Book Review: They’re Not Dumb, They’re Different by Shiela Tobias

This review was first written in 1992, and I wonder how much has changed. The projected shortfall in scientists has not come to pass. It is more difficult than ever for PhDs to get jobs in science. But the challenge of public scientific literacy remains.


They're Not Dumb, They're Different: Stalking the Second TierThey’re Not Dumb, They’re Different: Stalking the Second Tier by Sheila Tobias

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This independently funded book, called an “occasional paper,” probably isn’t available in the local bookstore. I came across a largely favorable review of it in Science magazine, and sent for a copy. It addresses the question “what turns people off science?”

The author states that she was motivated to write the paper based on a projected shortfall in trained U.S. scientists in the coming decade, and by what she perceives is a general decline in scientific literacy in the public. The “second tier” of her title is made up of people who are smart enough to go into science, and who have had adequate secondary school preparation, but choose not to pursue science at the college level. Tobias is not a trained scientist, and the passion with which she presents her conclusions might lead one to suspect that she herself is a former member of the second tier.

Her methodology is intriguing, if not highly scientific: she selected a group of auditors, people who had achieved advanced degrees in non-science fields, and had them take introductory science courses at a local state university. The journals they kept during this exercise and Tobias’ discussion of their impressions form the major part of this book.

Some of the auditors’ comments were surprising in how positive they were about science the second time around. Without exception, all of the auditors liked the subject material, although they found it extremely challenging. Some of their other complaints can hardly be described as new or surprising to anyone who has ever taken a course (in any field) at the college level: too much material covered in too short a time, overemphasis on the “how,” rather than the “why,” endless problem sets which seemed to be the be-all and end-all to the course, at the expense of concepts or “discussion.”

But the biggest criticism leveled at introductory science courses was not at the material, but at the other people in the class. Every auditor described his or her fellow students as overly aggressive and competitive, talked about a complete lack of contact between professor and student, and lamented a “lack of community.” Materials was taught for the exams only, and that was all the students cared about. No one ever talked about the concepts after class. What mattered was not how a student did in an absolute sense, but how s/he did in relation to everyone else.

The book is long on anecdotes, but short on suggestions for improvement. For example, the criticism of weekly problem sets seemed very short-sighted to me. A discussion of how a twin could leave the earth, travel close to the speed of light, and come back younger than his brother would be interesting in a physics class, but it is no substitute for solving problems using the Lorentz transformations.

One might also argue that the existing competitive system doesn’t do badly: it selects for those who will succeed and thrive in the real world. Competition only gets worse after school is over. Perhaps these auditors made the right choice: science wasn’t for them.

But the author’s contention is that science needs these people too, not just because of some projected shortfall in college professors, but for the future of science as a whole. From the animal rights activists to the congressional auditors, there is no shortage of people who want to get back at scientists, a class of people they perceive as residing in an arrogant ivory tower. Efforts to get more people to take science classes or to educate the public about scientific issues may be useless, unless science is also made more accessible and more human. The college classroom wouldn’t be a bad place to start.

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5 thoughts on “Book Review: They’re Not Dumb, They’re Different by Shiela Tobias”

  1. I consider myself a middle-tier (as opposed to second tier) and think that science does itself a disservice by not welcoming people like me who have the drive to understand, bit maybe not the unrelenting discipline of a “lab rat”. Perhaps science wouldn’t be so ridiculed by so many of it weren’t so out of reach for the masses. 😘

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, that’s sort of how I feel too. I did go through the whole grad school thing and get a PhD, but at the end I discovered I really wasn’t interested in the standard scientific career that I’d been prepared for: academic PI at a major research institution. It took me a while to figure it out, but it turns out I enjoy teaching, just not at the university level. I find it much more enjoyable and meaningful to teach kids, and to teach the material at that more general, hands-on level.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. How interesting. We do seem to be losing our edge in this country — in a lot of areas of education — don’t we. We need LOTS of accountants, though, because money is our “currency” (not as in coin but in our approach to everything).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Although that’s often how it’s framed, as “losing our edge,” I don’t think that’s the most critical problem. We don’t need an “edge,” as in we don’t need to be better than other countries. Good science–and more importantly, good scientific thinking–can and should happen everywhere, in all countries. The more the better! The problem, in my opinion, is that we seem to be having a crisis of critical and scientific thinking in this country (and perhaps worldwide). All the conspiracy theories that people believe are frightening, especially because some of the conspiracy-mongering is packaged under the label of “thinking” and “deciding for yourself.” The fake news phenomenon is part of it too.


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