mary_catherine_bateson's picture
Professor Emerita, George Mason University; Visiting Scholar, Sloan Center on Aging & Work, Boston College; Author, Composing a Further Life
News That Stayed News

On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the first artificial satellite to this planet. That was very big news, the beginning of an era of space exploration involving multiple launchings and satellites spending long periods in orbit, launched from many nations. In the weeks after Sputnik, however, another news story played out that led to a range of other actions based on the recognition that US education was falling behind, not only in science but in other fields of education as well, such as geography and foreign languages. This is still true. We are not behind at the cutting edge, but we are behind in a general, broad-based understanding of science, and this is not tolerable for a democracy in an increasingly technological world.

The most significant example is climate change. It turns out, for instance, that many basic terms are unintelligible to newspaper readers. Recently, I encountered the statement that "a theory is just a guess—and that includes evolution"—not to mention most of what has been reconstructed by cosmologists about the formation of the universe. When new data is published that involves a correction or expansion of earlier work, this is taken to indicate weakness, rather than the great strength of scientific work as an open system, always subject to correction by new information. When the winter temperature dips below freezing, you hear, "This proves that the earth is not warming."  Most Americans are not clear on the difference between "weather" and "climate." The United States government supports the world’s most advanced research on climate, but the funds to do so are held hostage by politicians convinced that it is a hoax. And we can add trickle-down economics and theories of racial and gender inferiority to the list of popular prejudices that many Americans believe are ratified by science, not to mention the common conclusion that the "War on Poverty failed." Why do we believe that violence is a solution?

Among the popular misconceptions of scientific concepts is a totally skewed concept of "cybernetics" as dealing only with computers. It is true that key concepts developed in the field of cybernetics resulted in computers as an extremely important by-product, but the more significant achievement of cybernetics was a new way of thinking about causation, now more generally referred to as systems theory. Listen to the speeches of politicians proclaiming their intent to solve problems like terrorism—it’s like asking for a single pill that will "cure" old age—if you don’t like x, you look for an action that will eliminate it, without regard to the side effects (bombing ISIL increases hostility, for example) or the effects on the user (consider torture). Decisions made with overly simple models of cause and effect are both dangerous and unethical.

The news that has stayed news is that American teaching of science is still in trouble, and that errors of grave significance are made based on overly simple ideas of cause and effect, all too often exploited and amplified by politicians.