Archive for the ‘Education’ Category
Not exactly a bastion of untrammeled inquiry. Princeton’s actions reveal what it truly values.
In the NY Review of Books Priyamvada Natarajan has a good review of two books that explain in lay terms how science works. His introduction to the review is quite interesting:
Curiosity: How Science Became Interested in Everything
by Philip Ball
University of Chicago Press, 465 pp., $35.00
Ignorance: How It Drives Science
by Stuart Firestein
Oxford University Press, 195 pp., $21.95
Rien ne dure que le provisoire.
The current misuse of scientific findings can be tragic. At 3:32 AM on April 6, 2009, a devastating earthquake that measured 6.3 on the Richter scale rocked the medieval Italian town of L’Aquila, killing about three hundred people and leveling many buildings. Residents had experienced about thirty small tremors in the preceding three months and had become very apprehensive. A week before the quake, a meeting that included leading seismologists and public officials was held to evaluate the situation. According to seismologists, it is impossible to know with certainty whether small quakes are foreshocks of a larger tremor.
One of the expert geologists at the assessment meeting, Enzo Boschi, drew attention to this scientific uncertainty and noted that while a large earthquake was “unlikely,” the possibility could not be excluded. Despite this, when the vice-director of Italy’s civil protection agency, Bernardo De Bernardinis, emerged from the meeting, he assured locals that the tremors were routine and simply symptomatic of the earth releasing pent-up energy.
When the jolt of a quake woke up his two teenage children, a local resident, Giustino Parisse, trusting the report he had heard earlier on TV, calmed them down and put them back to sleep. Later that night, his house was leveled, killing both his children. Parisse and a group of residents sued the scientists and the local public officials for failing to warn them. The failure of these estimates of risk by the National Commission for the Forecast and Prevention of Major Risks led to those expert scientists being convicted of providing “inexact, incomplete and contradictory” information about the danger; they were each given six-year jail terms in October 2012.
Closer to home, on June 12, 2012, the North Carolina Senate passed a law that effectively prohibited the use of any data about sea-level changes in determining coastal policy in the state. The law was drafted in response to a report from the state-appointed North Carolina Coastal Resources Commission’s expert scientists, who advised that sea-level rises of about thirty-nine inches could be expected in the next hundred years, putting coastal communities in the Outer Banks region at grave risk. The law, formulated to regulate development permits, discounts these projections and prescribes a new method—rejected by most qualified scientists—for calculating sea-level rises.
There is, on the contrary, near-universal agreement among climate scientists that the sea will probably rise a good meter or more within the next hundred years, potentially submerging all low-lying coastal areas around the globe. But supporters of the legislation, developers concerned about the economic consequences of basing regulations on the predicted sea-level rise, found a novel way to circumvent the scientific assessment: by simply making the use of current measurements illegal.
The law now forbids the use of any new data and allows only historical data in making estimates of the sea-level rise in awarding permits for the next four years. According to the law, measurements taken in 1900 will form the baseline from which only linear extrapolations to the present day will be allowed. Nature, though, appears to be mocking North Carolina lawmakers. Two weeks after the law’s passage, a new study of measurements from tide gauge records revealed that the fastest sea level rises since 1980 in North America are along the coast from North Carolina to Massachusetts.
What’s depressing about these two cases is the misconception of science they reflect. Much of the public clearly does not know what to make of scientific research and has a poor understanding of how findings are reached, especially when it comes to assessing future risk. This seems to be true in all countries, but it is particularly striking in the United States, where so much of today’s scientific research originates. This paradox is worth exploring.
Polls in the US regularly show nearly unanimous support for improving the quality of science education, which is perceived as being important to the country’s ability to compete globally. A poll by the Pew Research Center in 2009 found that most Americans—84 percent—saw science as a positive force in society. Yet it also found that while people under thirty were more science-savvy than those over sixty-five, all age groups had a rather flimsy grasp of simple scientific concepts, even those taught in most public high schools, such as gravity or the structure of the atom.
A recent survey by the National Science Foundation found that a quarter of Americans did not know if the earth moved around the sun or vice versa. Meanwhile, 33 percent of Americans deny the reality of evolution and still believe that humans and the rest of the animal kingdom have always existed in their present form. Americans have extremely high expectations of and confidence in science and technology and think of it as a national priority—yet they also distrust its results. How to explain this?
One view is that Americans are simply ignorant and lack an understanding of basic science and mathematics. The assumption is that if these skills were improved, the public would become more appreciative of science. Yet recent research by Professor Dan Kahan at Yale suggests that the rejection of science is only weakly correlated with scientific literacy and numeracy. His data find a much higher correlation with Americans’ general political and cultural outlook. Kahan’s research indicates that, even controlling for differences in math and science skills, people with different cultural values—individualists compared with egalitarians, for example—disagree sharply about how serious a threat climate change is. Kahan’s results also show that people who identify with the Tea Party have a slightly higher level of science comprehension (it’s a tiny effect but it is there) than the average American, according to a nationally representative sample of US adults.
Illuminating as it is, though, Kahan’s research does not address the degree to which people understand the scientific method—not whether they know what protons or logarithms are, but whether they have an adequate sense of what a scientific theory is, how evidence for it is collected and evaluated, how uncertainty (which is inevitable) is measured, and how one theory can displace another, either by offering a more economical, elegant, honed, and general explanation of phenomena or, in the rare event, by clearly falsifying it. The L’Aquila case shows that many people expect science to provide 100 percent certainty, while the North Carolina case reveals the possibility that any uncertainty can be used to render a theory either false or just as good as any other theory.
In a word, the general public has trouble understanding the provisionality of science. Provisionality refers to the state of knowledge at a given time. Newton’s laws of gravity, which we all learn in school, were once thought to be complete and comprehensive. Now we know that while those laws offer an accurate understanding of how fast an apple falls from a tree or how friction helps us take a curve in the road, they are inadequate to describe the motion of subatomic particles or the flight of satellites in space. For these we needed Einstein’s new conceptions.
Take, for example, the Global Positioning System (GPS) that many of us use when driving. GPS is based on a fleet of twenty-four satellites orbiting the earth, each equipped with a precise atomic clock on board. A GPS receiver on an iPhone detects radio signals from any of the satellites overhead, and computes the user’s position within one meter or less. As predicted by Einstein’s theory of special relativity, the satellite clocks circling at 14,000 kilometers per hour tick more slowly than clocks on earth, losing about seven microseconds per day. However, since the clocks are 20,000 kilometers above the earth’s surface, and since, according to Einstein’s general relativity theory, gravity curves space and time, a clock orbiting at this height should tick slightly faster. The combination of these two effects results in a net speeding up so the time on a GPS satellite clock is faster than one on earth by about thirty-eight microseconds per day. To achieve navigational accuracy this speeding up predicted by Einstein must be compensated for.
Einstein’s theories did not refute Newton’s; they simply absorbed them into a more comprehensive theory of gravity and motion. Newton’s theory has its place and it offers an adequate and accurate description, albeit in a limited sphere. As Einstein himself once put it, “The most beautiful fate of a physical theory is to point the way to the establishment of a more inclusive theory, in which it lives as a limiting case.” It is this continuously evolving nature of knowledge that makes science always provisional.
How could the public be better educated about the nature of scientific inquiry? Three recent books, read together, point us in a new direction. These books lay bare the provisionality of science and may, paradoxically, actually help us find a way to address rampant denialism. Rather than focus single-mindedly on the technical aspects of science or the need to improve basic skills, they focus our attention on the psychology of science—the drives that inspire us to inquire into nature, and the limits that our minds necessarily impose on our knowledge.
In Curiosity: How Science Became Interested in Everything, the science writer Philip Ball, a former editor at Nature, reveals how curiosity, combined with wonder, has driven the scientific enterprise since the seventeenth century, and how the ever-transmuting nature of curiosity shifted the practice of science to the highly specialized and impersonal activity that it is perceived as today. Ball traces the intellectual history of curiosity, from the Renaissance cabinets of curiosity to the Large Hadron Collider atCERN that harks back to a view of nature as holding secrets that must be teased out with experimental apparatuses. He shows how curiosity went from being seen as a vice in medieval Catholic Europe, to a shallow form of inquisitiveness that inspired learned societies like the London philosophical club, and then, in the latter half of the sixteenth century, got recast as a virtue. Changes in the notion of curiosity from vice to virtue, he argues, have gone hand in hand with the development of empirical methods in science.
Ball provides one of the clearest explications of the provisional nature of science by . . .
Very interesting review of a review of a book. (Full disclosure: I am a strong proponent of a four-year liberal arts education and in fact attended St. John’s College in Annapolis MD (the “Great Books” Program) and a decade later was for a while its director of admissions.)
Another look at the efficacy of eBooks for learning: Naomi Baron has a good report in SFGate. From the report:
For several years I have been surveying university students about their reading practices and preferences. I’ve probed what platform — onscreen or hard copy — they favor for different kinds of reading. I’ve also inquired how often they annotate or reread, how much multitasking they do, on what kind of platform it’s easier to concentrate, and how cost shapes their choices. What surprises me is how much these young people, who can’t stop texting during class, understand about the mental benefits of print.
The students were far more likely to prefer reading in print over digital screens. They did more annotating and were more likely to reread when using print. They also reported better memory for what they read in hard copy.
A number of studies have compared how much students learn when reading digitally versus in print. Using simple comprehension tests (think of SAT reading passages), the majority of research has reported that medium doesn’t matter. However, more subtle testing is revealing differences in the type and depth of learning. One such disparity is in the ability to articulate the principles behind the empirical information you encounter. Here, print wins.
We shouldn’t be surprised. Young people are keenly aware of what happens so frequently when they set out to read digitally: 80 to 90 percent in my studies reported they are likely to be multitasking. Or taking just a quick look at Facebook. Or maybe watching YouTube while doing Spanish exercises. (Only 25 to 30 percent multitasked when reading print.) More than 90 percent said it was easier to concentrate when reading in hard copy. A number complained that digital screens gave them eyestrain, but the real culprit was the Internet. Any device inviting your mind elsewhere is bound to decrease mental focus.
Like students, schools need to be mindful not to compromise in-depth learning for the sake of trendiness or cost. Yes, saving money was high on the list of what those in my surveys liked about digital books. But what if the price were identical? A whopping 89 percent preferred hard copy. . .
Too bad: a grenade launcher is just the thing for unruly study halls. But the District will keep their assault rifles and Mine-Resistant Ambush-Protected vehicle, possibly for use in Homecoming combat.
Stephen Covey mentions in 7 Habits how one should focus most closely on his or her sphere of control and not spend excess energy on things outside your sphere of control. A useful reminder in times like these. I was just struck by a series of titles offered on discount Kindle books (bookbub and Kindle deals) how many titles are about having to save the galaxy, or save the planet, or save the country—BIG things, history-altering things.
And all of that is so much outside our own personal sphere of control. It’s a strange dynamic: immersing oneself in a fictional world in which the protagonist can take such actions—would that make one more apt to do things and focus attention on his sphere of control? I would say not. By getting across the message, “If you can’t solve the most enormous problems facing our world, then you might as well do nothing,” the reader stops acting even when s/he can—to take the obvious example, s/he doesn’t vote. (I’m not trying to blame the victims, and God knows the GOP is deliberately and openly doing everything it can to prevent marginalized groups from being able to vote, but I’m interested in what makes the GOP effort successful. And I think it’s because so many feel that if they cannot save the world, what’s the point? And the point, of course, is to do what you can in your sphere of control.
Covey has several good examples of the far-reaching effects from those who actually did that. The name Gandhi was mentioned, for example. He focused on what he himself could do: thus the salt march.