Physics "A Waste of Time"?


Is studying science and mathematics valuable for a general education? Former U.S. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott said it is a "waste of my time, waste of my teacher's time and a waste of space" - if your goal is to become a lawyer. His audience roared in laughter and applause. Is such an attitude entrenched in our society?

This brief video, shared by Sir Harold Kroto from his seminar at the American Chemical Society meeting this week, "Science, Anti-Science and Survival" exemplifies this caustic attitude towards education in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) that is so critical for our nation's future.

What can be done to promote STEM education with politicians promoting such views, with communities heartily accepting such an anti-intellectual stance?

I believe that everyone can benefit from learning pre-college science and mathematics, if only to learn how to balance a checkbook and to appreciate the value of logic and critical thinking.

From the video:

When I was in high school, if you were in the "so-called" pre-college curriculum, you had to take four years of science and four years of math - a waste of my time, a waste of my teacher's time and a waste of space.

I took Physics. For what?

{laughter, loud applause}

This video is anything but amusing.


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What can be done to promote STEM education with politicians promoting such views, with communities heartily accepting such an anti-intellectual stance?

Make those communities design & build their own damn bridges without math or physics.

Unfortunately Trent should have been culled from the pre-college curriculum and given some vocational training, like shoveling crap. Oh wait, he learned how to do that anyways.

You know, math and sciences are generally the classes that people don't cut. In my state, art, music, and physical education are the classes that are being cut. Certain classes are more important to certain people. To me, being a psychologist, I wish i did not have to take so many years of math and science, because I was in advanced classes, (calculus, trigonometry, etc) and they have not proved useful to me. It's frustrating to me that education in general does not seem to be highly regarded in the government, the educational budget in my state is incredibly low.

LOL, and I wish that line worked in the court system. "Honestly, judgely-person, understanding the law and government is a waste of my time." I'm just a biomedical engineer.

Unfortunately, there is no man-made law that says ignorance of the laws of nature is not a defense.

Oh come now. If we can't be honest that some required subjects in the high school curriculum aren't entirely useful to every single person required to take them, we will never get anywhere meaningful in discussing education. This isn't an anti-science attitude, this is an honest assessment that the subjects that are commonly viewed as 'rigorous' and proving one's mettle for college needn't prove *useful* for every single student. Physics and math are just the current incarnation of requiring Latin.

Really, becca? Can you name any topics relevant to current events that you have no hope of understanding without a basic grasp of Latin? Anything?

Because without a basic grasp of how science works there is no hope of knowing that to believe about creationism, or global warming. And for the latter basic physics is also necessary.

Science drives the economy. Lawmakers who don't know even the basics of it are in fact a huge drag on our country.

Not to say that many (most?) high school physics classes are a waste of time, but that's a reflection on the teaching, not on the usefulness of knowing.

I confess to being a science geek...and an engineer. It would be easy for me to argue that history, philosophy and humanities classes were a waste of time for me. But I'd be lying. I found those to some of the most interesting classes I took. Do I use what I learned? Not directly, but it certainly is good information to have. How can we understand society and ourselves if we don't understand where we came from?

No class is a COMPLETE waste of time - at the very least, you'll know what you don't need to know. :)

By JR the Pilot (not verified) on 01 Apr 2011 #permalink

Gonna have to strenuously disagree with Becca, too. And I say that as an English major who is still kicking myself for not realizing how critical studying math and physics (and bio and chemistry) would turn out to be in modern life. You CAN criticize how these subjects are taught, perhaps make an argument that the core curriculum needs an overhaul. But to argue that it's a "waste of time"? No way. Is music a waste of time? Is art? Is majoring in English and reading lots of history and great books? It's all part and parcel of being a well-rounded educated individual, and such people without a doubt make better citizens. And, one would hope, politicians/national leaders.

To use a software analogy, education is a little like a very complex application such as Microsoft Word - thousands and thousands of features, and essentially nobody ever uses more than a hundred or so.

But ... which ones?

There aren't actually any that go unused. People are diverse (and that's a strength).

By Bob O`Bob (not verified) on 01 Apr 2011 #permalink

There's nothing wrong with deciding you don't want to know physics. But if you DO decide not to learn physics, you should never be allowed to operate a motor vehicle.

I'd actually be in favor of restricting California driver's licenses to people who can get a 3 or better on the Physics AP.

I'm a computer scientist and philosopher; I still happen to agree with becca's assessment.

Get over yourselves. Seriously. Science is NOT some god-given golden knowledge of Eden which must be known by all or doom upon us heathen souls, etc. etc. Seriously, articles like this read like Zionists complaining of a lack of bible study in modern classrooms.

Things people need to know: basic scientific facts -- gravity sucks, the earth orbits the sun, plants need sunlight, etc. They need to know the functional basics, nothing more.

They DO NOT NEED advanced (or even rudimentary) knowledge of calculus, trig, or in-depth understanding of quantum mechanics or relativity -- unless they are going to use that knowledge.

Already people don't know that eggs come from chickens or bacon from pigs... but we're whining about a threat to useless abstract knowledge?

How about learning basic logical skills, debate, and how to see through obvious marketing & sales tactics? That would be useful.

What about learning how to dress a wound (I saw some idiot spray WATER on her kid's cut knee to "cool it down"), how to start a fire, or tie knots? Those are useful skills, and completely untaught unless ones lives somewhere "primitive" like rural NC or UT.

What about learning how to minimize waste, how to shop sensibly, or how to cope with stress or anxiety?

Compared to the utterly crippling lack of real-world functional knowledge permeating our society, the masticated drivel American call "scientifical education" is like an appendix -- on an aeroplane.

Read and try to comprehend what he's really talking about; he's stressing that understanding the BASICS, in a way that actually interfaces with reality, is far more important than anything else could ever be.

One other thing they should teach, S: Not to argue against strawmen. We're talking about high school here. Show of hands, how many of you were required to take a class in high school that taught "in-depth understanding of quantum mechanics or relativity" in high school? Anyone? Bueller?

How about learning basic logical skills, debate, and how to see through obvious marketing & sales tactics?

I'm fair certain that's what I was arguing for. Use of evidence and logic, that's science. Basic introduction to how the world around you works. An understanding that when you throw something, you (yes, YOU) can actually do a little math and predict where it will fall. That science really does work, and those who say it doesn't are living in a fantasy.

And yes, there's plenty of time for that and history and civics and literature and music and art.

I must agree with S. If we expose our children to the basic math and science skills then we would know very quickly which groups would benefit from more education in these areas. It is silly to force kids to study subjects that they either have no interest in or who do not have the aptitude to succeed. The school costs would be dramatically less if the teachers were dealing with kids who wanted to learn. The kids who have no interest in science and/or math skills should be moved off into trade schools.

Politicians like this man are simply despicable, if he truly believes what he said then he should get rid of just about everything he owns because nearly everything in our world today vitally depends on science. Is it really that easy for someone to be this ignorant? This saddens me deeply, the world could not function without education, especially those subjects, and this is coming from a French major!

By George McTare (not verified) on 02 Apr 2011 #permalink

You know people ...This is Scienceblogs.

I'm guessing most of the people reading this took fairly advanced science and math classes. You know, linear algebra, calculus, some basic organic chemistry. Whatever.

It's easy to think you don't use that stuff much... you went on to specialize in something else.

Did you KNOW when you were 15, what the pre-requisites for your future dreams would be? I didn't.

Did you know, when you were 15, just how much you did not know? Sometimes learning a little makes you appreciate the experts more.

Did you know, when you were 15, how many truly difficult and challenging things you were eventually to master? Would you have had the confidence and stubbornness to tackle the most difficult if you hadn't practiced on high school math, science, and English?

Sometimes learning is not just about the content. It's a process, and we who have had a fairly comprehensive education take it for granted. We arrive at every new challenge with a toolkit that includes basic history, geography, a modern language, writing skills, etc. etc. I don't see why we should pass along anything less to the future generations.

Americans drive Japanese designed, European designed, cars now. Detroit had the upper hand, let America down - soon, Americans will drive Chinese designed, manufactured, cars.
Japan currently suffering America's poorly engineered reactors. Slide-rule, inch, pound, gallon, designs, pre-computer age, patented,royalties producing, secret, sunk money, failed designs. See Tsinghua University, China, pebble bed gas reactors, now, up and running, fail-safes designed right in. No Bull Shiite here. Soon to come, Chinese, Thorium fueled, safer, cheaper, reactors.
Watch closely now as the American dollar, a fiat, untrusted, over-manipulated, devalued, dollar fades away on Financiers, Lawyers, watch, while China's Yuan gets stronger by the day, even taking American dollar's place as international currency of trade, happening today with Siberia, who now sell, for Yuan, not U.S.Dollars, petroleum products, to China.
Where have all the Oldsmobiles gone, American? Did America's foray with the mighty GM(America), into domestic Diesel engined cars bring the same successes as did the Euro-Diesels of Mercedes, VW, BMW, Peugeot? Were the American engineers 'up to snuff'? Did their diesels give customer satisfaction? Are they still in production? Did Michigan take car industry money? Did they give back good engineering, world class designs? Did they lose America's position in the automotive world? Do we have tax income coming in from car manufacturing in America? Just what in Hell happened, anyway, Yankee Doodle Dandy?
Airbus epochs the American dominance in airplane designs, on much less money, with much less resources, using Brain-power, excellent, European engineering, computing, chemistry, mechanics, skills. Even modest Sweden produces excellent, up-to-date, jet fighters, as does France, Russia, England, Germany. Yankee Doodle no longer leads the way? Lack of dedicated engineers? Engineering students treated as social lepers, ass-holes? mis-fits? nerds? Going to China to hire them? American schools infested with Chinese intelligentsia? Here to learn, here to teach, here to steal ideas?
Once Americans can no longer depend on the cushion provided to them by foreign oil, once Chinese, Asian demands, with stronger, more valued Yuan, for oil, cause gasoline prices at the pumps in America to rise exponentially against the devaluations, manipulations, of the U.S. dollar, will Americans realize just how far they have fallen behind.
Americans, today, have gone to China, for medical care, so advanced, doctors here cannot even begin to understand how it works. American girl was cured of blindness just recently, most stories severely suppressed by America's corporate owned media,not so for some Chinese sites on web?
With Uber-Rich ass-holes like this at the helm, no damn wonder America is on the skids, owes its scrotum, including contents, to the Chinese,has declining U.S.Dollar, faces hard times, fewer jobs, proletariat forced to become precariat, tent cities, shanty towns, growing slums, dying Detroit City, shameful moral breakdown, rampant drug addiction, alcoholism in the streets, huge and growing portions of disenfranchised precariat descending to worthlessness, astounding personal debt, working poor, failing infrastructure.

I'm reading Consilience by E.O. Wilson and recommend it to others lacking a science grounding. I must add that a certain proficiency in physics, chemistry, biology and math is a must for a rational worldview.

By R. Schauer (not verified) on 02 Apr 2011 #permalink

Dear readers,
Thank you for your comments and discussion thread, exactly the kind of dialogue I sought. Please share this article broadly, as this video exemplifes a destructive attitude that educators and scientists must counter - our future depends on it.

And about Trent Lott...I think he is demonstrating epic levels of hubris.

By R. Schauer (not verified) on 02 Apr 2011 #permalink

Math and science teach critical thinking,problem solving techniques and skills.These skills can be applied in almost every walk of life. Students dont like them because you have to do the work and you cannot BS you way through. Perphaps if we had a lot fewer lawyers and a lot more engineers,scientists and CPA's in Congress we might be able to have a rational approach to effective problem solving.A little application of the scientific method to programs to see what works. If we had more of the voting public better educated in those areas you might have a more rational polictical debate. Hey we might even be able to have a budget before the year begins instead of 6-9 months into it. Of course we could substitute foreign languages for science and math. I suggest Mandrian Chinese so the next generation can understand their bosses. :-)

By Bill Feger (not verified) on 02 Apr 2011 #permalink

Devil's advocate: Mr. Lott may have been making a joke at his expense.

Becca's comment shows startling but common ignorance. Too many times the public is bamboozled because they don't have an elementary grasp of probability theory, statistics or science. But it is difficult to convince people on the value of knowledge that they lack.

Whatever happened to the release of ignorance in a well-rounded education? It stretches the brain in new and different ways. Why should Nurses study literature? Why should MD's study liberal arts? Because it makes them more human, not to mention thoughtful. Why should English teachers study Math or religion? because it will make them better teachers.

I don't know if we can do anything about lawyers...

You know, folks, I think I'm gonna have to go with Trent Lott on this one. Teaching him physics WAS a waste of his teacher's time. Unfortunately, if the new standard for educational funding is going to be whether trying to teach something to Trent Lott is a waste of time, then I think we might have to cancel every lesson in the curriculum ... right on down to 'don't tell lies,' and 'play nicely with others.'

I think there is a larger - and more important - point that has gone (mostly) unaddressed.

The comments have thus far been essentially limited to a debate over the value and utility of high school math and science curricula, which is a perfectly valid discussion. However, I would argue that a more salient - and insidious - issue has been overlooked: Lott's dismissive remarks are illustrative of a contemptuous attitude toward education in general and science in particular that is pervasive among politicians (among others) on the right.

There are many good arguments for solid math and science curricula in high schools, perhaps chief among them to provide a foundation for reason and logical thought. As it is, reason and logic are already in short supply; witness the ceaseless stream of absurdities uttered by folks like Glenn Beck, Michelle Bachmann, Rush Limbaugh, Rick Santorum, etc., and the legions of Americans who take their preposterous assertions as gospel. If nothing else, science and math education (can) equip people to examine the available evidence and make reasoned, rationale conclusions.

Forgive my polemic, but there are political benefits to be gained from trafficking in contempt for math and science; furthering agendas like prayer or creationism in schools, rolling back environmental protections or preventing climate change legislation, or denying civil rights protections based on religious beliefs, just to name a few, is much easier if science and reason take a back seat to superstition and misinformation.

I could go on and on, but instead I would just offer one final observation: In responding to a question from a student in the audience, Lott begins by saying

"Well, first of all I would encourage you to take maximum advantage of your educational opportunities. We live in a great country. We have a great educational system. It's not perfect. We spend an awful lot of money that doesn't always give us the results that we want. But I can assure you, whatever you want to do in life, education will help you get a faster start.

Note the standard meaningless politician pablum, followed by a subtle dig at the "awful lot of money" wasted, presumably, on the scourge of public education, followed by another meaningless stock phrase. Then, amazingly, Lott immediately segues into a complete non-sequitur, taking a jab at the senselessness of having to learn science:

"For instance, when I was in high school, if you were in the 'so-called' pre-college curriculum, you had to take four years of science and four years of math - a waste of my time, a waste of my teacher's time and a waste of space. I took Physics. For what?"

He goes on to suggest that, since the student is interested in a career similar to that of a senator, he might do better to study economics, typing, computer science, or even

"[M]usic, for heaven's sake, because it's good for the soul."

So, in summary: Take maximum advantage of the educational opportunities that cost too much money because whatever you choose to do in life, education will help you succeed. For instance, science will not help you succeed because it's a waste of time. Even music, as useless as it is, is preferable to science because music is good for your soul.

I guess the silver lining is that at least Lott didn't pursue a career in teaching...

By nice_marmot (not verified) on 02 Apr 2011 #permalink

I can think of few jobs where understanding science is more important than Senator. Science is critical to defense, health care policy, public works, regulation, education policy, economic policy, criminal justice and a dozen other fields. It also generally helps with removing the mush between the ears that most people use as padding for their stupid ideologies. If senators had been scientifically literate we wouldn't have wasted 10's of billions on Star Wars and we would have done the necessary work to have a thriving clean energy economy by 10 years ago.

By michael safa m… (not verified) on 03 Apr 2011 #permalink

Thank you for your thoughtful comment - all good points.

I heard this someplace and I think it is fitting here: "If republicans fully-funded education, they would eliminate themselves."

By R. Schauer (not verified) on 03 Apr 2011 #permalink

Hindsight is always 20/20. Had Senator Lott not taken physics he wouldn't be able to take a position one way or another because he would have no experience. This is America, we are allowed to disagree and take sides of a debate. The concern is: how well informed is the debate? I'd like to point out that it was exactly Sen. Lott's physics background that gave him evidence to make such an anti-science claim. As humans we are constantly evaluating what we take in from our experiences.

Another point I will make is that Sen. Lott's physics teacher, like make of that generation, probably didn't make the curriculum accessible in ways that we today do and must. One of the reasons I am pursuing a career in physics education is that my own high school physics teacher in the late 1990s turned off plenty of good students, even though her intent was good. Some say we need more STEM teachers, my response to that is we need more GOOD STEM teachers!

By James Anderson (not verified) on 03 Apr 2011 #permalink

@#30 James Anderson:

Kudos to you for pursuing a career in physics education.

You are correct that we are afforded the freedom to disagree and take sides in a debate. You also correctly point out that good teachers can light the fires of curiosity in their students, just as bad ones can turn students off. This is true of any subject, of course.

That said, I don't quite see what evidence Lott's "physics background" provided him. He wasn't making an evidentiary claim, and the statements he did make were A) in reference to "four years of science and four years of math" in general with physics serving as one example, and B) inherently contradictory.

It would have made sense if he had used his high school science experiences to support a call like yours for more good science teachers, but that was not the context of his remarks.

I can appreciate the point you are trying to make, but I am not convinced that Lott's remarks stemmed from his high school science experiences. I think they were rooted in a political philosophy that is disdainful of science overall, a philosophy that has gained even more adherents in the 13 or so years since he made those remarks and is flourishing in today's political climate.

Michael safa michalchik (@#27) is spot-on: Scientific literacy would be an invaluable tool for a congressional representative, for all the reasons Michael lists. But willfully ignoring science or dismissing it as some kind of trivial elitist enterprise is even more valuable for politicians with certain religious or ideological motivations. For just one example among countless others, look no further than those who continue to advance the false notion of a lack of scientific consensus on climate change in order to continue pursuing ideological economic agendas. Dismissing science and trusting in god is much easier - and much more lucrative - than the converse.

By nice_marmot (not verified) on 03 Apr 2011 #permalink

As a 25 year old with a B.B.A in advertising/marketing- I wish I could go back in time and take nothing but math classes. Math really is the foundation of our universe. Now, I talk for a living, selling things. Not to beneficial to society, but it pays my bills, and it is easy as pie. Lately, I am pondering why I could not have become a scientist.... the next Carl Sagan of the United States! Guess what kids, almost every area of physics and science involved complex mathematics. Math was my worst subject and I never really caught on. Seriously, I wish that for 4 years, I did nothing but math. If you master very high level math, every other subject can easily be learned, especially later on in life. At 25, I feel I am to old to start mastering math, hell, I could barely get through basic algebra in college. Sickening is the word I would use to describe an asshole like Trent. You are nothing more than a politician, you contribute nothing to society. Go {deleted}, run along Trent.

By Travis Hnatiuk (not verified) on 03 Apr 2011 #permalink

I could echo many of the comments here but want to add my vote for the most poignant issue: Sen. Lott's flippant attitude about our country's science education is the root of many of the deficiencies we face as a country.

Yes, of course we need lawyers, economists and politicians. And at the higher levels of education (grad school and above), we would expect the curriculum to be tighter. Ie., no physics classes in law school or no English classes in a physics MS program. But he wasn't talking about education at this level. He was talking about high school.

Imagine a world where this country placed a true premium on science and tech education up to and through high school. How better could we be if more than 10% of graduating seniors wanted to continue their education in one of the hard sciences?

Where would we be if the transistor was invented ten years earlier? If personal computers and the Internet were prevalent in almost all homes in 1980 instead of 1995?

If Sen. Lott (and the likes of him) had their way in our recent past, the Chinese may have driven the invention of the Internet, we wouldn't have won the space race, someone in Western Europe would have created the first viable nuclear weapon, and America might be a hollow, ignorant shell of its current self.

Fortunately all politicians don't think the way this guy does and many do see the need to invest in our technological education. We've placed a premium on this in the past; I just hope we will again in the future.

"Because without a basic grasp of how science works there is no hope of knowing that to believe about creationism, or global warming. And for the latter basic physics is also necessary. "
Really, you can understand the perils of creationism without physics. Really. You can also understand the hazards of environmental destruction without physics. Really. I'm pretty sure I picked up the foundation of that during our fourth grade acid rain project.

For that matter, I've *taken* college physics, and I couldn't reasonably explain how the physics of global warming works.
Frankly, I'd rather the average voter *not* be able to parrot the physics of global warming, as long as they *know how to find valid information on global warming* and they *have a good idea how their everyday choices in types of energy consumption will compare in greenhouse gas production*. That strikes me as vastly more practical.

Keep in mind, I *liked* physics, and I don't really have anything against it (although if you've ever taken physics-for-pre-meds you know the outcome of using it as a 'rigor' indicator). I felt I got a lot out of it, as a way to expand my mental toolbox. I just question the premise that the *content knowledge* conferred by physics is essential, anymore than the *content knowledge* conferred by Latin is essential.

"Did you know, when you were 15, how many truly difficult and challenging things you were eventually to master? Would you have had the confidence and stubbornness to tackle the most difficult if you hadn't practiced on high school math, science, and English? "
To the first question, no, I did not. To the second question, yes, I do have that confidence in spite of not practicing on high school math science and English.

I didn't go to high school. I quit school halfway through fifth grade, and started at community college a few years later. So yeah. I realize some people *need* practice in some subjects. I also feel there is a massive waste of time in formal education.
And I also have noted that some people, in retrospect, feel that high school was where they learned persistence. But to those people I do have to point out, where's your control group?

"But it is difficult to convince people on the value of knowledge that they lack."
And it is even more difficult to convince people of the *lack* of value of knowledge that they possess (or believe they possess). People who haven't *gone without* high school physics who can't see how anyone can live their lives without high school physics are startlingly ignorant of how 99.9+% of humanity has, in fact, lived. People can't remember that *they do not have a control self who lived the same way, with the exception of high school physics*.

A****{deleted} . He's a lawyer. It's expected.

By Yosok Pun (not verified) on 04 Apr 2011 #permalink

We should examine what a high school education is intended to do. All we are hoping for is to improve the odds of the students being successful in their later pursuits. How do we decide which courses are needed? Historically, the highest paying careers have been those in engineering and technology; the ones that require the heavy concentrations in science and math. This does not mean that people lacking those skills will not be successful, but with those skills, their odds are better. It reminds me of a quote I think attributed to Damon Runyon: The race is not always to the swift, not the battle to the strong... but that's the way the smart money would bet. This is why state school boards have required these "gateway courses" for all students. I think this is a mistake. We end up with teachers spending most of their time on students who have no talent or interest for the subject and are often disruptive. We end up shortchanging the students who could most use the knowledge.