— Micah Leinbach (@MLeinbach) February 19, 2013
As promised on Twitter, I wanted to write about my excitement at exploring a site that teaches science by mapping controversy rather than the way most textbooks do. I don’t think 140 characters cuts it on this one.
The site authors (its Bruno Latour approved) even explain their reasoning on the fourth page of an attractive, if at times text heavy, slideshow on the site. and sum it up well:
Scientiﬁc and technical knowledge is always presented in its ﬁnal form, without ever offering insight into how its certitude has been achieved; yet those intermediate stages, corresponding to the actual research process, best highlight the connections between scientiﬁc work and other types of activities).
I feel there is a truth to that – science is a lot of ugly, controversial steps towards understanding. Conclusions aren’t clean and easy. I’ve gotten into the habit of explaining to folks on my trips that in risk management decisions, “there is no right answer, but there is a wrong answer.” The implication is that there are a lot of ways to do things safely, but always the chance that it will end poorly – the wrong answer.
But in most science classes I have taken – even at the collegiate level – there is always a right answer to match the wrong ones. We take tests and get things right or wrong. We do experiments, and get results that are considered right (i.e. in line with common understanding) or wrong (i.e. not). We put pressure on people to obtain results, in both contexts, that support a status quo. And then we turn around and read studies about confirmation bias in peer-reviewed publications.
But science does not prove truth, and it is far from set in stone. Some studies have shown that over 50% of scientific papers are ultimately refuted later on in time (though I know this is a weak argument until I find that study – it involved kidneys, if that helps you search).
I would love to see the results of a science curriculum that, for testing purposes, gives you some sort of relevant conundrum, a relationship you have to determine. You design a study. The professor reviews your study and then comes up with a set of results. You analyze them. Sometimes they are significant, sometimes they aren’t. You repeat. You collaborate with others. In short, you practice what you really need to do in the scientific process.
In those same risk management classes, I tell people again and again that practice needs
to be as realistic as possible if it is going to have an effect (to be fair, I am referring to crisis and fear responses - the more we practice protecting ourselves, the better we react to similar crisis in the future, and the better we cope). So why don’t we go out and teach that way, in the science classrooms of America just like we do on an avalanche clinic or in a wilderness medicine scenario in a WFR?
Lets take advantage of learning that works. Maybe teaching science through controversy and process, not results and “right answers,” could be a solution.