I must apologize to regular readers of this blog as I have not been updating content and keeping you informed. As I mentioned earlier, this is largely due to my commitments to deliver the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures, “Meet Your Brain” to audiences in Japan and Singapore. Today, I deliver the final lecture in Singapore that will be filmed for their television.
I have a couple of hours to kill and rather than spending them sightseeing, I thought I would take the time to update this blog. Despite the exhausting time spent traveling, as you can see from these photographs, I think the effort has been well worth it. Here is the crew in Japan…
It is sometimes hard to take an objective view of public engagement of science when the benefits are too long-term to see. We need science to get humanity out of the hole it is digging itself into but still governments are being very short-sighted in how we promote and value science. Even then, the focus is on applied science and technology which of course is how science becomes useful, but ultimately science should be guided by theoretical curiosity.
I think my travels in the Far East have brought a few points home to me. In particular, I am concerned about education and the way it is heading. In the Far East, education is seen as the pathway to individual success and so there is an incredible pressure on students to succeed at school and enter University in order to enter a profession.
In the UK, we are treading down the same pathway to a similar model where the emphasis is on streamlining into professions rather than training children in critical thinking and a general appreciation of the diversity of human interest. To give credit to Japan and Singapore, these professions include engineers and scientists. I was also surprised to learn that many of the Singapore politicians have science backgrounds, which reflects very badly on our paltry single UK politician with a science degree. So it would seem that science is valued in the Far East much greater than in the UK but even then, I am concerned with the way that this is being driven. Much of my media interviews have been focused on how to make our children smarter rather than how to make them happier. Of course, success and wealth are better than failure and poverty, but at what cost?
Children are competitive but this trait is fostered and encouraged by the need to match the expectations of their parents and the educational systems. I don’t have a simple solution and it is easy to see flaws. I also don’t think parents are necessarily wrong for wanting what is best for their children. My own daughter has just successfully entered University (way to go Martha) but with the rapid rise in tuition fees, most will be burdened by debt when they graduate. It’s no wonder then, that so many want to go into the financial “industry.” I have always found it amusing that this sector is called an ‘industry’ with financial ‘products.’ It is not an industry. It is organized (an often disorganized) gambling and nothing is made, so there are no products.
So I applaud the emphasis on science education in the Far East, but I lament the loss of encouraging the pursuit of science to foster curiosity and a sense of wonderment in children. My mentor and former colleague Richard Gregory was the epitome of this attitude as he often got excited like a child when talking about some amazing fact of the human mind.
My own field of psychology is often dismissed as worthless and not a science – often by ignorant people who cannot distinguish between science and technology. I also recognize that psychology has a real PR problem in the way it is presented to the general public as obvious truisms. (Look out for further posting on whether psychology is a science or not). However, I would argue that understanding the mind has important implications for how we conduct ourselves.
Irrational beliefs aside, I can clearly see why an obsession with status, wealth and how we value others has fuelled greed in the short term to produce the global recession we are currently in and will be for the foreseeable future. Only last week, during the euphoria and hype of the Olympics, the Bank of England, slipped out the gloomy prediction that there will be 0% growth for the next two years.
It doesn’t take psychologists to point out the reason why greed is not good, but I think psychologists can remind us about why happiness and fulfillment requires more than status and wealth and why most of us are destined to end up on our deathbeds thinking that we did not live the life we would have wanted. Once again, we are just not that good at knowing what is best for us, and more importantly our children.