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