Monday, March 24, 2008

Considering Science Education

There has been only one essay so far in which I flat out tell everyone to go read it. It was the Helen Quinn essay "Belief and Knowledge - A Plea About Language".

OK, so here comes another one. In the March 21, 2008 issue of Science, an editorial by Bruce Alberts is a MUST READ by everyone and anyone (Science, v.319. p.1589 (2008)). He argues why science education is important to everyone, and not just science students.

I consider science education to be critically important to both science and the world, and I shall frequently address this topic on this page. Let's start with a big-picture view. The scientific enterprise has greatly advanced our understanding of the natural world and has thereby enabled the creation of countless medicines and useful devices. It has also led to behaviors that have improved lives. The public appreciates these practical benefits of science, and science and scientists are generally respected, even by those who are not familiar with how science works or what exactly it has discovered.

But society may less appreciate the advantage of having everyone aquire, as part of their formal education, the ways of thinking and behaving that are central to the practice of successful science: scientific habits of mind. These habits include a skeptical attitude toward dogmatic claims and a strong desire for logic and evidence. As famed astronomer Carl Sagan put it, science is our best "bunk" detector. Individuals and societies clearly need a means to logically test the onslaught of constant clever attempts to manipulate our purchasing and political decisions. They also need to challenge what is irrational, including the intolerance that fuels so many regional and global conflicts.

I totally agree. If you have read the beginning of my series on revamping the intro physics labs, I've always argued that these labs can be a valuable tool to these students (the majority of whom are not physics majors) as an illustration on how we accept something to be valid, or how we arrive at some of our knowledge. We should emphasize the idea that using scientific technique to verify something is the strongest degree of certainty that one can have in any endeavor. It is why scientific evidence is different than anecdotal evidence. It is why astrology is not a science, whereas astronomy is. The fact that many still can't tell the difference is an important reflection on how these arrive at what they perceive to be true. This means that many of the decisions they make may not be based on valid information or evidence.

So think of what happens when they vote for their political leaders....


1 comment:

Peter said...

It's a nice article, but I find talk about science education like this a little narrow. My daughter's school district, and as far as I can tell the whole of Connecticut's school system, tries hard to encourage what they call HOTS, Higher Order Thinking Skills. Experiment and method are definitely part of this attempt, but Science is insinuated into the process rather than center stage.
My 9-year-old daughter is not keen on systematic approaches to things. It's too much like hard work, and there's always the tension between pleasing Daddy and rebelling against daddy. For myself, I try to put in place a background in which systematization is good, until it ties you down and must be modified or replaced.
I suspect that the best science education that many children get is the discipline and endless repetition with variation of playing a musical instrument, hopefully to a high enough level to understand the necessity of both systematization and feeling, and the tension between them.
The intellectual music and joy of science is hard to hear and to feel.

It is as easy to see the environmental failures of science as the successes, and to see the hypocrisy of blaming these consequences of science on anyone else who can be found to take the fall. The benefits of a scientific advance are indeed often 50 years in the future, but the bad consequences of not quite understanding follow as certainly, even if another 50 years later. Deny this if you will, but I think it is how non-scientists see the rhetoric of how purely wonderful Science is.