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Tag Archives: science

Try this: Put some ice into a glass. Now fill the glass to the brim and watch what happens. The ice floats with some of it showing above the water level. As the ice melts, the water will overflow. Right? No, absolutely wrong! Melting ice will not raise the water level because, “Any floating object displaces its own weight of fluid.” — Archimedes of Syracuse.*

Yep, Archimedes. It’s as basic as that. Of course anyone who puts ice in their drink knows about this and anyone who has done Junior Cert. Science knows why.

Now, listen to this podcast of Newstalk Radio’s science programme, Futureproof, broadcast on Sat, 15 July 2017:

Not too far from the beginning there’s a discussion of the effects of global warming on the Arctic. Attention moves to an ice shelf the size of a county which has broken free in the Antarctic. Listen as a university scientist says that the melting of this huge iceberg will cause sea levels to rise. Notice that neither her colleague nor the presenter reacts, never mind corrects.**

The problem is not expert knowledge. The problem is a lack of basic knowledge which if widespread, makes citizen participation in debates about climate change impossible.



** There is debate around the extent to which the more dense seawater will indeed rise when the floating freshwater melts. It will rise by a relatively small amount but even this is complicated by the intrusion of energy and temperature considerations. See here:

The list of things which well-meaning people have suggested should be added to the school curriculum is endless. Karlin Lillington, a very good tech. journalist, has argued in The Irish Times Business and Technology supplement (March 28th 2013) that coding be taught at school.* The thesis is that since many companies have started with the lone, self-taught coder, having a mass of people able to code would prompt business start-ups and would make many young people ready to take up employment in the tech. sector.

On the face of it, it seems an attractive idea but – and surprisingly from someone like Karlin Lillington – it is strangely outdated and out of touch with the reality of work today.

Two of the central planks supporting the argument are very weak. Firstly, while it is very likely that those who started and built a business on their inventive coding were at it from age 14 or younger, that observation has a familiar ring because it is made regularly about all manner of industry. Media regularly carry anecdotes about business people being enterprising from a very early age and these reports are often linked to a demand that business and enterprise appear on the school curriculum.

Secondly, there is nothing to indicate that anything like the majority of jobs in the tech. sector call for coding skills. A cursory examination of the recruitment sections on the websites of the large tech. companies reveals an interesting research project. Some of these companies recruit some coders, some recruit none. All, however, require competence in operating the new technology and in the ways of working that the technology has created. Indeed it might be argued that the belief that coding skills should be universal rests on a simple misunderstanding around the term “tech. industries”.**

Aside from the basics of the argument, Karlin may be getting too close to the technology and paying insufficient attention to its effects. “Today’s children,” she says, “will graduate into an overwhelmingly digital world, where daily life is immersed in code.” That’s simply untrue and misunderstands mass use of digital devices and media. Most young people don’t understand the word “digital” and think it means “modern” or even “cool”. Their life is not immersed in code; they are unaware of the code running their devices. Their playful indifference to matters technological, coupled with ease of use, may even obscure something that flies in the face of the thoughtless consensus that “the kids are great with the computers!” At the heart of the error is the observation that children and young people generally use computer devices almost constantly. They seem to be very comfortable with them and they learn to use new devices and apps quickly. To complete the myth there’s an endless supply of old duffers prepared to feed the stereotype that is the older person, unable to adapt and acquire the skills to operate these new gadgets. The truth is that technology always develops from specialist to mass or domestic use. In the 1970s a basic video recorder was analogue, huge, expensive, confined to TV companies and required a skilled operator. Similarly, there was a time – and it is a long time ago now – when expertise was needed to do anything on a computer. Nowadays little or no skill is required for many uses.

Those young people who appear so computer savvy for the most part are doing little that is creative or clever.*** It is true that being inventive and developing new apps etc. requires skill but that kind of activity is rare. The difficulty is that not only do the majority of young people make little creative or intellectual use of the technology but they generally lack the skills to go beyond social media and games or even to maximise the potential. Imagine years ago if someone had admired a young person for being able to operate a television set! Well, admiring a young person for being constantly and comfortably on-line is almost as daft. It is also patronising.

There is a final theme in Karlin’s piece. It seems reasonable to suggest that coding skills would teach people how to think. There certainly is a need to teach young people to analyse, criticise, organise, solve problems and present their findings/arguments. However, teaching coding skills with this end in mind would be very restrictive and conservative. It would be a poor substitute for logic or philosophy more generally.

There needs to be a hard look at the easy assumptions that lead to demands for more and more training as opposed to education in schools. It was always the case that schooling needed to be general. Schools needed to produce people who could make their way in the world as both citizens and as workers. What technology has done is to emphasise this need. Put aside for now the making of decent, socialised people and of citizens prepared and able to participate in a republic. Those looking to serve the “jobs market” by reforming the education of children need to look more closely at the jobs.

It is absolutely certain that science and engineering specialists are required but there are two other things which are equally certain and they have been created by the technology at the heart of this discussion. Firstly, it is certain that aside from the most menial of jobs, there is now no employment in the developed world for the unskilled and uneducated. Secondly, outside of technical skills the world of work today calls for the generalist, someone who is adept with information, someone who can research, argue and present. These of course rest on literacy, numeracy and a great deal of general knowledge.**** In the short to medium term there is a demand for a second and third language.

There really is no place in the office (or at home or abroad linked to the office) for someone unable to speak and to write fluently and well, for someone unable to research independently, for someone without general knowledge and for someone with no grasp of mathematics, science and technology.

When thinking about the reform of education, it is a mistake to fall back on the centuries old division between humanities and science. It is a mistake too to emphasise training over education. These are not mistakes purely in terms of concerns that teaching should lead to the enjoyment of a full life. These are now mistakes in terms of serving industry.*****

If Karlin were to look around the office at the Irish Times and see what is actually being done and who does it best, and then travel to the tech. companies around Dublin, look again and perhaps sit in on a few routine meetings, she would see that teaching skills – other than literacy and numeracy – to children is a very outdated notion.


I realise that Una Mulally’s piece in the Irish Times on Saturday (*) last was essentially about the lifestyles of young workers in successful, fashionable companies located in Dublin’s docklands but there is something odd about it which prompted me to return to doubts I have about the basis on which rests the view that Ireland needs to increase the numbers graduating in science and engineering.

While I fear that the level of general knowledge and basic expertise in maths, science and engineering is well short of what a competent citizen requires to participate fully today, I can’t seem to find data which compels support for the view that the third level educational system should increase significantly the number of specialist graduates. The conventional media view, fuelled by those who teach maths, science and engineering – especially I.T – is that students are foolish if they do not clamour for entry to these courses which more or less guarantee employment. This is at odds with anecdotal evidence which suggests at least some level of unemployment. The key to this puzzle may lie in the term “tech sector”.

Here’s what Una Mulally reports, “Apparently some kind of economic crisis is going on, but in Dublin’s tech sector, where Facebook, Google, Twitter, LinkedIn, eBay, PayPal and Microsoft reign, the only way is up.” She then goes on to talk about skill shortages in Ireland which result in the immigration of bright young people from across Europe. However, here’s the interesting aspect: the only specific skill mentioned is languages and the only formal degree mentioned is a PhD in politics held by a young Italian woman who works in Dublin for PayPal.

With the possible exception of risk management (**) none of the jobs mentioned suggest that a degree in science or technology is a requirement; these people are working in marketing, customer support, business development and recruitment. However, they see themselves as working in the “tech sector”. It seems plausible to suggest that when journalists talk about career opportunities in the “tech sector”, they are not talking exclusively about technical jobs but about jobs traditionally filled by humanities and business graduates who now need a range of skills – well short of graduate level expertise – such as to make them employable not in a technological role but in office-type industries created by or fundamentally changed by I.T. generally and the net in particular. (***)

The almost cavalier use of the term “tech sector” may be contributing to woolly thinking about third level education in two distinct ways. (****) Firstly, there is risk that the requirement for science and engineering graduates becomes overstated. Secondly, there is a risk that the degree to which the office workplace has changed is not recognised and – language skills aside – this may be why the companies mentioned in the article need to search far and wide when recruiting graduates.


** The article doesn’t mention it but it is posibble that maths graduates are involved here.

*** I’ve written before about the changes wrought by technology and the skills which are now essentially a precondition for the employment of humanities graduates:

**** The two are discussed here:

There’s just one thing on which homeopaths and their opponents agree: That a homoeopathic remedy contains no active ingredient.

Those who favour choice realise that the term is meaningless unless it is based on accurate information.

Right then, let’s make it a legal obligation that all homeopathc remedies carry a large label stating, “CONTAINS NO ACTIVE INGREDIENT”.

There is a need for a shower of realism over many who talk of Ireland’s educated workforce and the need to bend education to serve the knowledge/smart/information economy/society. I fear that the level of education is pretty poor in precisely the areas that emerging society demands. I fear too that those who talk most of the knowledge/smart/information economy/society have reflected least on what it means.

The backward workforce

Too many of my students have poor literacy skills. This is a common topic of conversation among university lecturers. So too is the lack of general knowledge among students. It is far less common to have such conversations about the poor command of pretty basic math, science and technology. I don’t want to clutter this piece with examples but an archetype might write “shouldof”, think that the USSR still exists, be unable to manipulate percentages, have no grasp of statistics and consider basic science a no-go area for all but the expert. Such a person betokens neither an educated workforce nor a competent citizenry.  

Not so smart policy

No one in their right mind would argue that that the kind of society and economy determined by increased application of technology – especially IT – does not require experts or does not require quite a few experts in these fields. However, no one who has looked at the effect and the likely future effect of these same technologies on society and the workplace would place too great an emphasis on the creation of an excessively large numbers of experts. For a long, long time technology has had a democratic vector: it demands proportionately greater numbers of effective, creative users than experts in the field itself.  The danger in the current pre-occupation with science education is that it might be successful and produce two categories of frustration: a glut of experts with no career prospects and a mass of people without the skills to prosper or create prosperity. A considered, realistic education policy will try to ensure that mass education will deliver citizens and workers who are competent to contribute in our time.

The smart worker or even the smart citizen

The world of work – or at least that part of it that pays reasonably well – that has emerged over, say, the past 30 years demands that people be articulate, literate, numerate and informed. (I should add “secure” but this would open up another argument.) These are the preconditions for flexibility, creativity and innovation. There is absolutely no point in talking about a smart society or economy unless the mass of people are pretty smart.

I was posting over at Ferdinand von Prondzynski’s blog   ( when I thought that I should make the point on my own blog. Ferdinand was saying in support of changing university education that, “we simply cannot run a university system that now admits a large percentage of the population as if we were running small elite institutions. The elite students of former times generally had very un-specific expectations of their education. For them it was all part of assuming the knowledge and the style of privilege, not about undergoing specific vocational training.” I disagreed. Of course increased numbers and different times mean change but the whole purpose of increased access is to make higher learning available to all who can benefit. Moreover, that’s what the world of work now requires.

More vocational training rather than education is the demand of people – including students – who fail to appreciate what has happened to work and yet are aware that too many graduates complete their education lacking important skills.

The “information society” has consequences for university education. As a term, it is often reduced to meaningless guff but it should not be dismissed by thoughtful people. In careless use it becomes fused with “knowledge society” and provides a justification for a pretty daft approach to education: an increased emphasis on mere training for the majority and an increase in the number of PhDs. I don’t want to talk right now about the latter but training in preference to education is precisely what, let’s call it, industry doesn’t need right now.

Anyone who has given serious thought to the concept of an “information society” either from a political or a business perspective realises pretty quickly that such a society depends not merely on skilled people but on educated, thinking, and – yes – innovative people. In short, the humanities graduate’s time has come! (I recall commenting during a discussion with a group of lecturers that innovation is what separates a 2.1 from a 2.2.)

There are however “employability” problems with some graduates and the problems have nothing to do with the traditional university approach to learning. Too many students lack the skills necessary to making the best use of their education. Too many are not fully literate, cannot cope with the mathematics essential to a full life today, have no real understanding of technology or economics, have poor general knowledge and cannot present themselves or their work in public. These are mere skills and could never figure in a university education. However, it should not be possible to achieve the status of graduate without these skills. They are essential and they should be mastered while in primary and secondary school. Most lecturers are aware of the literacy and the general knowledge problem. Many may be aware that perhaps the majority of students are poor communicators and that work today demands effective participation at meetings and making presentations. Some lecturers may not have noticed the mathematics problem. What do I mean by this? Here are a few examples that I’ve come across. Students frequently have no grasp of the magnitude of numbers. They would find the creation of mathematical expressions for, say, a spreadsheet very difficult. The concept of random distribution would be new to them. I won’t labour this on into basic science, technology and economics. The point is that today effective citizenship – never mind a job – requires these skills. While someone without them should not be at university, most certainly a graduate must have them.

A university is not the place for teaching skills. However, until such time as the rest of the educational system addresses the problem, universities in order to maintain standards and credibility should test for them. There can be no question of awarding grades, let alone making it part of the degree programme. This is about finding competence; it is pass or fail. I realize that suggesting such tests – and I’m not talking about labour intensive exams. – seems impractical or extreme for institutes of higher learning but I can’t come up with another short term remedy.


The following is from “Making the grade in maths”, The Irish Times, Wednesday, August 13, 2008

 “And it is not only the Leaving Cert results which should serve as a wake-up call. The most recent OECD survey ranked Irish teenagers 16th in maths out of 30 member countries. In overall English literacy tests, by contrast, Irish teenagers regularly take one of the top three places. A mid-table ranking in maths is simply not good enough for a country investing heavily in science, technology and innovation. Even at third level, academics tell of students – some with higher level Leaving Cert maths – who have a poor grasp of mathematical concepts and an inability to apply the knowledge they do have outside practised routine situations.”

 This is typical of the poorly informed consensus, which surrounds the education debate in Ireland.

No one with any teaching experience at 3rd level could take seriously the claim that Irish students are literate. Many are, but the overall standard of English is dreadful. It is equally true that students have a poor standard of general knowledge, are not numerate, and have a very poor grasp of mathematical, scientific and technological concepts.

The phrase, “practised routine situations”, above is telling. There is a problem in Irish primary and secondary education. Students are taught routines that will trick the examiners: memorised essays/answers in the humanities and memorised procedures in maths. It is hardly surprising that students are bored and lack the creative skills born of a good education. Consider the plight of a student who can solve a maths problem but doesn’t know why it is a problem, where it comes from or what it is for!

The quotation also peddles the familiar nonsense that humanities and maths/science can be kept apart. Anyone who really has thought about “the information society” would realise how dated this approach now is.