Why We're Failing in Math and Science

Norman Mailer’s brilliant novel Why Are We in Vietnam? doesn’t talk explicitly about the Vietnam war; it tells a story about American culture and the American psyche, thereby producing a devastating critique of the war with the title and last line alone.

In a similar way, it may be easier to understand why America is falling behind at math and science with a few simple stories.

Last week, Robert Bruce Thompson, author of An Illustrated Guide to Home Chemistry Experiments, wrote a guest blog post on makezine.com, Home Science Under Attack, which told the sad story of how a retired chemist was arrested and his lab confiscated because he was doing experiments:

The Worcester Telegram & Gazette reports that Victor Deeb, a retired chemist who lives in Marlboro, has finally been allowed to return to his Fremont Street home, after Massachusetts authorities spent three days ransacking his basement lab and making off with its contents.
Deeb is not accused of making methamphetamine or other illegal drugs. He’s not accused of aiding terrorists, synthesizing explosives, nor even of making illegal fireworks. Deeb fell afoul of the Massachusetts authorities for … doing experiments.

Authorities concede that the chemicals found in Deeb’s basement lab were no more hazardous than typical household cleaning products. Despite that, authorities confiscated “all potentially hazardous chemicals” (which is to say the chemicals in Deeb’s lab) from his home, and called in a hazardous waste cleanup company to test the chemicals and clean up the lab.

Pamela Wilderman, the code enforcement officer for Marlboro, stated, “I think Mr. Deeb has crossed a line somewhere. This is not what we would consider to be a customary home occupation.”

Allow me to translate Ms. Wilderman’s words into plain English: “Mr. Deeb hasn’t actually violated any law or regulation that I can find, but I don’t like what he’s doing because I’m ignorant and irrationally afraid of chemicals…”

I forwarded this message to Dave Farber’s IP list (which is now searchable via markmail, the amazing mailing list search engine!), and got back some great stories that I wanted to share.

Armando Stettner wrote one story that illustrates just how much our culture has changed. His story also involves the cops, but here, they understand and support science. Too bad that was 40+ years ago:

When I was about 13 or so, I also had a chemistry set in my
basement. I was living on Long Island – Freeport, to be exact. I
also remember the hobby shop with ALL sorts of glassware and little
labeled bottles of chemicals. I had some really neat stuff: all
sorts of chemicals – I seem to remember potassium ferrocyanide with
which I did some chemoluminescence (I think that’s one of the
ingredients), sodium in liquid form, various acids, a few rolls of
magnesium – not to mention all the paraphernalia: lots of pyrex
stuff, triple beam balances, etc. All the chemicals were neatly
arranged in this cabinet.

One day, I had mixed a concoction and was carrying it (premixed!) in
a tin coffee can. Myself and a friend were carrying the stuff to
the train tracks to test it out (light it) where it was relatively
safe. The stuff started getting warm but I thought it was the sun
heading the can up. Then it started getting REALLY warm. As it got
hot, I dropped it in the middle of the street. The stuff flashed
over. It was VERY cool.

But, I decided I didn’t want to stay around any more and left.

Unfortunately for me, this all occurred in front of the house of
someone who knew me (she was a ‘friend’ of my parents). She called
the cops.

The Freeport police came to my house questioned me and my parents,
joined in a little while by some county detectives. They were very
polite. We took them down to the basement where I showed them all
the stuff. The uniformed police left and the detectives continued
to look at all the stuff and ask questions. They called somebody to
ask some advice. It turns out they called the county labs. The guy
got off the phone and asked ‘you’re not making any drugs down here
are you?” I said no!! He smiled – he winked at my parents. Then
he said the most unexpected thing: he said the gang at the labs
offered to give me a tour of the labs anytime I wanted.

Then they left asking me to be careful. For me, it was actually a
positive experience.

Today, I’m sure I’d face a visit from the Hazmat teams and the DHS.
And, because of the triple beam balance, my house (or my parents’)
would be confiscated under the forfeiture rules.

At Maker Faire earlier this year, Robert Bruce Thompson gave a talk (video unfortunately truncated at both ends) that highlighted how attitudes towards chemistry have changed since he was a kid, starting with a tour of the powerful chemistry sets available in 1964 (courtesy of the Sears Catalog), and tracing the dumbing down and rising fear of liability that doomed them, until, as Kevin Kelly noted in a recent review of Robert’s book, we reached “the so-called chemistry sets today which boldly (and insanely) advertise they contain ‘No Chemicals!'” (Review sent out in Cool Tools email, up on the Cool Tools site soon.)

Why are we failing at math and science? Because it isn’t fun any more. When you put safety on the highest altar, what do you give up? When fear of lawsuits — not to mention fear of technology — drives product design, marketing, and public policy, you eliminate science at its roots, in the natural experimentation of kids who want to know how the world works.

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