Thursday, July 10, 2008

Science as an adventure

On National Review Online, I was pleased to see an excellent article on the refreshing new law in Louisiana. As one who has studied science at the graduate level, it was always amazing to see how different the perception of science that was presented in my earlier education from the actual practice of science. Theories go back and forth, researchers try to either extend or overturn conventional wisdom, groundbreaking work runs into bureaucratic and personal disputes, etc. Much like any other field of human endeavor, science is quite capable of making errors and barking up the wrong tree Fortunately, science includes many ways of correcting errors, including rival researchers eager to disprove your theory.



Science also avoids errors by using consensus. Generally, the more researchers who have tested a theory and found it superior to previous knowledge, the more likely it is true. This is necessary to have some form of knowledge in science. A group of researcher seeking to present findings that challenge consensus have to provide very convincing data, as scientists are taught to see most differences from consensus are erroneous. If you notice two like charges apparently attracting, as I experienced in a physics class, you do not assume Coulomb's law is in question.

However, most truly dramatic scientific discoveries involve adding up the problems facing the consensus, and composing a rival theory. Some of these types will be cranks or frauds like the cold fusion fiasco, but a significant number will have a useful perspective. After all, scientific consensus has been wrong in the past on the Earth being the center of the universe (Why can't we see an parallax if it is revolving?), the Ether (What wave propagates without a medium?), and even classical mechanics (You expect us to believe that we have an uncertain position and momentum?) Perhaps it could be wrong on something else. And there lies the adventure.

The Louisiana law frees up the science classroom from these attempts at enforcing an orthodoxy, and is thus to be commended. Teaching science as it is would be much more exciting for students and better for public knowledge. Next time a news article is reporting that scientists have found some odd medical discovery, people would wonder about what other scientists think of the matter and if other studies have backed it up. It also might make debates on areas where science touches policy, such as climate change and evolution. While my views on these subjects are for a later post, the efforts to crack down on differing theories and brand them as crazy or unscientific are reprehensible. They bring back memories not of the great scientists like Pasteur, Darwin, Einstein, and Curie. Rather, they bring to mind zealous inquisitors enforcing the tenets of an ideological religion.

3 comments:

Nic "RedWord" Smith said...

One thing that seems pretty good about this law, from the article at least, is that the teaching of a particular viewpoint is not mandated, only permitted. This should hopefully prevent viewpoints that have become very marginalized in a few decades from hanging around in schools. Nonetheless, the fact that we're talking about viewpoints rather than methods or history probably says something about the quality of high school science education.

Mises was right about the school being a political prize...

Jason H. Bowden said...

If we going to be direct about this, we're talking about teaching creationism in public schools. Not adventures, viewpoints, debate, or any other verbal evasion.

Promoters of creationism should at least have the integrity to state their agenda plainly.

Note that primary and secondary education isn't about independent research; it is about the transmission of scientific orthodoxy, the purpose being to get students up to speed when they go off to college. Education should not be democratic, but authoritarian. If the students know it all, education has no point. I blame Dewey's progressive teaching about "student-centered" education; the relativist liberals pushing this stuff are finally reaping the Dark Age mentality they have sown.

OmegaPaladin said...

Jason,

Not necessarily. Global warming has its share of skeptics who advance rational arguments. If someone wanted to have students debate global warming and show both An Inconvenient Truth and the The Great Global Warming Swindle, this law would protect him from being proclaimed a denier and fired.

I'd also disagree with your assertion that only the scientific orthodoxy should be taught. I wouldn't advocate this kind of structure at the primary school level, but at the high school level this kind of discussion is worthwhile. Teaching the great debates in science both historical (DNA vs. protein as genetic material or the development of quantum mechanics) and current is valuable in developing an appreciation for science as a process.

I'd present evolution by starting with previous theories, move on to Darwin's principal findings and the support he offered for them, the scientific criticism of his theory, and the new evidence for and against. Students in honors classes would be required to either write a paper on the subject or engage in a debate. Global warming could be presented in a similar fashion.