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science stupidity

January 13, 2009

I just don’t get it.  Where did we fail completely in teaching people to understand science?  How is it that the public school system that educated me also manages to graduate so many very stupid people?
A NYTimes article about the autism/vaccine debate is my motivation today, but the same thoughts apply to the evolution/creation debate, and there are other topics I’m sure that would anger me just as much.  Why do we even call those debates?  Scientifically speaking, autism is not caused by vaccines, and creation has absolutely no proof.  Scientifically speaking the debate has happened, and we know the answers, and yet people persist in faulty logic on these topics.  They either A. claim pseudo-science that seems to support their claims, or B. state that faith trumps science.  Yes, I’ve now heard B given in the autism/vaccine debate.  Wtf.  Do you really trust your child’s future with the faith that all of medicine is wrong, and you and a handfull of laypeople really understand the issue better?  How have anecdotes become as important as studies?  Why are so many people fooled by sleight-of-hand tricks and smoke-screens that middle school kids could see through if they tried?

This is why I want to teach science.  Teach gen chem at a large university for a lifetime, and that’s an amazing number of students I have the chance to interact with.  That’s tens of thousands to whom I could give a greater understanding of science.  At this point, it seems vitally important.  What’s the point in contributing to basic research that could cure or prevent diseases if patients refuse the treatment because they don’t understand it?

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Anonymous permalink
    January 13, 2009 11:22 pm

    Well, at least part of the problem with the autism vaccine stuff is more the part “A” of the argument: that there have been a few studies that people point to as vaccines and autism being linked. Problem is, the investigators on one of those large “autism is caused by vaccines!” studies were FUNDED by some people involved in a class-action lawsuit against the vaccine companies. Follow the money, people. Follow the money.
    But, yes, science education is vitally necessary. If anything, to prevent statements like “fruit fly research is pointless.”
    I could post more on this, but I’d pretty much just be agreeing with you, and I need to go study [more science, since my professors aren’t going to accept, “I don’t believe in asthma, therefore it doesn’t exist,” on my exam next Wednesday.]

  2. January 15, 2009 4:40 pm

    People believe anecdotes because that is how we’re wired to learn. We learn through stories. Oral tradition and all that.
    If you have a degree in a science field, it is hard to remember that the rest of the public has had NOWHERE near that amount of exposure to how science works. Our K-12 science classrooms can be decent, but most suck. People know that science is 1. boring, and 2. has something to do with making a hypothesis and testing it. That’s about all they know, if that.
    However, churches are run MUCH more effectively. You learn a LOT in church. It’s just the same story, given to you year after year after year. So you get your lessons via stories (GREAT way to learn), AND you get them repeated dozens of times. So people feel they understand the church perspective better, and cling to what they know. No one ever wants to look dumb, so they won’t try to explore areas they aren’t comfortable in. People want church to be right, because they don’t have to learn anything new that way, and because it FEELS nice to have that comfort in your life.
    Science is something most people felt overwhelmed by in grade school. It was like math – yuck! Everyone hates those classes. For a subject that is as freaking awesome as science IS, it is taught in a fairly boring manner for 99% of students. And you don’t get stories or repetition.
    Personally, I think the problem lies in early science education. Elementary schools need to concentrate on teaching what science really is in a more effective way. Students should be presented with situations and asked to figure out which experiments are scientific, and which aren’t. They should learn WHY science has the rules it has. Elementary science tends to center around exploding volcanoes and memorizing the planets. Sure, you do science fairs, but how many students really understand WHY they have to have some controlled variables and some uncontrolled?
    Science education in general needs to step up. The “other side” of these debates is just so much more compelling because it touches on something that rings within many of us – the trust in something more in this universe than what we can just see. But really, science can do that, too! If it is presented in the right way, that is. STORIES STORIES STORIES. We learn through stories, jokes, etc. If we could learn science through tales and parables, many more people would be on board with the scientific side of arguments. This is because science would finally CONNECT with them. They’d have a emotional response to it.
    Sure, science is about being impartial, but that is if you are actually a scientist. That is if you are a person already willing to get a science degree or more from universities. Most people are NOT like that. To get them to believe science, you have to pull them in. Entice them. Help them understand why science works. Not by lecturing, but by getting them involved. Church gets people involved. Science…is just sucky homework sets.
    That has to change. I think both of us will end up dedicating ourselves to that change, from the sound of it. Yay for science enthusiasm!
    …wow that was a long reply.

  3. January 15, 2009 9:57 pm

    There is definitely something to the point that science is perceived as harder to learn and presented in a fashion that speaks much better to other scientists than the lay public. I definitely agree that church speaks to people better because it’s easier and that leads them to ignore science… But I think it’s quite possible that that is impossible to resolve – the basic tenants of the scientific method and the use of rationality to solve problems is something that can be taught in the same way as church, but the very nature of science is “There is no final answer. “It’s always in-progress, just with some things 99.9% certain and some things 1% certain. Contrast that to church: “There is only one answer” is the norm for basically all religions. That’s a lot easier to get across with repetition than the complexity and uncertainty that is a basic tenant of all science. Furthermore, people are TERRIFIED of that kind of uncertainty… so it’s easier to just take refuge in “I feel/my priest tells me that is the right answer.” No ambiguity at all there.
    On top of that, the amount of information science has uncovered is many, many orders of magnitude more than that which (for example) the Bible has contained within it’s pages… so there’s no time for repetition of the sort churches use. Granted, the fundamental ideas of how to approach science are basically the same, but because you need to have a library of examples to prove that science works (in contrast, again, to faith, which simply works by fiat), you can’t just teach the scientific method by repetition and not teach the actual results.
    The “story” side seems a separate point, though, and a very good one. Most of the things that got me interested in science were not “facts,” but instead various big pictures and amazing connections between seemingly unrelated things. And a lot of it has to be just random things that aren’t necessarily in science “class” – that is, if you’re out on a hike and happen to notice funny rock formations that can only be explained by weathering over millions of years… or even just understanding why rainbows in the sky and rainbows in an oil slick look similar… or recognizing that when you look up and see those little twinkling lights in the sky, we actually know exactly how they work to exquisite precision based on data that essentially comes from the inside of an ordinary car engine. The key to really getting people on board with science is recognizing that the ordinary and the extraordinary are all based on the same principles… basically ALL of which were only uncovered by centuries of hard work using the scientific method. And that’s the other major point that I think needs to be presented to any who would say that their faith is as good as science: EVERYTHING in the modern world comes from science. Without it, easily 90% of the world’s population would be dead (or would never have lived, for that matter), and we would still be chopping each other apart with axes and be using our streets as sewers.
    I think one final concern that needs to be addressed (and perhaps the least recognized) is that the real science does not follow the “scientific method” as Bacon and Descartes would have it, and that’s still the sort of thing we learn about in basic science classes (although, I might add, that’s often the MOST boring part of those classes, despite it being arguable the most relevant). People have this view of science as being very distant and set in stone, and that’s part of what makes it “hard” and not worth trying to understand. People need to recognize that science is as social as religion is… perhaps moreso, at its core. I think some scientists are afraid that will remove it’s legitimacy, but I think that it just strengthens it all the more – science that is approachable from day 1 is the only way to get people to pay attention.
    Wow, this topic sure does get us people ramblin’…

  4. January 15, 2009 9:58 pm

    A very quick summary:
    People will believe science only if you show them why it matters in a way they understand… And that probably is easiest at the elementary or younger level.

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