28 May 2014
You Can’t Pick and Choose What Science You Want To Believe.
Posted by Dan Satterfield
I am going to break a rule of mine here and post a segment from a cable news show. I care passionately about science education, and this is just about the only issue that I would break my rule, so please, no comments about MSNBC or any other cable news outlet.
The segment (by Chris Hayes on MSNBC) was called Unscientific America, and is about the rejection of the new common core standards in Wyoming and some other states like Oklahoma. Why is the standard being rejected? Apparently it’s because education boards in some states refuse to accept such scientific facts as climate change, evolution and the age of the planet. Make no mistake about it, students in other first world countries ARE being taught science, and we are doing severe damage to our educational system by wasting time with this silliness.
Make no mistake, people are entitled to believe what they will, and I respect that, but you do not get to have your view influence what others are taught in public school science class. We teach the accumulated knowledge of the world, using scientific method and observation. Nothing more and nothing LESS. Let’s hope some of the students in these states will stand-up for their right to learn science like students in other first world countries.
Chris Hayes interviewed Dr. Michael Mann among others, and I thought Dr. Mann was spot on when he pointed out that we live in a global economy, and to handicap our students by ignoring science material is a dangerous path. He even quoted Neil deGrasse Tyson’s now famous comment that “The great thing about science, is it’s true, whether or not you believe it.” In spite of the dumbing down of science in Wyoming (and other states like Oklahoma), many of these students will rise above the ignorance of their elected representatives, and those that don’t can always learn to say, “would you like fries with that?”
Note: I’ve heard some examples of really bad implementation of common core in some school systems, and perhaps that deserves criticism. This post is not about that, it’s about rejecting a standard of what students should be taught in math and science, because of political belief. How we teach it is another subject, but we should, and must teach it. If we abdicate this responsibility, then public schools will become the default choice for a “poor and uneducated” class of Americans, while those with enough income to give their kids a proper science education, will choose private college prep schools.
It’s already happening, and this country will become a second world nation if it continues.
Thanks for this. I always use that argument when people said “I don;t believe in climate change.” I don’t care WHAT they believe, but I always ask,”Do you not accept the facts of observations and measurements?” — Usually, they mumble something and walk away or start spewing some obscure and/or debunked work that “proves” their point.
I understand wanting to say “The great thing about science, is it’s true, whether you believe it or not,” However, the statement is an example of scientific elitism, what Massimo Pigliucci calls “scientism.” It’s also an overly simplified soundbite that misrepresents science and the attitude of most scientists, probably even the attitudes of the scientist who said the soundbite (Dr. Tyson) and the scientist who repeated it (Dr. Mann).
I applaud both for their contributions and Chris Hayes for much that he discusses on his show, but I wish they’d all be more nuanced when talking about what science can and can’t do. THE GREAT THING ABOUT SCIENCE is that science is a FRAMEWORK FOR SEEKING TRUTH IN A WAY THAT ALLOWS PEOPLE TO EVENTUALLY IDENTIFY ERROR AND MISCONCEPTIONS, which is to say scientists seek truth by challenging ideas (i.e., by answering questions) with observation, sometimes direct observation, sometimes indirect observation. Truth eventually comes out when we challenge our ideas with observational tests. However, the knowledge (i.e., the “truth”) gained by observation is limited to the conditions in which the observation was made. Thus, we can know what’s true or untrue for a particular set of conditions, but we can’t know what’s true or untrue for unknown conditions. We can only make inferences about the unknown conditions.
No doubt, the knowledge base of science is full of truths, but let us not forget that some of those truths replaced ideas that had previously been considered “truth” by science. To quote one of my mentors from several years ago, “the best science can give us is very likely maybes” when it comes to generalizations that extend beyond testable conditions.
Knowledge gained by combining logic with observational tests is probably as good as it gets for understanding the stuff we perceive with sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch, but it is terribly arrogant to forget that knowledge gained by combining logic with our senses of perception is limited to known conditions and (because we all interpret what we observe through the filter of our past experiences) subject to misinterpretation
So, no, science is not always true, BUT any question that merits continued scientific investigation will eventually be truthfully answered…it may just take a few years, or in some cases, decades or even centuries.
Please forgive typos and grammatical errors. -greg
I think what Dr. Tyson was trying to express in his often seen quote, is that science is based on observation and evidence and experimentation. He was talking about those who deny basic well understood science like natural selection, age of the Earth and climate change.
He was pointing out that when something is experimentally shown to be wrong, it’s wrong. What you are left with is the best truth available. Are there uncertainties in science, of course. There are uncertainties in how much sea level will rise over the next 9 decades, but the science is clear that the odds are overwhelming that it will and we can assign a probability to those ranges. The same with other fields. He is essentially saying that you can believe what you want, but if it conflicts with well understood science, then science has evidence and observation on it’s side and you have just belief. Evidence trumps belief in most people who have even a modicum of critical thinking skills.
Great points, Dan. I think from a public perspective, though, the reality is sort of the opposite of this: “You have to decide which science to believe.” Belief is a matter of trust, no matter how valid or invalid the belief. We need to increase public trust of scientific consensus.
I’m not sure how do that, but I think more basic education on epistemology and philosophy of science/the scientific method is needed in middle school and high school, not more teaching of “facts”. When “facts” are modified by new evidence, or where there is legitimate scientific controversy, science becomes a strawman for those who have ideological reasons to oppose the scientific consensus.
I think a lot of young students get the message “trust science because it will tell you everything”, where the message should be couched in terms of the real scientific process: “Science provides our best knowledge of Truth, core scientific knowledge overlaps with Truth, but scientific knowledge itself is not Truth.”
I agree that we must do a better job of explaining to students and the public what scientific method is. It ALL goes back to education.