Raising Heretics to Save the World

This is an excerpt from Raising Heretics, available now online in ebook and paperback format (check out adsei.org for international links & ebooks).

It’s time to change the world. We need creative problem solvers to address catastrophic climate change, income inequality, pandemics, ecological collapse, misinformation, radicalisation, and many more problems facing humanity. We need critical thinkers. Rational Sceptics. People willing to challenge the status quo.

Unfortunately, we have an education system that’s exceptionally good at turning out obedient people full of “facts” and unshakeable opinions. This book proposes a new approach to education that empowers our children to solve real problems, to challenge their own results, and to shake up the status quo on the basis of evidence and data.

I founded the Australian Data Science Education Institute in 2018 because I wanted to show kids that they are capable of working with technology, that it is relevant to them, and that they don’t have to look like Sheldon from the Big Bang Theory in order to learn to program.

It’s well known that the technology industry has a diversity problem when it comes to women, but lack of diversity goes way beyond gender. By trying to increase the number of women and girls in STEM, we are only tackling the easy part – though it’s actually not that easy, judging by the sheer volume of women in STEM programmes and the persistently stubborn failure of the numbers to actually shift.

The problem is that we consistently attract the kinds of people to tech that are already there. We are missing big chunks of the population – boys included. Boys who don’t see themselves as nerdy, or who don’t see the point of tech. Girls who don’t see it as relevant to them. Non binary and gender queer kids who don’t see themselves as represented or welcome in any of the tech programmes available to them.

If we had true diversity in technology and Data Science, we’d have a range of ethnic and cultural backgrounds, as well as people with a wide range of physical abilities. We’d have people on our design teams that are mobility compromised, vision impaired, with allergies, with varied gender identities and sexualities, with every possible skin tone and body shape. We’d have people who act differently, dress differently, think differently, and have different needs. I have headphones that don’t work well with long hair, for goodness’ sake! Guess who was on that design team?

This lack of diversity is bad for the technology industry, but it’s even worse for the rest of us, because technology is changing the shape of our world at an alarming rate, and we currently have very little say in our own future. Companies like Uber and Doordash are radically changing our working conditions and eliminating hard won entitlements and protections, while Facebook and Youtube spread misinformation and encourage radicalisation, all in the name of keeping people on their platforms and maximising their profits. Our world is being directly shaped by technology companies that are working in ways we don’t understand and have no control over.

Meanwhile we see human resources companies using AI to filter job applicants, claiming that their system eliminates “human bias”, without admitting the possibility that it introduces new forms of machine bias. We see “predictive policing” algorithms being used to predict crime and target particular communities in disturbing ways. We see a rush towards machine learning and artificial intelligence systems for their own sake, rather than for problems they can legitimately solve, and we have a wholly unwarranted confidence in the accuracy, reliability, and objectivity of their output.

It turns out that diversity in the technology industry is only a small part of the reason why teaching all kids Data Science and STEM skills matters. The big part is that we need a technology and data literate population who are trained to think critically and creatively, and, in particular, trained to believe that they can solve problems. That’s the world we need to build. And the foundation stone of world building has to be education.

We have a choice. We can train kids to be obedient process followers who don’t rock the boat, or we can train them to be challenging, critical and creative thinkers who ask difficult questions and come up with innovative solutions to our worst problems.

Above all, we need people who are prepared to be heretical.

Who ask “why?

Who ask “how can we be sure?”

Who ask “what have we missed?”

Who ask “how can we do better?”

Who ask “who are we hurting?”

Who ask “how can we fix this for everyone?”

Who ask “how will we know how well it works?”

These questions are often heretical. By asking them, I’ve sometimes made my bosses very unhappy. They make people uncomfortable. But they are crucial to building an ethical, sustainable, positive future for all of us.

I have a PhD in Computer Science Education and over twenty years experience teaching Computational and Data Science at both Secondary and Tertiary levels. Now I’m the Founder and Executive Director of the Australian Data Science Education Institute (ADSEI) – a registered charity dedicated to ensuring every student is empowered with data literacy, Data Science, and STEM skills. I started ADSEI because I figured out how to engage kids with STEM and Data Science skills, and I wanted to engage all kids, not just the kids in my own classes. I thought this would help improve diversity in the technology industry, but I have come to realise the problem is far more fundamental than that.

All of my time in education has made it clear to me just how badly wrong education has gone. We continue to make the same educational mistakes we’ve been making for decades. We are failing our children, and, in doing so, we are sabotaging our future. If we want to build a future that is evidence based, rational, and inclusive, then our education system clearly needs to change.

There are so many signs that our current education system is missing the mark. When my teenager gets frustrated because she doesn’t understand how what she’s learning in maths could ever be useful. When a primary school kid says science is boring. When a high school kid says maths is too hard, or science isn’t for them, or they aren’t smart enough to program a computer. None of these things would happen if education was working. It’s obvious that it’s not.

And that’s unsurprising, since the primary focus of education is a matter of facts, rote learning, and mindless application of procedures. By giving kids “experiments” to do that have known inputs and known results, we teach science as confirmation bias. This trains them that the important thing is to get the right, expected answer (and if you get a different answer, fudge things until it’s right!), rather than exploring the unknown and looking for new things.

Although the importance of STEM is widely acknowledged, it is frequently taught as a matter of tech toys, rather than a crucial tool for solving real problems. This commonly comprises a day of robotics play, or the installation of a maker space where kids can tinker with 3D printers and laser cutters. These toys are frequently error prone and difficult to use, so when kids don’t find them fun, or have trouble using them, they assume that STEM is something they can’t do.

Even when problem solving tools like Design Thinking are introduced in the classroom, they are often only used to solve toy problems that don’t relate to challenges that kids can tackle in real life. Design Thinking plays with trips to Mars, or responding to a famine in Ethiopia, instead of taking one of the many problems in our own schools and communities and empowering kids to solve it. You can’t teach problem solving properly if you skip the really tough part; implementing your solution and then troubleshooting all the ways it doesn’t work the way you thought it would.

By doing this, we tell kids that they can’t make a difference until they are grown up, when we could be giving them the tools to make a positive difference in their world today.
The truth is, with this kind of education we have got really good at turning out obedient kids who follow the rules and do as they are told. And those are not the kind of people we need to overcome the huge crises we’re facing. We need people who are confident, skilled, knowledgeable, and prepared to stand their ground and argue a point. We need people who see things differently, who look for new answers, who understand uncertainty, and who ask hard questions. We need people who are “unbossable”,who don’t do what they’re told without first understanding why it’s the right thing to do. We need people who challenge the status quo. We need people who consider ethics first, rather than as an afterthought or not at all.

Meanwhile, Science has somehow become a partisan political football. Australia’s response to the Covid19 crisis was effective, largely because the Government followed the advice of experts in epidemiology. Unfortunately, we face a larger and more serious existential crisis in the form of climate change, and in this case, the Government is ignoring experts and investing deeply in denialism and cheap grabs for immediate power and profit.

Policy in this country (and most of the world) is largely driven by ideology, powerful lobby groups, and manipulative media organisations, rather than by science and evidence. This kind of destructive behaviour is justified with dodgy data and deeply suspect visualisations, and all too often even the media lack either the scepticism or the skill to call them out.

Inequality is rising under the influence of capitalism-driven globalisation that promises better lives for all via the concept of “trickle down economics”, which the data shows quite clearly does not work. We resist Universal Basic Income on the basis that people would stop working out of laziness, when the data from the trials so far shows not only that people don’t stop working, but also that they become more entrepreneurial. Our governments sell off natural assets, log native forests, privatise essential services like health and education, and give tax cuts to big business despite evidence showing that the best way to stimulate the economy is to give money to poor people. As a population, we swallow the line that it is all for our own benefit, and vote the same people back in.

Social media also drags us by the nose, constructing ever more cunning ways to tie us to their platforms, milk us for data and profit, and manipulate our behaviour, all without our informed consent. Our social and workplace gains are casually undermined by disruptive technologies, while we have no input into, and even less control over, the way they shape our future.

This is why we need a rationally sceptical population. We need to stop being irrationally sceptical of climate science and vaccines and start being rationally sceptical of government policy, business motives, and media beatups.

We need to build a new world. And world building has to start with education.

Whose restrictions are tighter?

There has been much squabbling about covid restrictions in NSW and Victoria, with very little evidence or data involved in the discussion. As a data science educator, I often stress that not all data is numeric. A reasonable dictionary definition of data, courtesy of Oxford Languages via Google is “Facts and statistics collected together for reference or analysis”, and I have to say that the covid debates, all of them, are far too sparing in their use of data, whether facts or statistics. So I decided to collect some facts and compare the restrictions, as listed on the state health department websites. This is an exercise you could easily do in class, and it is a wonderful application of data science.

NSW is currently under 3 different levels of restriction, depending on locale, so I have chosen to compare the Victoria wide restrictions with the Greater Sydney restrictions, as they involve the greatest proportion of the population.

The “too long, didn’t read” version of the comparison is: Victoria’s current lockdown is significantly stricter than the one in Greater Sydney. The only way in which NSW is stricter is the pausing of construction, which has not happened in Victoria.

NSW has quite a lot more retail open than Victoria, has a 10km limit compared with Victoria’s 5km, has childcare remaining open, as well as sporting facilities such as golf, tennis, and bowls, whereas in Victoria childcare is open, but golf, tennis, and bowls clubs are all closed. NSW also has a lot more permitted retail than Victoria.

It’s interesting to note the simplicity of Victoria’s mask rules, versus the bewildering complexity of NSW’s. This, to me, explains quite clearly why “masks outside” is important. Because if the rule is “wear your mask whenever you leave the house”, compliance is much simpler than “wear your mask when any of these conditions apply: (long list of situations where fine judgement applies).

It wasn’t difficult to find all of this out, but it did take me around half an hour of trawling through the two websites. All of the people who are on the internet shouting “NSW’s restrictions are tougher than Victoria’s!” and “There’s nothing more we can do, we are locked down as hard as we can” are absolutely playing fast and loose with the facts.

NSW can clearly be locked down harder, which so far seems to be working to suppress the virus in Victoria. We don’t know for sure that it will work now that the virus has spread so far in NSW, but we certainly don’t know for sure that it would not work. And it seems obvious that we should try, because the consequences are too awful to contemplate, in number of deaths, long term serious illness, and also the almost inevitable spread of covid to the rest of the country.

So before you leap into this, or any, debate armed with opinions and no facts, perhaps you could cautiously check your facts, and consider your options. Ideology is killing us. Facts could save us, if only we were prepared to listen to them.

We urgently need to train everyone, especially our kids, to collect the facts before forming opinions. It’s why I created the Australian Data Science Education Institute, and why I wrote Raising Heretics: Teaching Kids to Change the World.(which, by the way, you can pre-order now if you’re in Australia or NZ, or buy from all the usual places when it launches on August 1st)

Below is all of the information laid out for comparison.

Reasons to leave home, NSW: Only leave home if you have a reasonable excuse:

  • obtaining food “or other goods and services” for the personal needs of the household, or for other household purposes, or for vulnerable people, within 10km
  • to go to work if “you cannot reasonable work from home” or you “are an authorised worker living in the locked down areas
  • For education if it is not possible to do it at home
  • Exercise within 10km
  • Medical or caring reasons, including vaccination

Oh, but there’s a list of other reasonable excuses on another page, including to access childcare (which remains open), to visit intimate partners, gathering at Parliament.

Reasons to leave home, Vic:

  • shopping for necessary goods and services
  • care and care giving
  • exercise
  • authorised work and permitted study
  • to visit an intimate partner, single social bubble buddy, or an emergency

You must stay within 5km for shopping or exercise

Facemasks, NSW:

  • indoors when not at home,
  • some outdoor gatherings (working in an outdoor area, next to food & drink or retail, fresh food markets),
  • public transport,
  • major recreation facility such as a stadium,
  • working in hospitality,
  • construction sites,
  • indoors and outdoors at fresh food markets,
  • at covidsafe outdoor gatherings, and at controlled outdoor public gatherings (it was not easy to find out what these are and whether they are currently allowed).
  • Common indoor areas in residential buildings

Facemasks, Vic:

  • Indoors and outdoors whenever you leave your home
  • You do not need to wear a facemask if you are working alone, whether indoors or outdoors, unless another person enters the space.

Permitted retail, NSW:

  • supermarkets
  • grocery stores including butchers, bakeries, fruit and vegetable, seafood
    other food or drink retailers that predominantly sell or display food or drinks
  • kiosks and other small food and drink premises
  • petrol stations
  • banks and financial institutions
  • hardware, building supplies
  • landscaping material supplies
  • agricultural and rural supplies
  • shops that, in the normal course of business, operate as or sell and display
    • pet supplies
    • newsagents
    • office supplies
    • chemists providing health, medical, maternity and baby supplies or
    • liquor stores
    • post offices
    • garden centres and plant nurseries
    • vehicle hire premises, not including the premises at which vehicles are sold;
    • shops that predominantly carry out repairs of mobile phones
    • laundromats and drycleaners.

“Businesses may continue to operate if they provide goods and services to customers and follow the requirements for wearing of face masks and check-in requirements (for example, using QR codes).” – It’s unclear to me whether this means all retail/service businesses, or only the list of permitted ones.

Shopping must be within 10km of your home, or within your local government area.

Permitted retail, Vic:

  • supermarkets,
  • pharmacies,
  • butchers,
  • bottle shops,
  • petrol stations,
  • post offices,
  • banks,
  • food stores,
  • newsagents,
  • liquor stores,
  • pet stores.
  • Other retail shops will only be available for delivery or contactless click and collect, and workers may attend onsite to facilitate these orders.
  • Cafes and restaurants for take away & delivery only

You can only travel 5km away for shopping unless the nearest essential goods and services are further than 5km, in which case you may travel more than 5km to the nearest provider.

Only one person per day can leave home for necessary goods and services, and only once per day.

Construction: Paused in NSW, operating in Vic.

Social interaction: NSW & Vic: exercise outdoors with your household OR one other person, visit intimate partners, Vic: Single social bubble.

Childcare: Open in NSW and Vic.

Schools: Remote learning in both states.

Outdoor recreation facilities such as tennis clubs, bowls clubs, shooting ranges and golf clubs: open in NSW, Closed in Vic.