of my favourite TV shows is NCIS: New Orleans. When the team is about to go out to investigate some crime, the boss, Dwayne Pride, has something he says to them, and it’s something we should tell ourselves every day: “Go! Learn things!”

Peter Bowditch is a former President of Australian Skeptics Inc. (