Science, but not as we know it

20th January 2006 at 00:00
There are days - not many, I grant you - when I feel insanely envious of science teachers. At least, of science teachers in relaxed and courageous schools, not forced to cower too cravenly under the lash of a tickbox curriculum. For science - unlike history or literature or foreign languages - is prone to violent upheavals and contradictions of the kind that can be used to brighten up any class.

This is just such an envious moment. In the past 10 days we have been treated to two shocking bits of scientific news. First Dr Hwang of South Korea turned out to have faked his human cloning experiments, so it seems that we might not be that close to a cure for genetic diseases after all.

Then the Planck Institute caused uproar among environmental scientists by revealing that plants are not all sanctimonious goody-goodies in the battle against global warming. Some plants and trees are now proved to be hurling out methane, a greenhouse gas, with all the careless brio of farting cattle.

Immediately, there broke out a roar of contumely from the anti-greens, saying that all this rainforest stuff is scaremongering so nyah nyah to the eco-freaks. This was matched by an equal roar from the green lobby saying that, on the contrary, the Planck findings mean that individuals and nations can't, after all, play the carbon-neutral game by just planting a copse or two to offset power stations and Porsche exhausts.

What fun! What larks! What education! If I were a science teacher in this (notional) free and easy school, I would immediately set my class to work on these issues, especially the second.

I would also rope in the IT department, since one of the well-known drawbacks of the internet age is that the new generation, deprived of reference books, finds it hard to sort the solid facts available online from the utter rubbish.

The class's task would be to check these new reports out, using media and websites which they would have to verify as reputable sources, and learn to evaluate and balance it all very carefully (ie not just paste in a column from the Mail attacking green politics).

How much methane? How much does methane matter, compared with carbon dioxide? Which plants and trees? Since trees also help with oxygen, how silly (on a scale of one to ten) would it be to say that they don't matter any more, so we might as well chop down the rotten old rainforest? Has the global warming argument changed, or not?

Then, while a small, earnest sub-group tries to work out just how important Dr Hwang's exposure is - he did, after all, clone a puppy - the environment group could move a few members into the lab to try and get methane out of the school rubber-plant.

Then it could spill across into the next classroom and involve a senior English set and possibly the politics A-level group, in studying the rhetoric that might be used to relate the Planck discovery to Kyoto, George Bush, Tony Blair, Zac Goldsmith, Jonathan Porritt and the Prince of Wales.

Geographers and botanists could be asked to come up with other reasons why the rainforest matters - such as the fact that people live in it, and endangered plants in it might yet produce new medicines. Philosophy A-level essays and debate topics could be set, considering the morality of basing policy and ethics on facts that may turn out to be wrong. Historians could be asked to dig up misapprehensions which were once taught as gospel, from pre-Galileo cosmography to the early Victorian theory that rail travel was impossible because people would suffocate over 30 mph.

Psychology sets could divide themselves into groups to be harangued in turn by each side of the environmental argument, and when they have finished that, they could return to Dr Hwang and devise experiments to see whether it is true that people will always want to believe good medical news rather than bad.

As for the media studies groups, they would be in and out of the science block all the time, waving conflicting newspaper reports and news videos for analysis and evaluation by you, the science teacher, the linchpin of it all.

See? We've got the whole school beavering away now, bang on the button, crawling over the web, falling on their parents' newspapers at breakfast-time, emailing scientific bodies, thoroughly engaged with the outside world.

And at the heart of it sit you, the teachers, postponing the mock exams, forgetting the dreary old lesson plans that have bored you into a coma these last 10 years, and surfing waves of youthful intellectual excitement.

Ah well, one can dream.

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