Saturday, January 16, 2016

"Don't try this at home, we're experts"

I understand why the Mythbusters say this at the beginning of the show, considering the lawyer-driven culture of America. But it's the opposite of science.

A long long time ago, in a country far far away, eight-year-old me was given a pair of books called "Science for the People" ("Ciência para o Povo," in Portuguese; two volumes). These books introduced concept of Physics and Chemistry to a general audience, using small experiments done with household items and then elaborating on these experiments to present the science behind them.

This drove home two important lessons: science is real (you can do the experiments yourself) and science is about phenomena not about the persons who do it (you can do the experiments yourself).

But that was then, and this is now.

Then: Science was a niche market, even for educated people. Being interested in science, engineering, or --worse of all-- math (guilty of all three, me) was indicative of upcoming social integration problems. (Lifting weights solves all sorts of social integration problems. Powerlifting, especially.)

Now: Everyone, from lawyer politicians using Science(TM) as a bludgeon against opponents (regardless of what the science itself may be) to journalism majors explaining to an EECS how electricity works (ignoring minor details like the difference between power and energy), believes in Science(TM), a brand name applied to everything that the right people say. And only the right people.

Then: Kids who saved their allowances and monetary gifts from family members to buy reagents, electronic components, and the occasional capital investment (microscope, lab glassware, breadboard, multimeter, soldering iron) were advised, especially by friendly peers, to keep those strange spending habits to themselves. Wouldn't want to appear weird.

Now: Kids who have no interest whatsoever in learning science, engineering, or math brag about the microscopes (never used), telescopes (never pointed at the sky), and other expensive "I love science" gifts from their parents. They might also have lab-grade glassware in their rooms, used for decor or perhaps to store coins. (*)

Then: Interest in science, engineering, and math correlated with being interested in how Nature or machines work, being suspicious of authority, and solving logic and mathematical puzzles for fun.

Now: "Loving" science correlates with name-dropping celebrities that are vaguely science-adjacent, parroting lines from said celebrities (including the most anti-scientific of all "science is settled" which is equivalent to "you don't get to be skeptical over [what I say are] facts"), and never, ever question the authority of the right authorities. But only the right authorities. (They'll be identified for you by your betters.)

Then: People who liked science, engineering, and math, tended to be interested in science, engineering, and math.

Now: People who "love" science tend to be interested in politics, attacking certain religious groups (mislabeled "atheism"), politics, demographics of certain professions, politics, the shirt worn by an astrophysicist who was the principal scientist for a mission landing a probe on a comet (but not interested in the probe, rockets, the comet, or Astrophysics), politics, the sex lives of other people, politics, and have I mentioned politics?

Then: People who liked science, engineering, and math typically could answer simple questions about science, engineering, or math better than the general population. When they couldn't answer a question, that was generally seen as an opportunity to learn.

Now: People who "love" science respond to being asked simple questions about science by attacking the questioner, declaring such questions harassment, and running away.

As I said, it was a long long time ago in a country far far away. Words had meaning then.

-- -- -- --

(*) Of course they all have (like everyone else) all sorts of electronic devices, computers, tablets, smartphones, which makes some people say nonsensical things like "this new generation really understands technology." No, there are some who do, of course, but the vast majority has no idea how their devices work.

What happens is that they have commercial products designed by interaction and user experience engineers who make the technology usable by those who are not engineers. Or maybe I should say it like above:

Then: Understanding technology meant understanding what made it work. For example, understanding how a cell phone worked meant being able to sketch the cell-to-cell handover algorithm or explain how packet-switching networks are different from older channel-switching networks, for example.

Now: Understanding technology means being able to make a call on a cell phone by using it as it was designed by the manufacturer.