Respectful Insolence

If only… (Or, no science for you!)

I must admit, there are times when I see something that someone else has written and, in a fit of intense envy, wish very much that I had written it. This is just such a time, and Tony Ballantyne has written just such a piece. Even better, his piece, entitled If only…, was published in Nature! That’s right, the editors of Nature itself agree (or at least thought it interesting enough to publish): No science for you! What are you waiting for? Read it!

Of course, it’s all a fantasy. In particular, I like the part asking why so many people are proud to be “bad at math” who would be utterly ashamed if they were illiterate. In any case, I can’t wait to see what the antivaccine movement will say when they see this post. No doubt they’ll predictably accuse Ballantyne of wishing a fascist state based on “scientism” that forces the eeeevilll vaccines on their helpless children in order to turn them all autistic. Who knows, I might get another blog post out of the reaction of the antivaccine movement.

Comments

  1. #1 Enopoletus Harding
    Against Jebel al-Lawz
    September 6, 2012

    If only things worked that way! Sadly, they do not. But, nevertheless, to read of the anti-vaxxers getting just what they deserve does stir one’s sense of justice.

  2. #2 alison
    about to head off to lunch
    September 6, 2012

    Having an interesting discussion on this very article at the moment. Most of my colleagues & friends (not mutually exclusive!) agree with the general premise. But there is another view, which is that the ‘compulsion’ part could perhaps feed the perception that science-y folks want to force teh ebil vaccines on the rest of the world. As I said, an interesting discussion. (Me? I read it as a cautionary fable. A valuable one.)

  3. #3 Jennifer Ouellette
    September 6, 2012

    I initially had Orac’s positive reaction, although I felt the dialogue was stilted and the satire not as well-done as it might have been. (a bit too ham-fisted). I’ve since revised my opinion after some Twitter discussions. There’s some underlying tonal nuances that are pretty unsettling, notably the condescending compulsion factor. Satire is very difficult to do well. This is yet another example of that. :)

  4. #4 Denice Walter
    September 6, 2012

    What’s even worse:
    it’s usually WOMEN who claim being bad at mathematics…
    I wonder if it’s the same people who then complain about not being taken seriously as adults?

  5. #5 AdamG
    September 6, 2012

    I think this article is pretty good, although I do have some tone issues like Jennifer pointed out. Most of all, I think the article really misses the mark on gender issues…why does the parent always have to be a woman and the doctor a man? Why does the doctor have to keep referring to the patient as ‘Ms’? Why does the author have the woman immediately accuse the doctor of sexism?

  6. #6 Old Rockin' Dave
    September 6, 2012

    At first I thought it was satire, until I read the line about Sacha being a producer for the BBC.

  7. #7 herr doktor bimler
    September 6, 2012

    the perception that science-y folks want to force teh ebil vaccines on the rest of the world.

    My impression too. Wish-fulfilment fantasies about gaining the power to administer compulsory injections — DO NOT WANT.

  8. #8 Narad
    September 6, 2012

    Upon a second review, my opinion is the same as my first: This isn’t very good. I don’t know what Ballantyne’s style is usually like, but it strikes me as not even satire, but just venting against a caricature with a revenge fantasy with an attempt to soften right at the end.

  9. #9 THS
    neither here nor there (commonly used, I bet)
    September 6, 2012

    Oh well, Nature does this now & then. It’s a feature they call Futures. It’s always a short sci-fi/fantasy bit on the last page of the journal. Some of them are very good. Others, like this one, aren’t to my taste.
    It’s tempting to imagine creationist/anti-vaccine, science-denying nitwits forced to live with (for example) Biblical-age technology.
    But this Ballantyne piece just isn’t that good, especially in comparison to some of the other short stories published in this Nature feature.

  10. #10 Chris
    Neither here nor there...
    September 6, 2012

    Well, at least it is a good rant and venting. It is how I feel after someone thinks that it is horrible that one in six are low achieving (when it is those who fall one standard deviation below the mean), or that “average” means everyone is that way. or that 50% is equivalent to “most.”

  11. #11 lilady
    September 7, 2012

    (I am Not Good at staging or dialogue)

    How about this scenario?

    Young dad of newborn, is questioning a pediatrician about the immunization policy, in place in her practice.

    She tells the young dad that she believes in *mommy and daddy intuition* and says she is *very flexible* about immunizations.

    Young dad, who has already thoroughly researched infant and childhood vaccines, says to the pediatrician, “You are entitled to your own opinion, but you are not entitled to your own facts”.

    (Fade-out)

    (Later that evening young mom and dad find their way to Respectful Insolence)

  12. #12 Grant
    September 7, 2012

    lilady: :-)

  13. #13 Grant
    September 7, 2012

    [off-topic]

    Speaking of maths, Jennifer Ouellette (see third comment here) is the author of The Calculus Diaries

  14. #14 lilady
    September 7, 2012

    @ Grant: Jennifer Ouellette is quite a nifty lady. I emailed the video to dear hubby…at his *age*, he is teaching himself some basic physics.

    I meant to link to this website on the thread about Bill Gates. Gates, the “evil master of the universe”, provided some funding for Salman Khan to establish Khan Academy:

    http://www.khanacademy.org/

  15. #15 Catherina
    September 7, 2012

    I find this piece awkwardly written, it has a few good lines, like the one about admitting to not being good at math, but overall, it has the “elegance” of an anti-vaccine piece.

  16. #16 Chris
    Neither here nor there...
    September 7, 2012

    Perhaps there should be a challenge to re-write it to make it better. I think my version would have both parents being denied science (there are plenty of anti-vax dads who cannot understand basic mathematics), and the “doctor” being a neuter robot with advanced artificial intelligence. Something like the Emergency Medical Hologram from Star Trek, only not Robert Picardo, more like Tilda Swinton of “Orlando.”

    I might add some of the typical dialogue with some actual answers as a way to explain that there is no science for those who cannot reason.

  17. #17 DLC
    Somewhere more saracastic than the back page of Nature
    September 7, 2012

    http://youtu.be/L0yXn9XA-5c

    Dr House on vaccines.

  18. #18 Renate
    September 7, 2012

    I fail to understand why people are so proud to be not good with figures. The dialogue is something that could be written by some anti-vaxer.
    If I was the doctor, which I ain’t and don’t want to be, because I’m not good with people, I would probably state that nothing is absolutely risk-free, even traveling to the doctor, or staying at home. I don’t know if the mother would listen to this, but starting with

    “As I said, there is always a small risk, but if you look, you will see that this is less than the probability of…”

    doesn’t look like the right way to answer the question. It gives the mother a chance to drop out and to state the doctor just wants to confuse her. She only really hears the first thing, which seems to admit her fears are real.

  19. #19 meg
    September 7, 2012

    Denice – I make of point of saying I disliked math and science at school, as opposed to being bad at them – I wasn’t, just didn’t like them. Fortunately History teaches analytical skills as well. :)

    Liliady – I work in elearning, and we love looking at what Khan’s doing, and using him as an example to our clients of what is possible. Too many people think ‘online learning’ means putting PDFs online.

  20. #20 Krebiozen
    September 7, 2012

    DLC,
    Marvelous. I still have trouble with Hugh Laurie’s amazing transition from the comedy genius of my youth to a surly American doctor. Completely off topic but <a href="http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=znZuH2BU0FE"Here's a taste of his earlier work with Stephen Fry which shows a similar lack of sentimentality.

  21. #21 Krebiozen
    September 7, 2012

    Aaarrrgh!. What is it with me and links lately. I got distracted in the middle of editing the HTML tag, forgot what I was doing and hit submit.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=znZuH2BU0FE

  22. #22 herr doktor bimler
    September 7, 2012

    whole-brain statistical analysis instead of regions of interest; it was also sorted by category of sound from noise to voice including simple sound, spectrally complex sound and temporally complex sound, and finally music

    Oh very nice.

  23. #23 DLC
    September 7, 2012

    Krebiozen : I’ve seen quite a lot of Fry and Laurie. Laurie was also Rowan Atkinson’s foil on the last 3 seasons of Blackadder. very much worth watching.

  24. #24 Todd W.
    http://harpocratesspeaks.com
    September 7, 2012

    @DLC and Krebiozen

    Little known fact: Hugh Laurie is also a blues musician. Just saw him the other night with his band. He does a good job, adding little bits of comedy into his spiels between songs.

  25. #25 Ian Kemmish
    September 7, 2012

    “In particular, I like the part asking why so many people are proud to be “bad at math” who would be utterly ashamed if they were illiterate”

    1) the National Literacy Trust today published the results of research which suggests that 17% of children in the UK would be embarrassed if their friends saw them with a book. Ashamed of lilliteracy? I think not.

    2) contributors to Scienceblogs may be _functionally_literate, but collectively they display a shocking lack of awareness of literature (which is, after all, our roadmap to human nature), in the same way the mother in the linked satire displays a lack of awareness of science. And they’re – apparently – proud of it.

  26. #26 Eric Lund
    September 7, 2012

    Count me among those who do not think the piece was effective as satire. Yet another similarity between the anti-vaxers and religion is that Poe’s Law applies to both groups.

    I don’t have to imagine people making charges of “scientism” leading to fascism. I have already seen multiple examples of academics making such claims. (See Chad Orzel’s archives, particularly the “Two Cultures” category.) It no longer surprises me when people denigrate the need for understanding math and science, in the face of a society which depends on these things.

  27. #27 Chris
    Neither here nor there...
    September 7, 2012

    Ian Kemmish:

    contributors to Scienceblogs may be _functionally_literate, but collectively they display a shocking lack of awareness of literature

    Do you mean the authors of the Scienceblogs articles or the people who comment? And could you please point to a thread where a discussion of literature took place that made you come to this conclusion?

    Since the people who comment (and the bloggers) come from an all over this planet, do you have a specific type of literature, like genre or country of origin, in mind?

  28. #28 kruuth
    September 7, 2012

    Forwarding this to my dad, and MD who has had to do this innumerable times with patients.

  29. #29 Interrobang
    September 7, 2012

    it’s usually WOMEN who claim being bad at mathematics…

    Yes, because there are enormous cultural pressures telling us we should be bad at mathematics. First example off the top, remember the “Math is hard” Barbie? (See also the SMBC comic here, too.)

    Imagine how I feel, as a dyscalculic radical feminist. *sigh* I’ve spent many hours learning and relearning math, and with quite a few things, about half an hour after I stop using them, *poof*, gone. Like I’d never learnt them in the first place. And I have the now-undecipherable-by-me notes in my own handwriting to prove it. :(

  30. #30 MI Dawn
    September 7, 2012

    I will admit to being bad at math – but I’ll be honest and say that I attribute a lot of that to 1)poor teaching of the basics – if you don’t have the basics down securely, the rest of the cards tend to fall over and 2)a 7th and 8th grade math teacher who tried to teach us geometry using his own new, personal method with made up symbols which was not very well thought out. He forced memorization of postulates and theorems without explanation of their use, and I was so confused I hated the class and developed a huge math block.

    I discovered later that I was actually quite good at geometry – as long as I didn’t have to prove HOW I got the answer (my GRE scores were fabulous), I was very good at intuiting the answer. But I still have trouble with basic math and it’s frustrating.

  31. #31 Julian Frost
    NOYDB
    September 8, 2012

    Re: the comments about females being bad at math
    Danica McKellar, who played Winnie on “The Wonder Years” is a mathematician who has authored several books on mathematics for girls. One has the name “Kiss my math”.
    P.S. I do realize that the comments above about girls being bad at math are slightly sarcastic.

  32. #32 Joseph Hertzlinger
    September 9, 2012

    A system like that could be taken over by irrationalists claiming to speak for science. We might be faced with TV producers trying to revoke science privileges for anybody insufficiently hysterical about radioactivity.

  33. #33 Scottynuke
    September 9, 2012

    “TV producers trying to revoke science privileges for anybody insufficiently hysterical about radioactivity”

    Sadly, in far too many cases that’s a redundant statement these days. *SIGH*

  34. #34 tfitz
    United States
    September 10, 2012

    Only a doctor would think that this was a: well written, or b: a good idea. Perhaps the reason people distrust medicine is that doctors and scientists communicate so poorly. This was totally tone deaf.