Friday, September 24, 2004

The Count is Now: 110

[To those of you following the Samizdata trackback, I offer profuse apologies on the rampant reposting. I thought it was a bad connection on my end not getting the pings through. My bad, sorry.]

Via Samizdata comes this piece of something from Dr. Christie Davies at The Social Affairs Unit Weblog entitled Why should children have to learn science? I once taught science on a substitute basis, and being one of the ones who "endured" the boredom of my science lessons to go on to earn an engineering degree, I found this article getting to my blood pressure. I thought about doing my first real fisking of an article on this, but it comes down to two or three big fallacies that need to be smacked down to completely unravel it.

A knowledge of science we are assured is essential for a proper understanding of the modern world. It is not. Very few English people whether adults or teenagers have any serious knowledge of the sciences but this does not hinder them in any way when it comes to earning, buying and selling, taking care of their children, playing elaborate games on their computers, tinkering with their car engines, giving up smoking or choosing between one fool and another at election time. It would not assist them in any way to understand the properties of silicon or carbon monoxide or lead tetra-ethyl or serotonin or the nature of thermodynamics or electro-magnetic fields, even though these underlie their activities.

Oh, where to begin? In this case, I will yield to a quote from a comment made by The Wobbly Guy at the post on Samizdata.

Science, as it is taught now all over the world, is not much better than religion. Students learn facts and concepts without any real inkling of the logical processes and principles that goes on behind the scenes.

That's not science education. That's theology which just happens to have 'Science' as the name of the religion taught.

The argument that science is taught as rote wisdom is accurate. It should not be as the central point of science is the method by which unknowns are converted into knowns. When there is a conflict between two ideas (memes to borrow from earlier posts) then a person well-trained in science would ask to see the data supporting each proposition. What if each side has data? Then the well-trained person would check the methods used to acquire the data. The data that have the more logical method of collection or the wider scope of analysis would then be picked, and by extention its conclusion, than the other set.

The idea that it would not help them to understand the porperties of carbon monoxide is utterly laughable when they want to protect their homes from it. Understanding thermodynamics let people see how pretentious it is when Creationists try to use the Second Law to prove that evolution could not have happened. Failure to understand the nature of electro-magnetic fields allows people to fall prey to panic over the emanations from their mobile phones or the power lines over their childrens's schools.

The danger of science-as-religion is that it empowers anyone who can say to be speaking with the authority of science with an unassailable perch to pontificate. Truly they would be the inerrant priesthood. A scientifically unaware populace would be prey for those from hawkers of unregulated miracle cures to environmental alarmists. The only answer to this is more education (of a better quality) rather than less.

On to another piece of something later in the post:

Faced with science even pupils who sparkle during History or English retreat into dull carelessness. A youngster may have something, if only an inane opinion, to contribute in these subjects but science is text book truth. Who can contradict the laws of motion or challenge the coloured beads that make up a molecule of glycol? Worse still there is the tedium of lab work with its twiddling of pipettes, peering down polarizing microscopes or at warped mirrors and dissecting of frogs.

Glancing past the bias shown in capitalizing History and English and not capitalizing science, allow me to add my anecdotal two cents worth by noting that I "retreat(ed) into dull carelessness" during English and was one of those who "sparkle(d)" in Science. History wasn't bad because I always enjoyed figuring out how the big systems worked. Simply because I found the rules of modern English grammar to be largely arbitrary and that an appreciation of Chaucer of Faulkner to be entirely useless, it does not follow that English should not be taught as a requirement.

When a student questions this or that fact in Science, a good teacher would explain the logic that leads to the fact and gently correct the student. This does require a teacher capable of teaching in that manner. In fact, the back-and-forth discourse that occurs between student and teacher within an effective science curriculum should be an analogy of the dialog that happens between the scientist and the object of his/her study. The lack of teachers who themselves understand science well enough to teach in this manner is a problem. Again, the solution is find more teachers, not put the ones we do have out of a job.

The dismal view of lab work taken by Dr. Davies is particularly disheartening. I might even speculate that he has had some particularly dismal laboratory and field trip experiences, but given the paucity of evidence, I shall not. The purpose of the lab work is to show that the answers to scientific questions are available to be found with nature, the world, the universe, as the source. Up to obvious limits, any student of science can satisfy him/herself of any of the lessons taught by carrying out experiments on their own. No absolute need to rely solely on authorities exists in science.

Teach students to speak the language of the scientific method, and they will be empowered far more than by anything else they are taught in school.

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