11 February 2013

The Fundamentals Of Science That American Students Are Not Learning

Posted by Dan Satterfield

There’s A Sucker Born Every Minute- Joseph Bessimer Con-Man

Do you take vitamin C when you get a cold? Have you considered buying those pills for your prostate (hawked by a sports broadcaster on TV), or looked into  those copper bracelets that channel your body’s natural energy to make you feel more alive??  Having trouble sleeping and tried taking some melatonin, or some other “miracle cure”. If so, you’re not alone! A large percentage of Americans do not have enough basic understanding of science to accurately judge whether they are wasting their money/ time, or whether they are getting scammed or not. 

Companies selling products like magic bracelets and diet/health pills make millions each year, and so do the folks that make gadgets guaranteed to get you 100 miles per gallon using water for fuel!  Large numbers of Americans think Astrology is a science and that there is scientific evidence that the world is less than 10,000 years old. Many more  think the foundational theories of modern biology, atmospheric science, and geology are all wrong. Sure you say, it’s not a big deal, if people want to waste their money, let them. It’s far worse than that however, because large percentages of Americans (in poll after poll) indicate that they have virtually no basic understanding of foundational concepts of science.

One of the saddest lessons of history is this: If we’ve been bamboozled long enough, we tend to reject any evidence of the bamboozle. The bamboozle has captured us. Once you give a charlatan power over you, you almost never get it back.- Carl Sagan

 We are indeed a very gullible society, but it doesn’t have to be that way. We need to change the way we teach science in this country.We need to change it in a profound way, and if we succeed then horoscopes will disappear from newspapers, and people will wash their hands a lot more often instead of popping loads of vitamin C. As an added benefit I might get fewer emails and letters from folks who think those white wispy lines behind high-flying aircraft are mind control chemicals.

I have been reading a very interesting book called This Will Make You Smarter: 150 new Scientific Concepts To Improve Your Thinking. The book is a collection of essays from scientists in all disciplines and  I am going to quote from it a lot in this post and the follow-up (part two). This subject has been on my mind for a while, and several of the essays in this book say it better than I ever would or could. If you know a student in 7th through 12th grade or even in college, pass this and the book onto them!

How should we teach science? Here are some excerpts from the book with the opinion of some of the brightest scientists out there…

The most important scientific revolutions all include, as their only common feature, the dethronement of human arrogance from one pedestal after another of previous convictions about our centrality in the cosmos. -Stephen Jay Gould.

From P Z Meyers: The Mediocrity Principle
“The mediocrity principle simply states that you aren’t special. The Universe does not revolve around you; this planet isn’t privileged in any unique way; your country is not the perfect product of divine destiny; your existence isn’t the product of directed intentional fate; and that tuna sandwich you had for lunch is not plotting to give you indigestion. Most of what happens in the World is just a consequence of natural universal laws-laws that apply everywhere and to everything...The reason this principle is so essential to science is that it’s the beginning of understanding how we came to be here, and how everything works…what the mediocrity principle tells us is that our state is not the product of intent…but that everything does follow rules and grasping those rules should be the goal of science.”

Science is what we do to keep from lying to ourselves- Richard Feynman

The Double Blind Control Experiment- Richard Dawkins Oxford University
“Not all concepts wielded by professional scientists would improve everybody’s cognitive toolkit. We are here not looking for tools with which research scientists might benefit their science. We are looking for tools to help non-scientists understand science better, and equip them to make better judgments throughout their lives.

Why do half of all Americans believe in ghosts, … a third believe in astrology.. Why do a quarter of all Americans believe that the President of the United States was born outside the country and is therefore ineligible to be President? Why do more than 40 percent of Americans think the universe began after the domestication of the dog?

Let’s not give the defeatist answer and blame it all on stupidity. That’s probably part of the story, but let’s be optimistic and concentrate on something remediable: lack of training in how to think critically, and how to discount personal opinion, prejudice and anecdote, in favour of evidence. I believe that the double-blind control experiment does double duty. It is more than just an excellent research tool. It also has educational, didactic value in teaching people how to think critically. My thesis is that you needn’t actually do double-blind control experiments in order to experience an improvement in your cognitive toolkit. You only need to understand the principle, grasp why it is necessary, and revel in its elegance.

If all schools taught their pupils how to do a double-blind control experiment, our cognitive toolkits would be improved in the following ways:

1. We would learn not to generalise from anecdotes.

2. We would learn how to assess the likelihood that an apparently important effect might have happened by chance alone.
3. We would learn how extremely difficult it is to eliminate subjective bias, and that subjective bias does not imply dishonesty or venality of any kind. This lesson goes deeper. It has the salutary effect of undermining respect for authority, and respect for personal opinion.
4. We would learn not to be seduced by homeopaths and other quacks and charlatans, who would consequently be put out of business.”

The strongest arguments prove nothing so long as the conclusions are not verified by experience. Experimental science is the queen of sciences and the goal of all speculation.-Roger Bacon

These are the most common internet rumors about Swine Flu on the SNOPES website.

Living is Fatal- Seth Lloyd MIT

“If everybody could learn to deal better with the unknown, then it would improve not only their individual cognitive toolkit (to be placed in a slot right next to the ability to operate a remote control, perhaps), but the chances for humanity as a whole.

A well-developed scientific method for dealing with the unknown has existed for many years — the mathematical theory of probability. Probabilities are numbers whose values reflect how likely different events are to take place. People are bad at assessing probabilities. They are bad at it not just because they are bad at addition and multiplication.  Rather, people are bad at probability in a deep, intuitive level: they overestimate the probability of rare but shocking events — a burglar breaking into your bedroom while you’re asleep, say. Conversely, they underestimate the probability of common, but quiet and insidious events   — the slow accretion of globules of fat on the walls of an artery, or another ton of carbon dioxide pumped into the atmosphere.”  

 When people thought the Earth was flat, they were wrong. When people thought the Earth was spherical they were wrong. But if you think that thinking the Earth is spherical is just as wrong as thinking the Earth is flat, then your view is wronger than both of them put together.- Isaac Asimov


Bias is The Nose for the Story-Gerald Smallberg Neurologist

“Bias critically utilized sharpens the collection of data by knowing when to look, where to look, and how to look. It is fundamental to both inductive and deductive reasoning. Darwin didn’t collect his data to formulate the theory of evolution randomly or disinterestedly. Bias is the nose for the story.

Truth needs continually to be validated against all evidence, which challenges it fairly and honestly. Science with its formal methodology of experimentation and reproducibility of its findings is available to anyone who plays by its rules. No ideology, religion, culture or civilization is awarded special privileges or rights. The truth, which survives this ordeal, has another burden to bear. Like the words in a multi-dimensional crossword puzzle, it has to fit together with all the other pieces already in place. The better and more elaborate the fit, the more certain the truth. Science permits no exceptions. It is inexorably revisionary, learning from its mistakes, erasing and rewriting, even their most sacred texts, until the puzzle is complete.”

Plenty to think about here. As an on-air meteorologist, I’m the only person connected to science that many people see each day. The American Meteorological Society (AMS) realizes this. They formed a Committee on Station Science several years ago to help broadcast meteorologists keep up-to-date on all kinds of Earth science. I’m the chairman of that committee, so you might guess that science education is a high priority to me. 

In part two, I’ll share a few more snippets from the book, and then attempt to summarize what they are saying into some basic fundamental concepts. Comments are welcome!