The Nature of Science

I recently came across a rather depressing article, about John Stewart and his complete disregard for the way science works (in the context of the particular discussion).

The point here isn’t that he mixes up anti-matter and dark matter (which, come on, isn’t a “minor mix-up of jargon”, it makes for quite a fundamental difference in what happens to the universe). The point is that Stewart dismisses what he doesn’t understand as something that’s clearly absurd, and therefore must be based on “faith”. An acquaintance I met a few weeks ago made the same error in judgement and I could feel my jaw drop in astonished disappointment.

Like Stewart, my new friend said he simply couldn’t understand how traveling at speeds approaching that of light could possibly mean that more time passes in one point of view as opposed to another. “That you spend less time in your spaceship and someone on Earth spends their lifetime waiting for you to get back? That doesn’t make any sense!” he declared, until I’d explained the muon experiment to him to show how this phenomenon had been observed in real life.

This sort of response reminds me of a series of articles produced by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, whose Project 2061 aims to “advance literacy in Science, Mathematics, and Technology”. It’s the sort of thing that people like Stewart would do well to take a closer look at, because several parts of the online Science for All Americans report deals precisely with complexity in scientific thinking.

Here’s a line I like in particular:

Scientific habits of mind can help people in every walk of life to deal sensibly with problems that often involve evidence, quantitative considerations, logical arguments, and uncertainty; without the ability to think critically and independently, citizens are easy prey to dogmatists, flimflam artists, and purveyors of simple solutions to complex problems.

Why does Stewart’s declaration that science can be equated with faith annoy me so? Because it’s an easy, lazy, simplistic solution to the question of what our universe consists of. Billions of dollars are being expended in one of the most staggeringly earnest and ambitious projects to discover the fundamentals of our universe. In the course of that, we’ve uncovered so much more than we already know. And that knowledge can’t be simply dismissed.

It’s also the reason why teaching Creationism or Intelligent Design in science classrooms is completely unacceptable. It’s not a question of what proponents believe, personally; it’s a question of what should be taught as science. Portions of the SFAA report reiterate that science requires evidence to be taken seriously and that even the most far-out hypotheses must make testable predictions. ID and its ilk are incapable of doing so, because, instead of postulating a testable, predictable root cause for the existence of the universe, it makes a single leap to the conclusion that an unknown super-entity created everything. Whence this entity? How was it itself created? There are no answers to these questions, and indeed, none of the proponents of ID even think those questions are important.

This is not the way of science.

Something that occurred today, however, made me a little more hopeful for the future of science education. I had the opportunity to speak with a lovely lady who’s in charge of a small non-profit that conducts workshops to encourage girls to enter the STEM fields. In the course of my interviewing her, she talked about how she hadn’t begun as a science teacher at all, though she’d spent a good many years as an educator in elementary and middle schools. When I asked her how she developed an interest in science and STEM, she said, “Well, I took a scientific approach to teaching children when I was a teacher”. She went on to explain how, when they were studying a particular ocean creature — say, a dolphin — the kids would be required to do background research, look up statistics and measurements, and conduct observations on top of writing stories and learning the vocabulary of the topic.

The point of these exercises was to introduce a scientific element to the way the subject was studied — a way of logically and quantitatively collecting evidence on the subject. The idea is that science isn’t a cold, distant, detached subject that’s reserved for geeks: it’s something we do, consciously or unconsciously, every day, when we apply logic to our decision-making processes and collect evidence to support the choices we make.

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