Processes and products – the gears behind the facade of science

Gears of the universeLet me introduce you to an old colleague of mine. For the purposes of this discussion, we’ll say he was a middle-aged bloke, and we’ll call him Joe. We both taught junior science in the same school, although Joe also covered subjects in IT and physical education.

Joe and I got on rather well, especially when he discovered I was an atheist. On one level I could sympathise with his eye rolling and venting about creationist beliefs in the community or the call for prayers for somebody-or-other’s hospitalised relative, although I never felt passionate enough about it to feel a need to match his vehemence.

When it came to evolution, Joe seemed to know his stuff. He could recite passages from Darwin’s ‘On the Origin of Species’, knew all of the significant details of the Dover intelligent design trial and always had interesting discussions with his classes on some strange new discovery in biology that exemplified speciation. By most accounts he was a superb teacher, loved by his students and enthusiastic about their education. Hence it came as a surprise when he expressed doubts about the validity of climate change.

I was curious. His reasons weren’t particularly novel; part conspiracy theory and part ignorance on atmospheric chemistry, from what I could gather at first. The justifications behind his doubt were so mundane I wouldn’t have even blinked, had it been anybody other than Joe. So over a beer we discussed the details of our opinions on the matter, which meandered through other topics such as psychology, sociology, anthropology and somehow back into his pet field of evolution. We agreed on most things, however when I began to press him on his philosophical underpinnings on the principles of science I was in for a shock.

By the end of the evening it seemed to me as if Joe believed in evolution because he had a particular dislike of religion. Psychology was a soft science, therefore useless as it didn’t give us the dichotomy of ‘certainty’ that physics did. And climate change was probably an invention of climatologists because they weren’t being paid a great deal. It became clear that while we agreed on what constituted a valid scientific theory, we disagreed on what made them valid.

Joe taught me a lot about epistemology – one needn’t know a lot about how science operates as a methodology to embrace ‘scientific’ beliefs. It might seem obvious in hindsight, but it was something of an epiphany to me. From that day I started to notice broken logic slipping into Joe’s arguments. Not to say I disagreed with his conclusions, but primed with an insight into his epistemology when it came to science, I found myself spotting strange non-sequitors, colourful strawmen and the occasional twisted fallacy.

Two months ago I received an email from a reader of the publication I write. Let’s say it was a young mother and we’ll call her Mary. She was concerned that an article I’d written had been phrased as to presume that evolution was factual, and felt obliged to question me on it.

I always have the option of responding to critical emails I receive with a standard ‘thank you for your feedback, here is an explanation of our policy on evolution/climate change/paranormal events etc.’ paragraph, if I feel anything more in depth would only be a waste of time. Mary’s email was quite polite and worded in a way that made me give her the benefit of the doubt. So I took the time to respond.

Several emails bounced back and forth, and none of them changed her mind into accepting that evolution was a rigid theory. However, she did demonstrate that she had read the information I had sent her and that she understood how her previous beliefs weren’t at all internally consistent. She promised to buy a book I suggested on the topic and continue to think on it.

Where Joe and I shared similar conclusions but differed in our means of arriving at them, Mary’s language gave me confidence that her way of thinking would see her through eventually. The fact she didn’t take my word on it was also somewhat gratifying; she subscribed to my publication because she liked science and wanted a practical resource to give her ideas to use with her children. But given what she’d been told about evolution, she was concerned I might be wrong.

Joe and Mary are the two people who immediately to my mind when I think about education. Joe reflects the product-based communicator, who eagerly distributes knowledge with a passion that describes it as absolute truth or absolute nonsense. Unfortunately, it is accompanied by an epistemology that says ‘if it sounds ridiculous, it probably is’ and ‘if you can’t prove it, it’s not scientific’.

On the other hand, Mary makes me think of the right epistemology, even if I disagree with her conclusions. Somewhere along the way she’d heard from a trusted friend that the human eye is irreducibly complex, and therefore evolution was flawed as an idea explaining biodiversity. She had never studied science in her senior years of high school and openly admitted she was heavily influenced by a friend she considered to be well educated. On further discussion, she admitted that her lack of education in science made her feel easily intimidated by those who claimed to know better and she sought a better way of understanding the concept in the face of what she saw as a conflict of views.

Obviously in the end, it’s the products of science that have a pragmatic impact on our lives. Good epistemology means nothing if you still believe that fairies will save you from cancer, or that Reptilians are running a New World Order global government. We can debate the validity of climate models until the cows come home, but the methodology is useless unless it is used to make a decision. Good information is a necessity in education – science cannot be taught without facts and theories. Yet prioritising the communication of the products of thinking over the process is just like painting a wall without a primer coat; you need more paint and risk having it peel off once the bad weather hits.

The world has a glut of science communicators and rationalists who are eagre to promote scientific facts, theories and hypotheses in the face of misinformation, as if by shouting it with enough passion they will somehow drown out the cacophony of nonsense. In some cases, that passion does rub off and inadvertently change epistemologies. People who would sooner stay silent are encouraged to demonstrate their epistemological values, influencing their children, nieces, nephews, students, fans, football team or band members that tiny bit, just enough so they, too, start to think more scientifically.

But it is an accidental success, one that is unqualified and incidental. In rare cases, there are those who understand the importance of encouraging young people in adopting a scientific epistemology and focus their efforts not on driving home the facts, but encouraging open investigation, discussion, critical thinking and experimentation.

Much of the time it’s hard to distinguish the Joes from the Marys, readily associating compatible beliefs with compatible philosophies. Joe’s students might side with Darwin, but only for as long as it makes sense or for as long as they like him as a teacher. Mary’s children might echo her disbelief in the effects of natural selection, but so long as she demonstrates flexibility in her beliefs and a willingness to ask questions, I have little fear that they’d defend their disbelief irrationally in the face of logical, internally consistent evidence. Hence I’m far more concerned about Joe’s impact on his students than I am about Mary’s influence on her children.

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Published in: on September 6, 2010 at 4:28 pm  Leave a Comment  
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