Theo Gray’s rant: too-safe science

Is it irresponsible to write a mass-market book that describes how to do dangerous science experiments? … Virtually all experiments involving chemicals more dangerous that cabbage juice have been eliminated from the curriculum. And, yes, they have been replaced by elaborate video simulations that let you choose which of two beakers to mix together, then show you what happens…. This is all very safe, but there is a price to pay: death and misery for millions. And this time I’m not kidding. We have turned science, which should be the most exciting, the most engaging, the most relevant hour of the school day, into a deathly boring series of lectures and video games….

For evidence of the harm this does, you need look no further than the ongoing series of flaming disasters we call policy debates, the ridiculous decline in the quality of textbooks, and the precipitous rise in quack medicine and bunkum of all kinds. We may be saturated with information, but we are also living in an age of ignorance unmatched in centuries. I am completely serious in saying that I believe not a small part of the blame can be laid at the feet of our eviscerated science curriculum, which has undone in one generation the progress of the past 200 years.

People die because of this. Entire ecosystems, maybe our whole planet, are at risk if we don’t start teaching people to understand and value the truth and power that a genuine study of science leads to.

When students enter a science classroom, they should see things they cannot imagine in their wildest dreams. Science, done right, is the most amazing, mind-blowing thing we as a species have ever invented, and we need to show our children that. And although some children will be enthralled at a demonstration of how a sheet of paper dipped in water can spread out the colors in pen ink, I’m sorry, that just doesn’t do it for me.

So writes Ig Nobel Prize winner Theo Gray (and he goes on at considerable length, too) about his new book Mad Science.