Why Michael Gove is not fit to lead anything

GoveThere are mistakes due to ignorance. There are mistakes due to misunderstanding. And finally, there are mistakes that show ignorance, misunderstanding, complacency, and arrogance.

The news that Michael Gove wants to lead the country sent me back to what I wrote about him almost exactly 3 years ago. He was, of course, talking through his hat, and we all do that from time to time. But he did this while telling the rest of us, in his then capacity of Education Secretary, what to do and how to teach. Now it may not matter that Michael Gove has only a limited grasp of physics (actually, I think it does, when the physics of climate change underlie the most important single challenge facing us), but it matters enormously that a would-be future Prime Minister considers his ignorance a qualification.

Anyway, here is the gist of what I wrote back then, which is suddenly attracting a surprising number of hits, given its age:

The Education Secretary said “What [students] need is a rooting in the basic scientific principles, Newton’s laws of thermodynamics and Boyle’s law.” [reported here]. He has been widely criticized for this (e.g. here and here), but it’s still worth discussing exactly why what he said is so appallingly wrong, on at least four separate counts. In the unlikely event that Mr. Gove ever reads this, he may learn something. Muddling up the laws of motion with the laws of thermodynamics is bad enough. Muddling up an almost incidental observation, like Boyle’s Law, is even worse, especially when this muddle comes from someone in charge of our educational system [well, not mine actually; I’m glad to say I live in Scotland], and in the very act of his telling teachers and examiners what is, and what is not, important.

Okay, from the top. Newton’s laws; Gove probably meant (if he meant anything) Newton’s laws of motion, but he may also have been thinking of Newton’s law (note singular) of gravity. [I went on to summarise both Newton’s laws, and Newton’s law, and to explain how the combination of these explained the hitherto mysterious phenomenon of planetary motion and related it to the motion of falling bodies on Earth; an intellectual achievement not equalled until Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity]

But what about the laws of thermodynamics? These weren’t discovered until the 19th century, the century of the steam engine… [I briefly described them]

If you don’t immediately realize that Newton’s laws and the laws of thermodynamics belong to different stages of technology, the age of sail as opposed to the age of steam, and to different levels of scientific understanding, the individual and macroscopic as opposed to the statistical and submicroscopic, then you don’t know what you’re talking about. Gove’s blunder has been compared to confusing Shakespeare with Dickens. It is far, far worse than that. It is – I am at a loss for an adequate simile. All I can say is that it is as bad as confusing Newton’s laws with the laws of thermodynamics, and I can’t say worse than that.

And regarding Gove’s description of Boyle’s Law as “basic”, I had this to say:

He [Gove] has been justly mocked for confusing Newton’s laws with the laws of thermodynamics. But the kind of ignorance involved in describing Boyle’s Law as a “basic scientific principle” is far more damaging.

Disclosure: I taught Boyle’s Law for over 40 years, and it gets three index entries in my book, From Stars to Stalagmites.

Bottom line: Boyle’s Law is not basic. It is a secondary consequence of the kinetic theory of gases, which is basic. The difference is enormous, and matters. Anyone who thinks that Boyle’s Law is a principle doesn’t know what a principle is. (So Gove doesn’t know what a principle is? That figures.)

Mathematically, the Law is simply stated, which may be why Mr Gove thinks it is basic: volume is inversely proportional to pressure, which gives you a nice simple equation (P x V = a constant) that even a Cabinet Minister can understand. But on its own, it is of no educational value whatsoever. It only acquires value if you put it in its context [in the kinetic theory of gases], but this involves a concept of education that seems to be beyond his understanding…

Educationally, context is everything, the key to understanding and to making that understanding worthwhile. A person who decries the study of context is unfit for involvement with education.

Even at Cabinet level.

And, I would now add, completely unfit for making major decisions in these interesting times.

Image: Gove claiming that EU regulations prevent us from keeping out terrorists. Dylan Martinez via Daily Telegraph

About Paul Braterman

Science writer, former chemistry professor; committee member British Centre for Science Education; board member and science adviser Scottish Secular Society; former member editorial board, Origins of Life, and associate, NASA Astrobiology Insitute; first popsci book, From Stars to Stalagmites 2012

Posted on June 30, 2016, in Education, Politics and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. I take it that you don’t much like the guy! Lpok at it from the positive side: thanks to him, Boris backed away from his short-term ambition to becom PM. That would have been a bigger disaster. My brother who’s lived in Germany for the last 67 yrs asked me who the looney looking politician was with the mop of unruly hair. If first impressions really do count then no one in Germany would take him seriously. To many of us in the UK he’s a clown!

    As to Gove’s ignorance in confusing Newton’s Laws of Motion with thermodynamics, would you have been equally unimpressed had he promoted Carnot’s Cycle!


    • Perhaps I did not make my points sufficiently clear. My complaint is not that Gove lacks the kind of understanding of science that should be part of any educated person’s mental furniture. The same is true, alas, for virtually every politician in Westminster (and, for that matter, in Holyrood). my complaint is that this staggering degree of ignorance did not prevent him from telling physics teachers what they should emphasise when teaching physics. In other words, he does not know the difference between when he does, and when he does not, know enough to framed policy. In a Prime Minister, that could (as today’s report reminds us) be a fault with devastating consequences


      • Your points are valid. However, I suspect that physics teachers knew what he should have stated; seems like a case of scientific malapropism. I once had a house cleaner who regularly confused Dulux paint with Durex paint which probably rated a higher index of unintentional humour than Gove’s faux pas. Sadly, Gove humour is no laughing matter!


      • No. As i wrote, He [Gove] has been justly mocked for confusing Newton’s laws with the laws of thermodynamics. But the kind of ignorance involved in describing Boyle’s Law as a “basic scientific principle” is far more damaging. I go on to explain why


  2. It was as if his official educational policy was “well, that’s how I was taught and it never did me any harm”.


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