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Teaching Children Science

9 Jul

Catching up on my podcasts this morning, I listened to a really interesting episode of Skeptically Speaking: #169 Play Reality. While the first part of the episode about gaming was interesting, the second part featuring a panel of children at LogiCON 2012 speaking about their interest in science really got me thinking.

I think the core ideas I took away from this interview come from these few excerpts:

Desiree:  ” …has there ever been a time that an adult tried to encourage you to become involved in science in a way that was spectacularly unsuccessful?”

Evin: “…they tell us these things, but they don’t tell us why these things are happening…They told us the information we should know, but not like why we should know the information”

Evin: “…everybody in the class as early as kindergarten and grade one, we all had this common interest for science but we all mostly like to look at sort of space and aerodynamics, but we didn’t actually get those units until grade five. I think it would have catapulted all of us even higher if they had just done that.”

Desiree: “…do you think that the other kids would have thought the same thing or do you think it just would have helped the people that were already sort of going that direction anyway?”

Evin:  “…when I was younger, my teachers all most scared me away from science. They sort of say it’s all complicated and that kind of thing, but once you sort of get a basic level of understanding, it just continues, it excels…”

Here’s what I hear this kid saying:

“We are interested in science now and ready for you to teach us now, not later when we’re older. Don’t assume we can’t understand it and discourage us by saying it’s too complicated. Capture our imagination now, don’t wait until later, it may be too late! And when you do teach us please don’t turn it into dry and boring facts.”

Since these children were attending Logicon, their interest in science may be the exception rather than the rule, but Evin’s statements make me wonder if these kids really have to be the exception. The big question is: what can we as parents, as family, as teachers, as role models, and finally as skeptics do to capture children’s imaginations early and to kindle their interest in science rather than extinguish it?

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Education: Ur Doin It Wrong

30 Apr
Author: Benjamen Johnson

by Benjamen Johnson

This week my daughter receives her first communion. I’m not really pleased about her being exposed to the Catholic church, but that’s a rant for a different time. What it did get me thinking about is how Catholics celebrate the sacrament. The 2nd graders prepare for a whole year, learning about the event which eventually culminates in a special mass where the children are the center of attention. They dress in fancy clothes…especially the girls who wear elaborate white dresses purchased specifically for the occasion. Their families and friends attend the special mass then, most of the time, everybody has a big party afterwards with cake and sometimes presents.

Does the description above sound like Catholics hold the first communion as an important achievement? It sure does to me. Now, how about birthdays? Do most people place undue importance on an arbitrary day that fall the same time every year? Party, cake, presents, friends…yep. Now contrast this with something we skeptics hold important: education.

A few weeks from now, my daughter will have her reading hall of fame ceremony at school. The children who have read 400 minutes on their own for at least eight months of the school year get to participate. Now that’s over 53 hours of reading over the course of the school year, a pretty big commitment and a huge accomplishment for a 2nd grader. Considering that how much a child reads is an important indicator on how well they’ll do in school, this is important, right? The school does try their best, they have an evening ceremony in the school gym where they receive medals. Most of the children and parents are dressed in their everyday clothes if they even bothered to attend. I’ve never heard of anyone having a party afterward.

My point is with these celebrations we are showing our children what we value. My wife and I  place a high value on our children’s education, but as parents my wife and I aren’t showing this to our daughter. Imagine what you’d be saying to your kid about how important reading is, not to mention other kids and their parents, by having a very special ceremony and a giant party afterward with all their friends, cake, and presents. Isn’t this worth rewarding? Unfortunately I wonder how many people in my family would show up for such an event.

We’re stuck with the first communion and party this week, so we aren’t going to throw a party for my daughter’s reading hall of fame induction, but I am definitely going to do something special with her that week and make sure she knows why.

Simplifying Skepticism: Correlation vs Causation

23 Dec
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by Benjamen Johnson

A few days ago I pondered:

…how am I going to relate concepts like confirmation bias or correlation versus causation to my children? They’ll be lucky if formal schooling will introduce them to these concepts before college (even then it’s iffy). I think the seven year old mind can grasp these concepts if they are explained properly and the sooner they learn them the less baggage they will have to throw away when they do embrace them.

To address this issue, I started by giving a simple analogy of anomaly hunting that related it to a jigsaw puzzle. Continuing on that track, today I thought I’d present one of the best (and most entertaining) examples on TV about the correlation equals causation fallacy.

First a bit of background: Ned Flanders panics because he sees a bear on the street. So the whole town overreacts and demands the city to do something about it. They over-respond to the townspeople’s concerns in classic fashion by creating the Bear Patrol. The scene starts with homer outside proudly watching the bear patrol canvas the city.

Homer: Not a bear in sight. The Bear Patrol must be working like a charm.
Lisa: That’s spacious[sic] reasoning, Dad.
Homer: Thank you, dear.
Lisa: By your logic I could claim that this rock keeps tigers away.
Homer: Oh, how does it work?
Lisa: It doesn’t work.
Homer: Uh-huh.
Lisa: It’s just a stupid rock.
Homer: Uh-huh.
Lisa: But I don’t see any tigers around, do you?
[Homer thinks of this, then pulls out some money]
Homer: Lisa, I want to buy your rock.
[Lisa refuses at first, then takes the exchange]

— Quoted from the Simpsons Archive [Much Apu About Nothing]

I don’t think I could come up with a better example and I’m not the only person who’s used this to demonstrate that correlation doesn’t imply causation. Criticalthinking.org.uk uses it as an example in a course on critical thinking: The Unofficial Guide to OCR A-Level Critical Thinking.

I think I’m going to watch this episode this afternoon with my kids.

Simple Skepticism: Anomaly Hunting

19 Dec
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by Benjamen Johnson

Yesterday I listened to the latest For Good Reason podcast, where D. J. Grothe was interviewing A. J. Mass, author of How Fantasy Sports Explains the World. While following AJ explain how fantasy sports and skepticism intersect, it really hit home to me that unless you can simplify the tools of skepticism and relate them in a way someone can apply them to their own life, their eyes will glaze over until you start talking about something they do care about.

This lead me to thinking, how am I going to relate concepts like confirmation bias or correlation versus causation to my children? They’ll be lucky if formal schooling will introduce them to these concepts before college (even then it’s iffy). I think the seven year old mind can grasp these concepts if they are explained properly and the sooner they learn them the less baggage they will have to throw away when they do embrace them.

I’ll start with anomaly hunting, but first some guidelines:

  • Rather than use definitions, I’ll use try to use analogies.
  • I’ll pick topics and examples from everyday life, not skepticism topics like ghosts and conspiracies.
  • I’ll try not to condescend to my audience, I want the explanation to be simple yet universal. It should apply to a seven or seventy year old.
  • I’m not looking for an analogy that correlates 100%, just something good enough to get the point across — it is an analogy after all.

So here’s my example for anomaly hunting:

Imagine you are putting together a 100 piece jigsaw puzzle of a yellow happy face. You place the last piece and you discover there’s still a piece missing. You look at the incomplete puzzle and conclude that since it’s missing part of its smile it can’t possibly be a happy face, it’s a sad face. Even though all the rest of the mouth pieces form a smile, you are convinced that if you find the missing piece, you’ll prove your theory that it is a sad face.

It sounds absurd when you put it this way, but then again if you step back and take a look at the anomalies that some people pick to support their theories, they are no less absurd. All the rest of the pieces of the puzzle point to one conclusion, but they ignore them and concentrate on the one piece that is a mystery.

I know it’s not perfect, but again my goal in this exercise is to get the general concept across.

But Science Keeps Changing Its Mind

24 Oct
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by Benjamen Johnson

By now you’ve probably encountered an acquaintance or family member who will confront you with: “How can you trust science, it keeps changing it’s mind. First coffee is good for you then it’s bad, then it’s good again. Same with eggs or cell phones or juice.” They even might dredge up how scientists were convinced before global warming that the earths climate was actually cooling.

How do you counter this argument, heck, even as a skeptic you may feel that way yourself sometimes? On the surface it does look like science keeps changing it’s mind, but is it reality or is it how it is presented to us?

The first thing to realize is that science isn’t a monolithic institution, it’s a bunch of curious people and organizations trying to find the answers to questions that interest them. There is no one authoritative source that says, “This is the truth.”  The best we have is a consensus, the longer and more thoroughly a topic has been researched the more likely there is a strong scientific consensus, but not always. Plus even a strong consensus can be wrong when new evidence is brought to light.

Next, think about the last time you read an article or saw a news report about something that you have knowledge about. They got some of the facts wrong didn’t they? Now apply that to the rest of the news you consume. Do you really think they only make errors on the stories you know something about? No, just about every story has errors or biases or misquotes, you only notice the stories have errors when you have personal knowledge.

There’s also more subtle ways of confusing the issue. Let’s create a hypothetical series of reports about caffeine. One group publishes a paper that looks at the effect of caffeinated soda on the learning habits of first graders, lets say they find that theres a 30% decrease in attentiveness when first graders consume one or more caffeinated sodas per day as compared to students who consume no caffeinated sodas. What will the headlines read? “Caffeine Makes You Lose Your Focus.” Then another group publishes a study that looks at how well elderly women perform on memory tests . The study finds the women who drink 2 or more cups of coffee a day perform 5% better than women who drink less than 2 cups per day. The headline for this study reads: “Caffeine Improves Your Memory.” In all honesty, five years from now will you even remember the headlines, let alone the details of each study? No, you’ll remember one study said caffeine was bad and another said it was good.

So, lets dig deeper assume both studies were well designed. The studies look at two radically different groups of people, they aren’t studying the same effect, and they aren’t even studying the same beverage. It’s hard to make a meaningful comparison between the two studies. Even assuming the researchers tried to eliminate all the other confounding factors, there always could be some that they missed. Finally these are only single studies — they haven’t been replicated. Replication is a cornerstone of science. If a study can’t be replicated than it’s results are questionable at best.

My last point is the media doesn’t always distinguish between good studies and poorly designed studies. In fact there are many groups that cherry-pick results, using the poor studies and ignoring the good studies to promote their particular agenda. I’m sure you can think of some examples on your own.