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one reason many don't 'get' science

Over at this post by Seth Mnookin** in the new HuffPo science section (like Orac I will be rather interested to see how this section pans out), a commenter with the 'nym Seeking Clarity remarked:

What our mainstream science education curricula apparently fails to adequately teach is why the process of science tends to produce information of relatively high reliability and why this process is such useful compensation for human limitations.

We are instead taught to recite the requisite repertoire of science fact and vocabulary that may be useful to science majors but which (divorced from its epistemological context) is experienced by average students as irrelevant to their own lives. 

As a result, the findings of science are seen as one of any number of engines of opinion. The public often misses the role of carefully and collaboratively vetted empirical corroboration as a basis of confidence.

Therefore the relative tentativeness, incompleteness, and internal controversies that characterise the products and the community of science can be mistaken for weakness in contrast to those persons who unhesitatingly and appealingly claim to have access to conclusive truths.

I've reproduced the comment here as it's very relevant to discussions I've had with colleagues & fellow science bloggers about the voluminous quantities of pseudoscience circulating on the internet & also available through the media (some of the latter masquerades as 'entertainment' but some - Ancient Aliens for example - is presented with a seemingly straight face). There seems to be a huge demand for this sort of stuff, as witnessed by the number of websites offering up kitty-litter as a cure-all (not that they come out & call zeolite 'kitty-litter'), or the 'miracle mineral supplement' (knock back bleach & it will cure your ills), or detox foot-pads, or... the supply seems endless, & that's not even counting the more 'mainstream' things like homeopathy.

People do tend to seek certainty in their lives, & as the comment above notes, scientists simply can't give absolute certainty. But that's often not understood, & it may well make the 'alternatives' seem that much more attractive. Hopefully the implementation of the 2007 science curriculum will help to redress that, at least with current & future students. But at the same time we do need to address the sheer volume of information (aka facts) that students must learn; in my opinion that discussion is long overdue!

 

** which is an excellent commentary  on the importance of & need for vaccination - & for responsible science journalism.

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5 Comments

I try to teach science from a historical perspective, addressing the questions of how did we come to know this, why did we not know this much earlier, and why do we think it important to know. In teaching General Education courses to non-science majors, I have come to teach less and less about less and less. This bucks the trend toward even more encyclopedia size introductory texts. I think it is better that the student have a good grasp of a few general principles than to have a superficial and forgettable exposure to the hot thing of the moment.

I couldn't agree more. We've had a few meetings recently to discuss program structure, course content etc across all our bio programs. One of the sticking points is always, what to leave out? There is so much that everyone thinks students must know for their paper! This makes life pretty interesting at first-year, where there are all these 'needs' imposed from further up & a very diverse clientele (in terms of background, prior learning etc) coming into the program.

In our undergraduate core courses we came to the compromise that 80% of the course content was specified by the Department, and 20% was at the discression of the instructor. I used to argue, somewhat seriously, with my cutting edge colleagues, that a new theory or finding should survive for at least five years before we included it in a core course.

Sounds like a reasonable compromise to me :-) But what would then be dropped off the back when new material did make it into the canon?

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  • Alison Campbell: Sounds like a reasonable compromise to me :-) But what read more
  • Jim Thomerson: In our undergraduate core courses we came to the compromise read more
  • Alison Campbell: I couldn't agree more. We've had a few meetings recently read more
  • Jim Thomerson: I try to teach science from a historical perspective, addressing read more
  • Grant: You’ll want to remove space in that link to Seth’s read more