Teaching Scientific Thinking

Finally, I’m answering comments that others posted to the entry below, on teaching evolution and Intelligent Design in public schools. If you’re just arriving, you might start by reading the next entry down, and then the comments that others added. I’m starting with a new entry because a lot of visitors don’t drill down to the comments. But take a look: there’s thoughtful discussion there.

Okay. Following my assertion that we ought not to pretend the Intelligent Design contingent doesn’t exist when we teach evolution in schools, Norton said:

High school science…rarely teaches about the process of science. It usually presents the results of scientific research that has been published and evaluated by the scientific community… Evaluating scientific claims is not easy…If we are going to start presenting dubious scientific claims to high school students, we would also need to modify the curriculum to spend considerably more time talking about the philosophy of science and how different claims are evaluated.

Yes, and yes. I think there’s a serious gap in our high school (and middle school) curricula on precisely this score. There might be less time to teach facts if we devoted time to talking about how to assess claims, but I think that’s a tradeoff well worth making. Norton was lucky enough to go to a high school that had a philosophy class, but I doubt that many school do—and even if they did, what percentage of kids would take them?

And yet, all kids are headed into a world that’s full of claims, whether about the latest diet, or UFOs, or Intelligent Design, or how to avoid a heart attack, or the latest from the Hubble telescope. Not all claims are equal. But do we teach kids to distinguish among them? I don’t think so. Not nearly well enough, anyway.

I’m not talking about assessing claims at the PhD level. I’m talking about doing it as ordinary citizens—the way web-savvy people must learn to evaluate the trustworthiness of things they read on the net.

Face it, when we teach science in middle and high school, we’re not teaching most kids to become scientists. We’re teaching them to become informed citizens. They’re going out into a world that’s awash with purported facts, and they aren’t going to have peer-reviewed journals at their sides. But they might have a better chance of applying reasonable judgment to claims if they have some idea of how science is done, and why findings that have passed peer review and been supported by follow-up research are more reliable. Otherwise, why should they believe Discover Magazine over The National Inquirer? Why should they pay attention to the “scientific establishment,” which from time to time appears arrogant, disconnected from ordinary people, and filled with researchers who fake data? Why, in fact, do a large number of people in the U.S. distrust science?

When I suggest that Intelligent Design (ID) ought to be addressed in the school curriculum, I don’t mean to teach it as a co-equal with evolution, but to raise it for discussion in the above context. I wouldn’t mind seeing this happen in middle school. In fact, I wouldn’t mind seeing a unit in the curriculum addressing a range of fringe science, doubtful science, and pseudoscience. Don’t just stand at a distance and dismiss the claims, but talk about where the claims fall short (as they generally do), and how to make reasonable judgments when confronted by claims. And yes, how to recognize the boundaries between faith and science. (Not to set up one as superior to the other, but to clarify that they are different, and they serve different functions in life.)

In short, do a little teaching in how to think.

Evolution and Intelligent Design in the Classroom

I said I was going to write on producing video next, but so much interesting stuff about the Evolution/Intelligent Design controversy in science teaching has crossed my radar screen recently that I just have to hit that first. (My wife says I’m guilty of bait-and-switch. Sigh.)

“The Connection” on NPR had a good segment the other day (which you can listen to online), featuring two biology teachers, one a proponent of teaching evolution only, and the other calling for adding Intelligent Design to the curriculum. Everyone agreed, at least, that you have to make clear what science can and cannot answer. One telephone caller, after noting her own belief in an intelligent designer, went on to say that the discussion of it belongs in the philosophy or religion class, not the science class.

That’s a position I used to hold, but I’m wavering. In one form or another, the belief in a guiding intelligence is a part of the national landscape (whether it’s creationism and biblical literalism, or so-called Intelligent Design theory, which claims to apply scientific inquiry to the question of whether evolution is a blind, random process or a guided process). I forget the numbers from the latest polls, but a huge majority of Americans believe in a creative intelligence behind it all. That’s not going to go away, and how we treat it affects how scientific inquiry is understood and perceived in the U.S. I don’t think we’re doing our young people any favors by teaching the theory of evolution without any reference to the other viewpoints.

My friend Rich says if he were a science teacher, he wouldn’t want to touch Intelligent Design—because, for one thing, you’d risk being seen as attacking people’s religious beliefs, and for another, you’d be implicitly legitimizing fake science, or at least empty science. (God of the Gaps: if you can’t explain the complexity, it must be the design-work of God.) I grant the danger. I haven’t seen anything convincing yet in the science writing of Intelligent Design proponents. (For a good read on this, look at http://www.actionbioscience.org/evolution/nhmag.html, where three proponents of Intelligent Design present their views, each responded to by a proponent of evolution. One of the respondents is Kenneth R. Miller, a biologist from Brown and author of Finding Darwin’s God, who notes his own philosophical belief in a designer, but finds no merit in the scientific claims of the ID writer.)

But the thing is: What a great opportunity to teach real scientific and critical thinking! Why can’t the question be raised? (Beyond the political agenda—more on that in a second.) Maybe, probably, it is outside the realm of what science can or cannot answer. But how will we know if we don’t ask the question? How can students understand the strengths and limitations of science if we rule one of the most interesting (and toughest) questions out of the arena? How can they learn to evaluate scientific claims if they don’t look at controversial claims as well as widely accepted claims? If there’s any value to the scientific claims of the ID people, let’s look for it. If there’s no value, let’s show students why.

Heretic! you say. How dare you insult my religion?! Wait a minute…who said anything about your religion? I’m not attacking your religion. I didn’t even mention it. We’re talking about scientific evidence or lack of evidence. Maybe science can’t show any evidence of God; that doesn’t mean God doesn’t exist, it just means we have no testable, repeatable scientific evidence. Or maybe we just haven’t found it yet. What would really be an insult would be to dismiss your claims of evidence without even discussing them.

Well, okay—maybe it’s not going to be that easy. But how easy is the present situation?

The real thorn here is the real or perceived hidden agenda. Is all this just a ruse to get religion—specifically, conservative Christian religion—into the schools? For some proponents, I’m sure it is. For others, I don’t know. It’s a real danger. The religious divide in America is threatening to tear this country apart. And I don’t mean the divide between Christians and those stinkin’ secular humanists—I mean the divide between those who want to impose their own particular brand of faith on the rest of us, and…well, the rest of us. And the rest of us includes Christians, Jews, Muslims…and yes, secular humanists.

Are we caving to the agenda if we talk about intelligent design (lower case) in the same classroom as evolution? Maybe. But if we bar the doors and hope they go away, aren’t we just deepening the divide? What are kids to think who believe in ID or creationism, but aren’t given the tools to examine for themselves whether it’s real science, or another kind of thinking camouflaged by the words of science?

It’s not an easy question. But if we don’t teach the thinking skills, we’re in trouble.

For more on this, read The Slate’s What Matters in Kansas: The evolution of creationism and Creation vs. Intelligent Design: Is There a Difference?

Methane Lakes! Four-Pod Lives!

According to the Boston Globe, Titan researchers have concluded that there is methane rain on Titan, and probably are or have been methane lakes. What a wonderful science fictional world that really exists!

In honor of that, and sort of in honor of the 3 hours I spent shoveling snow after the blizzard today (one of the top 10 in Boston weather history, they say), I think I’ll post a little excerpt here of my one fictional venture onto Titan. This is from my novel The Infinity Link, published in 1984 by Bluejay Books, and also by the SF Book Club, and by Tor Books. This is from the prelude to Chapter 18. Meet Four-Pod:

The sound was starting again–the long, low moan that echoed in the back of the consciousness, that evoked memories of a methane glacier during a thaw, shivering and buckling and fragmenting. This was not the time of the thaw, however. And Four-Pod was nowhere near the glaciers.

What, then, was the source of this moan-that-was-like-a-song? It did not sound like the voices of Those-Who-Thought, but who else could make a sound ring inside the consciousness, with nothing to be heard on the outside except the wind and the rain?

Four-Pod could not delay for the truth to be revealed. His destiny lay at the edge of the Snow Plain, where the Philosophers awaited his riddle-offering from the hills. If the offering suited them, he would be made welcome there, and perhaps he could speak with them of this troubling thing. If not, he would be forced to flee, and he would have only the sleet and wind for counsel.

And, perhaps . . . the voice.

Perhaps it would travel with him across the plain, offering companionship and thoughts of warmth.

And perhaps he was wasting time thinking and listening when he should be on the move. He had many lengths yet to cross.

With a forward lurch, Four-Pod shuffled through the billowing snow. Once his claws found traction in the firm methane ice, beneath the snow, he settled into an efficient pattern of movement: grip . . . heave . . . grip . . . heave . . . grip. . . . Occasionally his nails slipped on the ice, and he sailed snout-first into a bank of snow. Each time, he picked himself up patiently, blew the snow out of all six nostrils, and continued as though nothing had happened.

The songs came and went from his thoughts. He shifted his focus to other senses: the fine grains of snow sliding across his silken hide, the rasp of his claws on the ice, the looming and sudden gusting away of shadow-like forms against the ochre sky. Thoughts of hunger tormented him; but he knew from the texture of the ice that he was at least a storm-day’s walk from edible slush. To distract himself from his hunger, he summoned memories and legends.

There were stories that told of times when the world was a sounder and clearer place–when snow lay hard upon the ice, and the sky on occasion grew deep and transparent, revealing miracles. Legends spoke of the round, banded body of Heaven–and of a many-layered arch that vaulted to Heaven and (some said) looped around it to enter Heaven’s back gate. Songs spoke of Heaven’s necklace, and there were those who said that it was in reality the same as the road to Heaven, that the image of a necklace was only an illusion. Others claimed the opposite, that the road was the illusion, that it circled round and round, toying endlessly with the weary, hopeful pilgrim.

It was a fine legend. But legends could ward off hunger for only so long. Four-Pod knew that he must soon find sustenance or starve. As the snow grew grittier and more bitter in his nostrils, he pushed harder, and clawed deeper.

When the song returned this time, it reached somehow deep into his heart and boosted his flagging spirit. He peered and sniffed, tossed his snout and brayed, and plunged forward. Was the song a legend come to life–a call from Heaven? He thought of the great arching road that existed somewhere above the shrouded sky, and he grew dizzy with fear and joy. Could this be a signal? The music of the Heaven Road?

Press on.

Much later the ice changed. He was desperately weak, step following on step. With groggy surprise he recognized the softening of the ice under his claws, a delicious wetness soaking the bottoms of his pods.

The slush pool opened before him, layered and rich. He dropped his snout and drank deeply, filling himself. Afterward he contracted his pods and settled into the snow. The music continued to dance in his thoughts, and lovingly intertwined with his dreams as at last, at long last, he slept.

(Copyright © 1984 Jeffrey A. Carver)

Yo, Titan! The Stuff of Reality and Science Fiction

The landing of the Huygens probe on Titan is one of the cooler things to happen in planetary science in recent years. (See Space.com and Astronomy Picture of the Day.)

I suppose that’s true both literally and figuratively — the temperature on the surface of Titan was measured at -179 degrees Celsius (-290 degrees Fahrenheit). And I’ve been shivering here in Boston at a measly 3 degrees Fahrenheit!

I wonder if they’ll find a Lake Carver there. (I was quite flattered when the late Hal Clement created a feature by that name in his hard SF novel, Half Life.) For that matter, I wonder if they’ll find anyone like Four Pod, a mild-mannered Titan creature who appeared briefly in my own novel, The Infinity Link, back in the 1980’s!

I do hope they find some methane lakes. It’s just too exotic an image not to be true.

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