Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Death to the Scientific Method

Perhaps it is because its an election year, but the rate of the incredulous seems to be picking up. I do expect very political positions being spun back and forth on the economy, foreign affairs, and even education. Those are par for the course. However, I'm rather taken aback by what I see as a growing mistrust of the scientific method amongst the American public.

I'll admit, this is way out of my realm of comprehension. I fully espouse that the scientific method is right, that it is proven, that it is the best way for a community to progress itself. Perhaps I espouse it too much, because I am troubled when people don't.

One of the most prevalent examples is the challenge being raised to the Iowa Core's use of global warming as a possible topic to demonstrate essential scientific skills. Deborah Thornton's letter to the editor contains complaints against the Iowa City School District's use of global warming in the curriculum, her words approaching the level of "scathing". And while comments on blogs are not always a good measure, there seems to be quite a few people who agree with her.

Another example that comes about is the renewing of the "creationism in public education" debate, re-ignited by the nomination of Sarah Palin as the vice-president candidate. To be fair to Governor Palin, I haven't heard her say on the campaign trail that she is currently advocating this. However, unlike other smears, conservative pundits and bloggers haven't responded with "these claims are lies!" They instead have responded with "she's a champion for the rights of students." In other words, the ground support fully supports her supposed position, whether she does or not.

This morning, in my daily check of the blogosphere, I ran into this from Scott McLeod. Over half of the American public believes parents should be allowed to exempt their children from mandatory vaccinations. While many argue that it is the principle of liberty that is behind this, I can't help but thinking that this is more of the same.

What do these three examples mean? Well, I believe there are two lessons. One, topics like evolution and global warming remain highly politicized. I honestly felt the average American was moving more towards the trusting of scientists in recent years, as even the president, who for years claimed he needed more evidence of global warming, has recently shifted his position. But apparently we haven't moved far enough to trust us to teach the findings of scientists. I will maintain this: when issues are politicized, they become nearly impossible to teach in our schools, even if they are very important.

The other lesson is more important for educators. This really isn't about evolution or global warming. This is about what principles do we use to agree on factual nature. If we don't have a method for agreeing on whether something is fact or not, we cannot progress as a society. We'll continue to live in relativism and personal belief.

The scientific method is the ultimate checks and balances... it makes our government's checks and balances look like nothing. Al Gore did not invent global warming on a whim one day. It took years of evidence gathering, hypothesizing, experimenting, critical review and skepticism by experts to come to the postulate we hold today. These checks and balances are a good thing. It gives me trust in our system of knowledge that it has been thoroughly tested. But, it seems that we must give pause to popular opinion, or the rights of the minority.

With these issues, no one is arguing that these are not relevant topics. In the fine line that is determining a curriculum, when districts have to make choices of topics they think are the most relevant, no one objects that global warming and evolution are not as important as something else that isn't taught. They argue that they aren't true. The scientific method is under attack.

We should probably extend this to its logical conclusions. Where's the push for the geocentric view of the solar system? Like evolution and global warming, if we use just our senses, it appears the earth is at the center of the solar system. Why propagate the uncertainty that the sun is the center of it all? Don't subject my child to your dogmatic views. And, don't get me started on subatomic theory!

Bottom line question... what do we do as educators to protect the scientific method from politicization?

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