If you had to persuade a medieval peasant that the world was round, how would you do it? Why do you believe the world is round? And what does the American public in general think?
One of the hardest tasks I encountered as a professor was getting my students to recognize that all of their convictions – even assumptions as basic as “the world is round” or “the sun will come up tomorrow” – are built on a lifetime of accumulated experience. Sometimes the experience is direct: we’ve all seen the sun come up. But sometimes it’s not. We often underestimate how little direct evidence we have for our beliefs, and how much depends on trusted sources like parents, teachers, books, and (gasp) television.
San Francisco’s Exploratorium has just launched a really cool new web application, my evidence, which lets visitors explore the evidence behind their beliefs graphically, making a kind of concept map of the type of evidence, age at which it was acquired, and source. You can then compare your beliefs and evidence to those of other people, and clearly see similarities or differences in how you construct knowledge!
It’s interesting to look, for example, at a word cloud for “Humans cause global warming,” filtered by scientist contributors vs. non-scientist contributors. The evidence cited by non-scientists includes words like year, climate, more, human, scientist, people, and snow. For scientists, human, climate, carbon, dioxide, effect, and cycle are top words.
I’ve answered the round Earth question, so you’ll see “bioephemera” listed as a participant and can filter and read my responses. I found it hard to separate out the evidence for a round earth from the evidence for a spinning earth, or stuff about orbits, so some of my evidence is not dead on. And I could quibble with some of the semantics in the application interface.* But it was actually strangely fun to bang my head against the wall trying to remember why I’m convinced the earth is round. In the process, I suddenly remembered a pop-up book I once had about Skylab, that I haven’t thought about in years, camping trips with my parents, and some of my first plane flights. Overall, I feel good having critically examined my beliefs. And I highly recommend this to others, especially teachers!
So far, the exploratorium team has created only three beliefs to map out: “The Earth is round,” “Humans cause global warming,” and “Ghosts are real.” But David Beck, one of the creators, assured me that more questions will be added in the future – in fact, they’d like people to be able to submit their own. In order to do this, they need to build an active community of participants, so people can effectively compare their answers with others, especially with working scientists. This is pretty much the sort of thing the Scienceblogs crowd would be perfect for! It would help them out if you’d go over there and share your experience – or invite your students to participate. It’s very easy to create an account, and you can spend as much or little time as you like adding evidence.
*I assure you, the exploratorium team behind this is very much aware how scientists feel about the word “believe”; the final design of the project was based on focus group testing with the public, and tries to balance these concerns with clarity for the general public.