Is science the worst field for learning science in?

I wrote that science classes usually demonstrate the art of not significantly changing your beliefs when evidence conflicts with an answer you are sure of, at the expense of the central idea of science: experimenting for the purpose of changing your mind.

Chris Chang asked me how it could be taught better:

I can imagine the occasional chemistry assignment that gets around this by having mystery reagants whose identities you need to discover, and the occasional physics assignment where you have anonymous materials and need to figure out some of their properties. But it seems hard to me to extend this to an entire course worth of labs; any more ideas?

I doubt it’s hard to keep children in the dark about the entities in a whole course’s worth of labs, but it may conflict with wanting to teach them more reliably discovered information on the same topics, or at least not wanting to mislead them. Fortunately though, science is applicable to any subject matter within the realm of reality. The topics on which we have collected a lot of knowledge via science are also called ‘science’, which makes it easy to forget they are not the only possible, or even necessarily the best, subjects of science.

We want to teach our children some of this knowledge we have gained from science. But there seems little reason to combine understanding what we already know, about say chemistry, with learning about the process of doing science. If you want to learn to do science, with all the thrills of actually discovering anything, you are probably best to pick an area where people don’t already know all of the cheap answers (those not requiring monkeys, brain scanners or large chunks of subterranean Europe).

The most obvious place to find undiscovered cheap answers available for scientific investigation is in topics that are not very important to people who pay for science. A notable example is the many small scale questions that are relevant to a given student but not to society as a whole. Does decreasing the length of my skirt increase the propensity of the cool students to talk to me? Does learning the piano as a child really make people happier later in life? Does Father Christmas exist? Do the other children hate me or are they just indifferent? What factors best cause my brothers to leave me alone? How much do my grades change if I do half an hour more or less homework each night? Does eating sugar all evening really keep me awake? How often will I really be approached by potential kidnappers if I hang out at the mall by myself after school?

You can probably think of better questions. As far as I know most children and teenagers disagree with their parents, teachers and other adults on a large number of issues. Investigating those issues scientifically might have the added benefit of getting students in the habit of keeping their opinions related to reality. Another plus may be engaging the students’ interest without having to explode progressively larger things.

Science fair projects and the like seem to move in this direction, though many seem to manage the ‘not especially interesting to the rest of the world’ criterion without managing the ‘especially interesting to the student’ one, beyond the student’s inherent interest in doing a project at all.

Roger Shank proposes something similar. He thinks people don’t consider their own activities as experimentation, and so miss valuable information from them:

If school taught basic cognitive concepts such as experimentation in the context of everyday experience, and taught people how to carefully conduct experiments in their own lives instead of concentrating on using algebra as a way of teaching people how to reason, then people would be much more effective at thinking about politics, child raising, personal relationships, business, and every other aspect of daily life.

I don’t know if this is true, but it’s probably worth testing.

14 responses to “Is science the worst field for learning science in?

  1. Well you just said it… science classes teach facts, not the scientific process. Science classes in public schools don’t teach science any more than math classes teach actual math.

    If you want to really learn science you have to go to grad school.

    • I am currently taking a chemistry class in high school(Using american conventions). The most painful part of it is that we are often told what our results should be, and we then are forced to justify why our results did not match the results expected. These are not “experiments.” Whatever they may be euphemistically called, at best they are a better way to get students to memorize raw data or understand laboratory procedure a bit better. I would love if our science teacher swore us to secrecy on the first day, and then had us design experiments where we didn’t know the results. Keep data on sleep patterns and grades, and try to find correlation. Keep data on skirt length and dating over multiple years. Keep data on wearing hats and dating. Try comparing party visits to grades. Interesting things we could learn from about how to actually do science. Instead tomorrow we will memorize another fact in another “lab” and then explain how we were wrong and why we didn’t get the figure we were supposed to.

  2. > Does learning the piano as a child really make people happier later in life?

    Objection: that lab might take too long to run.

  3. The obvious hypothesis to consider here is that almost no one wants to learn the scientific process. They aren’t interested in learning it for themselves, and they aren’t interested in hiring students who have learned it. They want to hire students who have learned the specific facts society has learned so far, and students who accept and do what they are told without too much questioning.

    • Lots of companies are interested in hiring people who value empiricism… read up on “Big Data” and the need for more “data scientists”. I’d be surprised if what employers want ends up getting reflected heavily in high school curriculums, though. Employers don’t seeme especially satisfied with colleges even, despite many of those actually being for-profit.

  4. Joking aside, it occurs to me that in my daily life, I use the scientific method in three places:

    a) at work, where I run two ecommerce companies and use A/B testing all the time to check the validity of hypothesis

    b) in the workshop, where I use it just a bit to investigate feed rates in machining, metal hardening, etc.

    c) in the kitchen, where I try recipes over and over with small changes

    By far, the most FREQUENT use is in the kitchen.

    The first two seem, at first glance, to be better grist for the scientific method mill, because of the quantitative aspects … but perhaps this emphasis on superficial quantitativeness is misleading? “Crispiness of chicken” presents at first as qualitative, but with a bit of manipulation we can get hard data out.

    Maybe the scientific education of the future will come from culinary classes? Throw in a Harold McGee or Nathan Myrhvold book or two, and it could not only be (a) fairly rigorous, (b) a very good indoctrination into data-based LEARNING (as opposed to scientific-flavored performance art), but it could also be (c) tremendously useful to the students over the long term for the collateral benefit of learning to cook well.

  5. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that science is the worst field in which to learn the scientific method! For instance, the underlying complexity of the objects studied by chemistry and physics is relatively low, so experimental results are more replicable than in most other fields. That said, you’re right that there is usually a tradeoff between teaching facts, and driving home the point that the scientific method is meant to be applied to questions you genuinely don’t know the answer to (though I think the lab examples I gave do a passable job of both).

    TJIC’s cooking class proposal is interesting, and could work well for a significant fraction of students (though I suspect that feminist indoctrination has lowered the size of that fraction for now). Sports is another context where guided experimentation could yield immediate results (e.g. does technique X let me throw a ball faster? further?).

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  8. Ah, but I don’t agree that the central idea of science is experimenting for the purpose of changing your mind. To me the central idea of science is making rational conclusions from all the evidence, which will ideally include experimentation. The fact that one experiment does not appear to fit the theory does not mean you need to junk the theory. This is reflected by one of the key concerns of the scientific method: reproducibility. So when the orbit of Uranus didn’t appear to fit Newtonian mechanics, the conclusion was: maybe Newton is wrong, or maybe there’s something else out there. And voila, Neptune! But now suppose that Neptune couldn’t be detected by telescopes at the time, that wouldn’t have disproved Newtonian gravity, it would just be an unsolved problem.

    I disagree that your science experiment was “rationalising” your prior belief. I think you were updating your prior beliefs based on the experiment the correct amount (i.e. very little). The real prior belief that I updated based on high school science experiments was that properly controlled experimentation is really hard, and so you should be humble about your own experience/experimentation in the face of lots of outside evidence. And to me that’s a much better, and more scientific, lesson than whatever could be learned from your proposed experimentation, precisely because we don’t have strong priors about the ideal length of your skirt.

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  11. What people really need to instill is vibrant intellectual curiosity: If I poke this, what will happen? Why? If you have that, you’ll be drawn to the scientific method.

    I think most people don’t have much intellectual curiosity: the marginal benefit of knowing how some new little thing works is, for most people, much less than the marginal cost, which is composed of (a) the effort in figuring it out, and (b) the other things they could be doing with that time, such as getting better at flirting, partying with my friends, browsing Facebook, etc.

    Interestingly, young children are full of curiosity. Young children are natural scientists, and they’re constantly figuring things out. Is there a way to keep this curiosity alive as they’re growing up, instead of letting it be crowded out by other concerns? (As a ‘scientist’-in-training myself, I naturally value the scientific method and, more generally, intellectual curiosity in other people.)

    Oh, yes …

    How often will I really be approached by potential kidnappers if I hang out at the mall by myself after school?

    As a father, I would rather my daughter not do science to this particular question.

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