13 February 2013

Five Things We Must Teach American Students About Science

Posted by Dan Satterfield

This is the last of a three-part series of posts on the fundamental concepts of science we need to teach American students. Here is Part One and Part Two.

People wrap themselves in their beliefs, and they do it so tightly that you can’t set them free. Not even the truth will set them free. Everyone is entitled to their opinion, they are even entitled to their opinion about progress, but you know what they are not entitled to? Their own facts. Michael Specter – Science Writer New Yorker 

Watch it now:


Michael Specter hit the nail on the head in that TED Talk. Sizable percentages of American’s believe the Earth is 10,000 years old, that Evolution is a just a  theory, and that climate change is a hoax. They also believe in magic bracelets, astrology, and take vitamins to ward off colds and flu. We even have police departments in America that ask psychics for help to solve cases!

We need to teach students the only method ever found for finding out what is real and true. Every piece of technology in your house is there because of this method. There is NO technology that you use, that was not made or discovered this way. 

If we made sure every high school student in America understood these 5 things about science, we would have a far more scientifically literate country.

1. Anecdotes are not truth. They are just a starting point to find out what the truth really is.
Just because someone says this or that worked for them is fairly meaningless. Anecdotal evidence to the general public tends to be taken as fact. To a scientist the first thing they would likely think is “let’s test it and find out if  it’s true.”  Anecdotal evidence is used by scammers all the time, just look at those magic bracelet commercials with everyone saying how great it made them feel. Same for those pills that will keep you from pissing ten times per night!

2. In most cases the best way to arrive at the truth is a double-blind test. It’s used in every vaccine and it was used to discover the Higgs Boson. Humans are naturally biased (see part one under Richard Dawkins).


At it’s core, it’s a simple set of rules that allows us to separate myth and superstition from reality, and allows us to build knowledge on a foundation of tried and tested fact. In short, scientific knowledge is the sum total of what we can see and test in the universe around us.

Rule One. Any observation or experiment we make must be repeatable. Others must be able to make the same observation or experiment, and get the SAME results. Not just someone you choose, but anyone (and everyone) should get the same result or make the same observation.

Violate rule one and it is NOT science.

Rule Two. Theories must make verifiable predictions. Any idea on how things work, or what is (or is not) true must be testable and falsifiable. You must be able to do an experiment that COULD possibly prove the idea wrong. If you cannot do an experiment that could test the idea, and possibly prove it WRONG, then it is NOT Science. 

Rule Three. If an experiment shows a theory is wrong, then it’s wrong.

As Richard Feynman said (I paraphrase) “It does not matter how smart your are or how famous you are, if your theory does not fit with experiment, then it’s wrong!” (..and therefore it is NOT science).

If your (so called) “theory” does not meet the three tests above then it’s not science. Instead, It’s an unsubstantiated belief. I gave a talk about weather and climate change to a group a few years ago and someone came up afterwards and pointedly said  ”I have a theory and you cannot prove it wrong!” I replied, “you just did”. If I can’t design an experiment that coud prove it wrong , it’s NOT a theory.

4. Just a Theory??
A scientific theory is the result of thousands upon thousands of observations and experiments. Not one of them ever falsified it, and it fits in with the sum total of all knowledge that came before.

Scientific theories outrank laws. A theory can always be proved wrong, but unless it is, it’s the closest thing to scientific fact that we have. When someone says “that’s just a theory” they are really saying “that’s just a scientific fact that no one has been able to ever disprove, despite years and decades of trying!”. Einstein did NOT disprove Isaac Newtons theories of gravity and motion, he improved upon them. 

5. People are lousy at estimating probability. Don’t be one of them. I agree wholeheartedly with the TED talk featured in Part Two. We need to teach a statistics and probability course as part of the required curriculum for a high school diploma.

 I am not so naive to think that if we did these 5 things, the number of people who believe in chemtrails, HAARP (Don’t ask!), or that vaccines are bad will disappear overnight. I’m sure a sheriff somewhere will go to a psychic, and vitamin stores will still be darkening the urine of millions, but it would be a good start. If we are going to compete in the global arena of the 21st century we must improve our education system.

I leave you with the words of the great Carl Sagan (read his book The Demon Haunted World) :

“The best way to avoid abuses is for the populace in general to be scientifically literate, to understand the implications of such investigations. In exchange for freedom of inquiry, scientists are obliged to explain their work. If science is considered a closed priesthood, too difficult and arcane for the average person to understand, the dangers of abuse are greater. But if science is a topic of general interest and concern – if both its delights and its social consequences are discussed regularly and competently in the schools, the press, and at the dinner table – we have greatly improved our prospects for learning how the world really is and for improving both it and us.” 
― Carl Sagan