Mike the Mad Biologist

I think The Huffington Post has outdone itself on the bullshit factor. We now have all-encompassing metawoo. Consider this about the supposed harm that our current methods of teaching science inflict upon the young:

When educators try to inculcate children with the scientific method, the main legacy of traditional science, the outcome is often an educational train wreck. As Jeremy Rifkin, author of The Empathic Civilization, puts it:

[T]he scientific method [is] an approach to learning that has been nearly deified in the centuries following the European Enlightenment. Children are introduced to the scientific method in middle school and informed that it is the only accurate process by which to gather knowledge and learn about the real world around us … The scientific observer is never a participant in the reality he or she observes, but only a voyeur. As for the world he or she observes, it is a cold, uncaring place, devoid of awe, compassion or sense of purpose. Even life itself is made lifeless to better dissect its component parts. We are left with a purely material world, which is quantifiable but without quality … The scientific method is at odds with virtually everything we know about our own nature and the nature of the world. It denies the relational aspect of reality, prohibits participation and makes no room for empathic imagination. Students in effect are asked to become aliens in the world.

In Rifkin’s view, the way science is currently defined and taught is a profound violation of how today’s youngsters — and an increasing number of scientists — see the world.

But there’s nothing wrong with encouraging students’ enthusiasm about the natural world! And we like groovy pedagogy. Nonetheless, a surefire sign that the bullshit is about to come fast and furious is the phrase “an increasing number of scientists.” Onwards (italics mine):

Although he does not use these words, the way kids are taught science these days constitutes a form of child abuse. It involves the forced infliction of a false identity. There is an unfortunate precedent — Native American children who were once forced into white-run schools and forbidden to speak their native tongue or wear native clothing. They were required to become something they were not. Many Native Americans who endured this experience were psychologically scarred. They recall their experiences as a nightmare and speak of them with deep bitterness. Similarly, many young people see themselves as foreigners in the world of science, strangers in a strange land. No wonder they do not fall in love with science and seek it as a career. The separateness, distance, and aloofness required to do science is a repudiation of the relational, embedded, networked way they view their place in the world. They simply are not psychologically geared the way their forebears were for the past 200 years, a fact which many science educators have a hard time accepting.

facepalm

At least the author didn’t refer to science classes as a “Trail of Tears“, because that might have been too subtle. Look, teaching science without referring to the scientific method is like teaching math without referring to proofs. Yes, we need to keep kids enthusiastic about science (Look, shiny pebble!). But after they observe something cool, many of them want to know how said cool thing got that way and how it works. The way we do that is the scientific method. Granted, this is, like, so Hitler, but if we want to teach students science, as opposed to how to collect shiny pebbles, some rigor is involved. Moving along, let’s discuss this:

They [today's children] simply are not psychologically geared the way their forebears were for the past 200 years, a fact which many science educators have a hard time accepting.

While I’m perfectly willing to accept the notion that the Internet can make you stupid, this is idiotic. IQ tests indicate that scores have risen in absolute terms because children are more capable of dealing with abstract problems. To the extent they’re not like their forebears, they actually have an easier time understanding abstract concepts like the scientific method. Again, data makes me Hitler.

The ‘science’ and ‘wellness‘ sections are a disgrace to the good political reporting and columnists that The Huffington Post publishes. But that’s very genocidal of me.

Comments

  1. #1 Mandrake
    April 26, 2010

    Children are introduced to the scientific method in middle school…

    That *is* child abuse–for waiting so long. My kids were introduced to the sci method in their elementary school. It’s never too early to introduce concepts and elements of critical thinking.

  2. #2 Kate
    April 26, 2010

    These people have clearly not read a science textbook in a while. I should know–I write them for a living, and I can guarantee you that every textbook I’ve been involved in in the last 5 years has discussed in detail the concepts of bias, objectivity, the falsehood that there is a single “Scientific Method” that all scientists follow, the importance of imagination and creativity in scientific discovery, and the importance of considering point of view when interpreting results. It’s true that textbooks of the past may not have done so well…but kids today get beaten over the head with bias and “there is no single scientific method.”

    I would argue that a much more likely reason for lack of interest in science (if indeed that’s the case, a position that they don’t actually give data to support) is the intense focus on testing, testing, testing. Students are expected to know so many facts that there is literally no time to teach them what science really is–they don’t have time to investigate, because they have to memorize the information they’ll need to know to pass the test. (If you doubt me, go check out a New York State Regents-level science exam sometime. These are the tests kids have to pass to graduate. There are questions on those tests that I did not learn the answers to until graduate school.) If these people were really concerned about not crushing kids’ individuality and creativity, they’d be pushing for fewer standards, fewer tests, and more inquiry.

  3. #3 Keith Robison
    April 26, 2010

    The Huff Post piece author is apparently also the author of a very favorable book on “precognition”; Rivkin is of course a long-time anti-technologist. That doesn’t invalidate their viewpoints, but it is important to understand their context and (in certainly in Rivkin’s case) history of an agenda in this space.

  4. #4 Dr. O
    April 26, 2010

    The sad thing here is that the article, in my opinion, had a legitimate point to make about how science and the scientific method are taught in some schools. Unfortunately, the asinine angle that was used to introduce this idea turned the article into a stream of meaningless dribble.

    I also completely agree with Kate about why some students are left uninterested in science. On the other hand, I worry that, without some sort of standard, science education will run off the tracks in certain communities. Need I remind anyone of what a few towns in the South would like to teach in their science classes? (Creationism might be the scariest result of abandoning the scientific method.) There needs to be some sort of balance between testing and teaching, and schools need teachers that actually appreciate the complexities of doing science.

  5. #5 A
    April 26, 2010

    The HuffPo article prompting this post allows comments (after registration), and there are some commentators setting Dr. Larry Dossey (author of HuffPo Article) straight. Perhaps more are needed.
    Then, can we believe anything someone says, whose claim to fame is a book entitled, “The Power of Premonitions – How knowing the Future can Shape our Lives” and who is advertised as “The doctor—and bestselling author—who first demonstrated the healing effects of prayer now offers an unprecedented look at the science of premonitions.When Larry Dossey was in his first year of medical practice, he experienced a week of premonitions about patients, all of which came true.”
    It is sad that a presumably liberal web site is captured by so many woo-meisters.

    There is a problem with bad science teaching occuring at many underfunded schools in this country, as well with gender bias. This can be repaired by better-trained and paid teachers, and scientific studies of what works and what doesn’t (which are now available, e.g. see
    http://www.cwsei.ubc.ca/index.html ; hint: lecturing doesn’t cut it). And, from observing what my children learn in high school, though in a rather wealthy and good school district, science curricula are better than what they were, with more efforts on hands-on lab work and hypothesis testing (‘what do you think will happen if you…’), open questions (‘why do you think this worked like that/did you get this result’), collaboration (groups of students work on lab experiment).
    It seems that religious and new-age people nowadays collaborate in denouncing science (The truth hurts! Let’s then go for prayer!). And that is not good, for science and the U.S.

  6. #6 Chris
    April 26, 2010

    Look, teaching science without referring to the scientific method is like teaching math without referring to proofs.

    I understand that proofs are now considered passé in high school geometry classes. I don’t know what, if anything, they are being replaced with.

    I suppose that thinking this is a Bad Thing makes me an old fogey ;) Mind you, having been educated in an early version of “New Math” and having derived great benefit from it, I have no problem with new ways of teaching. But I have difficulty wrapping my head around how *not* engaging with the material in a hands-on fashion (which is what proofs do) is supposed to be a benefit.

  7. #7 tikiHead
    April 26, 2010

    This one really nauseates:

    “The scientific method is at odds with virtually everything we know about our own nature and the nature of the world.”

    Really? What an asshole.

  8. #8 Chris Tucker
    April 26, 2010

    Those two words,
    “Jeremy Rifkin”, are all one needs to know that the anti-science bullshit is going to be coming fast and hard.

    And he didn’t disappoint.

  9. #9 Paul Murray
    April 27, 2010

    Harry Potter is a great into to the scientific method. How many kids, I wonder, have learned skepticism by discovering the hard way that pointing a stick at a candle and yelling “Incendio!” just doesn’t work, no matter how much you believe it.

  10. #10 red pepper
    April 27, 2010

    Harry Potter is a great into to the scientific method. How many kids, I wonder, have learned skepticism by discovering the hard way that pointing a stick at a candle and yelling “Incendio!” just doesn’t work, no matter how much you believe it.

  11. #11 acai
    April 27, 2010

    Look, teaching science without referring to the scientific method is like teaching math without referring to proofs.

  12. #12 hipparchia
    April 27, 2010

    Need I remind anyone of what a few towns in the South would like to teach in their science classes? (Creationism might be the scariest result of abandoning the scientific method.)

    a few?!? either you’re being kind, or you don’t actually live here [in the south]. there might be a few large cities here where creationism is frowned on, but for the rest of us it’s a constant uphill battle to keep [one specific] religion out of our schools.

  13. #13 hipparchia
    April 27, 2010

    I understand that proofs are now considered passé in high school geometry classes.

    oh now, that’s just evil. i loved everything about geometry class, especially proofs.

  14. #14 Min
    April 29, 2010

    “Look, teaching science without referring to the scientific method is like teaching math without referring to proofs”

    Well, that’s how I was taught science before entering college. (Fortunately, I read about the scientific method on my own.)

    If secondary schools are teaching the scientific method now, more power to them. The problem I faced was science teachers who did not understand science. But they could teach the textbooks. If science textbooks for secondary school have improved since Feynman’s day, so much the better. But I wonder.

    I sympathize with the science-teaching-as-child-abuse idea, having observed how math teachers who did not understand math turned it into drudgery for my fellow students, thereby alienating them and inducing lifelong math anxiety.

    This blog sometimes talks about a “glut” of scientists. Well, let some of them teach in secondary school, and turn kids on to science instead of turning them off.

The site is currently under maintenance and will be back shortly. New comments have been disabled during this time, please check back soon.