Science — general issues

The opening of the Creation Museum (no, I am not going to link to it) has generated considerable discussion about "belief" in science, a concept that I find somewhat odd, to say the least. Becky has a good post with lots of good science and museum links, and the Carnival that has resulted seems to have a lot of interesting discussion contained within it.

I discovered an article today that adds some interesting scientific research to the question of why people are resistant to particular types of scientific knowledge. Why Do Some People Resist Science?, by Paul Bloom and Deena Skolnick Weisberg, reviews the developmental psychology evidence as it sheds light on this debate.

In sum, the
developmental data suggest that resistance to science will arise in
children when scientific claims clash with early emerging, intuitive
expectations. This resistance will persist through adulthood if the
scientific claims are contested within a society, and will be
especially strong if there is a non-scientific alternative that is
rooted in common sense and championed by people who are taken as
reliable and trustworthy. This is the current situation in the United
States with regard to the central tenets of neuroscience and of
evolutionary biology.

The whole article is worth a read. It is a revised version (presumably for a broader, non-scientific audience) of a paper published in Science (a very well regarded, peer-reviewed scientific journal). And it gives us a sense of how we might concretely develop in our children an ability to appreciate the claims of scientists.

For example, the authors discuss this study of mis-perceptions of physical science persisting into adulthood:

In some
cases, there is such resistance to science education that it never
entirely sticks, and foundational biases persist into adulthood. A
classic study by Michael McCloskey and his colleagues tested college
undergraduates’ intuitions about basic physical motions, such as the
path that a ball will take when released from a curved tube. Many of
the undergraduates retained a common-sense Aristotelian theory of
object motion; they predicted that the ball would continue to move in a
curved motion, choosing B over A below.


         
       

An
interesting addendum is that while education does not shake this bias,
real-world experience can suffice. In another study, undergraduates
were asked about the path that water would take out of a curved hose.
This corresponds to an event that most people have seen, and few
believed that the water would take a curved path.
            

       
       

That last bit suggests that developing habits of observation AND providing children with lots of opportunities to observe a range of phenomena, will enable them to engage with scientific theories in ways that are likely to reinforce their trust in scientific explanations, an approach completely consistent with Charlotte Mason and other common approaches used by homeschoolers. Providing an opportunity to connect their observations to scientific theories would do an even better job, I suspect.

Of course evolution is harder to observe, but not impossible. I highly recommend an essay by Barbara Kingsolver "A Fist in the Eye of God" in her collection Small Wonder. This was published in 2002 but I’ve only been reading it lately. In addition to good scientific information, her writing is absolutely amazing. You could learn a lot about how to write well by reading Kingsolver. You might not be able to read this with your children (especially if they are young), but reading it yourself will give you a good sense of how to explain these concepts to your children. And it might give you some inspiration for choosing observational activities that would develop their understanding of evolutionary principles.

I think that there are bigger issues at stake in this whole debate (issues which the article above raises in its concluding sentence but doesn’t provide solutions for). Authority is the elephant in the room. For secularists, this is often seen as a question of the authority of science vs. the authority of the bible. But even among Christians, there are serious debates about what the authority of the bible consists of. Clearly the difference between young earth creationists, old earth creationists, and those Christians who don’t think the age of the earth/literal truth of Genesis is a key issue for their faith is huge. And for those of us involved in the worldwide Anglican communion (for better or for worse) the authority of the bible is central to current debates. But I’m not getting into that. Suffice to say, that if that is not a central question for your homeschool, all you need to do is make your children aware that it is important to some people. We don’t have to then grant that their views are equally valid, but it would give us a better sense of why they argue the things that they do.

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3 thoughts on “Science — general issues

  1. Jove,
    I’ve missed your succinct revelations in your search for the essence of truth held within the chaos of blog world. Glad your break was short.

    I read Small Wonder and love Kingsolver’s writing. I’ve read all of her other work (novels and essays) except her last which I am expecting for my birthday. You would love Prodigal Summer.

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  2. I volunteered in my daughter’s class when the Scientists in the Schools program came. The whole day was set up around observation–animal coverings–and the kids learned to link their observations to the world (how do coverings help Canadian animals in winter, certain environments etc). They also did a little experiment with a hypothesis and learned about how scientists do their work.

    I think developing that understanding of theory, observation, experiment, results, theory is also important to understanding scientific knowledge claims since evidence is a key component vs. faith which is important to religious knowledge claims.

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  3. Fascinating article … thank you for sharing this link. I have some thoughts about it (maybe I’ll write about it on my blog later). Thank you for your always thought provoking and intelligent writing.

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