12 February 2013

The Fundamentals of Science We Need to Teach Our Students (Part Two)

Posted by Dan Satterfield

“That which can be asserted without evidence, can be dismissed without evidence.” 
― Christopher Hitchens

This part two of a two-part post. Please read PART ONE first. (I’ll warn you it is my longest post ever, but hopefully it will be worth your time.)

I want to share a couple of more snippets from the essays responding to the question “What scientific concept would improve everybody’s cognitive tool kit?” The responses are in the book This Will Make You Smarter: 150 New Scientific Concepts to Improve Your Thinking.

The Controlled Experiment – Timo Hannay Macmillan Publishers

From the hilarious fokls at xkcd.com

The scientific concept that most people would do well to understand and exploit is the one that almost defines science itself: the controlled experiment.

When required to make a decision, the instinctive response of most non-scientists is to introspect, or perhaps call a meeting. The scientific method dictates that wherever possible we should instead conduct a suitable controlled experiment. The superiority of the latter approach is demonstrated not only by the fact that science has uncovered so much about the world in which we live, but also, and even more powerfully, by the fact that such a lot of it — from the Copernican principle and evolution by natural selection to general relativity and quantum mechanics — is so mind-bendingly counter-intuitive.

Our embrace of truth as defined by experiment (rather than by common sense, or consensus, or seniority, or revelation or any other means) has in effect released us from the constraints of our innate preconceptions, prejudices and lack of imagination. 

What a shame then that experiments are, by and large, used only by scientists. 

“We are just an advanced breed of monkeys on a minor planet of a very average star. But we can understand the Universe. That makes us something very special.” 
 Stephen Hawking

Now watch this TED talk:

“No amount of experimentation can ever prove me right; a single experiment can prove me wrong.” 
― Albert Einstein


You can show something is definitely dangerous, but not definitely safe. Tom Standage – Editor The Economist

A wider understanding of the fact that you can’t prove a negative would, in my view, do a great deal to upgrade the public debate around science and technology.

As a journalist I have lost count of the number of times that people have demanded that a particular technology be “proven to do no harm”. This is, of course, impossible, in just the same way that proving that there are no black swans is impossible. You can look for a black swan (harm) in various ways, but if you fail to find one that does not mean that none exists: absence of evidence is not evidence of absence….it would be immensely helpful to public discourse if there was a wider understanding that you can show something is definitely dangerous, but you cannot show it is definitely safe.

The good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it.” 
― Neil deGrasse Tyson

One of my all-time faves from the folks at xkcd.com


Science’s Methods Aren’t Just For Science – Mark Henderson Author

“Most people tend to think of science in one of two ways. It is a body of knowledge and understanding about the world: gravity, photosynthesis and evolution. Or it is the technology that has emerged from the fruits of that knowledge: vaccines, computers and cars. Science is both of these things, yet as Carl Sagan so memorably explained in The Demon-Haunted World, it is something else besides. It is a way of thinking, the best approach yet devised (if still an imperfect one) to discovering progressively better approximations of how things really are.

Science is provisional, always open to revision in light of new evidence. It is anti-authoritarian: anybody can contribute, and anybody can be wrong. It seeks actively to test its propositions. And it is comfortable with uncertainty. These qualities give the scientific method unparalleled strength as a way of finding things out. Its power, however, is too often confined to an intellectual ghetto: those disciplines that have historically been considered “scientific”.

Science as a method has great things to contribute to all sorts of pursuits beyond the laboratory. Yet it remains missing in action from far too much of public life. ..The scientific method and the approach to critical thinking it promotes are too useful to be kept back for “science” alone. If it can help us to understand the first microseconds of creation and the structure of the ribosome, it can surely improve understanding of how best to tackle the pressing social questions of our time.”

Part Three will be a list of concepts and ideas that we should teach every high school student about science and how to think like one.