Monday, December 22, 2008

What science education really needs: the arts

We’ve all heard the stories that children can hear and remember music in the womb. Prenatal exposure to classical music is said to help the development of a baby’s brain and may make them particularly adept at math. Studies have found that adults score better on IQ tests after listening to classical music and that pre-school students who took piano or rhythm lessons did better on math tests. These are only small connections between art and science, two huge spheres of human culture. Is it possible that art and science are more connected than we think and that one can help us with the other?

Carl Sagan - a distinguished popularizer of science in the seventies, eighties and nineties – had broad influence across science reaching all the way to education. He noticed something funny was happening with science students over the course of their education. Children in the first grade, he noticed, were particularly enthusiastic and curious about the world. They asked tough questions like, “Why is the moon round?” or, “When is the world’s birthday?” They had no notion of what we would call a “dumb question” and would ask any and every question that crossed their fertile minds. When Sagan spent time with high school seniors, however, he noticed an entirely different dynamic. “The joy of discovery has gone out of them,” he writes in his book The Demon-haunted World, “they’re worried about asking dumb questions.” Something happened between the first grade and the end of high school. What was it?

Sagan thought that children were encountering parents or teachers who were irritated by these questions and may even ridicule them with answers like: “What did you expect the Moon to be, square?” He thought this would teach children that some questions are dumb and shouldn’t be asked in the first place. I don’t think Sagan is wrong with this reasoning but I don’t think that this is all there is to this story. Another great, complementary explanation to this problem comes from an unlikely place: a expert on drama and theatre education. And the best part is that I don’t think he even knows it.

Sir Ken Robinson is an expert on creativity sought by international agencies and private companies alike. “We are educating people out of their creativity,” he says. It’s a bizarre idea but one that explains a lot once borne out. Education systems are run on an idea that all mistakes are bad and that, he thinks, is indescribably detrimental to creativity. Many people’s initial reaction would be to think, “Of course mistakes are bad!” After all, aren’t we always trying to avoid them? He makes it clear, however, that he’s not suggesting being is wrong is creative but, “if you’re never prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original.” We shouldn’t strive to be wrong but we also shouldn’t be scared of it.

Although Robinson is suggesting this because he feels art is under-appreciated in our education systems (he inquires why students do math everyday but don’t dance everyday) his idea has consequences across all of education. This is what I think is happening to the science students in Sagan’s experience and most likely students of all disciplines. Students are constantly avoiding being wrong because they will lose marks or be ridiculed by classmates. They become conservative with their imaginations, afraid of making large, adventurous leaps. Despite my fondness for science I’ll freely admit that, without any imagination, it’s boring. The fun is not necessarily knowing what is but also what could be. We must find a way to keep the creativity in the students we’re educating!

Some forms of art are places where there is literally no way to be wrong. Many visual arts like painting or sculpture offer places where children are free to explore their imaginations as far as it will take them. They don’t have to worry about doing something wrong, there’s no way they can be! This is the type of attitude the first graders that Sagan encountered had towards science; they weren’t afraid to be wrong! Other forms of art like music require that some rules be followed but still leave a lot of room for creativity. Maybe that’s why music students do so well in math. They follow the rules of math but use all sorts of creative ways of getting their answer.

Einstein was quoted as saying, “anyone who has never made a mistake, never learned anything new.” Even Einstein, who is often held up as the epitome of intellect, made mistakes. The biggest one he made was his proposal that the universe was not expanding because of a mysterious force he called the ‘cosmological constant’. When he found out the universe indeed was expanding he called it the biggest blunder of his life, not because he was wrong about the ‘cosmological constant’ but because he wasn’t imaginative enough to think that the universe might be expanding. It’s a lesson to us all that one of the greatest minds to ever exist wasn’t afraid of being wrong, it was afraid of not being creative.

As appeared in the December 10, 2008 issue of the Brome County News

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

World AIDS Day: Ice water or hypothermia?

An old-fashioned remedy for a toothache was to hold one of your hands in ice water. It didn’t cure your toothache but the pain in your hand helped you forget the pain in your tooth. With the global financial crisis feeling more like it’s going to need a root canal rather than a simple filling, some may be looking for a bucket of ice water. World AIDS Day, which happened this past Monday, was probably not what they had in mind. The tragedy of the AIDS pandemic is more than an ice bucket; it should make us grateful that we only have a toothache.

I vaguely remember that when I was a student at Knowlton Academy, the school arranged for someone to come in and speak to us about AIDS. Though time has blurred my memory, I remember the disease being described as a terminal disease meaning once you had contracted it, there was little, if any, hope of survival.

Things have come quite a long way since then. In North America, thanks to the success of anti-retroviral therapy (also known as ARVs), AIDS is now considered a chronic disease which means that, though it can’t be cured, it also doesn’t kill. Whereas at its peak in the mid-1990’s, AIDS was responsible for the death of 3,000 people a year in Canada, it now kills only around one person a day on average.

It is this proven success of ARVs in developed countries like Canada that makes the AIDS pandemic in Africa such a tragedy. It has demonstrated that HIV infection does not necessarily have to end in death. Former Canadian ambassador to the UN and UN Special Envoy on AIDS in Africa, Stephen Lewis puts it quite succinctly: “all these blessed people are dying for no reason whatsoever except the negligence of the international community.” In other words, people living with HIV do not die from AIDS anymore, they die from a lack of access to ARVs.

In South Africa alone, over 300,000 people die from AIDS every year. That is the equivalent of losing the population of the Eastern Townships every year. And the loss of life is not where the trauma ends. Almost two million children have lost one parent and nearly half a million have lost both parents to AIDS. To understand the magnitude of this, imagine a country where, in every classroom of 30 students, four had lost one of their parents to AIDS and one had lost both. Worldwide, it is estimated that over 25 million people have died of AIDS and 33 million people are carriers of HIV and despite Africa making up only 15% of world population, two out of every three HIV infections can be found there.

But the news is not all bleak. Access to ARVs is on the rise in most African countries. Nearly 30% of those in need of these drugs to survive have access to them. This is thanks to international groups such as the William Clinton Foundation, who negotiated low prices for ARVs with suppliers, and Keep a Child Alive (KCA) who buy these drugs and provide counseling services to HIV infected families and children in Africa.

Louise O’Shea, director of KCA’s college branch in Canada, took the opportunity this summer to visit an orphanage supported by KCA in South Africa. The Agape orphanage, which means “unconditional love in the Zulu language, is home to 49 children who have all been orphaned by AIDS. Walking an hour to and from the orphanage each day, she was touched by the friendliness of the people she encountered in a region that has been ravaged by a 41% HIV infection rate and found the hardest part of her trip was saying goodbye to all the children of the orphanage when she left.

“The KCA’s mandate” she explained to me, “is to provide anti-retroviral treatment to children and families at 12 sites in India and Africa.” KCA funds these activities through charitable donations. Many charities use a portion of donations to pay for administration but KCA contributes 100% of donations toward drugs and support services and funds its administration solely through a yearly fundraiser.

When asked why Canadians should be concerned with AIDS in Africa, O’Shea explains that we live in a global community and that it should be our goal to eliminate suffering in the world whether it be next door or across the ocean. “No one dies of AIDS in North American anymore so we forget that AIDS is a huge problem in other parts of the world.” This echoes the sentiments of AIDS researcher Kenneth Mayer who says part of the problem with AIDS is that of social stigma: that the epidemic will only affect “those other people”.

O’Shea also wonders, “whether it’s possible to have a $700 billion dollar AIDS bailout,” adding that she doesn’t doubt the need for such an economic stimulus package but wonders why it’s so hard to find the one dollar day per person required to keep people infected with HIV alive. Indeed, it becomes difficult to wonder how a world that spends over a trillion dollars globally for military purposes cannot rationalize spending a relatively paltry one or two hundred million dollars to effectively stifle the suffering AIDS has caused in Africa and worldwide.

Of course, anti-retroviral drugs are not the only answer. “It’s easier to educate people than to medicate people,” O’Shea says meaning that people need to be educated about how to avoid contracting HIV by not participating in high-risk activities such as unprotected sex. Of course, it doesn’t help that African leaders such as Robert Mugabe, President of Zimbabwe, and Thabo Mbeki, former President of South Africa, mislead Africans by telling them that HIV does not cause AIDS and that it is a conspiracy plot to stop the procreation of black Africans.

“The necessary resources, both economic and political, will always be found for the purpose of terminating life. The project of preserving it will always struggle.” British journalist George Monbiot says this not referring to AIDS specifically but in a broader context. However, his words more than aptly describe the international community’s attitude toward AIDS in Africa. So though Worlds AIDS Day has passed, let us all take a moment to think about the people who could still be alive today and the families they have left behind.

For those wishing to know about AIDS in Africa I suggest reading Stephen Lewis’ book “Race Against Time” or watching him online:
The KCA website can be found at:

As appeared in the December 3, 2008 edition of the Brome County News

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Is it altruistic to admit you were wrong?

Recently a famous biologist, E.O. Wilson, did one of the most courageous things a scientist can do: he admitted he was wrong. Wilson, two-time Pulitzer Prize winner and author of On Human Nature and The Diversity of Life, had long been in the forefront of a debate on why we find altruism in nature and his recent break from the past is being received with mixed emotions.

Altruism, the unselfish consideration of others regardless of the cost to you, has been a major topic for debate among ecologists for decades. It seems strange that such a benign topic like altruism has been able to stir up ecologists to the point where words such as “baldface liar” have been uttered but there’s a good reason for that. For a full century, they couldn’t figure out why altruism should even occur in nature in the first place. The question even baffled the father of evolution himself, Charles Darwin.

The natural world is full of animals doing things with no apparent benefit to themselves. Worker bees can be found collecting resources and protecting their nests on behalf of others. Wolves will bring meat back to the pack and share with others that didn’t help in the kill.

These examples long puzzled ecologists because it should never be a good survival strategy to be altruistic in nature. Imagine a poker game between two people. One person plays the game normally and the other is an altruistic person who, when he wins a hand, splits his winnings with his opponent. It doesn’t take much imagination to realize the altruistic player will always lose! In fact, the normal player would win even if he was at a table with many altruists. Altruism is clearly a bad strategy in poker and it was long thought to be a bad strategy in ecology. Ecologists figured self-interest was the only way to survive. To be fair, they’re not the only ones that thought this, economics is still based the fact that people will make decisions based entirely on self-interest.

In the 1960’s ecologists and biologists hit on two answers. One answer was that related individuals (siblings, cousins, etc.) should act altruistically because they share many of the same genes. It would be like playing poker and sharing your chips with a sibling because you wanted someone from your family to win. This is the view E.O. Wilson espoused for a long time and the reason why worker bees work for nothing; they are putting their “chips” in with the queen (to whom they are strongly related) and let her do all the reproducing.

The other explanation, and the one that Wilson is now firmly standing behind, explains altruism by saying that it makes sense when competition between two groups is stronger than the competition within the group. A crude example would be that of a hockey team where all players compete individually (contracts and personal glory) and the team competes against other teams (winning). If the coach told the team that no player would get their bonus if they didn’t make the playoffs, the players would be more willing to play as a team and overlook their individual interests because the competition with other teams would become more important than their personal interests.

We have, therefore, two different explanations of altruism is nature. Do these two theories explain human altruism? Certainly we act more altruistically toward family because we see each other as part of the same whole. New mothers also often describe their newborns as being a little piece of themselves. There are also groups that band together and treat each altruistically in order to achieve bigger goals such as labour unions.

There are, however, some forms of human altruism that defy both of these theories. These actions, I would argue, are part of what makes us distinctly human because they create altruism where, ecologically, none should exist. A good example of this would be the $31 billion charitable donation (85% of his wealth) that investor Warren Buffett made to The Bill and Melinda Gates foundation in 2006; the biggest donation of its kind. But altruistic actions don’t necessarily need to be that grandiose. A small action like helping an elderly woman with her groceries is also a case of genuine altruism. Both of these cases involve helping unrelated people who are not part of the same social group and both, I feel, are the pinnacle of humanity.

However, while some acts of altruism, such as charity, are deeply respected and admired, there are others that are equally demanding that go unnoticed or are even shunned. This brings me back to the beginning of the article. When E.O. Wilson admitted he thought he was wrong about his previous theories on altruism, he was being altruistic himself. After all, admitting you’re wrong about something usually incurs a cost of some kind and it is done for some greater good. Which makes me wonder, especially during this provincial election campaign, why politicians don’t ever seem to admit they were wrong? I’ll leave you to come to your own conclusions!

Appeared in the November 26, 2008 edition of the Brome County News