Saturday, October 6, 2012

Oklahoma Evolution Workshop, Part Two. What is Science?

The workshop sponsored by Oklahomans for Excellence in Science Education has brought together high school teachers and college faculty from Oklahoma and Texas. It began Friday night, October 5, and continues this morning.

The first presenter is Dr. Cecil Lewis, an anthropologist at the University of Oklahoma who uses DNA studies to illuminate human evolutionary history. His topic is the nature of science. Creative expression, critical thinking, writing, and math: if you can do these things, he says, you can do science. Science does not destroy the beauty of the natural world by dissecting it, but helps us to appreciate its beauty more deeply because we understand how it works. Reflecting the ideas of Lee Smolin in The Life of the Cosmos, Lewis said that when we look up into the night sky, we see not just pretty stars but the crucibles in which the elements of which life is made were created.

Students are sometimes surprised that we do not know the answers to everything. (I, for one, have gotten comments from students who didn't like me saying "I don't know.") But that is science: it is always investigating new questions, often replacing old ideas with new ones. And there are always things that we will probably never know. Both scientific and religious suppositions can, by trying to quickly fill in the gaps of our understanding, stifle our quest for understanding. Not understanding something is not necessarily a deficit; it can be an opportunity. He pointed out that we should be careful to distinguish such things as scientific fact and scientific theory: the theory explains the facts. The principles of scientific investigation, which many people think they do not understand, are not all that different from the principles of criminal investigation. We have to accept the fact that we all, scientists or not, are susceptible to bias and error.

We got into a detailed discussion of the differences among theory, hypothesis, organizing principles, coalescence, multiple tiers of theory, and even faith, which was valuable for us but which, I suspect we all agreed, we should not necessarily use in our classroom; the students would tune us out and think that we were just being "theoretical," without knowing what they meant by this. Sort of like the cast of Big Bang Theory. I did not dare throw another term into the mix, one that I consider important: consilience. (Evolution has consilience because it is a conclusion that can be arrived at my numerous separate lines of reasoning based on independent sets of facts.)

I offered a summary of my own during the discussion: We are all like cows, prone to wander away from the path of truth; science is a yoke that keeps us on path, while pulling the cart of knowledge forward. I'm not sure if this means anything, but it is a nice sound bite. I used it in the "scientific mthod" entry in my encyclopedias.

What we certainly do not want to do is to create the impression that science has all the answers. In the minds of our students, we scientists will lose the battle of authority if we try to compete with religion. God, even if God does not exist, will always overwhelm the greatest scientist.

So, how can we bring scientific thinking into the classroom? Certainly not by talking about the philosophy of science. Instead, according to Julie Angle (a science education professor at Oklahoma State University), we should do it by having classes do hands-on activities that promote problem-solving skills. "Engage their minds!" she said. She used the "cube activity:" by looking at numbers and colors and fonts on five sides of a cube, we can infer what is on the sixth side--that is, if there is anything on the sixth side. This activity seems simplistic, but exercises scientific thought well enough that the National Academy of Sciences included it in their book Teaching about Evolution and the Nature of Science.

Julie's second activity was one I'd never seen before: the "check it out" module developed at Indiana University. Just from looking at a few checks from an envelope, students can try to reconstruct a story line about what is happening. It is the kind of reasoning that Perry Mason would use to figure out who the murderer is. The participants found out it isn't quite as easy as you might think, because each group of participants drew out a different subset of checks upon which to base their tentative hypotheses. It is also possible that some of the checks were irrelevant to the story line. When scientists gather observations, we cannot be sure that all of the observations will be useful. When a writer puts a whole lot of irrelevant information in a novel to mislead the reader--as Arturo Perez-Reverte did in Club Dumas--I find it infuriating; but nature does it all the time. From these activities, we experienced the fact that scientific reasoning emerges from reasoning abilities our prehistoric ancestors used to, for example, track animals.

In Julie's final activity, the participants looked at fossilized footprints to reconstruct the story of how the footprints formed. At first, they have incomplete information, and modify their hypotheses as more evidence becomes available.

As Shawn Lawrence Otto explained in Fool Me Twice, the attacks on evolution and other major scientific issues by the general public are not due to a deficit of knowledge, but due to attitudes. By getting students to do some simple scientific hypothesis-testing, we can open their minds to science as a way of thinking. It might be worth the time, even in a course (such as general biology) already brimful of information.

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