Last night, I had an exchange on twitter which I’ve been thinking about since it happened. For the sake of brevity, I’ve Storified it here (click on that link and read it before continuing, otherwise the rest of what I write here will make very little sense). What happened essentially was, I read this fellow’s article, had some problems with his argument, but was intrigued and attempted to start a conversation about it on twitter. I was surprised to receive a response from the writer, who is sort of a big deal – he’s the director of a national science education organization. So, when he asked about my problems with his argument, I did my best to respectfully explain.
The article in question is a satirical one, which essentially equates the importance of learning English skills (reading, writing, communicating) universally in every class to the importance of learning mathematics in every class. He’s saying that because math is crucial to understanding the nature of the world we live in, that it ought to carry as much importance in education as English.
Now, I’m a physics major and interested in communicating science to the public, so I understand the importance of a solid grasp of basic mathematical concepts. People hate on math a lot, which is unfair, and fear of math (mathophobia) is extremely prevalent, which is unfortunate. But I don’t believe that teaching math in every class is the answer, and as my friend Heather Archuletta, who is both very smart and authoritative, said, it “is frankly not comparable in many ways, and the poor premise doesn’t hold up. In his view, math must permeate all parts of education. I can’t think of a better way to alienate kids from math… Math, as he says, may be the language of nature – but, it is not the way humans communicate with one another as a daily experience.”
Dr. Goldstein responded to my disagreement with a barrage of tweets about why math is important. When I say “barrage,” I am not exaggerating: in about 15 minutes, he sent me over 25 tweets, mostly about the beauty of math. I did not respond with disagreement to most of his tweets (because I didn’t disagree – math can be beautiful and is crucial to understanding our universe), and yet they continued. It was overwhelming. While part of me was flattered that an established member of the science communication community was taking my disagreement so seriously, I felt more and more bullied as the tweets came pouring in. I almost deleted this blog post several times, because I am just starting out in the online science community and I don’t want to alienate anyone. I wondered if maybe I wasn’t just being sensitive, and friends who read the tweets reassured me that he wasn’t just responding; he was trying to bombard me with tweets so that I would feel insignificant and shut up.
Here’s the thing, though. I don’t want to shut up. At first, I wanted to start a conversation about how we teach math and English in schools. I read his article and was curious for other people’s comments. Now, I want to start a conversation about how we, as scientists and educators, interact. Yes, everyone has bad days, and I’m sure that Dr. Goldstein was just having a bad day and, as he said, too much coffee, and he was just in no mood to take criticism. I’m sure he’s a good man and a good educator, because otherwise he wouldn’t have gotten as far as he has. But he is a grown man who is successful in his field and I am a young undergraduate student just starting out. Think of what would happen if I was unsure about going into science, or even if I just didn’t yet know how great most of the scientists on twitter are. It’s a good thing that I am confident in my intelligence and self-expression, because I can brush this sort of thing off. But what if I wasn’t?
…Which brings me to my point. Why are we trying to shut anyone up? I was not trying to incite an argument – I legitimately think that this is an interesting topic, and I wanted to have a discussion. Shouldn’t that sort of thing be expected on an open medium like twitter? Isn’t that what it’s for? I make an effort to keep my internet presence friendly – I don’t swear on twitter (even though that’s not the easiest for me), I let people know when I like something they’ve posted, and I am always open to critique or conversation with anybody. However, I’m new to this. Many other people are, too, and I value all of the new input, the voices I wasn’t able to hear before. It’s important to me. So, I guess my point is, as communicators our job is to tell people our perspective and talk about other perspectives, and that includes everyone, from professionals like Dr. Goldstein all the way down to students like me.
Also, don’t be mean to strangers on the internet because they might be upset and then write a whole thing about it.
UPDATE: Dr. Goldstein has written a comment below that you should read. He turned me venting about a mediocre situation and feeling bad into an actual conversation and addressed pretty much all of my concerns. Also, check out his work with the National Center for Earth and Space Science Education, because it is good work and they’re doing some awesome things.