Why are we afraid of science?

Kids ask questions. Sometimes adults feel inadequate if they don’t have ready answers. But when I became a teacher, I learned quickly that there’s nothing wrong with saying, “I don’t know.” Teaching children how to learn is more useful than feeding them facts.

Kids ask questions. Sometimes adults feel inadequate if they don’t have ready answers. But when I became a teacher, I learned quickly that there’s nothing wrong with saying, “I don’t know.” Teaching children how to learn is more useful than feeding them facts.

Many parents, though, believe they must appear infallible in the eyes of their children. A U.K. survey found that some moms and dads fear questions such as “Why is the sky blue?” and “Why is the moon out during the day?” Math and science queries were the biggest stumpers.

Researchers questioned more than 2,000 parents before The Big Bang U.K. Young Scientists and Engineers Fair. Many respondents admitted to “furtive researching to save face before answering their child.”

There’s no need for that.

My area of training as a scientist is genetics. It’s a huge subject and I don’t always know everything going on outside my field. I try to keep up by reading journals like Scientific American. People shouldn’t feel that saying “I don’t know” is admitting weakness. The important thing is to look for answers.

What could be better than using a puzzling question as an opportunity to teach your children how to conduct and analyze research, think critically about information, and gain new understanding? You even get to learn along with your kids.

In our computer age, it’s not even as time-consuming as it once was — although there’s a lot to be said for direct observation, poring over an encyclopedia, or visiting the library.

Some folks are too busy to help youngsters search for answers — but we can at least get them started. If you make it fun, your kids will eventually learn to research on their own, and then you can ask them for answers.

Giving children the tools to learn and analyze is crucial, but it’s often neglected. And that has consequences. Many people don’t understand how science works — its limitations as well as its benefits. This has led to confusion over issues that could have a profound effect on society.

One only has to look at some of the “debate” surrounding global warming to know that incomprehension about science reaches the highest levels of decision-making. U.S. presidential hopefuls have been demonstrating a bewildering lack of knowledge in their attempts to challenge the overwhelming scientific evidence for human-caused climate change. It’s reminiscent of parents who make something up when they don’t know the answer.

This doesn’t always come from ignorance. Sometimes, it’s a way to exploit confusion or lack of understanding to further a political or corporate agenda. In Canada, we’ve seen attempts to limit, control, or silence scientific findings that may hinder the government’s economic and corporate agenda.

The situation is so critical that last year Kathryn O’Hara, then president of the Canadian Science Writers’ Association, wrote to the prime minister, urging him to “free the scientists to speak — be it about state of ice in the Arctic, dangers in the food supply, nanotechnology, salmon viruses, radiation monitoring, or how much the climate will change.”

Currently, the federal government must approve all media and speaking requests for its scientists. Clearance is often not given, or is delayed so much that experts can’t speak in a timely and meaningful way.

Compare this with the Obama administration’s U.S. policy, which states that “scientists may speak freely with the media and public about scientific and technical matters based on their official work without approval from the public affairs office or their supervisors.”

In an open society, leaders who have nothing to hide and who base their decisions on the best available evidence should have no reason to muzzle scientists, or anyone else. Just as parents should help children find relevant facts and encourage exploration, governments have a responsibility to make sure we have access to good information.

Having answers to our children’s questions is not enough. If we want societies that provide the maximum benefit for the most people over the longest time, and if we want to find solutions to the challenges and problems we’ve created, we must teach our children and ourselves how to find and evaluate answers objectively. Making science education a priority is an important part of that.

Scientist, author and broadcaster David Suzuki wrote this column with Ian Hanington. Learn more at www.davidsuzuki.org.

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