The boy who knew too much: a child prodigy

This is the true story of scientific child prodigy, and former baby genius, Ainan Celeste Cawley, written by his father. It is the true story, too, of his gifted brothers and of all the Cawley family. I write also of child prodigy and genius in general: what it is, and how it is so often neglected in the modern world. As a society, we so often fail those we should most hope to see succeed: our gifted children and the gifted adults they become. Site Copyright: Valentine Cawley, 2006 +

Friday, November 07, 2008

The decline in science.

Does science have a future? I ask because science is in decline - the young simply aren't studying it anymore.

I have seen three different studies of scientific decline in the UK recently.

One piece of evidence was the number of A level students (equivalent to part of a college degree in America), studying Physics. In 1985 there were about 46,000 A level Physics students in the UK, by 2005 that number had declined to 28,000.

Another item of data is comparative statistics for O level (an exam no longer taken in the mainland UK, though still popular overseas) and GCSE physics. At its height, there were FOUR times as many O level Physics candidates as there were GCSE (a weaker replacement exam of much lower standard) Physics students in the UK in 2006. Thus, if we think of the educational process as a funnel, there were four times fewer people entering that funnel for the physical sciences in 2006, than there were in the 1980's. That is a huge loss in scientific potential and understanding.

The final piece of evidence comes from data on the relative decline in doctoral science degrees in the UK. Over the last ten years, the proportion of doctoral degrees (PhD and the like) that were in science has declined from 65% to 59% of the degrees. This occurred against a backdrop increase of 79% in doctoral degrees, in general, in the UK in the same period. Physics, Chemistry, Engineering and Technology degrees were all affected by this decline.

I found these three pieces of evidence very disturbing. You see, they indicate a decline in interest in pursuing science at all levels and ages of the educational system in the UK. I have detailed figures for the UK, but the UK is not the only country facing challenges in this area: I have read of complaints of similar problems in the US. No doubt, other developed nations face similar issues. Quite simply, the enlightenment that science brings will soon be no more. A new darkness of ignorance threatens the happy future so many envisage for our civilization.

Think about this. In the UK, there is only a quarter of the former levels of people receiving an education in Physics, at O level. That means that almost all those who would once have come to understand the basic workings of the world, now no longer do so. They study other things instead: perhaps "mass communications" and the like. These non-science students, become adults who do not understand how the world works. They do not value or respect science. They will not understand it and may not support it. They cannot make scientifically informed decisions about what is meaningful in the things they are told. In all, it means that science will become ever more marginalized - both science and scientists, seen as something unnecessary, "uncool" and perhaps even undesirable. The fact that science underpins the entire edifice of modern civilization will be overlooked by most of them.

The big problem with declines in understanding of science at the population level - as this is - is that it denudes the future generations not only of scientists, but of science teachers. Fewer people will be equipped to prepare future generations of scientific thinkers - and so fewer children will get the opportunity to be taught science by those who understand it - and so it goes on, in a self-pertuating cycle. Each generation threatens to become more ignorant than the one before it.

At first, the effects may be unnoticeable, because not so long ago, it was difficult for every scientist who wanted to work in science, to do so: there was too much competition for jobs. Well, that competition will diminish. Yet, there will still be people, at first, to fill the jobs. They may, however, be of lesser quality (since the pool from which they are drawn is now four times smaller). The quality of their output may not match their predecessors. Science as a discipline will begin to decline.

In just two decades, the UK has shown a four fold decline in basic physical science education. That is a trend that very quickly leads to complete ignorance, should it continue. What is even more telling about this is that there once were four times as many students taking a MUCH MORE DIFFICULT Physics exam (which the O level is, compared to the GCSE). So, not only is there a decline in numbers, but there is a decline in standard of knowledge, too. How is it that just a generation ago, four times as many students met a more difficult scientific challenge than today's children are meeting? It is all very worrying.

I am surprised that so little is being done about this, by the UK government. I see no concerted effort to reverse this trend. What they appear to be oblivious to is that what is being lost is the very expertise needed to support a technological civilization. The older, scientifically educated generation will retire and die - and in their place, there will be a much smaller generation of scientifically educated Britons. Will they be enough to sustain the UK's technological base? Perhaps Britain will import Indians and Chinese - just like the Americans are doing. Yet, that is no solution, for there are only so many of those to go around - and they have many other nations enticing them, too.

Science is dying, in the UK. I do not say this lightly or without justification. I draw your attention to one other fact. In the last 8 years, 30% of Britain's Universities have closed their Physics departments, owing to a lack of students and consequent support. Anyone who cares about the future of science and technology should be very alarmed by that. There is a steep contraction in Britain's science base, underway. It remains to be seen what long-term effects this will have on the British nation as a whole.

There are, no doubt, many reasons for this decline. One is that science is hard and so many other things are much easier. Many students decide to take the easy options, lured by the promise of glamorous careers and high salaries. Then again, science offers relatively poor pay and career progression. If this trend is to be reversed, students must see science as attractive: it must be a well-paid career that offers intellectual rewards, glamour, security, benefits and prestige. If that were so, this decline would soon be reversed. However, if this is to be so, there must be a genuine change of priorities in society: from the highest levels, science must be prioritized and valued. Science must become the career that kids dream of - for then the scientific and technological future of the modern world would be assured. If this is not done, in the UK and, perhaps in other countries, too, science doesn't seem to have much of a future.

If anyone has figures for other nation's regarding science education, I would welcome them: please post them below.

(If you would like to learn more of Ainan Celeste Cawley, a scientific child prodigy, aged eight years and seven months, or his gifted brothers, Fintan, five years exactly, and Tiarnan, twenty-eight months, please go to: I also write of gifted education, IQ, intelligence, the Irish, the Malays, Singapore, College, University, Chemistry, Science, genetics, left-handedness, precocity, child prodigy, child genius, baby genius, adult genius, savant, wunderkind, wonderkind, genio, гений ребенок prodigy, genie, μεγαλοφυία θαύμα παιδιών, bambino, kind.

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posted by Valentine Cawley @ 8:47 PM 


Blogger thoughtfulape said...

First off Valentine, let me say that I have been enjoying your blog for several months but this is my first venture into the comments section. While I often disagree with some of what you post, your opinions are always provocative and interesting.
Thanks for the interesting reading!

On to the subject at hand.
You highlight some of the problems which have produced the phenomenon of a lower uptake of physics and other hard sciences. Where I disagree with you is in your belief that the problem is politically solvable.
Indeed politics is central to the problem in my opinion at least in Britain and the United States!
Education in the English speaking world has been hijacked by a left-wing ethos. (Why I believe this is relevant to a decline in the number of students studying science subjects will become clear eventually, I promise!)

The entire edifice of state education is driven by
1)competition with private sector educational providers

2)an egalitarian worldview that is sharply at odds with the underlying reality

The idiocy is probably summed up best in Tony Blairite call of 'Excellence for all' in education. Clearly an oxymoron if ever there was one! The value of an education may be absolute but the value of a grade is clearly relative. Excellence by its very definition is a relative measure!

Put yourself in the shoes of the British educational establishment and their political paymasters in government. You are anxious to mask both the bankruptcy of your ideology, the incompetence of your educational regime and the yawning chasm that exists between your own tax funded schools and the fee charging private schools with whom your students compete for university places.

To disguise the utter failure of your educational ideas you do two things.

1) cap the measurement of academic attainment at a low enough point that the highest grade is within reach of as many people as you can politically get away with thus blurring distinctions at the upper end. (25% of all AS level grades awarded are now the top mark!)

2) move away from the testing of factual knowledge and move toward towards testing 'critical thinking' Who could object to thinking critically?

Furthermore you obscure what you are claiming to measure even further through endless waffle about new paradigms, the knowledge economy, the information age and other currently fashionable buzzwords and terminology de jour. To be blunt, through bullshit.

'Testing' the latter offers the advantage that because grading criteria are irreducibly subjective and fuzzy the incompetence of the educators can be hidden. When you are measuring how much knowledge has been effectively imparted there is no such wiggle room.

Now I ask you Valentine, if you were a fairly bright but not brilliant young person (lets say IQ 120 or so) and under the stewardship of incompetent teachers, which would you prefer? A test of how much you knew or a test of how well you could bullshit?

While genuine understanding is hard, subjective opinion is easy particularly if the student in question is fairly bright and can figure out how to play the game.

Even if you are less cynical than myself and take modern educators at their word for what they are measuring it seems difficult to deny that the capacity to think critically is a far more innate ability than knowledge of a particular subject. From the incompetent educators perspective a test of his students innate ability is a far more desirable one than a test of his training or knowledge.

The hard sciences offer less scope for bullshit. Ignorance WILL show. Declining standards can't be masked by glib wordage or recourse to currently trendy buzzwords as they can in the arts. The effects of a shoddy education are more brutally exposed even in bright students when it comes to science subjects.

Why would poor schools encourage their students to take such subjects or badly educated students seek to study them?

Lastly, in the United Kingdom school grading occurs against a set of supposedly objective benchmark criteria rather than against a bellcurve.
This suits educational propagandists as they can boast of ever better results in the Long March toward educational utopia.

While real educational standards have been falling in the government-run schools, the British educational establishment has been busily printing A grade exam certificates the way Robert Mugabe prints currency with predictable inflationary results.

What British exam results resemble is not so much a real measure of academic attainment but the bogus statistics purporting to measure the Soviet Union's industrial output, that kept on soaring right up to its political and economic collapse.

To expect a solution from these people is futile. Having had the dubious honor of such an education myself I know whereof I speak!

10:21 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Thank you, Thoughtfulape, for breaking your silence!

Basically, you are arguing that, in order to raise the apparent success of their schools, teachers (and the "system") are encouraging British students to take easier subjects, than the hard sciences. No doubt the students themselves are motivated to do so, as well, because the better grades make them look smarter - even if they are in "mass communications" and other trendy nonsense.

There is a political solution, Thoughtfulape: make Physics, Chemistry, Biology and Maths mandatory subjects that all must take and pass before leaving school. Were this done, perforce, at the very least students would have a basic science education that prepared them for the modern world. I realize, however, that this would be a hugely unpopular policy, politically, and would probably lead to the failure of that particular government, at the polls, the next time around (which is probably why they wouldn't do it, despite the evident need for such a policy).

If Britain continues to allow its students to avoid all the hard subjects, too few students will be equipped to think, in the future. Quite simply, Britain will be unable to support a technological civilization without massive import of talent. However, as Britain will, no doubt, discover, that talent is in limited supply and much desired elsewhere, too: like in the USA.

All this leaves me worried about the future of the UK.

Thank for your comment. Feel free to do so again in future...Cheers.

7:16 AM  

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