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The "Why?" Question

Bill Meredith

Definition of a "Scientist:" "You could look for the tiniest bug and see it and call it a bug, but if you were a scientist you would know more than a hundred names for it." By a fifth-grade student.

(3/2017) March is here again. At noon today, the sun’s rays will hit the earth just below the equator, and because the earth’s axis is tilted 23.5 degrees, each day the sun will appear to move just a bit northward. As a result, each day will be about two minutes longer. And on the 20th, the sun will stand directly over the equator, and spring will begin.

From my earliest memories, March has always been an interesting time. Of course when I was three or four years old I knew nothing about the earth’s movements, but I knew January and February didn’t seem to have much personality; they were always cold, and the ground stayed covered with snow, which was pretty for a day or two when it fell, but it soon became a dingy gray color from the smoke of our coal-fired stoves and furnace. But as March approached Grandma would begin sitting at the kitchen table with her Almanac, planning the garden; and she would start tomato and pepper seeds in big clay pots, while she waited to see if March would come in as a lamb or a lion. And I knew March was windy, so soon we would be able to go up to the neighbor’s farm, which was on the highest hilltop in the area, and fly kites. March was a good time to be four years old in those days.

My grandmother was a much better gardener than I will ever be. She knew when to plant and how to tend and harvest things; and the foundation of it all was what she had learned from her parents and grandparents. She knew the "signs;" root crops like beets and carrots were planted in the "down sign," while tomatoes, peas and beans were planted in the "up sign." And she followed traditions: potatoes were planted on St. Patrick’s Day, except when it fell on a Sunday. She added to that base of information by reading seed catalogs and magazines like the Farm Journal; so she knew a lot. In those days, you weren’t supposed to be proud of what you knew, because pride was a sin; but she was an intelligent woman, and she took pleasure in knowing things. Her limitation was that the kinds of things she knew were answers to "what" and "how" questions. She didn’t ask "why," because in that time and culture, the answer to "why" was already known. It was "because that’s how God made it." The effect of celestial mechanics on the earth’s movement and the passing of the seasons were known to science then, but they were of no interest to her.

Sometime in the 1960s, I ran across the definition of "scientist" quoted above in one of the journals I subscribed to. I suspect when I was in the fifth grade, I might have agreed with it. It seemed that when you started learning science you were hit immediately by learning a whole new vocabulary of names for things. Biology is especially plagued by this; we had to learn to tell oak trees from ash trees, but then we had to learn that oak was Quercus and ash was Fraxinus... and then there were all of those different species of oaks and ashes, each of which had a Latin species name. In a way, I was lucky because I had the kind of mind that finds memorization fairly easy… even like a game sometimes… so I was good at "what" questions. I sounded smart because I learned big words easily; but at "why" questions, which require logic and problem-solving, I was a pretty average kid.

The study of ecology goes through a progression of questions. For example, if you decide to study a forest, you must start by finding out what lives there; so you begin by doing a survey to identify the plants and animals… the "what" question. Then you start counting things and determine what species are most common and most rare… the "how many" question. As a result, you end up with huge amounts of information; you have described the forest, but you haven’t really explained anything. In a forest around here, you would see that the most common trees are oaks; there are old rotting chestnut stumps and logs, but no living chestnuts. Why? And there are many patches where the oaks have died recently. Why? And where the oaks died, there are locusts and aspens growing, but no new oaks. Why? What happened in the past? What is happening now? What will happen in the future? Why, why, why?

This pattern of education is not unique to science; most other disciplines are similar. You have to begin with a common language: in history, places and dates; in literature, authors, prose and poetry; in economics, production and consumption… and so on. A vocabulary must be learned, which is potentially boring. Good teachers find ways to make it interesting; inferior teachers resort to memorization. The "who, what, when" questions occupy an excessive amount of time at the beginning; but you have to learn them before you can understand the really interesting and important stuff, the "how" and "why" questions. In our school system, most students don’t get to those really interesting questions until high school, and by that time many of them have been turned off. Nearly 7% of high school students drop out… that’s 1.2 million kids a year. This has profound consequences; during their lifetimes they will earn $200,000 less than those who graduate, and a million dollars less than college graduates.

It would be wrong to presume these people are unintelligent or morally deficient. I believe they fall into the same normal distribution of ability as the rest of the population… a few are below average, a few are above, and most are somewhere in the middle. The difference, I think, is that these kids left the educational system before they learned how to deal with "why" questions. They have not learned ask "why," and to demand accurate facts when looking for an answer; so they can be persuaded by rumors or outright lies. And they have not learned to assemble complex facts into a logical explanation or argument. Hence, as the world becomes more complicated, they are vulnerable.

Years ago, I saw a TV interview with the last survivor of Hitler’s Reich, and industrialist who received a life sentence at the Nuremberg trials. He was very old, but alert; I think he might have been Albert Speer, but I’m not sure. I have not been able to find a record of the interview; but I remember almost verbatim what he said. The interviewer asked him how Hitler was able to persuade so many people to follow him; and the old man replied, in perfect English: "We Germans are a remarkable people. We are honest, intelligent, and industrious; we are clean, generous, and cultured; we love music and art. But we have a fault. We are easily misled."

That was, as I said, a long time ago. I was a teacher, so I was concerned about how people learned; and those were worrisome times. As the idealism of President Kennedy faded, the disillusion of Vietnam grew, and the amorality of Watergate increased, I saw a change in how young people reacted to the educational process. The theory of "why questions" hadn’t occurred to me yet; but it was beginning to germinate. And as computers started to take over our thinking for us, it progressed. So now, here we are… easily misled?

Read other articles by Bill Meredith