On this weekend I went hiking on the nature trails in the Margallah hills. When I reached the hut on one of the hilltops, I was greeted by a beautiful sight of Islamabad. Many people, who go up there, do so to earn themselves that beautiful view. At a brisk pace, it takes around 25-30 minutes to reach this place from the parking lot below, leaving hikers parched by the time they reach this location, so it is no surprise they bring their own water.
After taking in the beautiful sight, I turned to my left to see an overfull trashcan, filled almost exclusively with empty plastic water bottles. It pinches me every time, that even the people that go there, mostly educated people, do not realise that the 500ml of water they carry up with them on every ascent, comes in a plastic bottle that will quite likely remain on this earth, possibly long after they and everyone they have known and will know in their lives will have perished. Will that 1/2 liters of water have been worth THAT? Do they not realise that using a reusable bottle is a more responsible choice? Why do so few of even the educated class have so little sense of the impact their choices are having on the environment around them?
I like to think that most of them either (a) do not know any better, or (b) have pushed the application of their knowledge of science so far into the back of their mind they rarely make these connections.
To celebrate this year’s World Science Day for Peace and Development, the Commission on Science and Technology for Sustainable Development in the South (COMSATS), in collaboration with the Pakistan Academy of Sciences (PAS), hosted a discussion forum on November 10, 2015. The objective was to urge scientists to aggressively promote quality science for sustainable development in Pakistan, as well as to generate a set of recommendations for promoting science at various levels to achieve Sustainable Development Goals. I was invited to speak and being an educationist I chose to talk about the benefits and importance of having a science literate society and what we all can do to support achieving that goal.
What do I mean by “science literate”? I am not demanding that all citizens be scientists, or nothing as drastic as making everyone take science all the way through high school. What is needed is a basic understanding of what science is, and what it is NOT. How science works, and what it means for an approach to be scientific.
Put simply, I want to talk about the wide reaching benefits of having a citizenry that understands the scientific method, that science begins with an interesting question, the formulation of a hypothesis, developing testable predictions, designing experiments to test those predictions, observe the outcome of those experiments and collect data, generalising those observations and repeat! And yes, it also means being familiar with basic principles of science, such as the Laws of Thermodynamics, and the Laws of Motion, and many others, and their implications.
Today, most adults in the country would not be able to apply these laws to make simple predictions. When a population is really that far removed from science that gives space to frauds and charlatans to operate. A recent case I can cite is the claim of running a car on water. Too many people, educated people, were taken in by that impossible claim.
This is not even the worst that can happen. A recent HBO documentary on Afghanistan included interviews with intercepted child suicide bombers. They explained that their handlers explained to them that the explosives they had strapped to their chest would only blow “outward,” killing the people around them, but would leave them completely unharmed! Had these children had even a half decent science education, it is quite likely that they would not have been taken advantage of so easily.
Let us zoom out and consider the difference an educated citizenry would make in the bigger picture. Scientifically literate members of society make better decisions every day that can shrink the size of some of our biggest national challenges.
With regards to environmental pollution, a scientifically literate citizenry, will think twice before littering, using plastic bags, buying a drink in a disposal plastic bottle, depleting the local ground water by installing a tube well, polluting the ground water by improperly disposing of engine oil and so on.
Consider spectrum interference; people would understand that DECT 6.0 cordless phones interfere with the 1.9GHz spectrum of cellphone service providers, and if tracked down by the Frequency Allocation Board, can lead to jail time.
With regards to healthcare, fewer people will fall prey to faith healers, frauds and quacks.
With regards to the energy crisis, people would know that every time they charge and discharge their home UPS batteries they get back only about half the energy they spent charging them, because of losses. In this way, the ubiquitous installation of UPS systems in homes and offices is significantly exacerbating the national energy crisis, and possibly inflating people’s electricity bills. Certainly, some will make the more responsible choice of switching to solar panels to power at least parts of their households.
With regards to our oil import bill; citizens aware of hybrid car engine technology would create a greater demand for hybrid cars, which could drastically reduce the demand for petroleum imports. This list could go on and on.
So how do we get from where we are to where we need to be?
To me, the most obvious point of intervention is at the school level. To reach children, fix science education in schools. That means science lessons need to become more than the memorisation of results of scientific inquiries. Students need to become doers of science and active participants in it. As important as learning key scientific principles is, at least the outline of, the method by which those discoveries were made, how science is done, an aspect that our textbooks today consistently fail to address.
We cannot afford to ignore adults also, because people that have completed their science education in school today and will not set foot in another science classroom for the rest of their lives will still be around for decades from now, making decisions for themselves and their families and impacting the environment for just as long.
In order to educate adults, there is a need for science communicators that can be at-large explainers-in-chief of scientific and engineering concepts for the population. These science communicators should be explaining, communicating in our local, even regional, language, not in English. These explanations must not be in the form of lectures, but must be kept interesting and lively and short, at times maybe even as short as a sound bite.
I am, of course, talking about personalities like Neil De Grasse Tyson, Bill Nye, also known as Bill Nye “The Science Guy”, Carl Sagan, Richard Feynman, Lawrence Krauss, Stephen and Lucy Hawking, Brian Greene, MichioKaku, and Leonard Mlodinow that have managed to make science and technology more understandable to lay persons including both children and adults.
Presently, there is only one visible example of similar local effort. The Eqbal Ahmad Center for Public Education is promoting, through online video lectures, the use of science and reason to enable Pakistani citizens to participate fully in the society as informed citizens.
Once localised content becomes available, the electronic media will also have a role to play in delivering that content to the masses. Today, our local channels have decided to focus on political news and entertainment, and have abdicated their social responsibility to provide educational programming to the people like National Geographic Channels, Discovery Channels and Animal Planets.
Isaac Asimov was one of, if not the most, prolific author of fiction and non-fiction of the previous decade. One of his best-known series is the Foundation series that describes the decay and re-emergence of a future civilization over a period of 1000 years. During the period of decay, he describes how the chasm between the understandings of the world of the common man and scientists became too great. Unless we too want to become a real-world version of the society described by Asimov we must ensure that an understanding of science is not put so far out of reach that we too begin mistaking it for magic and trickery.