What Does Science Offer the World?

Scientist Dennis R. Trumble believes science offers us more than just great technology and more comfortable lives: It teaches us to unshackle ourselves from preconceived notions by following the evidence and encourages us to think more critically.

Trumble believes, as many of us do, that to raise a child to be ignorant of science (a la home-schooling Creationist parents) does far more damage than we might think.

His new book exploring this issue is called The Way of Science: Finding Truth and Meaning in a Scientific Worldview (Prometheus Books, 2013):

In the excerpt below, reprinted with permission of the publishers, Trumble discusses the lessons we learn from science (Keep reading afterwards for your chance to win a copy of the book!):

As to the question of when to interject, the lessons of evolutionary psychology suggest that teachers can’t chime in too soon. Because the human brain has grown so terribly adept at seizing upon and rapidly integrating familial practices, children must be made aware of evolution and the base principles of critical thinking even at the earliest grade levels, before the carapace of inherited dogma has fused to permanency. Precisely when young minds begin to close around familial biases is difficult to say, but the sense of urgency in this regard was recently raised to new heights when sociologists at the University of Ulster found — to their surprise and dismay — that children in Northern Ireland begin to adopt parochial prejudices as early as age three.

Although it might seem naïve to suppose that kids elbow-deep in finger paints are capable of grasping a concept that has eluded so many of their parents, the first principles of evolution are actually quite simple and can be understood by any child old enough to reflect upon the erstwhile comings and goings of the dinosaurs (always a popular topic among the kindergarten set). In truth, the rudiments of evolutionary theory are no more complicated than many other scientific subjects that are commonly taught right alongside the alphabet, including gravity, basic engineering design, and energy flow through ecosystems (if you’d like to know why 100 pounds of corn can’t be converted to 100 pounds of cow, just ask a second grader). The only thing that makes evolution more difficult to learn than other grade-school subjects is the fact that it is frequently countermanded at home.

Indeed, even if evolution were taught to every student from the very get-go it would still put kids from creationist households in the awkward position of having to contend with contradictory teachings without the means to assess their relative merits. And therein lies the problem, for the reason so many irrational beliefs continue to hold sway these days stems largely from our failure as a society to broadly dispense the critical thinking skills we humans inherently lack but increasingly need. Instead, when it comes to the natural sciences, what most children receive is a long and tiresome litany of scientific facts to be memorized in preparation for the exam du jour. What is sacrificed in the bargain is effective instruction on how the scientific method actually works — arguably the single most important thing students need to learn in order to achieve intellectual independence. Contrary to proverbial wisdom, too many science students are simply being handed a boatload of fish — often far more than they can digest — when what they really need are fishing lessons.

Then again, this is nothing new. Some of history’s most celebrated scientists achieved greatness only after weathering a similar barrage of instructional tedium. Even Einstein found his formal scientific training a good deal less than inspiring, recalling that in his day to be a good science student meant that “one had to cram all this stuff into one’s mind for the examinations, whether one liked it or not.” This, to Einstein’s way of thinking, was hardly the way to spark the imagination of a budding young scientist and, in fact, was more likely to achieve just the opposite. He went on to complain: “This coercion had such a deterring effect on me that, after I had passed the final examination, I found the consideration of any scientific problems distasteful to me for an entire year.” And if Einstein reacted this way, just imagine how his classmates must have felt.

Half a century later, a young Carl Sagan found himself in similar straits. In the preface to his book The Demon-Haunted World, he describes his experience this way:

I wish I could tell you about inspirational teachers in science from my elementary or junior high or high school days. But as I think back on it, there were none. There was rote memorization about the Periodic Table of the Elements, levers and inclined planes, green plant photosynthesis, and the difference between anthracite and bituminous coal. But there was no soaring sense of wonder, no hint of an evolutionary perspective, and nothing about mistaken ideas that everybody once believed. In high school laboratory courses, there was an answer we were supposed to get. We were marked off it we didn’t get it. There was no encouragement to pursue our own interests or hunches or conceptual mistakes. In the backs of textbooks there was material you could tell was interesting. The school year would always end before we got to it. You could find wonderful books on astronomy, say, in the libraries but not in the classroom. Long division was taught as a set of rules from a cookbook, with no explanation of how this particular sequence of short divisions, multiplications, and subtractions got you the right answer. In high school, extracting square roots was offered reverentially, as if it were a method once handed down from Mt. Sinai. It was our job merely to remember what we had been commanded. Get the right answer, and never mind that you don’t understand what you’re doing.

Thankfully, the growing need to promote critical thinking skills among the general populace has not gone unnoticed by American educators. In fact, current US standards for science education stress quite admirably the importance of teaching the scientific method from the very outset, stating that “beginning in grades K-4, teachers should build on students’ natural inclinations to ask questions and investigate their world. Groups of students can conduct investigations that begin with a question and progress toward communicating an answer to the question. For students in the early grades, teachers should emphasize the experiences of investigating and thinking about explanations and not overemphasize memorization of scientific terms and information.” The national science standard further mandates that young students “should develop inquiry skills [and] the ability to ask scientific questions, investigate aspects of the world around them, and use their observations to construct reasonable explanations for the questions posed.”

So far, so good. But while the game plan is sound enough, the skills needed to execute it are not always equal to the task. Why? Because many of today’s teachers were themselves taught to less rigorous science standards — often quite a bit less. As a consequence, primary school teachers in particular often lack the scientific understanding and critical thinking skills they are now being asked to pass on to their students.

This problem was first brought to my attention purely by happenstance. In the spring of 2001 I was invited to talk to a class of seventh-graders about my work as a biomedical engineer, designing and testing mechanical blood pumps and artificial hearts. It was not long after I met their science teacher that she confided, quite on her own, that science had always been her worst subject when she was in school and that she was not at all comfortable teaching it now. Her training had been in elementary education, but school administrators had pressed her into service despite her reservations under the supposition that grade school science can be taught by anyone who generally knows how to teach.

This seemed odd to me but not alarmingly so; if stopgap measures were needed to fill an unexpected vacancy in the science faculty, that was certainly understandable. In education, as in life, temporary solutions are rarely perfect but often necessary, and I was in no position to second-guess school administrators on this or any other point. My assumption going in was that the vast majority of science teachers in the US are well trained, share a deep, abiding passion for their subject, and are keen to convey their knowledge and enthusiasm to their students. And so, perhaps naïvely, I was prepared to believe that what I had experienced at this one suburban middle school was simply an unfortunate fluke and nothing more.

But according to David Goodstein, physics professor and contributing writer for MIT’s Technology Review, this was no fluke. As luck would have it, his essay on the state of science education in America appeared in this magazine shortly after my worrisome encounter at the middle school and so especially caught my eye as I perused its pages. Having optimistically dismissed my experience as a regrettable (but rare) aberration, I found myself reading with renewed chagrin Goodstein’s take on how the US educational system had somehow managed to produce both scientific elites and illiterates. “The problem,” he explained, “starts in grade school, where few children ever come into personal contact with a scientifically trained person — including, unfortunately, their teachers. In most of the United States the only way you can graduate from college without taking a single science course is to major in elementary education. And, it is said, many people major in elementary education for precisely that reason. Our elementary school teachers are therefore not only ignorant of science; they are hostile to science. That hostility must, inevitably, rub off on the young people they teach.”

Now to be fair, the teacher who invited me to talk to her class obviously cared a great deal about her students and was certainly far more intimidated by science than hostile toward it. She understood the importance of the subject, if not the subject itself, and was genuinely concerned that she wasn’t doing it justice. She knew that she was out of her depth and was eager to solicit all the help she could muster in order to teach her students what they needed to know about the way science works (hence my visit).

But despite her best intentions and sincerest efforts, it’s hard to imagine a teacher so uncomfortable with science doing anything but lecturing straight from the book, parsing scientific facts like so many parts of speech while draining the life out of a subject that, truth be told, lies at the very heart of education itself. After all, it is science class where students are supposed to learn how to observe and analyze, scrutinize and think — skills that can hardly be considered tangential in a nation that relies so heavily upon the good judgment of its citizenry. Indeed, to give science education such short shrift is to ultimately undermine our ability to govern ourselves in a free and democratic society. This is no hyperbole. Scientific literacy really is that important.

Thankfully, scientific illiteracy is an issue that is beginning to gain traction among federal legislators, if only in response to rising concerns over America’s ability to compete in an increasingly technological marketplace. To its credit — and despite the recent economic downturn — the US government has begun to allocate considerable resources to stem the tide of past academic practices and bring science and math teachers back up to speed. The Triangle Coalition for Science and Technology Education, for example, recently reported that President Obama’s Fy2011 budget included “an unprecedented investment in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education. The budget would grant $3.7 billion for STEM education across the federal government, including $1 billion dedicated to improving math and science achievement among K-12 students… The U.S. Department of Education’s budget totals $49.7 billion, representing an increase of 7.5% from 2010 and the Department’s largest boost in years.” Shortly thereafter, the US President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology issued a report recommending that the federal government provide funding over the next decade to recruit and train “at least” one hundred thousand new STEM teachers to instruct middle school and high school students.

And none too soon, for our failure to properly train and retain science teachers is why predigested facts about the life sciences are habitually being spoon-fed to students with little or no accounting for how this information first came to be understood. Predictably, these rote teaching methods have done little to secure the lessons of science against the onslaught of familial bias, no matter how eager the students or timely the instruction. Because a steady diet of isolated facts is hardly food for critical thought, both the scholastic menu and their academic chefs de cuisine must be fortified to make these lessons stick. The key lies in knowing how: how to research a topic, how to examine the issues surrounding a given question; and how to forge reasoned conclusions based on the preponderance of empirical evidence. In short, kids must come to understand how scientists think and, in the process, discover how to think for themselves — not just in matters of science but in all aspects of their lives.

To be sure, youngsters armed with rudimentary skills of logical induction will ply them awkwardly at first, but with practice these kids will develop both the wherewithal to think independently and the confidence to make informed choices on their own. Those whose reasoning skills are allowed to lie fallow, on the other hand, will almost certainly be left without the means to judge contentious issues for themselves and so will be destined to remain subservient to the collective will of their peers.

The Way of Science: Finding Truth and Meaning in a Scientific Worldview is now available online and in bookstores.

If you’d like to win a copy of the book, let us know in the comments about when you first fell in love with science! Just leave the hashtag #ScienceRules at the end of your comment and I’ll contact one random winner next week!

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.


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