Nurture science appreciation – teach the controversy

“We live in a society exquisitely dependent on science and technology, in which hardly anyone knows anything about science and technology,” said Carl Sagan, a person who inspired many to appreciate science and learning about nature.

Even though that quote is decades old, it applies now more than ever and continues to be pithy as each day goes by.

Today’s school science classes are still exercises in memorization and not much fun for most kids. Most students will not become scientists nor remember the processes, facts and formulas. But science is everywhere, affecting us daily. It is crucial that citizens grasp why it’s needed and valued for society. The average non-scientists likely sees no direct connection to science in their daily lives. Do we really need an educated society to know the specifics of scientific fields or do we REALLY need a population generally supportive of science as a way of knowing. I’d argue the latter which is why I would prefer classes in science appreciation. I interviewed Dr. Andrew Read from Pennsylvania State University (PSU) a little while back on his science appreciation class for freshman non-scientists called “Science in Our World: Certainty and Controversy”. Dr. Read is able to draw his students’ interest by focusing on what they care about or what resonates with them in their everyday lives. Because science really is part of our everyday lives.

Making science immediately relevant to the life of any individual student might seem difficult in a chemistry or physics class. I propose that the most attention grabbing topics in these fields are the controversial ones, the mysteries, the things kids will encounter on TV, in movies and all over the Internet. Use popular examples to illustrate the value of good science.

Matthew P. Wiesner, in the Jan/Feb 2015 issue of Skeptical Inquirer, explores the small community of modern geocentrists. These are people who think that the Earth does not move but that the ENTIRE UNIVERSE revolves around us according to the Bible. To borrow the framework of a popular quote about evil and religion, “…for smart people to believe really silly things, that takes religion.” Geocentrists don’t do bad science, they do anti-science. What a great topic to explore from many angles (even if you avoid the religious angle). Geocentrists, like other pseudoscientists, are motivated by their own agenda, they must resort to conspiracies that have no evidence to support the claims, and they do funny math or no math at all. Regardless, they insist that what they have is REVOLUTIONARY! How their swiss cheese theory is better than the existing well-established explanation about how nature works is glossed over. Such an example can serve as a model for an array of pseudoscientific subjects showing students what red flags to watch for.

Wiesner holds, as I do, that ignoring nonsense claims doesn’t make them go away but allows them to spread further. Someone needs to put up a checkpoint. Why not use pseudoscientific claims, those made by self-described experts playing pretend science, in the classroom? Use these examples as illustrations. It’s fun.

I’ll be talking about this topic next month at a conference at Northern Arizona University called The Skeptical Classroom, providing examples in the natural sciences that educators can use to connect to their non-science students and show them how critical thinking is relevant TO THEM. By actively addressing claims that kids may hold, and forcing them to take a hard look at why they probably are bogus, will, if nothing else, plant the seed. It will get them thinking and engaged in a skeptical process.

Teaching earth and space science in high school? Ask students why aliens might or might not have visited earth. Ask them to assess astrology versus astronomy. If the moon has an effect on tides, does it affect human behavior as well?

Chemistry? PLEASE examine homeopathy and handily demolish its entire premise, hopefully sparing kids and perhaps their family members from wasting money on sugar pills.

Biology? Figure out if Bigfoot or lake monsters make sense. Attempt to identify what is represented in the picture of the strange carcass that washed up on the beach that everyone is calling a “chupacabra”.

Physics? How could this free energy machine actually work? Can we model out how paranormal entities can affect the environment – where does the energy come from to throw a lamp, how are the local EM fields manipulated, can something we see go through a wall?

Got younger kids? What is there favorite monster and do they think it’s real? Does it behave like humans or other animals?

Get students thinking about things that matter to them in a new way. They will love it and will learn a whole new appreciation for the value of science and practical skepticism. They will appreciate that it helps them to not be fooled. The early we can instill this, the better.

geocentric

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3 thoughts on “Nurture science appreciation – teach the controversy

  1. I love, love, LOVE this post. This is certainly an area that I am passionate about. I see so many people that don’t care about science or how it affects their lives. This is why I greatly admire ASAP Science – because they take questions that people have that relate to themselves and use science to answer them, but in a fun and understandable way. Schools really don’t emphasis how science is related to everything – just how you can pass the standardized tests so the schools get more money. Too often the answer to the question “why does this matter?” is “it will be on the test.”
    You’re doing a great thing. I can’t wait to read more about it.

  2. If I could every person on the planet the best science education they would never learn a single equation. But they would get the basic structure of what we know, it’s cause and effect. For example, if everyone grokked the following:
    – Conservation of Energy
    -Action and Reaction
    -Conservation of Mass
    – The scale of the atomic world
    – That EVERYTHNG is made of ‘chemicals’
    – That your body (and every other living thing) is made of biochemical machinary
    – How to routinely use numbers to assess the relative order of magnitude of things – kph vs the speed of light, The distance to the moon vs Mars, vs Alpha Centauri vs the Great Galaxy of Andromeda. The pull of gravity on you from Jupiter vs a goat 1 km away, To automatically want to quantify something in order to understand it.
    – Just how old the Earth is.
    – Just how old the atoms in your body are.
    – Your mind, strengths weaknesses and downright failings, is produced by the operation of your brain.
    – etc…..

    How differently would people look at the world?

  3. I’m also a strong advocate of the approach explained in this post (although I shy away from the phrase “teach the controversy” for obvious reasons – I prefer “explain the controversy”, a bit semantic, I know).

    I’ve written a paper giving examples of this teaching approach, co-authored with two college professors who teach climate science by debunking climate myths in their college classes:

    Cook, J., Bedford, D. & Mandia, S. (2014). Raising Climate Literacy Through Addressing Misinformation: Case Studies in Agnotology-Based Learning. Journal of Geoscience Education, 62(3), 296-306.

    Also, we’re adopting this teaching approach in an upcoming MOOC (free online course), Making Sense of Climate Science Denial. I will spend a few lectures explaining this teaching approach. Gratuitous plug – you can view the trailer at http://edx.org/understanding-climate-denial

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