THE DECLINE OF REASON?
JERE H. LIPPSWe've arranged a global civilization in which most crucial elements profoundly depend on science and technology. We have also arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology. This is a prescription for disaster.
Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World, 1996.
THE PROBLEM GETS US ALL!IN THE last week of May this year, I received a press release announcing a replay of the "The Mysterious Origins of Man", a pseudoscientific "documentary" shown by NBC Television. It stars Charlton Heston, known best perhaps for his role as Moses in an earlier film, and two "scientists" who have published books on this topic with Govardhan Hill Publishers, specialists in Hare Krishna books. The program was awful. It was not science, yet NBC allowed it to be presented as an alternative view to the established scientific community who, among other things, were accused of having suppressed a warehouse full of scientific evidence.
In the same week, the National Science Board and the National Science Foundation issued a survey of 2006 randomly selected American adults (National Science Board, 1996). The survey had 10 questions, eight of which were simple true-false or multiple-choice questions. Seventy-five percent of those adults failed the quiz. These were pretty easy questions. The true scientific illiteracy rate of Americans may well be more like 95% (Sagan, 1996). Sad, and of major consequence to our country and to us as individuals. The Oakland Tribune simultaneously reported that high tech and biotechnology companies were leaving Silicon Valley and California because they could not find a properly educated work force, one that is capable of understanding the scientific thought processes as well as general knowledge. California has failed its kids, and they will suffer as adults! But California is not alone. Indeed scientific illiteracy plagues the United States and the rest of the world. People will vote or decide about critical scientific issues that affect each and every one of us without any understanding of science. That is scary! Our own futures are at risk.
This was all too much for just a few days and I had just about given up. But
I went to a restaurant, and I heard two seven year old kids fighting. The
little girl was yelling "I had the Styracosaurus first". The boy screamed:
"That's my dinosaur, and I don't want the Protoceratops". That argument
reminded me that almost every little kid around the world is absolutely
fascinated by dinosaurs and completely uninhibited by the technical terms.
If only we could use that child-like enthusiasm for dinosaurs to introduce
kids of any age to scientific reasoning, our country might have a chance.
Paleontology restored my hope!
SCIENCE, GRIM OR DELIGHTFUL?Most people, the NSB survey revealed, believe that science is a good thing. But this is based more on their perception that technology and medicine have benefits rather than a clear understanding of how science works or even what it is. People in general find science grim and seem to fear it. It works in esoteric ways. It is too difficult and too complicated for an average person to understand. Einstein, the name most frequently associated with science, was a genius. Noble prize-winners, even if we cannot recall their names, are very superior people. Movie scientists are either mad or unintelligible strange folk at the very least. Most people think that TVs, VCRs, and computers are science. Even Time Magazine, in listing the 10 most significant science developments of the year, included more technological developments than science. Its editors are terribly confused as well. No wonder the average person fails to understand science. No wonder they don't even want to try! No wonder reason among the common folk is in decline. Why is it so GRIM?
After all, everyone uses science daily in their lives. We usually call it common sense, or we fail to recognize it at all. Common sense is a set of conclusions based on everyday experiences. They are repeated time and again, and people come to accept the conclusions! Crossing a street is a scientific experiment. You gather the data width of street, number of cars, speed of cars, obstacles in the path and develop the hypothesis that you can or cannot reach the other side safely. This is not an hypothesis you would care to test negatively! So many things we do daily could be re- expressed as science, for science is a method of exploring our surroundings and a model for intelligent living, not technological gadgets, mundane facts, or highfalutin ideas. Everyone already does science, they just don't recognize it. The scientific process is a delight, it's fun, and it's glorious!
Science affects everyone whether they know it or not. So many societal issues are solid scientific problems. Water supplies, global warming, ozone depletion, earthquake precautions, biodiversity, climate perturbations, health problems, and many others confront us. We are asked to vote on these issues, to build our houses in certain ways, to protect streams and rivers, to legislate our lives, to take certain substances into our bodies, to believe doctors, and so forth. We are inundated with pleas from politicians, corporations, and employers to do one thing or another, yet most of these scientific issues have clear, harmful consequences if the wrong action is taken. If we cut down the last virgin forests, there will be nothing like them again for thousands of years. You may not think that's bad, but that decision should be a scientific one, not a political or economic one. Likewise, the evidence that tobacco smoke causes cancer is well established now, yet more children are taking up the habit without understanding the might of that evidence. And their parents often let them. An intelligent person should know the process of how evidence is obtained and how conclusions are drawn before he or she makes a decision. In your own life, you must daily decide to do scientific things like take pills, eat certain foods, use chemical aids, and others. Most Americans are apparently unable to evaluate any of that, let alone the rhetoric of politicians, spokespersons, and charlatans, a good number of whom assault us on TV.
Science is for everyone. It was not invented by white males in Europe. It is a universal activity. It is not the domain of smart people in white lab coats. The most primitive tribesman does superb science he has to because he knows his life depends on it. He observes, for example, that certain animals return day after day by a particular path to a water hole. He then hypothesizes that the animals will come again at the same time, and he sets his trap to catch dinner. He tests his hypothesis, and makes a meal or goes hungry. He is also aware of the seasons, the stars, the vegetation, the animals, the earth, and much more. Native peoples recognize the same species of animals that trained scientists do, commonly even better than the scientists. Science, in fact, is not difficult it is, fundamentally, observing events or things and drawing conclusions about our activities and surroundings. We must be disciplined about gathering, evaluating and using evidence (Tables 1, 3), but that is most of the fun. Scientists have formalized this procedure as the scientific method. They often pick esoteric topics to study but the basic operations are identical to living life intelligently. Science should be taught in most classes as a way of viewing and understanding the world. It is a way to enjoy life more fully, to make intelligent decisions, and to be aware of ourselves.
The scientific method is usually taught as a rather simple six-fold process (Table 1). This formalization of science is the start of setting science aside as something special. We all learn it this way, and that is a mistake. Few of us work this way. We dream, we ponder, we get excited, we question, we look, we wonder. Then we create. We create wonderful ideas that make us really pleased that we thought of them. The ideas may be simply new ways to gather data to test some nagging hypothesis, or it may be the hypothesis itself. We may get thrills at demonstrating that someone else's hypothesis is wrong. The real scientific method often takes place in the shower, on a grassy hill, in front of a beautiful view, or waiting in a tiring line of traffic. The ideas for any of the scientific method's steps may come at any time. True, the laboratory or library may be conducive to scientific thought, but a good scientist delights in solving the dilemmas he or she faces all day no matter where they are. All of this gives a scientist great joy.
Table 1. "The" Scientific Method. Although formalized as the way science is done, most scientists operate differently. They may enter this scheme at any point and move in any direction. That is why I removed the numbers from the list. Most of us have some idea of why we gather data most of the time, although once the data has been gathered, an open mind might suggest other hypotheses we had not thought of. A rational person operates with more than one possible hypothesis. Few of us ever get to the last two steps. See also Table 3.
Science can give lay people great joy too. In fact, the plethora of pseudoscientific nonsense that consumes people UFO's, astrology, Bermuda Triangles, channeling, crystal power, pyramid fascination, and so on ad nauseum suggests that they really are capable of becoming entranced with scientific issues. We have to make real science as exciting as the purveyors of fake science have done. That means simplicity, thrills, creativity, and, yes, packaging. We are not trying to train great scientists here, we are simply trying to get ordinary people excited about how science works and how it can help them lead better lives. Let's enlist and encourage those who already understand the delights of science. Let's especially reward teachers, who are at the forefront of this battle, with acknowledgment, praise and the tools to move ahead with scientific literacy.
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HOW TO VIEW THE WORLDScience is but one way that people use to try to understand things and events around them (Table 2.). Beliefs and selective reasoning are two other common ways. Belief systems, such as religion and superstition, rely on certain people to inform others about the world. Those teachings are beyond question, unchallengable, and they may be mixed with other messages and goals as well. Selective reasoning, or pseudoscience, relies on the use of particular facts, beliefs, and unconfirmed opinions to foster a false understanding of events and things. While everyone may indulge in each of these for different reasons, only science provides a clear and rational way to deal with the world around us. True, we may not feel comforted by what it tells us, it may not seem moral, and it many not be entertaining, but it is close to the truth.
Table 2. Ways to view the world. Most people practice a little of each of these in different proportions. We all need comfort and morality, fantasy and entertainment, and a knowledge of the real world. To understand the world, we need science and we need to clearly separate its processes from other ways to view the world. These ways cannot be mixed or chaos reigns.
Commonly, these three ways of viewing the world are mixed together. This mix results in confusion about how each is done and what each contributes to our lives. Because, in fact, everyone does make observations and draws conclusions, it becomes easy to use this incipient scientific thought process to build or develop beliefs and pseudoscientific ideas. Creationists interject science that supports their views; astrologers track the stars; crystal purveyors describe the minerals; and TV producers make programs that exclude all evidence but their own favorite bits. Science, however, requires constant testing of those beliefs and ideas with all the data, and in this respect, differs fundamentally from the other two views, which only require acceptance. Science is never really finished religion, superstition, and pseudoscience are complete upon presentation.It is the process of science that is important to teach, not the facts and theories. Those flow naturally after the process is clarified and separated intellectually in young or old minds. In fact, science is best defined as a creative, exciting process of understanding our world that we are all quite capable of doing. It is not a list of facts and theories, for those can and do get modified as other information becomes available. In many of our classes from kindergarten through college, we teachers fail to communicate that excitement, wonder, and creativity. We teach the scientific method, experimental design, statistical significance, and multitudes of detailed facts. These are, of course, very important, but they should develop later, once the joy of science is clearly established. Many dedicated teachers do this already, and they should be admired and rewarded for it.
A better way, in my opinion, is to teach the process of science as a way of living, a means to a good life. This should not be hard to do, because everyone wants a better life. Teach that people must draw conclusions everyday, and that the best conclusions for them personally are those founded on strong evidence. Show them that certainty is seldom attained and to accept uncertainty. Follow the Rules for Evidential Reasoning (Table 3.).
Table 3. Rules for evidential reasoning (modified from Lett, 1990), or a guide to intelligent living. These rules are a reformulation of the scientific method. All life situations and claims could be beneficially subjected to these rules. Statements from your doctor, mechanic, bank, cereal manufacturer, tobacconist, newspapers, and especially television should be scrutinized with these rules in mind. Then make your own decision!
Other important ideas to teach about science are that scientists are people, not simply intelligent robots; that scientific knowledge is built by hundreds of thousands of people over hundreds of years; that scientists cannot speak intelligently about all aspects of science; and that science is done in a social context. Scientists differ in no significant respect from people you meet around you most any day. As a result, they have the same strengths and weaknesses of all people, and it may show in their work. All scientists are especially proud of their own ideas, for example, and they are ready to defend them. A good scientist will change them, if enough evidence is accumulated to counter them. Some never change their minds, even when incontrovertible evidence appears. That is human nature, not a failure of science. Controversy abounds in science, and that is extremely helpful in finding the truth it is not a weakness. In any case, science is not an individual activity. Each scientist builds on the work of others and then contributes ideas to be used by those who follow. This is one of the great satisfactions that scientists feel their own ideas may last an eternity! But even a bad idea is often more constructive in the long run, because other scientists may sense that it is wrong and seek vigorously to correct it. A lingering bad idea does not indicate that science is lacking, but simply that the someone has not yet taken it to task. No scientist knows everything either. Someone knowledgeable in the scientific process accepts the proclamations of other scientists outside their own field of expertise because we know that the scientific process yields testable hypotheses. The proclamation may not be correct but we accept it anyway, knowing that it is subject to scrutiny and correction by other scientists more expert in that particular field. As a paleontologist, for example, I accept Einstein's Theory of Relativity. But I am always on the watch for claims by physicists that might change that acceptance. In this sense, science is self-correcting and errors are eliminated. Science is not all the same either. Although the process of science remains the same, the nature of the observations may differ. It can be either empirical (experimental) or historical. Experimental sciences, like chemistry, physics, and most of molecular biology, rely on observations that are not expected to change with time. For example, water should flow downhill every time because the effect of gravity does not change with time, whether it be a billion years ago, yesterday, or today. We can expect that the effect will be the same tomorrow or a million years from now. Historical science, like geology, astronomy, much of biology, and a good deal of anthropology, deals with evidence from a sequence of events, each dependent upon the previous one. For example, although water always flows downhill, when it eroded the Grand Canyon it passed through various kinds of rock, at various velocities, at various volumes, and carried various kinds of erosional materials at various times. Indeed, if any of the previous history of the Grand Canyon region had been different, it would not exist as we see it today.
Historical science reconstructs such histories by observing, as best it can,
evidence for each event. The historical sciences, of course, also use
experimental methods. The rate of erosion of the rocks of the Grand
Canyon, for example, can be determined by repeatable experiments, and thus
provide additional evidence to fit into the historical model. Historical
science has a greater margin of error most of the time than experimental
science because the scientists cannot repeat each event and must view only
the results of those events through a filter of deep time. That uncertainty
should not, however, be mistaken for a lack of knowledge. We understand
the formation of the Grand Canyon in all aspects, but not in every detail. In
evolutionary biology, so-called missing links are details, not evidence that
destroys the theory. Historical sciences are just as solid as experimental, so-
called hard sciences. Paleontology is largely an historical science.
PALEONTOLOGY THERE'S HOPEPaleontology provides a natural way to interest kids in how science works. They all love dinosaurs and want to know more. One important reason for this is that dinosaurs stimulate imagination and creativity which kids have in abundance. These are also two important aspects of science. Once kids are self-hooked on dinosaurs, a great opportunity exists to teach them how the scientific process works and how to use it in their daily lives. Use dinosaurs to promote creative thinking, to make and test hypotheses, to develop further evidence, and to relate to issues confronting them.
Introduce students to the richness of paleontology beyond dinosaurs. Paleontology is much more. Tell them about other fossils. Explain that these are the basis for other kinds of paleontology that can be just as interesting and exciting (Table 4). These also will expand the opportunities for teaching and for excitement. Many schools are conveniently located near deposits of these kinds of fossils but may be far removed from dinosaurs. Try micropaleontology, for example, where students may use a microscope, or ichnology where students may make their own tracks and trails in mud or plaster. Then introduce them to the larger concepts of paleontology the enormity of time and the fact that change occurs all the time, but mostly on a longer time scale than their own lives. Time is enormous and change is to be expected.
Table 4. Paleontology offers a rich variety of fun educational opportunities. Many fossils can probably be found within a short distance of most schools.
From the actual organisms, students can be led into many wonderful worlds of scientific thought. Paleontology is a lot more than just fossils and it can provide entrance into nearly all other sciences and mathematics (Table 5). This book shows how some fossils and disciplines can be used in your classroom, but do not limit your class to just these examples. With a little ingenuity, you will see other ways to use this information to make science a lifelong benefit to your students.
Table 5. Paleontology includes many disciplines within it that lead to other scientific subjects.
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SOME GOOD SOURCES ON SCIENCE AND ANTI-SCIENCELett, James. 1990. A field guide to critical thinking. Skeptical Inquirer 14: 153-160. A nice set of guidelines (modified in Table 3 herein), based on the scientific method, for evaluating any claim, whether it be scientific or paranormal.
National Science Board. 1996. Science and Engineering Indicators 1996. NSB 96-21. U. S. Government Printing Office, Washington, D. C. This report details the status of science and engineering in the US, including science education from K to graduate school, the work force, industrial and academic research and development, and public attitudes toward science. It is interesting, yet depressing, reading.
Roe, Anne. 1952. The Making of a Scientist. Dodd, Mead and Co., New York. 244 p. (paperback). Dr. Roe, wife of one of the most influential paleontologists and evolutionary biologists of the 20th Century George Gaylord Simpson and a psychologist herself, presents a fascinating study of why 64 eminent scientists chose their fields.
Sagan, Carl. 1996. The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. Random House, New York. 457 p. Sagan, perhaps science's foremost spokesperson, reveals the pleasures and benefits of science and the fallacies of pseudoscience, anti-science and other such nonsense.
Skeptical Inquirer: The Magazine for Science and Reason. Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, Box 703, Amherst, NY 14226-0703. A good source of critical studies of paranormal and fringe science claims, as well as useful information on science and reason in examining important issues.