Not Directly School Shortcomings but Society

Disappointments in Modern Examples for Kids

  • It does not seem to be just the schools which are failing kids. This presentation is on a slightly different tack, but I see these items to be important to an improvement of the education system.
  • These are examples where public leaders SHOULD have done some thinking before some action, but these are some of many examples where that was clearly not done.

I will begin with several examples from the respected NOVA science program on PBS TV. For several decades, the NOVA programs provided excellent examples of how scientists approach areas of research. During the first decade of the Twenty-First Century, something seemed to have changed badly at PBS or WGBH or NOVA.

One example was a recent program where they claimed to EXPLAIN the Stonehenge arrangement of very massive stones from around 5,000 years ago. No actual scientist can be comfortable watching that program, which PBS and NOVA seemed to keep re-airing!

That program seemed to entirely be centered on the SPECULATIONS of two individuals, who were each very aggressive in pushing their views, but then regularly were each shown to have been dead wrong every time during the NOVA program!

The program made it seem that any group of uneducated idiots can get the government to give them a large Grant where they are they free to spend it however they wish. No actual knowledge of the subject seems to be required! That did not used to be the case! In the 1960s and 1970s, no one received a Grant without having provided comprehensive and airtight arguments about every detail of the issue they wanted to do research on.

For example, in this NOVA program about how the huge stones at Stonehenge were transported, a researcher had noticed that there seemed to be a substantial number of (very lumpy) ball-shaped stone objects of about three inches diameter. Based on apparently NO research whatever, he SPECULATED that it MUST mean that the ancient people made WOODEN beams and used the stone balls as a sort of primitive rollers between two wooden boards.

If this was a Freshman High School science class, that might be a reasonable idea, but the entire group of people involved seemed to all immediately endorse that crude idea as true.

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The guy who clearly considered himself to be a genius then decided to buy SOFTWOOD boards from a local store (and he even admitted on air that hardwood boards would have been too expensive for their budget). The actual difference in cost would have been around $30!

An ACTUAL scientist would have taken 30 seconds to look up the COMPRESSIVE STRENGTH of the pine wood he bought and to also look up the STATIC DRAG COEFFICIENT of stone on wood. Within a minute, that GOOD scientist would have known that the circus environment that the guy was orchestrating had absolutely no chance of succeeding. None. Zilch. Zero.

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Some VERY simple calculations show even that High School Freshman science student that the one-half square inch support area of the three-inch-diameter stone ball on softwood beams, supporting an eight-thousand-pound stone block, would cause maybe sixteen-thousand-pounds-per-square-inch pressure on the wood, which would immediately cause the stone balls to become pressed into the wood. Without ever having to learn failure from a pointless effort, such a simple calculation and simple logic would have made clear that there was NO point in even trying such a silly experiment, and that there was NO possible way that a 45 ton stone could have been transported for many miles by such a method.

The 'good scientist' would have then done the same calculations regarding (hardwood) Oak lumber, and still quickly seeen mathematically that the small stone 'balls' would still have been quickly embedded into the lumber boards, again eliminating any chance of 'rolling' as the alleged expert was claiming!

The guy didn't even give up with that failure! He saw that the weight had crushed the fibers of the wood so much that the size balls he had obtained were no longer large enough. Did he do any actual thinking? Apparently not, as he bought extra strips of the same soft wood to lay down inside the groove. He then bragged that he had fixed it where the balls were now large enough. Actually comprehending the crushing strength of pine wood seemed beyond him! He actually COULD have bought a few pieces of oak flooring for a few dollars which might have actually helped, at least a lot better than in trying to keep using wood that could never possibly support the weight involved. And each experiment ended, in the alleged scientific NOVA program, with failure, but then some new speculation by this guy. He eventually decided that he needed a farm tractor which he claimed was equal to a dozen oxen. (He was wrong about that, but he seemed to be wrong about nearly everything he claimed!)

The NOVA program had another guy running a different group of people, who were digging holes wherever this guy decided that he knew something would be found. But over and over, he was absolutely wrong.

The NOVA Stonehenge program spent about half of its hour in watching the two groups dream up silly ideas and then find total failure. It was as though NOVA wanted to show how NOT to be a good scientist! Without doing ANY prior research of any kind, think up some idea, avoid ever trying to see if anyone else had ever even tried anything similar or possibly better, and force your idea through no matter what!

After all those failures, the two men then started claiming all sorts of silly ideas which they each felt still supported their dumb ideas! Some of the more humorous ones were where they claimed that there were UNSEEN NATURAL GROOVES deep underground (which the one group had encountered and then claimed as impressive confirmation which had not been remotely true.) That Freshman science student should have heard their descriptions and hopefully realized the guys had absolutely no idea what they were talking about! They claimed that the NATURAL grooves (probably actually caused by alternating freezing and thawing in climate in the stone layers) EXACTLY lined up with the direction of the setting sun, but then compounded their ignorance by claiming that those same (UNMOVABLE) grooves in deep stone layers EXACTLY lined up with the RISING sun on a different day. I happen to know that those NATURAL grooves near Stonehenge are NOT perfectly straight and they are NOT oriented toward any astronomically important direction. But that it is actually absolutely impossible that the silly claims made on that NOVA program are even possible.

There is little surprise that the US has dropped from first to something like twelfth among countries in turning out well educated people, if THAT is the sort of example that we present!

Sadly, IF that NOVA program had actually USED proper scientific methods, it seems nearly certain that they MIGHT have come up with far better ideas than those idiots seemed to insist on. IF they would have early recognized that SOFT WOOD was NOT a credible material, primarily because the stone balls were fairly small, a group of actual scientists would have immediately abandoned wood, but might then have explored HARDER materials available to those ancient people. Personally, it seems obvious to me that they did not yet have iron or copper or gold or bronze, but they DID have stone as an available possibility. Finding SMALL amounts of granite would have tremendously improved the chances of that program finding some success. Those quick calculations indicate that the weight of the stone block would NOT have crushed the granite liner strips inside their grooves in the wood, and the calculations of Static Friction Coefficient show that it would roll rather easily. The ancient people would NOT have needed to use a tractor to pull it!

Even a minimal application of actual science would have entirely changed how that program would have proceeded, where the actual science would have resulted in significant successes.

In MY Freshman science classes, I guess I would hope that my young students would have USED the scientific method far better than NOVA demonstrated, and suggested creating a substantial number of small and portable pavement blocks of stone. If they laid such STONE blocks ahead of where the large stone now was, and were careful in ensuring a good foundation under each block, the round balls that they thought might have been used would probably have done an impressive job, where just a few people might have pushed the massive stone. The Static Coefficient of Friction of rolling stone on stone is quite low, and simple calculations show that the NOVA group could have pushed their few ton examples EASILY, rather than having to end the program using a farm tractor to move it at all!

I realize that I happen to be a person that people joke about regarding being a Rocket Scientist (as Theoretical Nuclear Physics is actually far harder than that!) but I ask you to note that NOTHING in the description above involves anything much harder than thirteen-year-old Freshman High School students should be able to think about. And CERTAINLY anyone who is hired to represent NOVA should understand the basics of how science is done to not foul it up so badly! Yet they did!

And that was NOT the first time that NOVA has failed in such ways!

Around 2003, they did a program about the stone monoliths on Easter Island. It seemed mind-boggling that the group of people they picked for that effort seemed to have NO background or education in any field which would have been of any help to them. More than that, in the first minutes of the program, conversations between the participants made clear that NONE of them had even looked up the history of the people of Easter Island, or learned about what type of rock and sand was there, or had the slightest idea of any previous known efforts of quarrying large stones, transporting them and then trying to get they to stand up. So that entire program was a group of relatively ignorant people, winging it, coming up with various speculations and ideas, and nearly always finding that the ideas had been really bad ones.

Again, any ACTUAL scientist would have spent time in a library BEFORE such a trip, to try to know every detail of what Easter Island residents had ever done, along with extensive topographic maps of the island to know where stones might be moved downhill rather than simply showing up and then having to improvize in 'creative thinking' at every turn. Is THAT what the modern American educational system tries to teach, never bothering to try to know or understand anything, just improvise and see how it all turns out?

It was a disgusting NOVA program, and they should have lost their claim of being a science program based on that one!

I have some good news regarding NOVA! Around ten years later, NOVA tried again regarding Easter Island, in a probran called Mystery on Easter Island. They actually used half a dozen Archaeologists and some others who actually had some experience and knowledge regarding 'ropes' and the 'roads' on Easter Island, and actually important ideas such as 'Center of Gravity'. They also had carefully and thoroughly examined around 100 of the heavy statues which had fallen, either on their face or their back, between the known location of where the stone statues had been carved out of native rock. They STUDIED as to why various statues had fallen forward or backward, and they also examined the roughly 1,000 successfully erected statues. They had studied the oral history of people from Easter Island, which generally seemed to refer to the statues 'walking' to their final places. Due to this very extensive research, and more, they noted that most fallen statues were WIDER than the final successful ones, and they (correctly) noted that they had been able to lower the Center of Gravity to make the statue more stable during such a movement (to then be later trimmed to final width after arrival at the display location. QUALITY SCIENTIFIC WORK!

Yet another NOVA program, from about 2007, this one on catapults (or actually trebuchets) needs to bge mentioned. As had gotten to be a pattern, the people who showed up for this adventure appeared to have no knowledge or experience regarding making or using trebuchets. They made it clear that NONE of them had even ever gone to any Library to study any of the Engineering or Technology or history. They often seemed confused regarding simple construction matters, where ANY examination of historical records would have immediately shown them the best way to solve a problem. SCIENCE loves to use the fact that a thousand people have previously tried to do nearly anything, and so those earlier people encountered pretty much every difficulty, and in this case, they had FOUND SOLUTIONS 600 years ago! But NOVA's team appeared to have walked out of an office building or a automobile factory, stone cold as to any useful background about important subjects, as NONE of them showed any indication of knowing ANY of that massive previous history of successes and failures with trebuchets.

Even when they eventually got it somewhat usable, they then showed NO knowledge or insight into knowing how to use it. When they would get it to actually lob something out, it seemed like they were all surprised! Someone who had previously spent any time in a Library probably would have done even SIMPLE calculations of ballistics, and known something about air resistance and drag coefficients, and would likely have put the FIRST attempt very close to on target. But the NOVA team seemed to simply keep wildly guessing, even about making changes to try to correct their aim. The first two days in any Ballistics class would have provided them with immense useful knowledge. But it again seemed that NOVA wanted to demonstrate how NOT to do good science!

Yet another NOVA program, also from about 2007, was the one on supposedly EXPLAINING how ancient Egyptians raised large stones into vertical stelas (Columns). Again, that COULD have been a very good and informative program, if it had been made in the mode that NOVA programs used to be made, actually demonstrating science.

In this case, they got an assortment of people who again had no real knowledge of the subject, and none of those people seemed to have done any reading to learn what ancient Egyptians actually did!

Like those other recent NOVA programs, the most aggressive of the men decided to try to impose their personal ideas on the others, and so the program wound up having absolutely nothing to do with how ancient Egyptians might have done anything, but instead was a demonstration of the conflict between male egos. NONE of them had any good idea of what Egyptians had actually done, which again they could have learned in a few hours in a local Library! Many of the choices made by EACH of the different tries were clearly just thought up on the moment of having some choice that did not seem to be soluble. Over and over, it was as though NOVA was demonstrating that scientists make a lot of wild guesses! Incredible!

NOVA ran a program that claimed to EXPLAIN why a handful of people in a desolate area in Africa walked on their hands and feet. NO ONE did any actual medical examinations of any of the people, but they certainly constantly expressed opinions as though they had. Again, the most aggressive people seemed to get their way in pushing their claims of explanation, even though they never had ANY evidence of support or even any logic for claiming many of their comments. It was as though there was a bullying contest and they were trying to prove which could force their explanation to be accepted, with no basis whatever! And THIS is what NOVA wants to present to students as how science is supposed to work?

I have heard FAR better thinking by men sitting on barstools drinking beer, than ANY of that alleged 'thinking' by those people that NOVA presented as having been scientists! I felt ashamed to actually BE a quality scientist when watching many of those NOVA programs from about 2000 to 2012.

Prior to the year 2000, it was nearly impossible to present any significant criticism of ANY NOVA program ever. But in the more recent years, more than half of NOVA programs seem to have these horrific failings regarding anything resembling actual science! I could have continued here with at least half a dozen other blatant failures of recent NOVA programs, but maybe enough is enough here. It does not seem likely that NOVA and PBS are going to now re-learn what they clearly used to know how to do excellently!

(But maybe they HAVE gotten a clue in that very recent Mystery of Easter Island program, which DID present quality science and logic).

One more example of a recent PBS NOVA program that is disappointing in how it presents science as being done. This program was about whether there might be any living beings on any other planets. Some of the statements and the logic presented were good science, but others were unbelievably poor. A specific example was when they were discussing the moon Europa which orbits Jupiter. After some decent science, they made a horrifically unscientific statement! They mentioned that a spacecraft had measured a rather strong magnetic field around Europa. They then made a statement as though it were true, that SINCE such a magnetic field could ONLY be created by internal motion inside Europa of enormous amounts of saltwater, that detecting the presence of of the magnetic field somehow guaranteed that Europa had enormous amounts of water hidden inside it, and not only that, it was saltwater! Once they made these outrageous and unscientific statements (which had absolutely NO actual evidence that there is even an ounce of water or saltwater on or inside Europa, they expanded the claim to refer to there probably being SIXTY MILES DEEP of water inside Europa, which means that there is probably more water inside Europa than there is in all the oceans on Earth!

The speaker was someone who WANTS to find water on or in Europa, and so with wild speculations and no actual science or logic, he dreamed up a way of trying to claim that enormous amounts of water exists inside Europa, such that he can claim that 'life probably exists inside Europa'. He wants to get the US government to finance a multi-billion-dollar spacecraft trip to Europa, and so with his supposed absolute guarantees of water inside Europa, some politicians may authorize the funds.

An actual scientist would NEVER try to use the detected presence of a magnetic field to imply ANYTHING else, certainly not some total speculation of huge amounts of water inside the satellite.

The Earth happens to have a magnetic field, but it is known to arise down in the Core of the Earth, possibly due to semi-fluid ionized iron, and there is NO CONNECTION WHATEVER with 'saltwater'! Even regarding the Earth, that promoter was dead wrong in his speculations about any connection between a magnetic field and saltwater!

An actual scientist would INSIST on seeing some ACTUAL DATA of Spectral Absorbtion lines of water vapor on, or near Europa, but there is no such data.

This presentation is among several different presentations meant to provide ways of improving the American public school system's performance. Here are links to the presentations:

This presentation was first placed on the Internet in Sep 2007.

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C Johnson, Theoretical Physicist, Physics Degree from Univ of Chicago