Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Science is the surest way we have of knowing anything.

I am deeply troubled for our nation's future, and place in the world.  I  cannot even count all the reasons Donald Trump should never have been elected: from a narcissistic and overweening confidence in his own superiority, to his utter lack of principles, to his complete disinterest in what is actually true, to the deep satisfaction he finds in objectifying and belittling others.  Many, many others more qualified than I will analyze how we came to this pass.  I, for my part, will stick to something I know a little about.

 One of my greatest fears--even eclipsing my worries about a flighty leader with the world's most powerful nuclear arsenal at his fingertips--is for the fate of life on our planet.  Many of the species we share the earth with are on the ropes, others are already gone forever.  Climate change is shaping up to be the most dire single threat humanity has ever faced, and will be the end of vast numbers of our fellow species.  Yet we will be led by a president who has called climate change a Chinese hoax, and congressmen who believe it is a left-wing scientific conspiracy (as if organizing scientists into such a conspiracy wouldn't be harder than herding cats).  The Titanic of our environment is going down by the bow while politicians and citizens alike rearrange ideological deck chairs.  The idea that scientific theories are little better than opinions seems to grip a large part of the electorate--especially conservatives.  This willful disbelief follows the long-standing attitude of millions of Americans toward the theory of evolution--which, thoroughly supported by a full century of successful experimentation, is one of the most successful and powerful of modern theories.

This willful disbelief represents an immense and nation-wide failure of science education.

It is my experience that most science teachers regard the so-called "scientific method" as a brief unit (occupying less than a dozen pages in chapter 1 of some intro textbooks) as something to get through quickly so they can get into the content that will be assessed on the big standardized test.  Many of these teachers will take the time and effort to do a lab to introduce the concepts of hypotheses, experimentation, data and its analysis, and the logic of scientific conclusions that are based on evidence.  Some of these teachers will have students making up their own experiments.  But even of these, very few will put that lab or "scientific method" into the long process and larger context of arriving at "truth" from such experiments.  Very few will look at science as a human enterprise with a social context, evolved over the course of decades and centuries until it has become at one time paradoxically forever uncertain, and the surest and most powerful way we have of knowing ANYTHING. 

This paradox of uncertainty and sureness calls out for a little explanation.  Over many decades, the enterprise of science has been embarrassed by enough conclusions confidently arrived at, so that any scientist worth his or her salt will be very hesitant to make broad assertions of "truth."  We must always qualify and point out that, well, we might be not have it quite right yet.  Scientific knowledge is forever provisional--every "fact" open to falsification at some future time--so that even if we are on the right track, some tweaking will probably be necessary as more is learned.

Scientists are rather allergic to the words "truth" and "proof."  There is too much confidence and certainty to these words.

That very reluctance to proclaim truth--that we in science are forever a little unsure of ourselves, our discoveries forever open to modification--is part of what makes the knowledge so arrived at much surer than knowledge arrived at any other way.  Scientific knowledge contrasts sharply, for example, with religious knowledge: no scientist would take something as fact merely because it is proclaimed by a charismatic speaker, or found in a holy book.  (This, because it has no experimental support or critical peer review, is perhaps least sure of all knowledge.)  Scientists take nothing on faith.

Science is a human enterprise, and scientists are imperfect, biased, and not by nature any more rational than anyone else.  Long training makes them more aware of these faults than most, and safeguards have gradually evolved that make it difficult for any scientist--no matter how charismatic or famous--to pull the wool over everyone's eyes for long.  

A recent case in point.  A couple of years ago research anchored at the Riken Institute, Kobe, Japan announced a simple but revolutionary way to create stem cells from adult cells, by way of "stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency."  Years and careers have been invested in this pursuit by many research labs, so the announcement was met with great excitement.  As is typical, other labs tried to replicate their results, but without success.  Eventually, an investigation found fraudulent science that resulted in key scientific papers being retracted.  Two researchers were hospitalized for stress, and one, the supervisor of the lead investigator, committed suicide.  

Some would see this as a failure of the scientific enterprise; I see it as an unlovely success.  Granted, when fraud occurs it should not get this far--and it seldom does--but the participation of other scientists innocently repeating the work eventually brought problems to light.  Science corrected itself, as it nearly always does.  All of these built-in safeguards, from ultimate reliance on solid evidence, to participation by colleagues, to peer review, to the scrutiny of the larger scientific community--all these make the resulting "bricks" of knowledge strong and sure enough to be built into wonderful theories--the large, explanatory frameworks that are the height of scientific achievement, and help to organize the modern human understanding of the universe.  Einstein's theory of gravity, for example, organizes our understanding of much of the large-scale structure of the universe; quantum theory organizes the very small; and biological evolution is the central organizing theory for the life sciences; all three of these theories have, I think, passed the century mark. 

Compare this with any other department of knowledge, from religion, to philosophy, to history, and you realize that none even approaches the rigor of science.  Tentative though it seems, no knowledge is more deserving of trust than scientific knowledge. 

Why doesn't every American citizen know this?  Because science teachers do not teach it adequately.  Few science teachers have a hands-on research background, and many are pressed for time.  Coming up with good materials is difficult and time-consuming.  

One solution I discovered a few years ago is an organization called Evolution and the Nature of Science Institutes.  This little gem of a shoe-string organization promotes learning about biological evolution in the larger context of science as a robust, largely self-correcting human enterprise.  ENSI lays great stress on the messy, imperfect, human nature of the scientific enterprise--warts and all--yet shows how robust the resulting knowledge can be when scientific habits of mind, the integrity of researchers, and science's checks and balances its safeguards are taken into account.  ENSI has many ideas and lessons that send students out in journeys of open-ended discovery--and without the "answer key" that no real scientist ever has.  I personally cherish many of these. 

There is more to it, of course.  It is perfectly possible for a student to skate through any number of science lessons, writing the expected answers and passing the tests, without ever really internalizing the way science works.  The old, established childhood understandings can go into hiding, but emerge and reasserts themselves when it's "safe."  Countering this, the "conceptual change model" begins by first unearthing the long-held, sometimes unconscious, theories acquired in the limited experiences of childhood, and then holding them up to the light of day.  New knowledge can then wrestle honestly with old, with a better chance that the former will be truly vanquished.  

Only by teaching, warts and all, the how of science alongside the what, can we do our part to insure an educated electorate who demand educated leaders.  And on this, our very future depends.  

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