05 November 1991

Teach Your Children

How to Think about Dangerous, Complicated Things

In the sixties and seventies there was a general shift away from dedicated instruction in the natural sciences and deductive reasoning in the US public schools. This shift produced a social climate in which personal introspection was performed in the absence of coherent thought. Now vast numbers of the voting public become hysterical when life withholds any guarantee of immortality. The learned leaders of our country have heard their cries. Ergo, it is the job of the reasoning few to generate this impossible guarantee using guidance from a technically naive bureaucracy or face the wrath of a dying mob. — Scott Carman, 1991

Denial of Danger

Rems, rads, grays, and sieverts. We learned about them at the Radiation Worker's Safety Briefing, which was required for those of us who were going to attend a nuclear "device assembly" at the Nevada Test Site. We also learned, during a break, about the nuclear reactor accident at Three Mile Island.

Apparently the amount of radioactive material that escaped the containment vessel was so tiny that a spokesperson for Consolidated Edison stated that the long-term cancer risk from the average radiation dose received in the surrounding community was smaller than that due to the aflatoxins an average child ingests while eating peanut butter. This caused the spokesperson to make it into the trade-lore of how not to engage in "risk communication." He or she was beaten nearly to death by the homemakers in the audience, who were furious at having their cuisine compared to a nuclear meltdown.

But the spokesperson had a point. We can only compare one danger to another danger, because there is no absolute standard for safety, because life itself is dangerous - sooner or later, no matter what we do, we all die. So, to evaluate an unfamiliar danger, we must compare it to a familiar danger, one to which we expose ourselves every day.[1]

This is difficult because we tend to ignore our daily dangers. Who would think that you were exposing your child to tiny amounts of a potent, natural liver-carcinogen from trace quantities of a mold that grows on peanuts? But don't toss that peanut butter - you're more likely to shorten your child's lifespan by driving your child in a car. Now, you could also keep your child away from cars, but in our society driving is often a necessity - even though you're more likely to die in an automobile accident than on some battlefields.

On the other hand, ignoring dangers that we can do nothing about helps us to go about our business in spite of them. We even say that those of us who can't ignore the usual dangers of daily life have phobias. Still, there was a time, before anesthesia and antibiotics, when we all knew life was dangerous, and we appealed to God to grant us safety as a blessing. Now we look to our government to grant us safety as a right.

Protecting our right to safety is taken to extremes by our courts, which have abandoned the concepts of contributory negligence and comparative causation. For example, suppose you climbed the shelves of your local grocery store, and fell, injuring your spine. Suppose further that you were 90% responsible for your own injury, that the store was 9% responsible, and that the manufacturer of the canned soup that fell on you was 1% responsible. You could still sue the soup manufacturer for the full amount of your monetary damages (hospital bills, lost salary, etc.) and win, because of all parties to the action, only the soup-maker had enough money. That is to say, we insist that we be protected from the financial consequences of our own stupidity by robbing whoever has the deepest pockets (which is like killing the goose that laid the golden egg, because the deepest pockets usually belong to the companies that provide our jobs).

And in order to aid this robbery we suppress evidence. Consider the case of a man who was injured at work when he fell off a chair. Since his workmen's compensation didn't begin to cover expenses, he sued the chair manufacturer. The manufacturer's lawyer hired an engineer to prepare a video in which the chair was measured to pass all applicable OSHA safety standards. The judge, however, ruled the evidence, and indeed, the standards themselves inadmissible in court. This left the engineer able to state opinions substantiated only by his reputation. It also left the injured worker's lawyer plenty of room to play, since the engineer was in the manufacturer's pay, and anybody's word can seem doubtful if you can't check the facts.

Now the judge excluded the engineer's measurements because (1) such evidence is thought too technical for most jurors to understand, and (2) if, God forbid, an engineer or a scientist had been impaneled, he or she would have formed a strong opinion, which neither attorney could manipulate. Such an opinionated expert could possibly sway the other jurors - the "one-man jury" effect. But the technology at issue here is a chair. The performance of the chair relative to the standards was measured by pulling on it with hand-held spring scales until it tipped over. If that level of technology is too sophisticated for the average person to understand, then civilization is about to collapse because it is too complicated. Or more precisely, because the average person is no longer thought to be prepared, emotionally or intellectually, to deal with complexity. In other words, the judge thought it better for the jury do deal with digestible lies, rather than the complicated truth.[2]

Working backward through our examples, then, it may not be stretching things too far to say that we as a society sometimes lie, steal, and kill, in order to protect our illusion of safety from the consequences of our own actions, or from complicated or uncomfortable truths. Besides making money for trial lawyers, such transformation of reality from the awful truth into a consensus comfortable to the greatest number is itself dangerous. After all, if an entire populace seeks safety in suppressing the truth, can we expect better of its press or government?

Danger for Profit

Of course, a little danger, presented the right way, can be titillating. Just ask any journalist what makes good copy. Especially if it has to do with a powerful technology like nuclear weapons.

Because the press finds that places like nuclear weapons labs tend to "stonewall" them, they sometimes print speculation as if it were fact in order to flush the actual story from reluctant sources. This often works, but when the actual details make dull reading, they wind up on the back page, if not on the editing room floor.

That's why lab officials fear encounters with the press more than they do encounters with hostile intelligence services. After all, you win if a spy comes away with a false impression, because a spy is after the truth. But you lose if a journalist comes away with a false impression, because a journalist is after a story.[3] Besides, you only have to keep a spy from reading your mind, whereas, with a journalist, you practically have to read theirs, before you can answer their questions.

Typically, a journalist may be working on several stories at once, and asking questions relating to all of them. Unless the journalist tells me what is on his or her mind, regarding any particular question, I may misjudge the context. This creates a problem because language is by its nature ambiguous, and thus has meaning only in context. Or, as I have said elsewhere, there is no truth that can be so clearly spoken that it cannot be willfully misunderstood. Since journalists prefer to do interviews, rather than to be interviewed themselves, their use of material from interviews can be strongly influenced by the way they want their story to read, which is in turn influenced by what their editors think will sell.

In other words, General Sherman was wrong in comparing journalists with spies - journalists can be more difficult. All this was summed up in one word by my father-in-law. When my wife was a little girl, she asked him if what was in the news was really true. At first he was silent. He was a German who had grown up in Russia under the Tsar, and who had witnessed the Revolution of 1917. After a while, he said, "Sometimes."

Courage to Think

We the people delude ourselves regarding danger, either by denial or morbid fascination, and are aided in both by our press. We need more than an arsenal of factual knowledge to break out of this delusion. We need what I call the moral value of science education.

This moral value is twofold. First, science is a confrontation of the self, individual and collective, with those aspects of reality that can be measured - the observable facts. The willingness to face such facts, whether they are palatable or not, is on a level with the morality of golf. It is "playing the ball where it lies," which is fairly exhalted compared to the examples in the first part of this essay. And behind this willingness lies another moral value, courage. The courage to endure making the effort required for understanding, and the possible embarrassment, disappointment, or worse that may await if the facts turn out to be other than one supposed. I call it the courage to think.

The courage to think is becoming increasingly important because we continue to invent and use ever more powerful technologies to meet the dangers of the present, which in turn helps create the dangers of the future. Consider antibiotics, for example. They protected us from dying in large numbers from infectious diseases, allowing us the illusion of safety as we became more sexually promiscuous. This created, to twist a line from Guys and Dolls, the oldest established permanent floating culture medium in the world. It was an ecological niche that, sooner or later, some organism was bound to exploit. In other words, AIDS wasn't brought to us by gay men - the most careless and unlucky of them simply wound up being the first to give their lives to show the rest of us what was waiting for us all.

Nowadays everyone knows someone who is alive because of antibiotics. The idea of giving them up, and going back to a more innocent age when everyone knew someone who died young of infectious disease, is idiotic. But it takes the courage to think to use them wisely. Otherwise we make it easier for drug resistant bacteria to evolve, by our doing everything from abusing antibiotics in agriculture to forgetting to take all of our medicine when we start feeling better. (Which is how drug resistant TB developed when we began treating the disease on an out-patient basis.)

So much for the comfortable and familiar technologies. How about some serious genetic engineering to prevent or cure AIDS or cancer? How about eradicating heart disease, or slowing the aging process? All this sounds good, but the technologies that could make these advances possible could perhaps also cause some very devastating accidents, or could perhaps be used for some very destructive biological warfare. All this means that each good we desire from technology will make another demand on our courage to think.

Well, no guts, no glory. That's what they teach athletes in our public schools. But what they teach in our science classes must be the intellectual equivalent of unsalted cream of rice.

At least that was the impression I had when I gave a guest lecture on black holes to a classroom of eighth graders. I tried to follow the rules: I brought pictures illustrating the key concepts, I used the students themselves in concept demonstrations, I used body movement (I had the students turn around and point their fingers in all directions to illustrate spherical symmetry), and I used absolutely no equations. But I totally lost them when I did the one thing for which I could find no substitute - I drew a graph. Not even a real graph, just a schematic, with space on the horizontal axis and time on the vertical, just to show how space and time interchange for you if you fall into the black hole, preventing you from getting out.

Now maybe I'm too demanding, but graphs are very simple, yet powerful tools for communicating ideas. Even President Reagan used one once. Graphs appeal to our visual sense, which is normally our strongest. Teaching science as a set of disconnected facts, without teaching how to use basic tools of thought like graphs, teaches very little. This is because science, like history, is more than a collection of facts. It is a set of tools of thought, and as I have tried to argue above, a set of attitudes toward truth and complexity.

The attitudes and tools are of course meaningless without the facts, but the facts themselves are also meaningless without the attitudes and tools. Or as some have put it, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." The problem is that by teaching the collection of facts without the tools and attitudes to deal with them, that sufficiently advanced technology is our own. Thus, before we try to empower the people to make complex choices - to "enlarge the realm of the political" by "eliminating the cult of the expert" as some liberals put it - we need to use science education to enlarge the realm of the comprehensible.

Thought and Language

As you might imagine, I'd like to see a bit more emphasis on teaching science and math in our public schools. I'd also like to see successful completion of freshman calculus made a requirement for graduation from all four-year colleges. Simply put, I believe that unless you can master calculus, you can in no way claim that you have had a well-rounded education, which is what a Bachelor's degree is all about.

Now I know that most people won't ever use calculus in their daily lives. I didn't use it for the five years I worked at one of the nation's leading industrial laboratories. Nevertheless, calculus underlies statistics, which is behind "fault trees," which is the analytical tool we use to deal rationally with "low-probability, high consequence" events like reactor accidents, and to make "cost-benefit analyses." Calculus lies behind the tools and attitudes more of us need to deal with the daily dangers of our complex culture.[4]

Moreover, the ideas behind calculus - the idea of a continuous function or process, the notion of how a function or process behaves as certain limits are approached, the resolution of a complex process into simpler parts, the idea of infinity, the idea of logical proof, etc. - underlie much of what has become known as the modern world view. Learning calculus therefore is part of preserving and appreciating the valuable legacy left to all of us by all those dead white men. Neglecting it is like throwing away part of an inheritance.

Another reason to learn calculus is that it is a very precise language. So precise, that if you follow its grammatical rules, you will always speak the truth within its limited scope. Such a brush with both precision and truth can give the average college student a better appreciation of the limits of human knowledge. Calculus as a language is also richer than the algebra many of us sweat through in high school - rich enough to make some coherent sense, so that one can begin to glimpse the entire structure of mathematics as a whole. Which is no small thing, because mathematics underlies all of our science and technology, which themselves underlie our present culture.

Of course, an emphasis on mathematical language in no way substitutes for a knowledge of natural language. I'm thinking here of bi-lingual education, which I'd like to stand on its head. I think it criminal to teach classes in anything but English to immigrants to America under the age of twelve. Sure English as a foreign language is a must, but face it, children under the age of twelve can learn to speak any language much more easily than anybody else. Why cheat them of the opportunity to have more than one native language? Especially if one of those languages is the one spoken by those who have all the money and power in their new country!

On the other hand, it might help cure our ludicrous parochialism if all our little native-English speakers had to learn the foreign language most predominant in their community in order to get past sixth grade. Such a requirement would help us understand each other in our "multicultural" society, it would certainly help all the older folks who are going to have a tough time with English for the rest of their lives, and it would provide employees who could really help our businesses compete in the global economy, because they could speak its languages.

And yes, I meant the word parochialism. People in most cultures tend to think their way is the only way to understand the world. But the same events can mean different things to people who are native speakers of different languages. Relatively few Americans appreciate this, especially the ones who make claims for a literal interpretation of Judeo-Christian Scripture (which was written in Hebrew and Greek) based on their reading of English.

I also meant ludicrous - like the time President Kennedy said, "Ich bin ein Berliner," which translates to "I am a jelly doughnut." To have said, "I am a Berliner," he needed to leave out the ein. Fortunately, the Berliners all knew what he meant.

In any event, to get anything at all taught in public schools, we need to do one very big thing. We need to reprofessionalize teachers.[5] This means requiring that teachers learn content as well as methodology - what to teach as well as how - by earning graduate degrees in standard academic subjects. It means letting teachers choose the textbooks and develop the curricula. It means measuring their performance by testing their students. It means raising the status, expectations, freedoms, responsibilities, and rewards of public schoolteachers to those of college professors. Until then, all the demands placed on teachers by parents, educationists, and government are just one big ball-and-chain fastened on to teachers by a society that isn't serious about education.


  1. Greg Simonson informs me that Dixie Lee Ray expressed a similar thought many years ago.
  2. My friend Charles Perry informs me that our tort (civil suit) system is actually much worse that I describe here. See for example, Peter W. Huber's Galileo's Revenge: Junk Science in the Courtroom, Harper-Collins, New York, 1991.
  3. Moreover, even the most innocuous and factual statement on the part of a lab manager or employee can be met with vehement accusations from parts of Congress and the public. Since such accusations make good copy, journalists may be reluctant to print the qualifying statements on the part of the lab employee that might mitigate such firestorms. Given this, most of us simply prefer to keep our heads down.
  4. For example, I met a political science professor who thought that nuclear testing was done purely for political reasons (a case of a man casting his cosmology into a mold that fit his chosen discipline). That the errors inherent in modeling differential equations by finite difference equations introduce errors into nuclear weapons design codes, which must be investigated by testing never occurred to him, because he never had calculus. While nuclear testing has been politicized by our society, testing has always had a scientific and engineering purpose -- now, however, there are good geopolitical reasons to cease testing.
  5. Perhaps most people would say we need to get a handle on violence in our schools first. However, educators who think to disarm schools full of gun-toting kids with psychobabble rather than metal detectors are muddle-headed rather than professional, in my book. I might suggest William Golding's Lord of the Flies as part of their continuing education. Its conclusion is a lesson in the civilizing effect on children of the constructive use of power.

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