skepticism

I find, in my life experience, skepticism is healthy.  This trait can become a crutch or that which makes you a better scientist. I’m looking to encourage the latter. I try quite hard, in my classes, to teach my students to be skeptical of pretty much everything, save their beliefs. I teach that belief requires some measure of faith and that there is no room in The Science Classroom for faith. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mean people of faith (read religious leanings) have no place in science; quite the contrary, I am not ashamed to tell students that I am a Christian.

My understanding of history is that Man first began looking around him at the Universe to look for God. They wanted to grasp the enormity of God and how He fits in the Grand Scheme (or how the Grand Scheme fits Him). So, I am NOT teaching students to be humanists or atheists or any other “anti-religion”, although that may be a result of things that I teach.

What I try to do is get the point across that there is no place in the DOING of science for any kind of faith. There is a great quote from 1905 by Henri Poincaré in his book “Science and Hypothesis” which says: “Science is built up of facts, as a house is built of stones; but an accumulation of facts is no more a science than a heap of stones is a house.” Its one of my favorite quotes and I think it says a lot about what science is and what it is not. Science is intrinsically a human endeavor. There WILL be errors because scientists are human. However, science is not simply a collection of facts (that’s called wikipedia). I would define science as a collection of EVIDENCE and the interpretation of said evidence.

This is why I teach students to leave their beliefs at the door and search for the evidence. The human part comes along with the interpretation of that evidence. I can give them evidence that the Earth is flat. Just go outside and look at it and explain to me how you “know” Earth is round. I doubt any student (or reader) would “believe” me when I say the Earth is flat, but I also doubt they could give me evidence to the contrary. I could give students evidence that that Sun is revolving around that Earth and that all of the planets are following suit. In fact, the data collected in the early days of Astronomy (circa Tycho Brahe) would support that assertion even better than the data would support a Copernican (Sun centered) system. So, I ask you, which is correct? Is Earth at the center of the Solar System? Why do you think that? What evidence do you have? Why does the data support a geocentric instead of heliocentric solar system? (hint: check out Kepler’s Laws for the answer).Image courtesy of EditorB on via http://www.flickr.com

My goal is to have students question everything they have been taught.  And by everything, I mean everything! We begin class in this way. I call it “the Nature of Science“. We play some games, take some notes, and generally discuss what misconceptions or preconceived ideas they have about science. One of the tools I use is an open-source program called Stellarium. Its (obviously) free and is a great virtual planetarium for those days when the Sun makes looking at The Stars difficult. In case you are confused, that’s everyday since we attend school only during a time when the Sun is above the horizon. What I do with this program is this: I ask the students what their ideas are about Astrology (not Astronomy, there’s a big difference). Most, if not all, know their astrological sign but fail to realize what it means to be born under a certain sign. Some have ideas about positions of the planets and Sun, but don’t know that being a Sagittarius means the Sun was (should have been) in that constellation on the day they are born. Enter Stellarium, rewind time to the date of their birth and show them (~97%) that they have been taught wrong their whole life! They are actually NOT the sign they thought, but the zodiac is shifted by one astrological symbol. I also introduce them to the much overlooked 13th astrological sign. Maybe you are learning something new?

Here is the crux of my thought: even after showing students that astrology is a bunch of bunk, many still go out of the classroom “believing” the horoscope they read in the newspaper (or now on the internet). Why is this? Why are we raising a generation (or two or three) who refuse to have any skepticism, even a healthy dose? Many teachers talk about students being “vessels to be filled”. I disagree! They are full enough! (I won’t say of what.) Some of what they “know” needs to be poured out and replaced with a whole new body of knowledge. Maybe its the teacher’s fault. Maybe they have passed this “vessel perception” on to students so they sit there like sponges, soaking up everything coming out of whatever information giver they happen to be sitting before at a given time. We need to teach students to digest information.

Application. Analysis. Synthesis. Evaluation. These skills are at the top of Bloom’s Taxonomy. Did these teachers who just fill students up miss those pedagogy classes? Isn’t that what we were taught to teach? Come on educators! Get with it! You do your students a disservice when you just spout information AT students. We need more discrepant events! Only then will students begin to learn.

thanks for reading,

jb

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