Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Hard Times for Science Literacy

The unprecedented pace of scientific discovery has diluted the meaning of "facts" for a scientifically illiterate populace.

Not long ago, facts could be agreed upon. They were written down. They were observable-- in an encyclopedia, if needs be. And because facts were timeless, they must be learned. Mr. Gradgrind from Charles Dickens' Hard Times (1854) extolled the virtues of facts and a fact-based education:
Now, what I want is Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts; nothing else will ever be of any service to them.
But what happens when facts change? When Facts no longer are facts?

The twentieth century saw an unprecedented acceleration in the pace of scientific discovery. From aeronautics to astrophysics to animal husbandry, one hundred years of human history has completely revolutionized our understanding of the natural and designed worlds. We've gone from the Wright Brothers to the Mars Curiosity rover. From the Rutherford model of the atom to the Higgs Boson. Each decade bringing forth scientific discoveries that washed away the previous generation's Facts, banishing their beautiful understandings to the history textbooks.

With the pantheon of established Facts being discarded at an ever increasing pace in favor of newly agreed upon facts, what then is the value of a Fact? Why learn facts if they are repudiated just as soon as they are discovered? In short, why even consider a fact a Fact?

I saw this in action recently. I was having breakfast at my trusted haunt, reading my book in the same spot I always read my book, when one of the owners of the diner came over-- as usual-- and struck up some friendly banter. We were talking about my book (Neil DeGrasse Tyson's new collaborative book, Welcome to the Universe) when he said something along the lines of, "Why do you read this stuff anyway? They don't know the real reasons. They change their story every few years."

Herein is the problem. If people are educated to believe that science produces new Facts, they can lose trust in the very institution of science with each new success. When old models are discarded in favor of new models, the very idea that we "understand" anything is called into question. Basically, Facts are diluted as new facts emerge.

The remedy here is to realize and appreciate that science does not always produce facts, nor do scientists claim such (at least good ones don't). Science, rather, brings us an increasingly sophisticated understanding of the world, rather than a series of new immutable and received Knowledge of it's inner workings.

This reminds me of a trend in science education: stop teaching "the scientific method". The idea that science is a scripted linear process of developing a theory, then collecting data, and then formulating a hypothesis, is seriously misleading. Science is far more messy than that. For example, not all scientists go out into the field with pick and shovel and collect hard data. Some scientists spend their entire career without collecting a shred of laboratory or field data, but rather dedicate their lives to theory and critiquing existing understanding through mathematical models. By teaching the scientific method, however, we are lead to believe that each new discovery is the result of a linear progression of steps, delivering us to a new Fact at the process's denouement.

Which brings me back to Facts. In a world where the scientific method is churning out new Facts each week, sending old Facts to encyclopedia, why would we trust anything we hear about new discoveries? Scientists "change their story every few years", so why should we believe them?

Because we do not seek new Facts. We seek new understandings. Better understandings. And that's a messy business.