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South Africans must move beyond bumper-sticker science

“It will help you get a job”, “there is money in studying science”, “we need more students learning science, so they can become part of South Africa’s ‘knowledge economy’”.

I often give talks about science communication and I’m increasingly pushed to talk to school pupils “because the children are the future”. 

But I want to shout: “I am still the future; we are still the future.”

This has led me to a theory: science is like vegetables. Parents encourage their children to eat their vegetables because they are good for them. They tell their children to eat them, while avoiding leafy greens themselves.

Armchair commentators talk about South Africa’s dismal maths and science marks but seldom draw a link to the fact that there is very little science discourse in the country. Many pupils don’t take maths and science for matric because they think they are boring and difficult, that a pass in matric is better than a fail in maths.

Their parents often share that view. They seldom hear about the wonders of science – one of the few fields in which people can experience awe at the world around them, amazed by how it works – and the fact that it can help to solve South African problems. You hardly ever hear science discussed around the water cooler, and it is a difficult subject to get on to the front pages of national newspapers.

How can we expect our children to be interested in science if we aren’t?

I once surprised former science and technology minister Naledi Pandor by telling her that I’m not interested in talking to children. I want to talk to adults about science, about why it’s relevant, about how South Africa desperately needs it to address problems in the fields of energy, agriculture, housing and health, among many others.

It’s a form of techno-utopia: the idea that technology can fix some of South Africa’s most pressing problems. 

Someone once told me with a sneer that the problem with science was that it was an apolitical solution, that it would be better for governments and people to address the underlying causes than get a simple quick fix. 

While I understood her sentiment I wondered whether she could say that to people who don’t have clean water to drink, to people whose homes have burnt down because they have used inefficient and dangerous paraffin stoves. So, yes, technology is often an apolitical solution, but it offers remedies now.

The news of the day often makes people want to take to their beds and eat chocolate, depressed by corruption, tragedy and bad people doing bad things. Science, however, usually offers good news – not simply pasting a smiley face on to problems, but showing how people are using science and technology to solve them.

What is needed is informed debate, not what Jean-Paul Franzidis, professor of chemical engineering at the University of Cape Town, describes as “bumper-sticker science”. 

Genetically modified foods, nuclear power and fracking are examples of this, although these days most people change their Twitter and Facebook avatars instead of sticking something on their cars. 

“Once your science becomes bumper-sticker science, you’re screwed,” says Franzidis. “Because you can’t talk about it without people getting emotional.” 

South Africans need to be exposed to science so that we can talk about these important issues instead of flying off the handle with an emotional, kneejerk response without knowing all the facts.

Many people and organisations  are talking to the youth. I am not suggesting that we should not encourage people to tell children about science, but adults are being left out: people who are daunted by science because they assume that you have to have a PhD to understand it, because it is wrapped in technical terms and punctuated with maths, or because it still has the scent of a subject their parents forced them to do at school “for their own good”.

Sarah Wild is the Mail & Guardian’s science editor.

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Sarah Wild
Sarah Wild is a multiaward-winning science journalist. She studied physics, electronics and English literature at Rhodes University in an effort to make herself unemployable. It didnt work and she now writes about particle physics, cosmology and everything in between.In 2012, she published her first full-length non-fiction book Searching African Skies: The Square Kilometre Array and South Africas Quest to Hear the Songs of the Stars, and in 2013 she was named the best science journalist in Africa by Siemens in their 2013 Pan-African Profiles Awards.

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