Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Science: Teach the Controversy

I recently had the opportunity to listen to some professional philosophers argue about the concept of rational belief:  In a society of differing opinions, what constitutes a rational belief?  While pondering different aspects of this discussion, I began to think about the controversy surrounding evolution v intelligent design.  Specifically, I thought about the position that one ought to "teach the controversy", the idea that evolution needs to be presented as one view among many.

I am supposed to think that teaching the controversy is an incredibly fucktarded idea that subverts education and fosters religious indoctrination.  It's supposed to be a laughable notion.  Yet as I think about it some more, and mentally temper some of the religions motivations for the political movement that fosters the position, I think there might be something to it.  Perhaps there is some virtue to teaching the controversy.  The question is what is meant by "teaching the controversy".

Let me be clear:  By "teach the controversy" I do not mean that a teacher says, "Science says X.  Religion says Y.  Whelp, I dunno!  You figure it out."  What I mean is that a science class could focus upon the historical development of scientific ideas and teach the genuine controversies that have occurred in the history of human thought.  Science classes are modified to favor "history of ideas" rather than "here is a spreadsheet of facts".  I think this change would behoove scientific education and provide a better response to religious opposition than simply ignoring it.

Point 1:  Let the arguments play themselves out.

Suppose you're teaching astronomy.  Currently, it seems that we state the planetary mnemonic and then quiz students over planet order.  But what if we taught the historical development that occurred as we transitioned from a geocentric model to a helicentric model?  Suppose we teach astronomy like this:  "Once upon a time humans thought the earth was the center of the universe, because God said humans were special.  Over time, as we tried to explain our observations in terms of that system, we employed goofy notions such as retrograde motion, epicycles, and various other quirks to try to get our observations to mesh with our beliefs.  Once we junked the idea that humans were super-special, and placed the sun at the center of our solar system, shit made more sense."

How is that story detrimental to a developing mind?  Moreover, how does it not speak to the exact debate that happens now with evolution?  We start with a religious belief, we test it against the experiential world, and we find better explanations than "GOD!"

Or take the belief that the earth was flat (since Jesus ascended into heaven, and you can't ascend from a sphere).  Or the belief that illness resulted from demonic possession.  Or the belief that dancing was causally efficatious in precipitation.  Are we really worried that we'll start from a point of religious superstition, apply science, play out the developing ideas, and find that religion was correct?  It is advantageous to teach the historical development of ideas and demonstrate to students why science is more advantageous than religion for explaining phenomena.

Moreover, students already believe this.  When they get sick, they go to a doctor.  When their tooth hurts, they go to a dentist.  All science teachers have to do is utilizes these experiential habits as a gateway into the conversation about science's merits.

Point 2:  Science is fallible.

The key difference between science and religion is that science is fallible whereas religion is dogmatic.  Despite this fact, students who enter science classrooms are handed scientific facts that they must memorize and regurgitate, just as, historically, priests were tasked with memorizing the Psalms.  Instead of handing facts to students, we ought to allow students to partake in the scientific endeavor.  Allow them to formulate and test a hypothesis.  Allow them to learn how we came to think of light's speed as a fixed constant, why germs explain illness better than demons, why the beaks of finches differ.

I mean, hell, why don't all sixth graders raise a few generations of fruit flies over a school year?  Let them do the experiments.  And for the love of fuck, don't give them a experiment and tell them how it's supposed to turn out; let them test it for themselves.

When we hand down scientific facts as unquestionable dogma, we're blurring the distinction between religion and science.  When I took a geology class, I was told how one goes about discerning which mineral is which.  I was not allowed to speculate, to form a hypothesis, to test different ways of exploring the world.  I was told, quite dogmatically, how to do a scratch test.  In the world I'm suggesting, I would have been handed a box full of minerals and told to find a way to meaningfully categorize them.   Which, interestingly, is probably how geological science actually progressed.

Point 3:  I am correct.

Our current method of teaching science does not adequately communicate the fundamental difference between religious dogma and scientific fallibilism.  When we hand students information and demand that they memorize it, without questioning its merits, we are replicating what they find in religious institutions.  When we allow students to conduct simple experiments in chemistry class, but tell them what is "supposed to" happen, we skew their understanding of the scientific method.

It's no wonder that many students cannot discern a difference between religious belief and scientific hypothesis.

If we actually taught the controversy, if science classes engaged the history of ideas, then they could better communicate both the "facts" they wish to present and the core values that makes science what it is.


_J_ said...

The astronomy example came to me when I was thinking back to Hanover, and how one time after a Eurasia lecture I saw a student in Boon's office asking about retrograde motion and epicycles.

Since I was curious, I hung around outside the door to listen.

The student's question was predicated upon the idea that retrograde motion, epicycles, and our current conception of planetary motion were all the same thing. She did not understand that these were ideas that had been abandoned, that we had junked retrograde motion in favor of another explanatory schema.

It was a science lecture, so obviously facts had been presented. Since they were facts, they had to be true indications of the way things are. So, obviously, this meant that epicycles were a thing that happened.

I worry that our current model for teaching science, rather than Boon's shitty teaching style, was responsible for this misunderstanding. If Science was more a history of ideas, then the student would have been prepared to understand that a particular model of the universe had been abandoned in favor of a new model.

Caleb said...

So, all we need now is a road map to quadrupling school budgets, abandoning standardized testing, and retraining all the middle-aged assholes you remember from elementary, middle, and high school to not be assholes.

kylebrown said...

I love what you are proposing, but as Caleb pointed out, the resources simply aren't there to fully experiment everything we want to teach. I do, however, think it would be worth teaching how we came about to understand the scientific facts we hammer into the youth, as opposed to wrote memorization.

I find it odd, for example, that I learned more about Copernicus, not in science and astronomy courses, but in European history courses, so I agree completely with the goals you have proposed.

_J_ said...

Oh, we definately can't do this prior to The Glorious Revolution.

But after the Revolution? Those asshole High School Physics Teachers will have to talk about Aristotle.

Caleb said...

Let the Revolution Commence!

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