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Science Education: The Hidden Benefits

CJ Westerberg, February 4, 2011 10:01 PM

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"The lesson my eighth-grade science teacher had succeeded in teaching me is that
scientific thinking has valuable uses outside of science.
In science class we learn to interrogate nature,
but the interrogation methods can be used to 
 scrutinize many other ideas and beliefs.
"
              -  Joe Ganem

Science Teaching: Missing a Larger Point

by Joseph Ganem, Ph.D.

Too often science teachers work at exposing students to as many scientific facts and theories as possible. But, they miss one of the most important uses of science. While the scientific method is useful for revealing novel truths about nature, it can also be used to unmask falsehoods.

The ability to discern fact from fiction is often more important than just knowing facts. But too often science teachers are reluctant to teach this skill.   I believe it's out of fear of appearing offensive when challenging other people's cherished, all be it irrational beliefs. But clinging to falsehoods can have tragic consequences.

"Science education should include learning to recognize non-scientific work that pretends to be science - known as pseudo-science."

For example, one of my most memorable lessons from eighth-grade science, in fact one of the few lessons I remember from eighth grade was being assigned to watch a
 two-hour television special titled In Search of Ancient Astronauts. The year was 1973 and NBC aired this documentary, narrated by Rod Sterling of Twilight Zone fame that popularized the theories of the writer Erich von Daniken. His claim is that extraterrestrial beings visited the Earth early in human history and profoundly influenced human culture.

the twilight zone.rod serling.jpgThe slick production with Sterling's mesmerizing voice made for compelling television.
 
As a thirteen-year-old, it was hard not to be convinced that the world's major religions originated from contact with extraterrestrial beings. It was even suggested that humans themselves might be the genetically engineered creations of intelligent beings that landed on the Earth thousands of years ago.

The television show made all this sound plausible.

The next day in science class our teacher discussed the documentary. He proceeded to systemically demolish every claim the show made. In fact, all the evidence cited in the documentary to support the ancient astronaut hypothesis has simple mundane explanations. No compelling evidence exists that the Earth has ever been visited by extraterrestrials. Despite the popularity of Erich von Daniken's writings - tens of million of books sold worldwide - his ideas are a classic example of a pseudo-science.

The lesson my eighth-grade science teacher had succeeded in teaching me is that scientific thinking has valuable uses outside of science. In science class we learn to interrogate nature, but the interrogation methods can be used to scrutinize many other ideas and beliefs. Because most children do not grow up to be practicing scientists, it is even more important that the science curriculum include instruction on how to recognize and reject pseudo-science.

"We won't find the answers to all the questions,
and some might be forever unanswerable.
 
But that doesn't mean that all opinions are equally valid and all possible explanations are equally plausible. Learning these essential truths
. . . "


While many pseudo-scientific beliefs are harmless, some that have found widespread popularity are dangerous. People who sincerely believe that our Paleolithic ancestors were genetically modified by extraterrestrials that landed on Earth in flying saucers, are not doing anyone harm. But, to give one recent example of a dangerous belief, people who refuse to vaccinate their children because they believe vaccines cause
 autism are endangering whole communities.

The belief that vaccines cause autism originated from a 1998 medical study that has long since been discredited. There are now reasons to believe that the study might have been a deliberate fraud. However, the weight of scientific evidence has not been able to counter widespread publicity of the flawed finding and the celebrity endorsements it garnered.

Actress Jenny McCarthy, through her writings and appearances on Oprah, is able to promote unsubstantiated claims about vaccines that have more influence on parental
 actions than the public health professionals at the Center for Disease Control. Seth Mnookin in an essay in Newsweek observed that even the educated and affluent have succumbed to irrational fears of vaccines. In his words the "result has been as tragic as it is predictable."  Children have died from easily preventable diseases.

Of course the media likes to generate controversy by giving at least two sides to every story. But science does not work that way. The autism-vaccine link, like the long-running creation-evolution debate, does not have another side in scientific circles.
 When the weight of evidence on one side of an issue becomes overwhelming, scientists tend to move on. Unfortunately, the general public, ignorant of how scientific issues are decided, often doesn't.

However, if science were as wrong as many people believe, none of the technology that we have come to rely on would work. That is a fact that science teachers should have their students reflect on. When I observe the media presenting unsubstantiated claims as being equally plausible as settled scientific fact it reminds of the late Senator Moynihan's statement: "Everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but not their own facts."

Nature is not a democracy in which everyone gets to vote on its laws. There are right and wrong answers to the questions that we pose to nature. The judgment nature imposes is swift and final. No appeal is allowed. The answers we seek might be subtle and difficult to find. We won't find the answers to all the questions, and some might be forever unanswerable. But that doesn't mean that all opinions are equally valid and all possible explanations are equally plausible. Learning these essential truths about science is more important than learning the multitude of facts that are crammed into every science class.

###

Joseph Ganem, Ph.D.,  is a professor of physics at Loyola University Maryland, author of
the award-winning book on personal finance: The Two Headed Quarter: How to See Through Deceptive Numbers and Save Money on Everything You Buy.  It shows how numbers fool consumers when they make financial decisions.  Further information and links to Ganem's website here.

Related:

Too Young To Research.  Yeah, Right

Carl Sagan and The Symphony of Science - Videos

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Other posts by Joseph Ganem on The Daily Riff:

Why Testing Fails:  How Numbers Deceive Us All

Why Our Kids Don't Get Math

The Expectations Trap - The Parent- Student Disconnect

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  • JohnE

    I agree that there are right and wrong answers to the questions that we pose to nature and that scientific principles and methodologies are helpful in coming to more valid and plausible answers to these questions. We must also recognize the questions that science can help us answer and those for which it has a very limited usefulness.

    A link between vaccines and autism is a good example of the kind of question that science can help us answer -- there is either a natural link between the two or there is not, and science can lead us to the more valid and plausible answer. The creation/evolution debate is not a good example in general. The statement itself presumes that only one can be true. Science can help us determine the plausibility of evolution by observing natural processes, but it cannot give us knowledge of anything outside the natural realm because that is the sort of knowledge it is limited to. Nor can scientific methodologies tell us that science provides the only plausible answers.

  • Jcbjr

    There is nothing at all wrong and in fact everything right about engaging dialogue with regard to proposed science or thoughts / opinions / theories / findings / outcomes. Indeed such dialogue is the way such material is evaluated and characterized in terms of it's USEFULLNESS - does it help us address a problem. Yes, of course, we'd all like complete truth (supported by irrefutable evidence). Doesn't happen that often. The interactive dialogue is the best approach - for any topic - to finding or developing the information useful to solving the problem at had. That solution will for sure evolve as the dialogue / assessment continues but we cannot allow ourselves to be paralyzed by the lack of the correct solution (how would we know it's correct; we can determine if it has usefulness - far better than paralysis).

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