Sunday, May 08, 2005

If I could teach the world one thing about science, it would be...

Don't listen to what scientists say they think is the one thing that the world should be taught about science! Seriously, is it just me, or are scientists (your truly included), who are by nature some of the most skeptical people in the world, some of the biggest know-it-alls in the world as well? I think there are some scientists who are sitting around just waiting to be asked really general questions like this one:
If you could teach the world just one thing about science, what would it be?
That's the question that "over 250 renowned scientists" were recently asked in honor of Einsten Year, the 100th anniversary of E=mc2. The most common theme, found in 23 of the responses, was evolution. That's not surprising, given that evolution is both central to the understanding of modern biology (making it a likely response for many biologists) and the scientific idea that receives the most backlash from nonscientists. Still, I can't imagine that the most important thing to teach people about science is the theory of evolution. I mean, come on, just to understand evolution and the evidence for it, you have to teach people a little bit about science itself. Shouldn't we teach people about science itself, including its methods, what sorts of standards of evidence scientists use, how theories are derived from evidence, etc.? Honestly, I think the best response of the bunch was that of Gerardus 't Hooft, a physicist who, in refusing to answer, gave a great answer. He recognized that this question, like most of its kind, is just silly, writing:
This question brings me to despair. Is it really true that the world wants to hear only one thing about science? And then continue after that, with its ongoing religious, superstitious and political disputes? There are thousands of essential things you need to know about science.
I also like Toby Andrews' answer, which speaks to the "skeptical know-it-all" nature of scientists. He writes:
I should teach the world to beware the natural scientist who makes generalisations outside their area of expertise - especially on the subject of human nature. The scientist will invariably be unqualified to make such pronouncements.
In other words, once again, such questions are worthless. But that won't stop me from talking about the answers. Among the respondents there were several cognitive scientists and scientists from related fields. If anyone should be able to say what it is that people should know about science, in order to understand it better, it's the people who study human understanding, so I'm glad they asked a few. Here are some of their responses:
  • Philip Johnson Laird:
    Johnson-Laird is one of the more prominent cognitive scientists in the disciplines short history. In my little neck of the woods, he is most famous for his work on mental models, but he's done a lot of other interesting work as well. In response to the question, he wrote:
    I should teach the world that the creation of a scientific theory depends upon imagination, and upon empirical tests of some sort. Science is both a creative activity, and a critical or sceptical activity.
    The rest of his answer follows up, sounding like a textbook explanation of the Popperian view of science. The problem with this being the one thing that we should teach about science is that teaching such an abstract idea won't help anyone to learn about science.
  • Stevan Harnad:
    The founder and long-time editor of Behavioral and Brain Sciences, which was at times one of the most interesting journals in the field (though at others, was one of the strangest and least productive), wrote:
    The single principle I should teach the world is that there is really no such thing as science - science is merely systematised, institutionalised common sense. The infant - human or other animal - learns, from their experience of trial and error, what to eat, avoid, mate with, etc. That learning from the experience of trial and error is already science.
    And later:
    We humans have a second way of doing science, over and above individual trial-and-error, or experimental learning guided by the error-correcting feedback arising from the consequences of our actions. We also have language, and we can save one another a lot of risky and time-consuming experimentation, by telling one another what's what.
    Much like Johnson-Laird's answer, this one expresses something true, but worthless as the one thing we should teach the world about science. This one is perhaps a bit less worthless, since it is important to teach people who know little about science that science is not some mysterious institution with a bunch of mad geniuses coming up with crazy ideas using wholly unorthodox reasoning methods. It really is just the use of the same cognitive mechanisms that everyone else uses, but with specific aims and a culture of time-tested methods, standards, etc.
  • Susan Blackmore:
    The cognitive scientist best known for her work on memes (I highly recommend her book The Meme Machine, because it is by far the best work I've read on memetics, and shows at the same time just how broadly those who study memetics conceive the discipline, and just how little empirical research has been done in the field) , and for having more colors in her hair than any other cognitive scientist (see the picture in the link above), predictably wrote about evolution. The most interesting part of her answer comes at the end, where she writes:
    If everyone understood evolution, then the tyranny of religious memes would be weakened and we little humans might find a better way to live in this pointless universe.
    I wish I were that optimistic. It's rarely been the case that people who understood complex theoretical ideas, even if they know the facts that accompany them, have lived their lives in accordance with the implications of those theoretical ideas. A studier of memes should know better than to think that those incredibly pervasive and "selfish" religious memes of which she speaks would disappear simply because people realize that evolution is a fact. She needs to go read her own book again, so she can remember that memes don't work that way. A true idea doesn't always make for the most successful or influential meme.
  • Scott Atran:
    I really like much of Atran's work on folk concepts and religious cognition, but his answer is disappointing. He went straight to evolution. On understanding evolution, he writes:
    Why is this discovery important? Because we then understand that, as the eighteenth-century Scottish philosopher David Hume argued, reason itself is an evolved instrument, and the slave of prior passions. By understanding this, we deal with these passions directly, rather than seeking to bypass, override, or explain them away - though they be the main drivers of politics, economics, and social life.
    I can't imagine that's his reason for believing that evolution is the one thing we should teach everyone about science.
  • Annette Karmiloff-Smith:
    The cognitive neuroscientist answered:
    Paradoxically, I wish that everyone - including scientists working in the field - fully understood that developmental disorders are developmental.
    All I can say is, "Umm... OK."
  • Lisa Saksida:
    Another cognitive neuroscientist, with a much more sensible (and sense-making) answer:
    I wish people understood that there is no mind/brain duality. Specifically, I wish people understood that there is no such thing as a purely psychological disorder.
    This probably isn't the one thing people should know about science, but I really wish more people understood this. Once we understand that mental disorders are as physical as any non-mental illness, we may be able to combat much of the stigma that is associated with mental disorders. Of course, we also have to recognize that just because something is manifested physically doesn't mean we can treat it by just throwing medicine at it.
  • Jesse Bering:
    A cognitive scientist with whose work I am familiar, but having nothing to say about it, writes:
    There have been two domains of inquiry that have repeatedly managed to hit me, in the same way that I'm guessing scripture must hit spiritually famished parishioners. These are evolutionary biology, which - as anybody who does it sensibly knows - implies that human life is meaningless; and existential psychology, which asserts that human life is not only meaningless, but fundamentally absurd.
    OooooK... I'm a big fan of phenomenology, and that means I enjoy existentialism, but when I read that someone thinks that existential psychology is part of the one thing we should tell people about science, all I can do is move on to the next answer.
  • Tara Dineen:
    A psychologist about whom I know absolutely nothing, has an excellent answer.
    Upon reflection and with an ear open for cosmic laughter, the one thing I wish people understood about science is how science inspires puzzlement and wonder.
    That is an excellent thing to teach people about science: that instead of turning the world into a cold mass of matter, energy, and bare cause and effect, it actually shows us just how amazing and beautiful the world really is.
  • Christopher Frith:
    A neuropsychologist who wrote:
    The world, especially politicians, need to be taught what science is and what it can do. Science is not about certainties; it is about probabilities. What most interests scientists is not what we know about the world, but what we do not know about the world. Scientists do not have privileged access to the truth about the world, but they have a method for getting closer to that truth.
    Once again, an answer that involves something that is both true about science and very important for people to learn, but that can't be the first thing they learn. Without understanding how science works in general, people will use this (as creationists already do) to discredit science where it is unreasonable to do so. I'd rather we teach people this immediately after teaching them how science is actually done, and why it's the best system out there for doing what it is designed to do.
  • Gary F Marcus:
    This neuroscientist's book, The Algebraic Mind, is actually a very interesting introduction to the issues surrounding connectionism. His answer, on the other hand, is wholly uninteresting. Just as 22 other respondents did, he said evolution.
Those are the cognitive scientists' answers. Most of them are pretty bad, as answers to the actual question, but since the actual question was pretty stupid in the first place, I can't really blame them. These and the rest of the responses can be found here.


Razib Khan said...

andrew's point seems too broad brushed to me. who exactly can talk about human nature really? the topic intersects the human and natural sciences by its nature.

people listen to whoever tends to support "their side," but the people on both sides are often natural scientists working outside their fields. dick lewontin has probably been the most powerful and consistent "pro-nurturist" (to caricature his position) out there over the past 25 years, but his background is in evolutionary biology, and spencer wells left his lab and went at stanford because he wanted to work with human genetics and not flies....

Bora Zivkovic said...

Chris, as an exercise, why don't YOU write your answer? Id love to read it.

Chris said...

coturnix, I was just waiting for someone to ask! (Actually, I have a blog, so I don't have to wait.)

My answer would be that we should teach people how science is done, in the abstract. We should teach them that scientists don't come up with theories and then go out and prove them. Instead, they look at the world, develop theories about how it might be organized, develop predictions from those theories, and then go out and test those predictions. Through that method, they can develop better ideas about the way the world is organized, develop predictions, test them, and so on.

With that information, we can then explain to people science's strengths and its limitations. From there, we can begin to tell people what we've found, how we found it, and why we developed the theories we did from what we found. We can also tell them what we don't yet know, and why. We can tell them about evolution and its evidence, along with its unknowns, for instance.

In short, then, if we explain to people how we do science, then we put them in a much better position to understand specific scientific theories and paradigms.

The reason I think this is the way to go about it comes from my experience in teaching. What I've observed is that psychology majors go through intro courses and learn about "facts" about the mind and behavior, but because they don't understand how science works, and thus how people discovered those "facts," they really don't understand the facts themselves, their implications, or their standing in the larger body of knowledge. Then, when they take a research methods course, and learn how scientists actually go about their work, you can almost see a little light going on in many of their heads, and they are suddenly able to evaluate the facts and research, and understand what it means.

Naturally, we're not going to go out and teach the world a semester or two's worth of research methods, but we can at least explain the basic process that is common to almost all research in almost all of the sciences. After that, maybe lights will go on in their heads when they think about the science they've already heard about, and they'll be better equipped to understand the science they'll learn over the course of their lifetime.

Unknown said...

Chris, you mention the phenomena of hearing facts but having no understanding of the scientific frameworks that they should fit in. Lately, I have been thinking we should be having this exact conversation about science that you provided above and that it could even appear in the realm the popular media. This (currently overlooked, neglected) opportunity stems from the common question: "Should Intelligent Design be taught in schools? " The legitimate, interesting, and informative approach would center around not the claims and politics and details of evolution and ID, but instead would focus on:"What is science? What is pseudoscience?"

Anonymous said...

What's really scary is that I came to much the same opinion about Gerard t'Hooft's response. Having once read through his Nobel lecture, that man is rapidly becoming my hero.

Anonymous said...