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Physics and other lies

18 December 201911:30PMscicomm

So an article about how we need to stop lying to our kids about physics landed in my inbox this morning and I'd be lying if I said it didn't rub me the wrong way.

As someone who's worked in formal education, physics outreach, and science communication, there's a couple of points I found particularly frustrating, and I think the best way for me to get them off my chest is... well, to get them off my chest.

So here we go:

1. simplifications and approximations aren't lies.

We use simplified, approximate versions of things all the time. Framing these as lies is... ironically, a massive oversimplification of how people learn. We start with simpler, more familiar ideas, and build up to harder, stranger ones, and our understanding increases and develops as we go.

And the fact is, you probably still use some of these simplifications yourself without even realising it, because you've never needed anything more complex.

For example, we teach kids about the 'sounds that letters make'. We get them to 'sound out words' and tie pronunciation to orthography even though those two are totally separate. Should we teach every kid the international phonetic alphabet instead? maybe! is it more useful to teach them some approximate rules to roughly map written words to spoken ones? absolutely! and do most adults ever need to do anything else? nope!

(And my understanding of Einsteininan physics is that it at a human scale it does more or less approximate to Newtonian physics. Unlike English phonology, which... doesn't)

2. there is value in being able to do things.

Because here's the thing. Relativity works well to describe things that are very very big, and quantum physics works well to describe things that are very very small. But most classrooms don't have a radio telescope or a particle accelerator. And there is value in being able to get kids to 'do' science.

Formulating hypotheses, designing experiments, taking measurements, struggling through the maths and coming to a conclusion is a crucial part of science.

Trusting the data, not the wisdom you're imparted with by authority figures, is a crucial part of science

And learning to update, or replace, your models when they're no longer adequate, is a crucial part of science.

We can do that with Newtonian physics. Right now, that's a lot harder with Einstein's physics.

3. you're actually doing the right thing

But my real issue is that I actually agree with the substance of this argument. I think there's absolutely room to introduce these ideas earlier. You're right that they're interesting, exciting ideas to play with, and I think spending time with a working scientist who uses these ideas every day and intuitively 'gets' them' is the perfect way to do it.

On a more meta level, I think flagging the idea that a model is incomplete and there are things it can't explain would be awesome - the same way I think it would be awesome if we explicitly addressed the fact that letters don't map to sounds. I think exposing kids to more complete models and analogies - even if they can't observe the phenomena directly - is fantastic. And all of that is exactly what you're doing!

(And to facilitate that, maybe what we need is more explicit teaching of the philosophy of science, and of learning. We want people to treat ideas like tools they can use, not true facts they have to rote learn. It's a way of looking at the world that most of us stumble on to at some point, but we could perhaps do a better job at teaching it explicitly.)

It's just that... this framing is arrogant, unnecessarily aggressive, and comes off as attacking teachers, who get the short end of the stick an awful lot already. If you want people to accept your ideas, you don't immediately want to put them on the defensive. As a science educator (and not even a formal one), that's what this did. I felt attacked!

If you want me to use your ideas, you need to show me how they're better - not just chastise me for using the wrong ones. Sell me the opportunities that come with teaching the physics of lasers and black holes, don't lambast me for using 'old ideas'. Help me see the universe the way you do, don't pile on me because I can't yet. And acknowledge that there might be legitimate reasons to do things the way they're done now, and that there's people who devote their lives to teaching the same way you devote yours to physics.

You've clearly come up with some elegant, well thought-out ways of getting your physics ideas across. I just wish you'd put the same effort into getting your teaching ideas across too.

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