Everyone should take science

Debates with my Daughters

Nitin Pai, is an unapologetic proponent of dad jokes

The first charge Fairy levelled against me was one of hypocrisy. How could I, after having always encouraged her to look beyond engineering and medicine as career options, declare that she should take the Physics, Chemistry, Mathematics & Biology (PCMB) option at the pre-university level? Had I not suggested economics, philosophy and other social sciences as subjects that offered rewarding career paths? So, why was I now arm twisting Tenth Graders of the World to take PCMB? What else was this other than pure hypocrisy?

Appearing in my own defence, I explained that the two exhortations were neither contradictory nor mutually exclusive. That everyone should study science and mathematics up to 12th standard (or pre-university) but can take up social sciences, business, arts and commerce at undergraduate or postgraduate levels. She saw the logic in the argument, but I do not think has completely exonerated me from the charges.

A few months after this, she accused me of a new offence — that of “judging” people who hadn’t taken science. People who take humanities and commerce, she declared indignantly, are as smart as the people who take science. It took some effort to convince her that I was not making judgements on individuals, but rather dispensing advice on how young people can best prepare themselves for the 21st century. She rolled her eyes. Airy gave a “there he goes again” look, and right before my eyes I could see the balance of power shifting away. I decided to press on nevertheless.

This is what I said: Taking science is necessary for two reasons — acquire vital knowledge and more importantly, to acquire reasoning skills. Since science is taught chronologically, the newest bits are not taught in secondary school. Stopping at Newton, Mendel and algebra means missing out at least a century of human progress. Most of our school boards are such that it’s only in the 11th year of school that you encounter Einstein, DNA and calculus, the stuff that you need today and tomorrow. In a way, the science that you learn at the 10th standard level is like an older version of iOS or Android.

More importantly, unless you’ve had a really good science teacher at secondary school, you don’t realise that science is actually not a “subject” but a method of knowing. It teaches you to be curious, sceptical and believe in things only to the extent there is evidence for them. It also teaches you to change your mind when new evidence emerges. Taking science for two more years improves the chances that you’ll develop better reasoning skills.

Without adequate scientific knowledge and reasoning skills, it will be hard to succeed in the 21st century. Should you store the stem cells from your baby’s umbilical cord? Is that expensive magnetic bracelet really going to save you from dangerous cell phone radiation? Will AI take over the world? Should you undergo the prescribed diagnostic test or treatment? Even if you can Google the questions, you’ll still have to make up your own mind. You’ll need economics and philosophy, too, but that can be picked up later.

Besides, it’s easier to move from science to liberal arts or social sciences at a later stage in life, than the other way around. (Which is why those in doubt on what to do with their lives ought to study engineering!)

When the time came, Fairy chose PCMB, but only partly because of my advice. Her main inspiration came from watching a Netflix show. My turn to roll eyes. A few weeks after school started, she came to me and complained that the “commerce gang” is having the time of their lives, while she’s labouring under physics problems, chemistry equations, maths derivations and biology memorisations. I started explaining the concept of opportunity costs, but at that moment at least, she was in no mood to listen.

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