Tag Archives: science

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?

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.

Sorry Mr. Ghost Hunter, Belief Is Boring

8 Jul

by Benjamen Johnson

On the way home from the Meetup last night I was scanning through the stations and found Darkness Radio on KTLK. In this episode they were interviewing people from Celebrity Ghost Hunters*. A few minutes into listening, I heard one of the interviewees say (I am paraphrasing): ” it was more fun to be a believer when investigating the paranormal.”

This reminded me of sentiments that skeptics hear all the time:

  • We take all the fun and mystery out of life by explaining things or debunking the paranormal
  • How can you have any sense of wonder in your life if you don’t believe in (insert deity or pseudoscience).
  • I feel sorry for you living with such a closed mind; it must be boring to know everything

Let’s take the last one first. The more I learn the more I realize how much that both I and science don’t know.  The ghost hunter who automatically assumes that a disturbance is caused by a ghost is the one who has closed his mind to the possibilities. At that point he isn’t investigating, he’s trying to shoehorn whatever “evidence” he finds into his predetermined conclusion.  No amount of evidence to the contrary will change his belief, whereas a skeptic will make conclusions based on the weight of the evidence, or more importantly if the evidence is inconclusive, he will say he doesn’t know — a real mystery. Which prospect sounds more exciting to you?

Next saying that a skeptic has no sense of wonder is a misunderstanding at best. Just because the skeptic doesn’t buy into metaphysical mumbo-jumbo doesn’t mean he can’t find wonder in things like medical progress or the ingenious methods humans have devised to measure our world. The fact that a being on a tiny spec of dust in the backwater of an insignificant spiral galaxy can resolve structure in other galaxies billions of light years away (and therefore billions of years ago) is mind boggling. And every time we do, we form more questions than we answer. Or take my dad having five of his arteries bypassed and getting up and walking around two days later — I marvel at the medical advances that have allowed us to take a death sentence to an almost routine operation in the span of a few short years.  Believing that a deity had all the answers didn’t cause these wonderful things to happen, people performing science did.

Again which do you think is more wonderful? A bird that evolved from a single-cell life form over millions of years defying gravity and soaring gracefully in the air or that some omniscient creator designed it to fly? Guess which has my vote.

To the first item and my main topic, skepticism doesn’t take the fun and mystery out of life, rather I find it is belief that does. Belief rarely adapts when new evidence is discovered.  It doesn’t leave room for a true mystery because it presupposes the solution. I’d say it’s even becoming more an more irrelevant with each advance in science. The real excitement is unraveling the mysteries of the natural world. The real wonder comes from how the complex environment of the universe and the biosphere emerged from a few comprehensible and relatively simple set of laws.

* I’m purposely not linking to any of these sites. I don’t want to increase their search rankings any further.