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.
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 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.
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.
Too Young To Research. Yeah, Right
Carl Sagan and The Symphony of Science - Videos
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