The news item, on the Fox News website, headlined Scientists Generate Powerful Antimatter Ray, is a small little story with a big headline. I mean, after all, what green-blooded geek doesn't get his heart pounding upon hearing that they've made an Antimatter Ray!
Basically all that happened was that the North Carolina State University Nuclear Reactor Program ran an experiment and managed to create a stronger positron beam than the previous record-holder, which is an outfit in Munich. And this is the way that science progresses; one little milestone at a time. Kudos are of course in order for the team that accomplished this....
...but Fox News made it sound as though we were about ready to start vaporizing Klingons.
But more important than the disappointing headline, was the fact that the article contained a statement that is flat-out wrong. In fact, it's so wrong that anyone with a passing familiarity with current theories of cosmology--not just the physics geeks, total math-phobes who took the Science for Poets college courses to satisfy their GE requirements--could pick it out. Behold:
Theoretical physicists believe there are equal amounts of matter and antimatter in the universe, but few antimatter particles have been found "in the wild."Um.... no.
Our best understanding is that there's a whole lot more matter than antimatter out there. If there were equal amounts of matter and antimatter, standard cosmology predicts that it all would have annihilated each other just after the Big Bang, and there would be nothing left in the universe but photons. And even if this didn't happen, and there were non-annihilated clumps of antimatter still out there (say, entire antimatter galaxies separated from normal matter galaxies by many light-years of space), we would expect to see places in the universe where matter and antimatter were coming in contact and annihilating each other, giving off certain tell-tale frequencies of light.
And, in fact, this imbalance of matter of antimatter in our universe has been a source of great debate for decades, pretty much since Dirac predicted the existence of the positron back in '28. For a long time there was no understanding of how the imbalance could have come about, since it was believed that all physical processes treated matter and antimatter exactly the same. Then in 1964 a couple of physicists discovered a condition called CP violation--which, in layman's terms, meant that certain interactions involving the Weak Nuclear force favored matter over antimatter. This discovery earned its discoverers the 1980 Nobel Prize for physics, and led directly to our current cosmological models, which rely heavily on CP violation to work.
So while the math and physics behind it is pretty exotic, it is not hard for us laymen to grasp the fact that there is a lot more matter than antimatter out there. That much really is common knowledge even among those of us whose only ongoing contact with science comes from the National Geographics we read when we go to the dentist.
Of course, this brings up a question about Fox News. How'd they pick their science correspondent? Who wrote this thing? The article doesn't say. But it's pretty apparent that both the jounalist who wrote it, and the editor who let it through, reach for either People or Ladies' Home Journal while waiting to get their teeth cleaned. And while it would still be unfortunate, this wouldn't be such a bad thing if they weren't actually trying to inform the public on science matters. Yes, the public doesn't have the patience or expertise to handle all those differential equations, so reporting of scientific explanations has to be simplified somewhat; but there's still an obligation to make sure the explanation isn't actually total bunkum.
And before you think I'm bashing Fox News, no.... This happens to every news outfit. It's not just Fox News, because sooner or later every news outfit does this. And it's not just scientific reporting, it's pretty much any technical field. I remember watching CNN back in January of '91 when we launched Operation Desert Storm. Some reporter was standing at the side of a flightline "Somewhere in Saudi Arabia" in the middle of the night as F-15s were streaking down the runway with a deafening roar and bright streaks of white flame trailing the engines. And the poor hapless reporter was standing there watching this, and telling us, "We're seeing more aircraft coming in for a landing now...." Anyone who had spent any time around military aircraft, or even just reading about them--and I grew up the son of an Air Force officer, so this included me--could tell that those planes weren't landing. A plane that's screaming down the runway in full afterburner is not landing. The reporter was completely clueless about military affairs.
(And sure enough, about 45 minutes after that wave of planes launched, Bernie Shaw in the Al Rashid hotel in Baghdad started recording explosions. Let's see... if we know roughly how fast an F-15 cruises, and CNN just told us when the planes launched, and Bernie Shaw told us when the bombs fell, we can get a pretty good guess how far from Baghdad the airbase in question was. See how this game works? Funny the reporters couldn't figure it out....)
There's a specific problem here, and a more general problem. The specific problem is that the journalists in question lack a basic familiarity of the subjects they cover. But to be fair, the world is a mighty big place. It is not possible for any one person to learn so much that he or she can carry on an informed, technical conversation on any topic you throw at him or her. Anyone, no matter how well-informed, will eventually get stumped if you play that game long enough. But if someone is tasked with passing on knowledge to an audience, and the audience is expected to make decisions based on that knowledge, then that person has a responsibility to bone up on the basics of the topic in question:
- A reporter who is reporting on economics needs to know and understand Adam Smith, Keynes, Galbraith, and Milton Friedman; he needs to understand what the Fed actually does; he needs to know the basic facts of the economic history of the US and of the rest of the world.
- A reporter who is reporting on science probably needs to get himself a subscription to National Geographic and or Smithsonian, and read every issue through twice. He should also get subscriptions to several of the major scientific journals, and at least be able to skim the articles for the main points, even if the math is a little too deep.
- A reporter who is reporting on military matters needs to understand strategy, tactics, logistics; needs to understand the equipment our forces use, and why; needs to understand the meanings of enfilade, defilade, raking fire, and a bunch of other terms; needs to know the facts of famous battles and campaigns, especially (in this day and age) counterinsurgency; and needs to know when and why an airplane uses its freakin' afterburner!
And this is true for aspiring educators, too. Like journalists, educators are tasked with passing on knowledge and understanding; so like journalists, they need to develop a broad base of factual knowledge in all those subjects as well.
But this brings us to the more general problem (and, at long last, the point of this blog post): in modern educational theory, the learning of facts is disparaged, in favor of critical thinking skills. The idea is that learning facts, rote memorization, is the lowest form of learning; that a person who spends his or her time memorizing facts isn't actually learning to think. Just in the few years that I've been a parent and thinking about education, I've seen numerous schools and other educational establishments proudly announce that "we don't spend all that time on kill-and-drill. We don't make our kids do all that rote memorization. From an early age, we teach them to discover the facts on their own, through their own process of discovery; and we teach them to use their own powers of reasoning, to think critically."
Forgive my cynicism, but I tend to think this kind of reasoning directly leads to people that can't tell when planes are landing or launching. They haven't learned the plain, dull, boring fact that afterburners are there to produce tons of thrust, needed in takeoffs; and that landing aircraft are trying to bleed off energy, so they don't use the afterburners. (Although the Navy lands planes a wee bit differently, but I'm not going to get into that right now.)
Critical thinking skills certainly have their time and place; but without a large store of basic, factual knowledge about the way the world is, those critical thinking skills have no data on which to operate. If I tell you my pet theory about why Napoleon lost the battle of Waterloo, how can you tell whether there's something worth considering in my theory, or if I'm just pulling your leg? The only way you can judge the truth or falsity of my theory is if you know something about the course of events of the battle of Waterloo. If you have the facts, you can evaluate my theory. If you don't have the facts, you have no frame of reference from which to say what's right and what's wrong.
This has ramifications for education. As the book The Well Trained Mind puts it:
Especially with the younger kids--whose minds are designed to soak up knowledge, we need to expose them to as much of the real world as we can. They need to hear stories from literature; they need to know history facts, and geography facts, and math facts, and grammar facts, and language facts, and nature facts--preferably drawn directly from nature, and only secondarily from books; and on and on. Without having a large store of knowledge, they won't be able to judge whether the philosopies and theories they hear about are valid, or complete bunk; they'll wind up susceptible to what the Bible refers to as "every wind of doctrine".
Young children are described as sponges because they soak up knowledge. But there's another side to the metaphor. Squeeze a dry sponge, and nothing comes out. First the sponge has to be filled. Language teacher Ruth Beechick writes, "Our society is so obsessed with creativity that people want children to be creative before they have any knowledge or skill to be creative with."
It's a common complaint that both journalists and educators often come out of their schools with all kinds of theories about how they should do their jobs, and even with social agendas that have been shaped by their time in school; but that too many of them don't come out with a good, down-to-earth understanding of the way things work in the real world. It would seem to me that the best education aspiring journalists and educators could recieve to prepare them for their jobs would consist almost entirely of general education--as mentioned before, history (especially military history), science, literature, philosophy, religion, art, music, and geography. Too often college students (and I was guilty here) see these subjects as unwelcome distractions from our real education in our respective majors; but that is absolutely the wrong way to look at them. These subjects are not distractions from one's education; if we wish to be well-informed citizens, they are the core of one's education. And journalists and educators, of all people, need to be well-informed.