We need two different science classes.
My hero Elizer Yudkowsky says that the fundamental question of rationality is why do you believe what you believe. All truth seekers should ask themselves this question frequently. Ideally, you will practice with mundane beliefs and hone the art of analyzing your beliefs before you examine more sensitive views.
Usually, the answer is that we know what we know because people we trusted told us. Sure, we may have some factoids or one-word explanations that don’t actually explain*.
Such is the case with Will and evolution. This makes me sad.
Don’t get me wrong, believing true things is preferable to disbelieving true things. It’s just that it has an emptiness about it. Believing in something without understanding how it works and why we know has consequences.
If Will’s daughter had asked him why giraffes had long necks before his realization**, he might have said something like “because evolution” along with some other curiosity-halting words that might have had meaning to an informed scientist who already knew the answer, but to him mean nothing. And he might not have even realized that they meant nothing until well after he learned these things in high school and asked how he knew what he knew. I think it’s likely that most people don’t do that.
When people talk about problems with science education, they are generally are talking about science as a body of knowledge. If you know certain facts from within that body of knowledge, you know science.
[D]oubt that what is being passed from the past is in fact true, and to try to find out [about it] again from experience what the situation is, rather than trusting the experience of the past in the form in which it is passed down. And that is what science is: the result of the discovery that it is worthwhile rechecking by new direct experience, and not necessarily trusting the [human] race[‘s] experience from the past. I see it that way. That is my best definition.
This is so different than the body-of-knowledge definition, that a different word is required. For lack of a better word, I’m going to call it Testing and Discovery. Science is a collection of facts. Testing and discovery is a process that destroys belief in false facts.
The facts of science do need to be learned as a body of knowledge. And science classes should probably continue to do that since that’s what everyone already thinks science is. Don’t repurpose words with established public meanings unless you want to be misunderstood and confuse the public.
But we need a different class with different teachers to teach Testing and Discovery. Body-of-knowledge science is about building assumptions. Testing and discovery is about breaking them. These are two different attitudes, and therefore must be kept separate. Otherwise, testing and discovery will be swallowed up by “science” as just more facts to memorize.
What would a testing and discovery class look like?
Students read a biologist’s words describing élan vital and how that is why alive things are alive and dead things are dead. The instructor will then lead the students in a discussion about what they would expect to happen if élan vital is real. The instructor will stress finding experiments that should provide one result if élan vital exists and a different result if it doesn’t.
From these expectations, the teacher could select which suggestions are testable and perform the test the next class period. (It is likely that the same test could be performed each year if the instructor knows how to lead the discussion in the right direction.)
Students will treat discarded and valid theories alike. They will suggest experiments to disprove the existence of phlogiston (and succeed). And they should similarly attempt to disprove the existence of oxygen (and fail). Similarly, discarded as well as retained notions about light, electricity and magnetism, and the elements will be tested.
I am personally ashamed that the reason I believe the solar system is centered around the sun with planets circling in elliptical orbits is solely that other people who I assume know what they are talking about have told me so. I vaguely understand that I ought to be able to figure it out with a telescope, detailed record keeping, time, and mathematics. Wouldn’t this be awesome thing to try to figure out from scratch though? Get the students to take some of the measurements, so they know how that part is done, but then give them the rest of the data so they don’t have to wait years. Then they can actually use the analytic geometry they learn in math class. Even if this took high school students a semester, it would probably be a worthwhile exercise.
I see two critiques of my proposal:
- “Science classes already do this.”
No, they don’t. I do not think that students are aware of what they know for reasons they can explain themselves and what they know simply because they read it somewhere for a test. Yes, students do lab work in science classes, but these are not experiments that are owned by the class. Since students play no part in their formulation, they perform the experiment simply to see whether they can get the right answer, not to test a theory. I think the average student probably thinks the reason their class has lab work is for them to learn how to use the lab equipment.
- “It is easy to say what should be included. What are you going to kick out?”
Much time could be recovered by eliminating non-experimental lab work from the regular body-of-knowledge science classes. Even if we took away real instruction time from regular science classes, I think it’d be an improvement. Yes, students would know less of the body knowledge. They might not get to find out what the steps of the Krebs cycle are, but they were just memorizing that anyway without any notion of how they could figure it out for themselves.
* Why do magnets attract iron? Answer: Magnetism.
If you can’t explain the word magnetism in a way that explains why aluminum is not attracted, it’s likely that your answer is empty, and you might as well have said “magic” for all you know about magnetism.