Friday, May 9, 2008

I science; you science; he sciences

In his article, "Evolution: what's the real controversy?" Josh Timmer compares the manufactroversy of intelligent design v evolution to some bona fide debates among scientists today. Would "teach the controversy" make sense for any of these genuine disputes? His conclusion: no.

I can't argue.

Science is a method for assigning an appropriate level of confidence to claims about the world. It's a skill, like math or cooking. The more you do it, the better you get at it.

You can learn a fair amount of history from TV documentaries. But you won't learn much science while sitting on the couch. Yes, you can absorb a number of interesting facts from well-written science shows. But a collection of sciency facts does not a science make.

Science, like math, is a skill that benefits from frequent practice. Lectures and readings only take you so far. To really get the hang of it, you have to knuckle down and work your way through some problems on your own.

I hear the word "scientific" used to suggest a fashion or style evocative of test tubes, chemicals, blackboards, equations, conservative attire, monotone voice, and mechanical mannerisms. With respect to style, I prefer "sciency" to "scientific." I'd like to save "scientific" for something more useful, i.e. "defensible per accepted rules of evidence."

If I say that a claim is scientific, the onus is upon me to defend that claim using evidence and reasoned argument. But if I say, "well that's what I was taught in science class," I've actually demonstrated a non-scientific basis. This is not to say that a scientific basis doesn't exist; just that my basis is not scientific.

High school students, with rare exception, haven't developed the skills needed to independently critique or defend most basic scientific claims. Discussion of conjectures on the frontiers of current scientific understanding certainly won't grant them an opportunity to do the maths for themselves --i.e., to independently weigh the arguments and evidence forming the basis of each rival position.

When you can't double-check the maths, what's your basis for accepting what you're told? A vague hope that the teacher's got things right? Gosh, isn't that an appeal to authority --the basis for nearly everything that isn't science?

If we confuse kids about the nature of science, if we lead them to believe that knowing science means knowing a lot of sciency facts rather than knowing how to do science, we'll wind up with a generation of gullibles who can be made to believe a claim is "scientific" simply because someone sciency said so.

Oh wait. We've got that already.


  1. Bravo Dr. B

    Rian (who has nothing constructive to say)

  2. Nice post. I do like your use of "sciency".

    I think there is a broader issue, which is related to your previous entry. I think it is more than just about science. It is about how to reason. This relates to science, maths, philosophy, and any number of other fields. It is about how to detect bullshit in any area.

  3. Sometimes I'm not sure which term to use:

    - reason
    - science
    - critical thinking
    - methodological naturalism
    - hypothetical-inductive inference and testing

    All seem to refer to the same sort of thing: a process of evaluating claims using tests of corroboration, falsification, logic, and parsimony.

    The wooly woo peddlers often say that there are "many ways of seeking truth" and that we shouldn't misappropriate a "positivistic" method from one setting to another.

    Granted, there are methological differences between disciplines. But the "ways of knowing" argument is nearly always bollocks. The basic process of generating explanatory hypotheses, imagining their implications, and attempting to falsify as many as possible is the same, no matter which bit of reality you're looking at.

    The word "science" can imply "professional science." But ordinary people do science all the time, just as everyone cooks although not everyone is a professional cook.

    Admittedly there are some differences. To use the cooking example: A professional will be much more efficient than an ordinary cook. He'll have a broader understanding of his options and likely will rely upon some specialized tools. He'll create or reference written procedures so others can pick up where he left off if he's away from the job. But none of these distinctions comprise some alternate metaphysical stance or "way of knowing."

    In the US we have no specific curriculum for critical thinking. I'd like that to change. In fact I wish we embraced critical thinking as a civic responsibility rather than something we leave to the pointy headed experts.

    That's not to say that I want Joe Citizen to argue from evidence rather than authority at all times. But I would like for Mr. Citizen to appreciate the difference between evidence and authority. I'd like for him to make an effort to keep straight which claims in his head rest on one or the other sort of thing.

    But I'm probably asking for too much.

    OK, here's something a little easier: Perhaps Joe Citizen could learn to recognize when a claim is about the world we share and when a claim concerns his own feeling states --i.e., the "is/ought" thing. Awareness of that distinction would turn down the crazy in our public debates.

    Yet before we can have a general awareness of is-v-ought, we'll have to suction a lot of woo out of our ethical discourse.

    Wait! That's not gonna happen.

    Were it not for things like Expelled and the various denialists, I wouldn't worry so much about Joe Citizen. But today's manifestations of Big Bullshit disturb me. They suggest that marketing science has gotten pretty good.

    It's a little scary knowing that we can induce feelings of certainty in a person, regardless of his history or rational powers.