Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Geniuses, You Say?

Apparently, we missed the National Science Bowl this weekend. And I have to say that I'm glad for these kids from Miami who did very well, but I wonder if the coverage is a bit overboard:

There are places that lie on the other side of straight A's and flawless scores and unblemished grade-point averages, places where FCATs and SATs are so easily aced that the results lose their meaning. Geniuses go to those places for the same reasons runners seek ever-faster opponents and climbers seek ever-higher peaks: Without them, there is no challenge.


Geniuses, the high peaks of Everest, the Olympic Marathon, upwards to the Moon . . . Ok, let's calm down now. How about we call memorizing for what it is:

Here's some sample questions for the competition. If you want to do well, you'll have had to memorize a ton and be very quick at doing math algorithms. Science, heh.

--As a special bit of irony, I particularly like the question about Stephen J. Gould and Carl Sagan. Putting the two best science popularizers (and great scientists) of their generation wrapped up into a multiple choice question reserved for "geniuses" is rather rich. I would imagine that both of them would place creativity and an appreciation of the natural world's beauty on a much higher plane than the recall of their names.

Let me make it clear, I don't have any problem with the kids. I think it's good for them to have an activity to keep them off the streets. I'm glad these kids did so well. Hopefully, some of the knowledge that they picked up in studying for this test will help them in the future. My problem is with the people who call this competition "science" and the people that call kids who do well at memorizing "geniuses" (their parents/grandparents are allowed to call them that, not a major newspaper.)

Real science (and real life) don't have multiple choice questions. Real science is not studied for. Real science is determining what questions need to be asked, figuring out how to answer those questions, and then proceeding to answer them.

We do ourselves a great disservice when we allow science to be equated with memorization, and further memorization with genius. Why would someone want to become involved in science, when in order to be good at "science", you have to be able to remember that the symbol for Enthalpy is "H" quicker than anyone else (a question from the sample competition)? Why would most people want to play that game?

Because of the way we look at science, memorization, and genius, the science professions becomes populated by masochists, sadists, and overly competetive geeks, instead of people who are interested in the natural world and interested in communicating that interest to others.

And yet I still wonder why Edweek has to publish the 3,000,000th article on why girls don't want to study math. Guess what? It has nothing to do with brain function. It has to do with poor teaching, and belief in a false concept of genius.

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