Is it OK to bungle the science if the end message is good?

On Saturday morning I held a session for school students preparing to sit the 2013 Scholarship Physics exam. My intention is to help them prepare for this. It's a tough exam, aimed at rewarding the best school students in the various subjects. I talked through the principles behind answering various types of question, e.g. 'estimate' questions, mathematical questions, 'explain' questions and so forth, drawing heavily from previous exam papers. One of the questions we talked about was from the 2010 paper. Students were asked to critique the voice-over on a well-aired road safety ad of the time. (You can find the ad here – isn't YouTube wonderful?).

I won't go into the physics here, partly because I've already done it in a previous blog entry. Suffice to say that the advert will get approximately zero out of ten for scientific accuracy. However, it does get its central message across rather well, I think: Excessive speed causes crashes. So, I think it's reasonable to ask the question: "Is this a good advert?". We had a brief discussion on this on Saturday. There are several points that could be made. In defence of the ad, it does, I think, what it is designed to do – get people to think about how fast they drive.

But does it do more harm than good? It certainly doesn't promote scientific literacy by using science concepts incorrectly. We've already seen numerous examples of how lack of science understanding among the public can lead to outrageous decisions being made by politicians who rely on the public vote: governments drag their feet on tackling climate change (coz it will hit the voters in their pocket – not a smart political move) and in Hamilton we've had a narrow squeak over fluoridation – fortunately in the latter case the science won and a citizen's referendum has overturned a ridiculous decision made by the Hamilton City councillors. 

But the science can sometimes be hard to explain well. After I gave him what I thought was a clear, concise and accurate statement of what I thought the advert should say, my father-in-law replied on Saturday afternoon "no wonder they've done another explation – it's easier to understand" (or words to that effect).  Yes…but…it's not right.

Tricky one this.




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