The Island of Doubt

Teaching our children well

If only we could teach our kids what science is really about before they get too old, then they’d be better equipped to deal with intelligent design and other anti-intellectual propaganda that poisons the noosphere. At least, that’s a common theory, one that’s taken up again this week by Jonathan Osborne, the chairman of science education at King’s College in London. There’s nothing particularly new about his argument, but it’s important to be reminded that the problem transcends North America, and that the case is worth making, repeatedly, until school board trustees get it through their heads.

His plea for better science education comes in the pages of The Australian, which is kind of like an Aussie version of the Wall Street Journal – great newsroom staff set against neo-con editorialists. The central thrust of his case is that

… scientific knowledge is presented to students as “a body of authoritative knowledge which is to be accepted and believed”.

But this approach is flawed and harmful, limiting students’ understanding of science. “It oversimplifies and misrepresents the practices and processes of science, providing an education that fails to develop the skills and knowledge necessary to understand or interpret contemporary accounts of science, scientists and their findings,” he says. “Its failure to develop any understanding of the nature of science beyond naive empiricist notions leaves the majority poorly education about science.”

“Teaching science needs to accomplish much more than simply detailing what we know. As well as teaching what we believe to be true in science, there is a need to address why we believe it to be true.”

I think it safe to say the same could be said of the state of American and Canadian science education. And the good professor is not alone:

In a paper to be presented tomorrow, [Australian Council for Educational Research] principal research fellow Sue Thomson highlights the relative lack of time spent in Australian schools teaching science, particularly in the early years when children are naturally interested in the subject.

We’re probably all familiar with the traditional attempts to engage youngsters in the natural world: take them outside, let them splash about in ponds looking for frogs, demystify science with fun-filled experiments that go snap, crackle and pop, and above all emphasize the discovery process over the results.

All that is true. But Osborne is on to something even more important. We need to let the kids know, as soon as they’re able to process the concept, that scientists aren’t always right, that the history of science is littered with mistaken theories and far-out nonsense that no one really believes anymore. Let them know that even the brightest of today’s scientists are but naive children themselves compared with the average nine-year-old of a hundred years from now.

And if I was teaching a science class today, I’d want my students to know that figuring out what makes the universe tick is the most exciting thing they could ever do. Make sure they aren’t afraid of unlocking those secrets. Give them a healthy sense of skepticism for any mode of thought that would deny them access to those secrets.

On that note, the Australian also has a nice little reminder of another curious comparison between American and Australian science policy — a story about the decision of one of the latter nation’s premiere stem cell researchers, Paul Simmons, to pack up his troubles and take his brain to, of all places, Texas, where he is assuming the directorship of the new Centre for Stem Cell Biology at the University of Texas in Houston.

His move follows that of two other top Australian stem cell scientists, Martin Pera and Dianna DeVore, who are now in California, busy helping do an end run around Bush’s federally funded stem cell research ban. All them, it would appear, are fed up with the Australian government’s ban on somatic cell nuclear transfer, or therapeutic cloning. As well they should be.

… it’s a trend that will grow unless Australia’s embryo research and anti-cloning legislation is modified as recommended by the Lockhart legislative review committee, Dr Simmons warned. “In a pluralistic society, public debate is an intrinsic and inherent part of the process,” Dr Simmons said. “It seems, sadly, that process is being subverted.”

Now there’s a familiar lament.

Improving science education may or may not churn out better scientists. But it just might give the next generation of voters enough sense to stop electing those who would deny the value of science itself.