What to do with Science Education
The most important thing we can do to advance the public’s understanding of science is to teach good science. This means to convey the idea that science is an open-ended inquiry, not an exercise in magic in which only the experts can engage. Science is above all a process, a method for finding things out, not simply a body of knowledge. Therefore, that body of knowledge can change, and this change represents a natural component of scientific progress.
In part to respond to this need, in recent years we have seen a lot of emphasis on hands-on education in the classroom. This is indeed important, because science is about doing things with nature. But this is too often accompanied by a “minds off” attitude. Science requires serious intellectual exercise, it is interesting, but it is not “fun fun fun.” We have to train our kids to pay attention, to pose and reflect on what they are doing. Otherwise, scientific education will change from a dry theoretical exercise to an equally empty messing around with the microscope.
Some recent research has, in fact, challenged one of the basic assumptions of educators: that more science education translates into more critical thinking. A team of psychologists (W. Richard Walker, Steven J. Hoekstra, and Rodney J. Vog, in an article published in Skeptic magazine) set out to test what really is the correlation, if any, between science literacy (as measure by standard tests administered to aspiring teachers) and degree of gullibility as measured by the propensity to believe in certain paranormal phenomena. Their results show that, at best, there is NO correlation between the two.
Indeed, things could be worse. The figure (below) reports actual results from an Honors class at the University of Tennessee. The left side of the diagram shows that – as expected – science majors do know more science facts than non-science majors do. However, the startling result comes from the right side, which reveals that science majors also display a much higher belief in paranormal phenomena. This paradoxical outcome may be explained (though much further research needs to be done) by the possibility that science teaching as it is done today is really teaching of facts, not of methods. Furthermore, standard science classes may actually depress critical thinking by reinforcing the attitude that “if it sounds scientific and it’s written somewhere, it must be true.” Most humanities students, on the other hand, have to take critical thinking or philosophy classes, which should result in better reasoning abilities than those developed by undergraduate students who major in the sciences.
So, the major objective of teaching has to be to improve the student’s ability to exercise critical thinking. Yet, critical thinking does not come natural to human beings, and we as educators should take this into consideration. The upper diagram (below) shows what we ideally would like anybody to do when attempting to formulate opinions on a given topic. The lower diagram (below) is a better representation of what the brain is actually hard-wired to do. While this makes evolutionary sense (in the environment of our ancestors, there was no time to defer judgment and collect further evidence, and fast decisions may have often made the difference between life and death), it is no wonder that the teacher’s battle is uphill from the beginning.
Scientists and educators should also take heart in, and advantage of, the most recent discoveries concerning the physiology of the human brain. As summarized in V.S. Ramachandra’s Phantoms in the Brain: Probing the Mysteries of the Human Mind, studies of patients with split brains have allowed us to begin to understand the functions and relative roles of different parts of our brain.
The left hemisphere, usually referred to as the “rational ” side, is actually the rationalizing one. It is in charge of holding onto one person’s current paradigm and worldview, no matter what the evidence. The left-brain will distort or discard facts if they conflict with the currently held viewpoint (sound familiar?). In fact, the left-brain can literally make up stories if the evidence is scarce or contradictory.
In a typical experiment, a patient characterized by a complete severance of the corpus callosum (which connects the two hemispheres in normal individuals) was shown a chicken leg to the right half of the visual field (which is controlled by the left-brain) and was asked to pick a corresponding object. Logically enough, he picked a chicken head. The subject was then shown a house with snow to the left visual field (controlled by the right brain) and, also logically, chose a shovel. The individual was then asked to explain why he picked a chicken head and a shovel. Notice that there was no communication between the two hemispheres, and that the only hemisphere that can respond verbally is the left one. Astonishingly, the left “interpreter ” hemisphere made up a story (a theory) to explain the facts while being ignorant of half of them: the shovel was necessary to clean the chicken excrement.
These findings notwithstanding, people do change their minds from time to time, and this is accomplished by an interaction between the left-brain and the right brain. The right hemisphere, the so-called “artistic ” component of our minds, in fact continuously feeds dissonant information to the other side. When the degree of dissonance reaches a threshold (which is presumably different for different individuals) one experiences a “Gestaltian ” change, the abandonment of a viewpoint in favor of another. I sincerely hope that every one of you has experienced this at least once in your life. This knowledge of brain physiology allows us to better understand how people’s minds work and to direct our efforts more toward raising doubts and asking critical questions – to stimulate the right brain – than to simply give long and convoluted lectures, the point of which is promptly forgotten.
Another interesting finding of recent research on brains and learning is the so-called “pyramid of learning, ” summarized below. It turns out that different approaches to learning are successful to a widely different degree.
According to the “pyramid of learning,” we retain:
10% of what we read
20% of what we listen to
30% of what we look at
50% of what we see and hear
70% of what we discuss with others
90% of what we teach to someone else
We should know these things before using what may turn out to be the least effective tools for teaching and communicating.