Tuesday, October 8, 2013

On the failure of US scientific education.

Listening to the public discourse in the US, one cannot help but think that basic science education in this country has failed.  Oh, sure, we have good science teachers (and bad), and textbooks filled with knowledge, but as a nation we have utterly failed to grasp the most fundamental lessons of science.  And I think that reflects poorly on scientists and science educators (myself included).

The first lesson we have failed to impart is that people must know scientific facts.  "Fact" in science means data as revealed through experiments and observations.  In essence, we have failed to teach the data.  It's much easier and faster to present the theories as in the textbook with a few supporting facts, especially given the limited time to cover any one topic in most general education science courses.  And for most topics (i.e. sliding filament theory of muscle contraction, optimal foraging theory, germ theory, general theory of relativity, etc), that is sufficient.  However, for evolution and climate change, that approach is insufficient.

The reason is simple.  There is a lot of misinformation about the basic facts about both climate change and evolution.  People honestly believe that CO2 is not a greenhouse gas, that adding more CO2 won't affect climate, that volcanoes produce more CO2 than human technology, that humans coexisted with dinosaurs, that all geologic strata were laid down in one calendar year, that evolution cannot happen, and that the radiometric decay is variable.  Combating that sort of misinformation requires starting at the basic facts, even if it means reviewing in detail facts discovered centuries earlier, i.e. superimposition (1669), faunal succession (1799),  the greenhouse effect (1820s), index fossils (1830s), the laws of thermodynamics (1824-1912), CO2 is a greenhouse gas (1861), the Stefan-Boltzmann law (1870s), etc.

The second lesson that, in my opinion, we've failed to impart is that nothing happens by magic.  There is always a physical cause.  I'm most familiar with magical thinking about the current global warming.  One common example is a claim that global warming is due to natural cycles.  What makes that claim "magical" thinking?  First, citing "natural cycles" without specifying exactly which natural cycle is the cause simply means that you don't really have any cause.  Second, there's no evidence that natural cycles are sufficient to cause the current global warming and multiple published papers that show that natural cycles aren't sufficient (i.e. Meehl et al. 2004).  You cannot just wish that evidence away.

Another example of magical thinking in the global warming "debate" is the claim that global warming is due to water vapor.  Why is this "magical" thinking?  Well, there's the fact that water vapor is controlled by air temperature and therefore cannot control air temperature by itself (remember the Clausius-Clapeyron relation?).  Then there's the fact that if water vapor is causing global warming, you must explain why water vapor suddenly started acting to warm the planet since AD 1900, after a 5,000 year period of a cooling trend.  Just citing water vapor and not stating what caused water vapor to suddenly warm the planet is pure magical thinking as everything must have a physical cause.

As for the evolution "debate", magical thinking abounds, from claims that a 1-year, worldwide flood could magically change the rate of radiometric decay to the claim that the geologic column is due to a single flood to claims that information theory disproves evolution.  The Talk Origins website has an extensive catalog debunking various creationist claims.   The claim about radiometric decay is particularly ludicrous in light of the amount of heat produced.  The average rate of heat from radiometric decay that reaches the Earth's surface today is 47 trillion Joules/second (Davies and Davies 2010).  Accelerating that by 1 billion would mean an average of 47 septillion Joules/second of heat—more than enough heat to vaporize the oceans and melt the planet.  As for the geologic column–flood claim, there are several rock layers scattered throughout the geologic column which are laid down slowly and only in quiet water (i.e. shales) and therefore could not have been formed by a flood.  The information theory claim has been debunked multiple times (i.e. here, here, and here), mainly because neither Shannon information theory or Kolmogorov-Chaitin theory truly apply to living organisms.

Last and most glaringly, we've failed to teach critical thinking.  Critical thinking is the ability to ask "Does this {new discovery, data, opinion, etc} make sense in light of what we already know about this subject?"  What we mostly teach in science class is simply rote memorization—we teach theories and facts but don't teach students how to tie those facts and theories together.  Are there exceptions to this generalization?  Certainly.  But those are unfortunately the exception rather than the rule.  And it's the lack of critical thought that magnifies deficiencies in teaching the basic facts and the magical thinking.

As for how to correct these issues,  I suggest a two-pronged approach.  First, rather than rote memorization, I have started presenting facts, then asking students to evaluate those facts based on their prior knowledge, and then to draw conclusions based on the total body of knowledge.  When covering evolution (haven't reached that section yet), I will be spending more time laying out step-by-step the discoveries that lead to our current understanding of the geologic column before diving into natural selection and the Hardy-Weinberg Theorem.  For global warming at the end of the ecology section, I've already started rewriting my lecture to include more of the basic facts and concepts (i.e. the laws of thermodynamics), and history of the discovery of the greenhouse effect and the gases that comprise it.  Yes, this approach takes more time and effort, but I believe I'll have better informed students at the end.  Ideally, this process would begin in elementary school rather than the first year of college but better late than never.

Second, we simply need more scientists to get involved explaining the basics to the general public, countering the misinformation coming from climate science denier and creationist camps.  I know that most scientists are more comfortable hiding in laboratories and behind computer screens but it's really the only way we're going to change the course of public debate in the US.

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