Tuesday, November 03, 2015

Do not believe the hype about science education. It is humbug!

Students incorrectly believe that science classes are only about some random science thingys that they do not ever have to worry about once they pass the classes.  But, that is not really the students' fault--the teachers and the system, who convey such  notion, are the ones who are guilty of an enormous crime.

Of course, we learn about various scientific explanations--from grand ideas like evolution and big bang, to curious questions like why the penis is shaped the way it is, to everyday puzzles like what happens to the boiling point of water when you go from sea level to higher elevations.

What is behind all that content is the real McCoy.  Or, as Joe Biden might put it, the big fucking deal.  It is about students learning to doubt and then learning to ask questions in order to figure out the answers.
The most important goal in educating our children should be to encourage them to question everything, to not be satisfied with unsubstantiated claims, and to be skeptical of a priori beliefs, either their own, their parents’, or their teachers’.  Encouraging skeptical thinking in this way, as well as directing a process by which questions may be answered—the process of empirical investigation followed by logical reasoning—helps create lifelong learners and citizens who can responsibly address the demands of a democratic society.
And there is overwhelming evidence that one of the key collateral benefits of a more scientifically literate populace is that the seeds of religious doubt are thereby planted among the next generation.
That is from the talk that the physicist/public-intellectual Lawrence Krauss gave after picking up the 2015 Humanist of the Year award.  In fact, Krauss opened the talk with a Richard Feynman quote:
Permit us to question—to doubt, that’s all—and not to be sure…. It is our responsibility…to proclaim the value of this freedom, to teach how doubt is not to be feared but welcomed and discussed, and to demand this freedom as our duty to all coming generations.
To doubt. To question.  Two actions that always trouble the establishment, whether it is science or politics or religion.  Especially religion, in which one believes without doubting and questioning.  A good Christian never doubts Jesus rising three days after he died.  In his Hindu faith, my father believes in the gods and godmen whose "miracles" he has even witnessed in person.

Science, on the other hand, makes us think about these very differently.  We begin to doubt the claims.  We question.  We ask for evidence.
The purpose of education may not be to destroy religious belief, but surely, as Richard Feynman alluded to in the quote I opened with, its purpose is to encourage doubt. In that arena we are sorely falling short.
We are falling way short.
[An] AP-GfK poll revealed that less than a third of Americans are willing to express confidence in the reality of human-induced climate change, evolution, the age of the earth, and the existence of the Big Bang. Among those surveyed, there was a direct correlation between religious conviction and an unwillingness to accept the results of empirical scientific investigation. Religious beliefs vary widely, of course—not all faiths, or all faithful people, are the same. But it seems fair to say that, on average, religious faith appears to be an obstacle to understanding the world.
Krauss offers examples from here in the US.  The old country is no different.  Well, it is way worse there.

I am so glad that Krauss added this:
Of course, science class isn’t the only place where students can learn to be skeptical. A provocative novel that presents a completely foreign worldview, or a history lesson exploring the vastly different mores of the past, can push you to skeptically reassess your inherited view of the universe.
As I have noted in many posts, in my dealings with students, I push them to question their views of the world.  "The academy has a far more important and subversive way" of dealing with such issues--the doubt and the questioning are all related to curiosity, and "curiosity is insubordination in its purest form."  There is no doubt about that.


  1. Religious faith is NOT an obstacle to understanding the world. We will never agree on this, and we have debated this before, so we'll have to leave it at that.

    Of course I had to click on the link that took me back to your post of 2009, long before I started commenting on your blog. Alas the link in that post does not work anymore, after 6 years. So you now have to repeat that post and give a full explanation; not just say " Hey, don't be lazy; read the essay yourself" :):)

  2. I can't agree with the statement proclaiming religion to be "an obstacle" because it hasn't stopped me from learning more science than most of my secular peers. My religious standing is one reason I disagree with what scientists tell me, and I work from there. I disagree that we have caused climate change, but I agree that we are making it worse and we should change our habits accordingly. I have yet to find evidence to change that opinion. We can supposedly date the planet within 0.0001% of the correct number (I'm not exaggerating) but the same methods are wildly inaccurate elsewhere?

    Religion is not the enemy of science. The polarization and rampant ignorance of science is the enemy of science. Believe me, my time around my peers has shown that half of them believe any study released with no understanding of the methodology or purpose of the study. We should teach people how science works, not what science says.

  3. Three for three on the comments today. No need to restate what Ramesh and Mike said so well.

  4. Religion IS an obstacle to understanding the world.
    I capitalized is to "IS" for two reasons--one to be emphatic, and another to denote the barbaric Islamic State. The IS is guided by, guess what, religion! But, IS is not the only one. In many countries around the world, it is religion, for instance, that makes homosexuality a crime. It is religion that makes beef a political issue in India, which even results in the cold-blooded killing of innocents. We continue to kill people, and deny them human rights, all in the name of religion. And you claim that religious faith is "NOT" an obstacle?

    True scientists will never claim that they have figured out the truth. Because science always tells us something new, scientists often provide all the caveats. As an old math colleague once emphatically stated, we live in a probabilistic world. Scientists often have to deal with probabilities and uncertainties, which religions do not have to because, after all, it was the word from god! Science that gives us phenomenally accurate results in one context will not be accurate in every context--because of the simple fact that science has yet to figure out a great deal of causation in that context.

    Heck, despite the very fact it was vaccines that eliminated small pox, and has led to almost wiping out polio, there is a long line of anti-vaxxers. But, the presence of anti-vaxxers does not mean that science is wrong about vaccines. Science works based on evidence, not on faith.

    It is not either/or. We need to educate about how science works AND what science says. People need to understand what science says about vaccines, for instance, and also about how scientists work in order to derive that understanding.

    All "three for three" means is that all you three are seriously incorrect--great going ;)

  5. Oh, about the "coronal ridge":

  6. Humans will always find a reason to deny each other rights as a method of attaining superiority. Religion has (and currently is) being used to do so, but that does not create a blanket reality where religion is the problem. In the early days of genetics, the eugenics movement arose from scientists who believe they could create superior humans. They are still trying and that terrifies both of us. That idea also led to the Holocaust and World War II. Is genetics the enemy of science because of this? No, it is not. Likewise, the horrific choices some people make due to their religious beliefs should not condemn religion as a whole.

    Also, that video was incredibly awkward. Partly due to Jesse Bering seeming uncomfortable during his explanation, and partly because I was sitting in a library watching it.

  7. Mike is right. Some people use religion to ignore science. I know someone who believes the world is 10,000 years old because someone of his faith counted back the generations in the Bible and declared it so. Fossils and carbon-dating be damned. His refusal to recognize reality does not meal all religious refuse science. Many of faith believe in science as well.


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