Lies, Damned Lies and Science

by Robert Pondiscio
January 8th, 2010

Let’s face it, writes Stephen Battersby at the New Scientist, science is boring.  Discoveries of new planets, medical advances and potential environmental disasters leave the impression that science is exciting and cutting edge.  Not so. 

It is now time to come clean. This glittering depiction of the quest for knowledge is… well, perhaps not an outright lie, but certainly a highly edited version of the truth. Science is not a whirlwind dance of excitement, illuminated by the brilliant strobe light of insight. It is a long, plodding journey through a dim maze of dead ends. It is painstaking data collection followed by repetitious calculation. It is revision, confusion, frustration, bureaucracy and bad coffee.

Science may be boring, but Batterby’s essay is a hoot.  Especially his description of his own inglorious research career, which involved months of sifting data from a telescope and finding…nothing.

I tip my hat, though, to New Scientist‘s San Francisco bureau chief, who spent nearly three years watching mice sniff each other in a room dimly lit by a red bulb. “It achieved little,” he confesses, “apart from making my clothes smell of mouse urine.” And the office prize for research ennui has to go to the editor of NewScientist.com. “I once spent four weeks essentially turning one screw backwards and forwards,” he says. “It was about that time that I decided I didn’t want to be a working scientist.”

Let’s keep this to ourselves and not mention it to the children, shall we?  After all, our economy and national security are at stake.

Update:  Not bored yet?  Joanne Jacobs asks “Do children need to be bored?”  Insightful Willingham response in the comments.

11 Comments »

  1. My lab students struggle with this (yes, the idea is that you spend 3 hours sitting in the dark collecting data, and every so often something goes wrong, and you fix it, and go back to sitting in the dark…).

    But another way to look at it is that its a bit like a video game — lots of frustration and dead end, but an interesting puzzle.

    Comment by Rachel — January 8, 2010 @ 12:26 pm

  2. And everyone wonders why I don’t want to get a PhD. even though I love science. I discovered in college that toiling away in a lab is not for me.

    Science education, however, is something I’m seriously considering for when my kids get older and don’t need me as much.

    Comment by Crimson Wife — January 8, 2010 @ 1:14 pm

  3. I think this feeds a larger theme. Many valuable and ultimately exciting endeavors can have their boring bits. We can’t expect bells and whistles at every moment. That’s why our talk of student engagement has to include a strong dose of perseverance and goal-orientation.

    Comment by Claus — January 8, 2010 @ 1:59 pm

  4. Joanne Jacobs has an interesting thread right now about the need for children to be bored from time to time. I was struck by a comment from Dan Willingham who observed:

    My impression is not that kids who watch a lot of TV, play video games etc *can’t* pay attention, it’s more a matter of their expectations. They expect that things they interact with to do something on their own, that small actions on their part (or none) will lead to dramatic actions. Hence, long study of the inner structure of a lily, for example, is boring because nothing happens.

    http://www.joannejacobs.com/2010/01/do-children-need-to-be-bored/#comments

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — January 8, 2010 @ 2:11 pm

  5. OK, that was fun picking on science … a little refreshing from the normal “I hate math.” essay.

    But why not attack the slick careers in sales where not every cold call nets another grand in your check. Or journalism where hours upon hours are devoted to watching the same people scratch for the right wording only to see their story dropped because of the daily census. show biz where maybe not every young hopeful moves beyond their day job. Or, I could go on.

    Comment by ewaldoh — January 8, 2010 @ 4:47 pm

  6. I think it’s true that almost any field has it’s share of tedium, but I think boredom comes in quite a few varieties, and what’s tedious to one person is often mindless relaxing to another.

    I can spend hours tweaking not-quite-working data analysis programs. Tidying the house is truly painful.

    Comment by Rachel — January 8, 2010 @ 6:11 pm

  7. I spent many years as a scientist doing my PhD and post-doctoral work. Unlike your article, I seldom found science boring. There was always a challenge to think about. There were endless new ideas to learn and puzzles to solve. I could think about these things while spending a few hours at the lab doing experiments.

    I took time off to be with my children and I absolutely love showing them how math works. I can only imagine that those who sat doing ‘boring’ experiments were never fired by the central question/area they were working on.

    Have you solved the Rubiks cube? Invented in 1974 and still producing ‘Aha!’ moments. Heard Roger Penrose speak or read his books? Or Ian Stewart? You could ponder over it for hours & hours!

    I hope the science curriculum is resting on much more excitable minds than those rubbishing it.

    Comment by Sujata — January 8, 2010 @ 7:43 pm

  8. We learn science by doing science, do we not? Who would argue with that? Well, I would.

    And science is done by counting things and doing stats, is it not? Who would argue with that? Again, I would.

    Doing science, learning science, and knowing science are not the same thing, though obviously they are connected. I have expanded my thoughts along these lines in “Rules And Methods Of Science” at http://www.brianrude.com/sci-mt.htm, “Hydrogen, Nitrogen,And John Q. Public” at http://www.brianrude.com/hyd-n.htm, and “The Rationale For Laboratory Exercises In The Teaching Of Science) at http://www.brianrude.com/ratlab.htm.

    Comment by Brian Rude — January 8, 2010 @ 10:07 pm

  9. If boredom does exist in a classroom one can only hope it’s marginal and/or fleeting. While boredom can be acceptable in leisure, I can only hope it’s kept to an absolute minimum in our schools. To attempt to rationalize or sanction boredom in an academic setting is problematic. If a lesson is boring what does that portend for learning?

    Comment by Paul Hoss — January 9, 2010 @ 10:48 am

  10. I don’t think boredom should be sanctioned or rationalized however I cringe when I get the hint that it is the teachers responsibility to be entertainment. My experience is that important knowledge and skills are not always interesting, nor is effective teaching always entertaining.

    Comment by Matt — January 9, 2010 @ 1:08 pm

  11. I’ve gone on too long about boredom elsewhere, but wanted to add one thing. The word gets used in so many different situations that maybe it is misleading. For instance, a student could be bored because they already know material, or because they are completely lost. Somewhere I’ve seen a long list of other possible reasons for the complaint, “I’m bored,” but can’t find it now. At least a couple other reasons for the complaint could be not being able to tolerate lack of stimuli, or not being able to figure out what to do with oneself. I think the response needs to depend on the underlying reason for the complaint.

    I was reminded recently that nothing kills my attention quicker than problems which say “Derive ___ from basic principles.” I can never figure out how to start, what basic principles I am supposed to use. Right now, I’m guessing this points to something I never really learned.

    Anyway, back to whether science is boring…it depends.

    Comment by kcab — January 9, 2010 @ 1:14 pm

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