(Don’t) Teach the Controversy

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(source: http://www.nsf.gov/statistics/seind12/start.htm)

I want you to imagine that you’re stranded in a desert with a group of other people. You’re totally out of water, but there’s good news! You’ve spotted an oasis just up ahead, and as luck would have it, you have the tools to determine whether the water is safe to drink or not. But, before you lean in for that first life saving gulp of water, everyone else puts it to a vote.

This scenario may sound a little extreme, but when it comes to the future and welfare of our species, I’d say it’s pretty accurate. Right now, we are facing some of the most dire situations that we’ve ever known as a species; food shortages, overpopulation, pollution, climate change and the resurgence of disease thought to be contained to name just a few. All of these problems have one commonality: they are scientific problems and their only solution is better education, starting at the K-12 level.

http://ncse.com/news/2013/02/anticlimate-bill-kansas-0014713

HB 2306 is yet another in a line of so-called Academic Freedom bills to circulate around state legislatures, promising to make classrooms a safer environment for disagreement when it comes to scientific matters. While sounding good on paper, in principle, the idea is dead on arrival, since it runs contrary to the entire idea of science. This may sound bad, but science is not a democracy, it’s strictly a meritocracy that does not consider the opinions of anyone before moving forward.

The problem seems to stem from a lack of understanding of the term ‘theory’ when it’s applied to the subject. In common usage, ‘theory’ means a guess or a hunch; something that hasn’t even really been tested, but that has every intention to be tested. ‘Theory,’ as applied to science, is a lot stronger than a guess. A ‘scientific theory’ is a collection of data that describe a fact (the theory of evolution by means of natural selection explains the diversity of life on Earth, as an example). Scientific theories do not grow up to become laws if they eat their veggies and get lots of exercise. Scientific theories remain what they are indefinitely.

In order for something to be considered a scientific theory, it has to go through the rigors of publication, peer review and then withstand the harsh scrutiny of legions of scientists salivating at the thought of proving that theory to be wrong. This is a long, difficult and time consuming process, and one that does not end. Just because something is considered a theory today does not mean that it won’t be considered a theory tomorrow, but if it won’t be, the thing that proved the theory wrong also has to explain the phenomena that the previous theory explained.

If someone ever proved the theory of evolution wrong, which is incredibly unlikely (but very possible), the theory that they use to prove it wrong has to explain the diversity of life on Earth, as well as the other things that evolution describes and explains. The same with every other theory from relativity to gravity to germs to heliocentrism.

Opening the floor for debate may sound like a great idea, but debates really aren’t the way to discuss topics where solid evidence and empirical fact are involved. We debate the social sciences: government, economics, philosophy, the arts and the like. Though there may be evidence in these fields, the evidence doesn’t work in the same way as it does in science, and many of the points that are scored in these debates have more to do with rhetoric and the ability to argue, which are skills that many scientists aren’t trained in. Due to this, the scientist in the debate may appear to have been beaten while their opponent hasn’t actually said anything of merit. Opening the floor to debate just makes it seem like the material that’s being presented to students is not the best that we have at hand, or is something that there is still a lot of controversy around, where most of the controversy that surrounds scientific matters is due to political problems. As another example, climate change is very well supported and accepted by the scientific community that studies and explores the concepts of climate change. The controversy comes from the political problems that are generated by climate change (due to the need to address these problems and work towards correcting them, which is a long, arduous and costly process), along with some attendant religious objections.

These problems and these controversies, while in need of conversation, should not be addressed in a science class, where time is very badly limited to begin with. A science teacher only has a few hours every week with a student before that student graduates and never thinks about science ever again. By injecting these political discourses into classrooms, no actual good is done and plenty of harm is caused. Classrooms are not the place for political gamesmanship and children are not to be used as pawns in debates that are taking place in Washington DC. Forcing classrooms and children into these roles does no one any amount of good, and only causes more problems, none of which we need to have on our table at the present moment.

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