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The Power of the Autodidact*

I am teaching myself microscopy
Learning microscopy

When I was teaching Earth Science at the university level I often advised my students that obtaining a degree was not the end of the learning process. Far from it. Learning would be a lifelong process. This would be true whether they liked it or not. The amount of change I had seen in my own lifetime was proof. Some of that learning would occur in formal settings but a lot would not. To keep up with the new information that kept coming many would need to become autodidacts.

I also sometimes, less seriously perhaps, suggested that they should place a sign on their wall that stated “Beware of ‘experts’”. These days I would be more inclined to make it say “Beware of those who think they are ‘experts’”. My point was that it takes a great deal of effort and study to approach the point where it might be possible to imagine that one has mastered a subject. One subject is challenging enough. The problem arises when people step outside of their area of expertise and begin confusing opinion with fact.

Believe and belief are problematic words for me. Belief unsupported by facts has no standing. A proper evaluation of ’facts’ takes work. However, many people have no clear understanding of how the scientific process works. Nor do they necessarily have the background to do so. Uncertainty, however uncomfortable the concept may be, is ever present in the scientific process. Hypotheses are tested and revised as needed. The results are often expressed in statistical terms. This does not mean, however, that everything is in doubt. For example, Newton’s Laws of Motion helped get us to the moon.

When people don’t have the basic tools to understand complex topics they resort to what is often called the “God of the Gaps”. If we think back to a time when modern scientific tools and methods were unavailable, people often sought explanations that were mystical or magical. As science progressed more and more natural phenomena were investigated and explained in rational terms.

Despite advances in science, the knowledge gained is not universally accessible. There are a number of possible reasons including the level of education available and the inclination or ability to acquire that expertise. Even with these limitations it is still possible to communicate scientific concepts at some level. Let’s briefly examine climate change as an example.

The basic science of the greenhouse effect and its potential consequences are well established and can be taught at least at elementary school level. The role of CO2 and other greenhouse gases has been known for a long time. The fact that levels of CO2 in the atmosphere have been rising for decades is also well documented. Textbooks from 30 years ago had graphs predicting increasing levels of CO2 that were fairly accurate in retrospect. The complexity is introduced when it comes to predicting how much change will happen and in what time frame. The Earth systems and the interactions involved are complex and require the development of models that are in turn complex and that much harder to explain than the basic science.

As complexity increases smaller numbers of people have the required expertise to fully understand the science. This leaves the general public and even scientists in other fields outside of the process. And there are those with political, and economic agendas who wish to discredit the science who take advantage of that gap. This could be considered our modern equivalent of the “God of the Gaps”.

The Internet has in some ways made the task of the autodidact easier, less so in others. There is a wealth of educational material and online courses as well as reliable sources of scientific information. There are also multiple sources spreading opinion and disinformation. Unfortunately it takes a lot less time and effort to form an opinion than it does to really learn the facts. And there are those with no interest in learning the facts.

Science and education exist within a cultural milieu that may also influence public attitudes to science. When I was teaching before going on to a career in Environmental Management I often encountered students who seemed ill-prepared for a university level education, particularly in mathematics and basic science. I found myself having to do remedial instruction on what seemed basic concepts.

Different people seek an education for different reasons. I remember the first time I walked on to a British university campus as a matriculated student. There was a sense of awe and also privilege. At that time (I was a naive seventeen-year-old) the university represented a place where all knowledge resided and I was now allowed access to it. I wonder how typical that attitude was then and doubt that it is common now. A sense of wonder and curiosity still shapes the approach I have taken to knowledge throughout my life. The important difference is that I now know that I can pursue knowledge on my own.

A common cultural view of education in the current world is that it is a means to obtaining a good job. There are different paths to finding that and college is only one of them. Regardless of the path there is a need for a good general education. There is a persistent anti-intellectual streak in American culture. College is often viewed as a means to an end. Pragmatism has its place but it needs to be tempered with a respect for knowledge for its own sake. But there are social, economic, and attitudinal factors that work against extending a good education to anyone who wants it. These social inequities must be addressed. Our democracy depends upon it.

Instilling a love of learning needs to happen early in the educational process. But knowledge cannot be taught as a serious of dry facts. As a university teacher I was often asked “Why do I need to know this?”, “Will this be on the test?” I was meeting students late in their process of acculturation. These questions are not so much about knowledge as they are about working the system. The relevance of Environmental Science to our common experience on planet Earth is fairly easily drawn despite the complexity of the science. My interpretation of their questions was subject based, the students’ system based.

Young people are curious by nature. The best scientists retain that trait throughout a lifetime. Education has to nurture that curiosity and teach students how science works and how to learn. This involves showing people how to be autodidacts. The whole concept of education needs to be broadened and function on different levels. Society needs to provide more opportunities for education, not all of which will necessarily lead to a degree. Online education is not a new concept. However, it can be improved, expanded and made more accessible.

We are facing a multi-faceted problem that may take several generations to show progress. Unfortunately, we may not the luxury of that much time. It is ironic that in a time when so much information is available many are existing in the intellectual equivalent of a desert. Science needs to explain complex ideas in a more accessible way. The media and politicians need to be better educated and held accountable. And each of us must take responsibility for our own contributions to the discussion. Reliable sources exist. We just need to seek them out.


*Autodidact: a person who has learned a subject without the benefit of a teacher or formal education; a self-taught person.


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