Alex Au “Yawning Bread” – very wise words from Singapore

There is much relevance here too to the way many in this country, including Julia Gillard, have come to view learning: Tough quiz an easy thing to do.

Let me offer my heartiest congratulations to the students from Raffles Girls’ School, Raffles Institution and Bukit Panjang Government High School who were the finalists in the National Science Challenge 2010.

The concluding round was aired over Mediacorp’s Channel 5 on Wednesday night, 11 August. Of course, one of the teams won, but I have already forgotten which one because it was really unimportant. All three were very good, demonstrating a grasp of scientific facts and concepts way above their fifteen or sixteen years…

Science is mostly apolitical. It would be a lot more complicated if the idea was to have a social studies quiz. Many aspects of social studies segue into sensitive or controversial subjects, and in Singapore, the difficulties are magnified by the political conformity demanded of schools and media. Moreover, it could be argued that in social studies, there are far fewer clearcut right/wrong answers as science has — though such a statement betrays much misunderstanding of the scientific process.

Nonetheless, I think we are all poorer for it. To have a televised quiz for the hard sciences without an equivalent one for the soft sciences has two effects:

  • through the engineered acclaim for hard science winners, we create a value differential between the hard sciences over the soft sciences;
  • through focussing on right/wrong answers that typify a hard science quiz, we promote the idea too broadly that the right/wrong binary is the standard or correct approach to any question.

The latter is actually very detrimental to intelligent thinking. The fact is, when it comes to knowledge, we’re always swimming in a soup of relativity and incomplete data; this is true even when it comes to scientific knowledge. The ability to deal critically with the relative and the incomplete is what makes intelligence. It is those who cannot function under these conditions and must cling to absolutes, who ultimately do not understand the world.

Alas, there are too many of them around us.

Oh so true!