How does the idea of the scientific method inform our modern culture and life?
April 28, 2010 7:52 AM   Subscribe

What is the advantage of scientific thinking? What practical difference does it make to live in a culture that believes in using evidence to explain the world?

What is the advantage of scientific thinking? What practical difference does it make to live in a culture that believes in using evidence to explain the world?

I teach middle school science, and my 6th graders are studying the history of astronomy -- specifically the Copernican Revolution, the acceptance of the heliocentric view of the world, and the shift from church authority as the source of truth to scientific evidence and rational thought as the source of truth.

But having never lived in the Middle Ages, nor studied them, my students (age 12, mostly rich and very sheltered) probably have no idea of what the world was like before the concept of modern science; that is, before the idea that humans can understand and explain the world using evidence. So their reaction might go something like: "Okay, so there was a scientific
revolution 400 years ago. Big deal. How does 'thinking scientifically' help ME? Other than shiny technology, of course."

What examples can I use to demonstrate the enormous impact of science and the scientific method as a cultural value in their daily lives?

Here's one possible answer from a related AskMe thread:

The scientific method is central to so much of our lives. When you have people roaming around who don't understand that there's a difference between homeopathy and medicine, or think that flu vaccines will given them autism, that's a huge problem. At the core of this is a lack of understanding of how to think critically and test hypotheses.


These are excellent examples -- if you hold an erroneous belief about something (e.g. "if I get a flu shot, I'll get autism"), and you don't realize that you can get evidence to support or refute that belief, you could directly harm yourself and/or others (e.g. not get a flu shot and consequently get sick).

Other examples I've come up with so far:

- the simple act of washing your hands can prevent you from getting sick, which people didn't know before the theory of germs
- sickness is preventable/treatable in general, rather than e.g. being caused by the devil
- when choosing to smoke or not to smoke, you can take into account the scientific evidence that smoking increases your chances of getting lung cancer
- any superstitious/cultural belief that actually has a negative effect on your life if you believe in it, such as missed opportunities due to the belief that men are superior to women
- some religious beliefs (but god is tricky to discuss in a school context)

So, hivemind: How does the idea of the scientific method inform our modern culture and life? More examples where erroneous thinking (from culture/custom/authority) leads to direct negative consequences in daily life? or where valid scientific thinking leads to direct positive consequences? Bonus points if it directly applies to students' lives today.

Thanks in advance!
posted by danceswithlight to Science & Nature (38 answers total) 42 users marked this as a favorite
 
I think James Burke covered how Galileo's telescope changed the world in one of his series; some of it is available on YouTube, kids find video really accessible when discussing abstract concepts.
posted by KokuRyu at 7:55 AM on April 28, 2010 [2 favorites]


How about the burning witches? Or using drowning/floating as evidence of innocence/guilt rather than DNA?
posted by spicynuts at 7:56 AM on April 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


[comment removed - absolutely do not make this thread into an argument about religion.]
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 8:03 AM on April 28, 2010


When you start seeing the natural world as a rational system, you start seeing other things that way, as well. Things like governments. 6th graders are probably too young to grasp Machiavelli's The Prince, but maybe a general overview of the idea of a rational government (versus a feudal system) could help.
posted by oinopaponton at 8:03 AM on April 28, 2010


"...other than shiny technology, of course."

I think you may want to explain the difference between technology on a grand scale - tool use - and what we know as "tech" - gizmos and gadgets. Every tool they encounter in daily life, from stoplights to preserved food to their shiny iPads, was perfected via the scientific method.

Also, as a (admittedly geeky) kid in school I used to love learning about theories proved wrong: luiniferous aether, phlogiston, etc. etc. If it wasn't for scientific thinking, we wouldn't have been able to disprove these theories and thus would have stagnated in our tool use.
posted by griphus at 8:05 AM on April 28, 2010


Maybe the fact that evidence and scientific method based thinking has taught us that if something we do has the same effect over and over, then there is a reason for that effect and it is extremely likely that we will get the effect again in we make the action.

It seems simple to understand, but lots of ceremony and ritual, and all wasteful superstitious behavior is based on thinking that maybe this time something different will happen. i.e. every time I eat this, I get sick; I think I'll eat this again!

Or the opposite, which is when we notice that a desirable effect is caused, instead of attributing it to a invisible magician we instead take the same action to achieve the reproducible effect. i.e. If it rains a lot on my plants, more of them survive, so maybe water is good for these plants.
posted by fuq at 8:06 AM on April 28, 2010


Re: handwashing, the case of Ignaz Semmelweis is classically used as an example of the scientific method. He was a nineteenth century doctor who reduced maternal deaths in a hospital ward by suggesting doctors wash their hands before working with mothers... but his suggestion of hand-washing wasn't really accepted by the medical establishment (had to wait for Pasteur, germ theory).
posted by scribbler at 8:06 AM on April 28, 2010


Counterpoint:

One of the interesting arguments Nassim Taleb makes in Fooled By Randomness is that time-tested religious belief is often safer than the latest bad science. His argument is essentially that as a belief is held through time, it gets tested against more and more data. In particular, it gets tested against more extreme events (volcanoes, market crashes, world wars, and other events that are infrequent but have extreme consequences).

Taleb isn't arguing that science is bad. Instead, he is suggesting that scientific conclusions drawn on limited data sets can be much worse than pragmatic religious beliefs that have lasted for a thousand years. Both are evidence based, but more evidence is better than less.

the simple act of washing your hands can prevent you from getting sick, which people didn't know before the theory of germs

I don't buy this at all. Ritual cleaning is present in many world religious systems, but seems to have been minimized to the sprinkling of holy water in Christianity. Germ theory is very recent, but humans had plenty of evidence that clean hands and bodies are healthy before they understood why.

A more nuanced example is that both the Ptolemaic geocentric model of the universe and the Copernican heliocentric model are wrong. It took Einstein to realize that there is no absolute center, or even reference frame, of the universe and that the experience of time depends on relative acceleration. Without Einstein's demolition of the Copernican and Newtonian misconceptions, satellite based GPS systems would be impossible (relativistic effects are present in the time signals that make GPS possible).

However, the Ptolemaic model is good enough for most people, and even a flat earth model works most of the time.
posted by b1tr0t at 8:19 AM on April 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


Without in any way wishing to diminish the importance of empiricism as an intellectual development, I think the historical picture you're trying to present to your students is a little reductive and inaccurate, if (as it appears) what you want to teach is that Before The Scientific Revolution, it was the dark ages and nobody tested anything and everyone was simply superstitious and wrong-headed, but After The Scientific Revolution, we rely on Science! and Reason!, and all our beliefs are perfectly rational and smart (except for those dumb anti-vaccine people, what's up with them?).

For one thing, although beliefs about the value of pure reason vs. experimentation in theory-construction have changed over time, people have always used sensory evidence to assess the accuracy of their beliefs about the world. To my knowledge, there was never a time in recorded history when nobody believed in any natural causes of disease or injury; as evidence has accumulated, our models of medicine have changed, but recent advances in genetics and molecular biology may well make our current theories look as medieval and ridiculous as the theory of humors, or whatever.

It's also 100% not the case that everyone nowadays relies solely on scientific thinking, instead of on tradition/culture/authority. Unless you're a molecular geneticist, you believe in DNA because you trust the authors of your textbooks. I believe in general relativity because I trust Einstein (and the other smart people who seem to trust him), not because I've personally tested the theory. Cumulatively, we attempt to build an edifice of knowledge where each individual piece is supported by empirical evidence, but in people's individual psyches, culture, tradition and superstition are very much alive.

Lastly, religious belief (=metaphysical) has nothing to do either way with science (=physical), and while there's been both bad science and bad non-science done to prove men's superiority to women, the belief in radical equality between the two sexes is much more cultural than it is empirical (as Larry Summers found out a few years ago). Science is not the same as modernity, and not all "modern" principles are scientific in origin.

Sorry to get up on a high horse about this, but I think you're doing your students a disservice (and laying the groundwork for future misunderstandings of the place and power of science) by trying to set up this sort of straw-man scenario where The Unenlightened Then gives way to The Enlightened Now. Why not try to encourage a more nuanced and analytical understanding among your students?
posted by yersinia at 8:23 AM on April 28, 2010 [2 favorites]


I believe without scientific thinking we would not have electricity and therefore would be lighting candles to play tic-tac-toe ( because chess surely involves scientific thinking ) instead of our back-lit Nintendo DS. The negative consequences of not having electricity. Higher infant mortality rates surely and the probability that one of your students would be dead.
posted by jasondigitized at 8:25 AM on April 28, 2010


One of the most interesting books I read last year was The Ghost Map, which is about the last big cholera epidemic in London, and how a couple of people used data collection and mapping to finally figure out cholera wasn't caused by airs but by well water being contaminated with human waste. It led directly to the separation of waste from water supply, which has got to be one of the great life-changing advances of the modern era. That's science: collecting data and looking for patterns. And all our lives would be very different without it--we'd still be living with high mortality rates, with the possibility of horrible death always lurking close by. That seems like something sixth graders could grasp and appreciate.
posted by not that girl at 8:26 AM on April 28, 2010 [8 favorites]


Edward Jenner's use of cowpox as a vaccine against smallpox.
Ronald Hopkins states: "Jenner's unique contribution was not that he inoculated a few persons with cowpox, but that he then proved they were immune to smallpox. Moreover, he demonstrated that the protective cowpox could be effectively inoculated from person to person, not just directly from cattle.[7] In addition he tested his theory on a series of 23 subjects. This aspect of his research method increased the validity of his evidence.
posted by SyntacticSugar at 8:29 AM on April 28, 2010


I've come to think of worldviews about the natural world being divided by two axes: the world either is/is not infused with spiritual meanings/beings, and the world either is/is not predictable. I'm going to paint with some really broad, not-terribly-PC strokes here, but I think the general picture fits.

Aboriginal cultures like those in African and Native American cultures tend to be rather animistic, i.e. there are spirits in everything, but to the point that the natural world behaves like a bunch of people. This means 1) they tend not to want to mess with the world for fear of upsetting a spirit, and 2) even if they were willing to do so, there isn't much incentive, because there's no reason to believe that the world is predictible in any regular way. The world is spiritual and irrational.

Eastern cultures aren't necessarily given to thinking that there are spirits everywhere--at least not in the same way as animistic cultures do--but they also don't believe that the world is necessarily rational. It's illusion, ultimately, and the physical world just isn't that important in their religious thinking. So you get some awesome engineering projects and the occasional interesting observation, but there isn't any systemic attempt to understand the natural world because it isn't something one can understand. The world isn't necessarily spiritual, but it's not rational either.

Ancient Western cultures like the Greeks and Romans believed that the world was rational, but also tended to believe in a pantheon which discouraged meddling. So you get incredible thought experiments in Archimedes and Aristotle, but this doesn't lend itself to any systematic exploration of the natural world because the populace probably wouldn't stand for it. The world is spiritual and rational.

It wasn't until the modern period that a culture believed that the world was both not spiritual and rational. There aren't spirits hiding in every hill, tree, and fire, but you can still learn things about the world by systematic investigation. Some argue that this is due to the influence of Christianity, but I think that's a broader conversation than you're looking for. Suffice it to say that for one reason or another, early modern Europeans decided that the world is not spiritual, but it is rational. This lets you mess around with the world without fear of smiting, but also creates an incentive to do so, because you can expect your investigations to be productive.

Once that mindset took hold in Europe around the sixteenth century, technology just took off. Rapid urbanization, industrialization, a new agricultural revolution, the works. Incredibly useful.
posted by valkyryn at 8:30 AM on April 28, 2010 [4 favorites]


You may not have access, but Science, one of the primer scientific journals in the world, just published a special section on science education and its role in society two weeks ago.

Special section: Science, Language, Literacy from Science
posted by scalespace at 8:31 AM on April 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


It is dangerous to society and the individual for people to not question their beliefs (or evidence or data). All of human innovation and growth and prosperity comes from looking at the status quo and trying to figure out a better explanation (or solution) for things.

When people are allowed to, or trained to, blindly accept beliefs in place of evidence and experimentation, you get a society where reality is not as important as the belief. You get a society that cannot accept wrongness; where failure of the belief isn't evidence that it might be wrong, but evidence that the belief wasn't strong enough.
posted by gjc at 8:38 AM on April 28, 2010


One of the most valuable life skills I believe a person can learn is questioning things: questioning authority, questioning your worldview, questioning the grand narratives that everyone takes for granted. Learning to think outside the box and challenge the status quo is the path to a greater life for oneself and the world one lives in. It's how progress happens. And I'd say it can begin in children with learning not just the scientific method itself, but the ethic of continual question-asking that underlies it.
posted by The Winsome Parker Lewis at 8:44 AM on April 28, 2010 [3 favorites]


How about the burning witches? Or using drowning/floating as evidence of innocence/guilt rather than DNA?

When I was in Grade 9 or thereabouts, I had a history teacher who urged all of us all to get out and see Monty Python and the Holy Grail (brand new at the time) as it represented the most historically accurate depiction of Medieval times ever put to film.

This clip in particular says it all. Too much for 6th Graders? No. But, unfortunately, maybe for some of their parents.
posted by philip-random at 8:47 AM on April 28, 2010


This isn't a direct answer to your question, but I think it would make an amazing class.

Have all of the children stand up and count off by four. Tell all of the fours to sit down. They would have died at birth because without medicine there would be no C-sections, no formula, and infant mortality was very high. Tell all the threes to sit down. Malnutrition and the lack of safe water and sanitation was a major cause of death for children under five. Have all the twos sit down. Explain that without vaccines, small pox, polio, rubella, scarlet fever etc may have ended their lives by now.

Nothing explains the impact of science quite like realizing that you would have been dead if you were born a few centuries earlier.

Please note - these figures are random, you may want to do more research into actual percentages if you choose to teach this class.
posted by valoius at 9:01 AM on April 28, 2010 [7 favorites]


It's true that our modern approach to empirical science got its start about 400 years ago, but it's not true that the only alternative was superstition and religion. The Aristotelean approach to science (gross oversimplification follows) was that man was endowed with reason, and therefore should be able to reason everything out from first principles. Which led to scientific "proofs" that heavy objects fall faster than light ones, because, well, duh, it's obvious, right?

The problem with relying entirely on reasoning things out from first principles is that you might be wrong, but there's no objective basis for testing that. Two guys with competing theories might argue it out, and you'd award the better debater the win. The a priori approach also has no good way to make sense of new facts, and indeed, no motivation to go looking for new facts.

The empirical approach institutionalizes curiosity. It demands that we test old theories against new facts. And it gives us an objective way to evaluate the validity of a theory. If two objects of different weights fall at the same speed, then the theory that heavy objects fall faster is objectively wrong.

This institutional curiosity has created a virtuous cycle where we keep looking for new data, inventing new ways to find that data (Hubble, LHC, etc), and as we find that data, we are forced to rethink or refine our existing understanding of the universe, which suggests new questions to ask, and new kinds of data to gather to test those theories.

But practical good stuff? Without the theory of relativity, it would be impossible to make GPS work. Without an understanding of evolution, it would be impossible to respond effectively to multiple-antibiotic resistant bacteria (indeed, we probably would have been hosed once penicillin-resistant bacteria evolved). Practical bad stuff? Some men in South Africa believe that raping virgin children will give them immunity from AIDS.
posted by adamrice at 9:15 AM on April 28, 2010 [2 favorites]


here's a thought. Can you run them through a practical demonstration? Model some sort of spreading epidemic, and ask them to figure out how to stop it. Tell them "Here's what we think we know about this disease," and give them three facts -- like, I dunno, it has an incubation period of three to five days, it's transmitted by water, and it isn't contagious until symptoms start to show. But, and this is key, LIE about one of the facts. Maybe the incubation period is two weeks. Maybe it's airborne. Maybe it stays contagious for long after symptoms fade. Anyway, have the model run according to the actual rules, and see if the kids can figure out that one of their understandings of how it works is wrong.
posted by KathrynT at 9:24 AM on April 28, 2010


Thanks for the answers so far -- I've marked some of the ones that would be most helpful in a classroom setting.

valouis, your "sit down if..." statistics idea is great! I'll definitely try to incorporate it into the lesson. (It reminds me of the sobering Miniature Earth video: If the world's population were reduced to 100 people, what would it look like?)

yersinia, I would agree that "people have always used sensory evidence to assess the accuracy of their beliefs about the world" and that "It's also 100% not the case that everyone nowadays relies solely on scientific thinking." The Unenlightened Then vs. The Enlightened now is, in some important ways, a false dichotomy. Clearly people tested things before the scientific revolution -- and in fact, in class, I made a point of emphasizing that Ptolemy's geocentric model was based on observational evidence too, and was accepted for 1500 years in part because it predicted objects' positions in the sky relatively accurately.

However, they don't call it the Renaissance (re-birth) for nothing. And that's precisely my question: exactly what was the impact of the scientific revolution (which contributed in a major way to the Renaissance)? If the scientific revolution hadn't happened, how would our lives be different? Note: not specifically better or worse, just different.

philip-random, I actually used the Monty Python witch scene to introduce my 7th graders to the scientific method earlier this year! They thought it was awesome.
posted by danceswithlight at 9:30 AM on April 28, 2010


Echoing what Yersinia said, it would be hard to argue that Augustine of Hippo (aka St. Augustine) did not have a spiritual bent about him, but, well, let's just say he had a low threshold for poor science.

Here he hints at just how low:
It not infrequently happens that something about the earth, about the sky, about other elements of this world, about the motion and rotation or even the magnitude and distances of the stars, about definite eclipses of the sun and moon, about the passage of years and seasons, about the nature of animals, of fruits, of stones, and of other such things, may be known with the greatest certainty by reasoning or by experience, even by one who is not a Christian. It is too disgraceful and ruinous, though, and greatly to be avoided, that he [the non-Christian] should hear a Christian speaking so idiotically on these matters, and as if in accord with Christian writings, that he might say that he could scarcely keep from laughing when he saw how totally in error they are.

Augustine isn't exactly medieval (he died in the fifth century). But keep in mind that a large portion of scientific understanding comes from people having time to screw around with things and figure them out. From the fall of Rome to some time in the eleventh or twelfth century, most people had figured out that if they didn't want to starve they had better make with the farming, which didn't leave a lot of time or energy for that figuring things out thing, and after that, efforts mostly went into immediate practical results rather than fundamental understanding.

Fundamental understanding is only valuable when you have a certain level of fundamental understanding. If there are three or four factors at play, but you only recognize one of them, you might not do all that much better than the guy who blames everything on faries and elves.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 9:37 AM on April 28, 2010


Check out the awesome blog: Science Based Medicine
posted by randomstriker at 10:12 AM on April 28, 2010


Let me say a word for social science, too. There are no test tubes involved, but the efforts of social scientists to apply the scientific method, and define and test their hypotheses, make the world a better place.

For a while, people thought that the best way to get over psychological problems was to lie on a couch and talk about your toilet training three times a week. This was actually probably helpful to a lot of people, but it took a surprising amount of time for people to do the studies that allowed them to separate out the helpful part (talking about your problems to a non-judgmental person who wasn't going to make them worse) from the non-helpful part (Freudian psychoanalytic theory). Other scientists have shown that medicine can be helpful for psychological problems.

For a long time, people thought that various elements of their culture were simply "human nature." It took a serious intellectual effort to understand that some parts of life are pretty universal (language, families, the desire for social contact), others are not (monotheism, the idea of inalienable individual rights, white people running the place).

To this day, many people with money to invest try to pick stocks that beat the market, or put their hands in mutual fund managers or hedge fund managers to try to do the same thing. Economists have measured and tracked performance have generally shown that very, very few money managers beat the market in the long run, and that most people are better off tracking the market with some level of diversification.

Just a thought.
posted by Clambone at 10:17 AM on April 28, 2010


The 1854 cholera outbreak in London is a good example of the kind of thing that happened much more frequently before modern science, and how science saved the day.

By plotting cholera households on a map, John Snow discovered that a contaminated well was the source of the cholera. This led to a new understanding of how cholera was spread.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 10:17 AM on April 28, 2010


You might also have them read Feynman on cargo cult science. It's quite entertaining, not too long, and very relevant.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 10:19 AM on April 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


actually, on re-reading that Feynman thing, it may not be appropriate for 12 year-olds
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 10:23 AM on April 28, 2010


Atul Gawande is a great read on how using empirical evidence can drive best practice to improve medical outcomes.

I've found his books to be both informative and readable for the layperson.
posted by MuffinMan at 10:38 AM on April 28, 2010


Hi danceswithlight! There was a great MeFi post recently about the discovery (and loss and rediscovery) of the cure for scurvy, to which erroneous thinking about its cause (vitamin deficiency vs. bacterial infection) almost certainly played a part. I hope you find it helpful--at the very least it's an interesting read:

http://www.metafilter.com/89883/Guinea-pigs-monkeys-and-humans
posted by Jinkeez at 11:33 AM on April 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


There's been lots of good advice here. I would add that you should read the first chapter of Simon Singh's Trick or Treatment - available on Google Books here. The discussion of bleeding as a treatment and deaths from scurvy is really amazing (I didn't know that George Washington was bled to death by his doctors). Goodness knows how many people died needlessly before evidence-based medicine took hold (The Ghost Map, recommended above, gives just the slightest hint at how many; think also: Plague, The Black).

There are too many examples today of non-evidence-based-medicine costing lives (and not just of humans). Tigers and sharks are being driven to extinction in part because their body parts are valued in Chinese medicine. Albinos in Tanzania are hunted for their body parts (see also the letter "Cruel Fates"). Consider that: even today, people are being murdered and buthchered because of non-evidence-based traditional medicine. Barbaric. In at least one industrially advanced country, South Korea, deaths - and who knows, maybe murders - go uninvestigated because of a belief in a totally fictious ailment.

Then there's the non-medicinal field - time was, you could be put to death for disagreeing with the Church not just about the existence of God (I mean, obviously you were dead for that) but about whether the earth was at the centre of the universe, which is not exactly a cornerstone of Christian theology. But a refusal to subject beliefs to testing by evidence affected the entire world outlook for centuries, long after the educated class had quietly accepted, for instance, that the world was round. A lot of this, as I understand it, arose because Aristotle was so revered - but Aristotle though that natural principles could be derived from reason alone, without requiring evidence. Hence people thought for centuries that heavier objects fell faster - it never occured to anyone to test this out, by, say, dropping weights from the Leaning Tower of Pisa (well, okay, I discover now that wikipedia says that Galileo didn't actually do this, but you get the point).
posted by Dasein at 12:19 PM on April 28, 2010


I JUST finished watching this TED talk, which directly applies. The part about a country's leader refusing to stand behind anti-retroviral medication for HIV, instead recommending folk treatments, was especially chilling.
posted by fiercecupcake at 12:40 PM on April 28, 2010


I would add that the scientific method also promotes organized and systematic inquiry - with faster and broader data inputs than the pre-scientific, potentially haphazard, accretion of observations.

Given a particular scenario, one's model might or might not make a correct prediction. If it works, one of the next steps is to find out whether that model also works in other scenarios. Where does it break? How?
Systematically searching for the limits of a model, applying a successful model in new contexts, and debugging a broken model each contribute to the modern world's much more rapid pace of technology development/understanding

As a result, your class full of 12-year olds could talk to their siblings/parents/grandparents about their experiences in a world, not so long ago, without ubiquitous and mundane cellphones or the internet. Your students have been alive in an interval during which televisions have transformed dramatically in form-factor and performance.

Navigation might be an interesting to mine for examples of the benefits of systematic data collection and targeted scientific investigation. People have gone exploring, and have recorded their landscapes, for a long long time. Old maps, however lovely, are a series of contours and landmarks with apparently variable distance scales - it can be pretty hard to "translate" an ancient map to our modern satellite-imagery understanding.

What did it do to maps/navigation/transportation/trade when people started to systematically measure the latitude of their position with astronomical observation?

Longitude was a harder problem to solve - with possible solutions either from technological development in timekeeping (ultimately embodied in GPS) or with enormous datasets of ultra-precise astronomical observations. What happened to civilization (not just maps and transportation, but geopolitics) when the first reliable solutions for longitude were available? It took well over a thousand years to get from reliable latitude measurements to comparably reliable longitude measurements (possibly a lot more, IANAH). What did it take to get from those early chronometers to GPS?
posted by janell at 12:48 PM on April 28, 2010


A Western Civ professor once told me that the notion of priests as a "professional religious class" was invented by people that understood science and used it for personal gain.

For example, if you knew how astronomy worked, you could tell time by counting days against the equinox/solstice/moon phases and "predict the future." You knew when seasons would change, tidal patterns and when astronomical events would occur. This would have all sorts of practical benefits -- for example, you would know the tides ahead of time, you know when rainy seasons would occur, when rivers would flood, when the next full moon would happen, etc, etc.

You could even predict a solar eclipse, and then your fellow villagers would think you were really a bad-ass.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 12:56 PM on April 28, 2010


Here are a couple of books that discuss the progress of scientific disciplines--would probably be good resources for some "before and after" examples.

My background is in chemistry, so I have a special love for From Caveman to Chemist, which talks about humankind's understanding of (and technical mastery of) the material world, from prehistoric times to the present. Just great.

The Microbe Hunters is about the major players in the emerging field of microbiology. It's a real barn-burner, vividly written, a really enjoyable read for kids that age--although be warned about some rather awful racist sentiments that reflect the prejudices of the time when it was written.
posted by Sublimity at 1:09 PM on April 28, 2010


Nonrational belief systems are typically explanatory, rather than predictive.

A physics teacher I once had explained it to the class this way: (and this was a fairly long time ago, so it's stuck with me)

He goes over to the light switch and flips the room lights on and off. "Why do the lights go on and off?"

We all sit there and stare for a few minutes. Finally someone says "electricity," or something like that.

"Okay, electricity. Why is 'electricity' a better explanation than 'fairies'? Why not just say 'fairies did it,' and call it a day?"

More silence. Somebody says something like, "because then we wouldn't be able to fix it?"

"Why wouldn't you be able to fix it?" "Because we wouldn't understand it."

"Understand it in what way?"

I won't take you through the rest of the dialectic, but the point is that if you say 'fairies,' you can explain the behavior of the system just fine. There is nothing that you can't explain if you just throw enough fairies at it. But you can't predict the behavior of the system very well once you insert 'fairies' (some outside agent) into it.

It's not a matter of the rational model being objectively true and the other one being objectively false. It's that one gives you a framework that lets you make useful predictions and the other doesn't. It is these predictions, confirmed by experiment, that make scientific progress and by extension most of the modern world possible.

And as a science teacher, I think you need to make that clear to your students; the point of learning science isn't just so they can passively understand what's going on around them — you could do that easily enough by just invoking 'fairies' anytime anybody had a question and save a lot of time. ("Fairies do it, it's all fairies, fucking fairies all the way down, go home!") The point of studying science isn't passive understanding but understanding well enough to make predictions and anticipate how various systems (everything around them) will react in advance of doing something. And, IMO, a lot of people don't get that. They understand "science" in a sort of folkloric way, or as trivia, but that's really missing the point.
posted by Kadin2048 at 3:21 PM on April 28, 2010 [9 favorites]


One fun exercise is to ask them how they would demonstrate some scientific fact they believe -- eg, suppose they went back in time to Columbus's day, how would they show that the world is round? What observations would they look for, what experiments would they perform?
posted by LobsterMitten at 3:25 PM on April 28, 2010


Also, ways everyday science affects them:

- We can predict severe weather, so for example boats are usually able to get out of the way of really big storms, and we can evacuate places where hurricanes are going to hit, etc.

- In terms of inventions, how do they heat or cool their houses, or refrigerate food (at home, or in transit to the grocery store from argentina)? and how would they have done it 100 years ago? (neat little research project there -- could have them watch Connections episode 8, which has a demonstration of the first air conditioner from the 1800s)

- Vaccines and antibiotics. Tell them about smallpox or polio or any of the other crippling diseases that are gone or all-but-gone. Tell them that 100 years ago, if they went to the doctor because they were sick, there was basically nothing the doctor could do except advise their parents to keep them cool and wait it out. Today, it's unusual if you go to the doctor and they can't fix what's wrong.

- Birth defects and other disorders due to nutritional deficits. Tell them about folic acid and spina bifida. (And no-alcohol-in-pregnancy, though this might be too touchy a subject.) Or later in life, rickets. Pellagra. Scurvy. etc. These are diseases of poverty, but what's their real cause? Particular kinds of malnutrition. Now that we know that, we're able to prevent most people from getting these diseases. Tell them to look on their milk carton at home - it's fortified with vitamins A and D to prevent these.

- If you want to put out a fire, deprive it of oxygen. (This is why they should "stop drop and roll" if they're on fire.) How do we know there's oxygen? Explain how we didn't used to know what fire was, or that there was such a thing as oxygen, and someone had to figure it out - how would they demonstrate that there is such a thing as oxygen?
posted by LobsterMitten at 3:46 PM on April 28, 2010


It's not a matter of the rational model being objectively true and the other one being objectively false. It's that one gives you a framework that lets you make useful predictions and the other doesn't.

This is an excellent and often-overlooked point, I think. We often turn to the notion of objective truth in order to justify science, but it's an idea that's fraught with philosophical difficulties. In comparison, the ability of science to produce methods for making predictions that we find useful is much more straightforward and, I think, a better starting point for examining why science is important to us.

It might be worth observing that what constitutes "useful" is culturally-determined. We often like to think of the scientific revolution as being some sort of methodological breakthrough, but it's just as much a shift in cultural judgments of value. To a pious medieval Christian, many of the models of natural phenomena that science offers to us today would have been much less useful than the models offered by Christianity: the Christian worldview simply had more value to them. The germ theory of disease offers all kinds of good things to us, including the ability to predict the spread and behavior of communicable diseases, as well as ways to cure and prevent them. But if you adhere to the medieval "vale of tears" worldview which holds that the world is cruel and fraught with suffering by its very nature, and that it is more profitable to look to one's spiritual health rather than one's physical well-being, you probably don't care about epidemiology.

So the development of the scientific method is not the most remarkable thing about the scientific revolution, in my opinion -- what's much more significant is the development of the idea that producing highly predictive models is desirable and constitutes a task which should be undertaken. This is the real sea change that led to the production of modern medicine, computers, aircraft, the atomic bomb, electric lighting, grape Kool-Aid, the Internet, and what have you.

There's a famous paper in cognitive science called "Two Theories of Home Heat Control." (By Willett Kempton, 1986, in the journal Cognitive Science, issue 10.) I suggest you look it up; it's fascinating reading, and does a good job of illustrating that what constitutes a useful theory is pretty context-dependent. It turns out that in many cases, an apparent misunderstanding of how thermostats work enables people to more effectively regulate their home energy consumption. (If I recall correctly, it contains, among many other things, an entertaining interview with a guy who attributes his understanding of how thermostats work to his "Calvinist upbringing.")
posted by magnificent frigatebird at 8:59 PM on April 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


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