“Why do we have to know this?”

I’ve been in enough science classes from elementary through high school to know that there’s almost always that one kid who doesn’t really seem to belong in the class but’s there anyway for some inexplicable reason, if only to interrupt the teacher’s enthralling PowerPoint presentation on double fertilization in angiosperms with that question. THAT QUESTION. The question that renders self-confident and well-informed science teachers mumbling and sheepish. Sometimes they ignore it, and sometimes they offer something like, “It’s important even if you don’t like it that much.”

So even though a lot of people would dismiss the occasional “Why do we have to know this?” as absurd and immature, I think that an even higher portion of the population would occasionally, when memorizing the multiple steps of fungus reproduction or glycolysis in biology, poring over solubility charts in chemistry (exceptions included!), or wrestling with free-body diagrams in order to set up the correct equations in physics, wonder why they’re doing this and not something much more directly linked to future success, like, say, liberal arts.

So I thought I’d address these concerns, not quite explaining away the frustrations of countless students, because our current state of science education is woefully inadequate and misguided, but at least provide some sense to the state of affairs.

Here are the reasons:

1) Some people are actually going to study this when they’re older. Duh. Really a no-brainer. Science education should exist so that people who want to do science or engineering later can learn it. But that still leaves the rest of us…

2) Scientific literacy: I’m sorry to say it, but the American public is unbelievably scientifically illiterate. Like, it’s bad. According to a recent Gallup poll, 4 in 10 Americans still believe in creationism, a proposed explanation for the formation of the universe practically abandoned in the rest of the Western world. Presidential candidate Michele Bachmann offers this explanation as to why global warming is a hoax:

This is painful to listen to. Actually, Michele, it’s not “perhaps 3%,” it’s just “0.039%!” Isn’t that fantastic? Nothing to worry about then. And although I won’t hold the public to the same low standard as Michele, I’d still like to emphasize that ordinary people are faced with issues that are quite complicated in a number of ways, and it certainly doesn’t hurt to know a little bit of basic biology to know about the ethics of stem cell research or Roe vs. Wade, a little bit of environmental science to comprehend why “global warming” is suddenly “climate change” and why it’s really serious that there are a lot fewer bees around nowadays, and a little bit of nuclear physics to understand why the detonation of a hydrogen bomb would be so much more devastating than Hiroshima and Nagasaki were, and why cold fusion is such a tough yet important problem for our future. All of these require several years in the classroom.

And even then, if you’re not convinced…

3) There’s a real need for scientific-style thinking out there, not just in science, but in regular life. Eliezer Yudkowsky, AI researcher, wrote a fantastic article called Hold Off On Proposing Solutions in which he explored the basic irrationality of groups when making decisions. When groups are instructed or required to discuss a problem thoroughly before proposing solutions, they come up with far more logical and coherent answers than groups which are encouraged to develop solutions from the outset. That’s because the members of the latter groups become emotionally tied to their answers, bad as they were.

If there’s one thing that ordinary people can take out of a science class, but almost never do, it’s the idea of falsification. Falsification is the core tenet of the philosophy of science – the concept which states that the only truly scientific theories are ones that can potentially be proven wrong. Evolution is a scientific theory because it could be falsified, for example, by a human DNA dated back 10 million years ago yet roughly identical to ours’ today. On the other hand, creationism is not a scientific theory because it doesn’t seem possible to produce any kind of evidence that would disprove it. In addition, creationism suffers from “privileging the hypothesis”  – the theory/belief is arbitrarily specific and specifically arbitrary without any kind of empirical evidence to suggest why the world was created in 6 days rather than 5.

Scientists have to change their mind with new evidence. They have to admit they’re wrong. If you’re arguing with someone and you offer “If I was, hypothetically, to offer evidence X which conclusively disproves your argument, would you change your mind?” and the other side either emphasizes how you could never find X, or how X wouldn’t really disprove it anyway, etc, then you know you’re not arguing with reason.

Science teaches people humility and open-mindedness. It teaches us not to think so highly of our own ideas, because they’re probably wrong anyways. It teaches us that there’s no point in thinking you have a great theory or argument on your hands if it doesn’t hold under fire, or you’re too afraid, deep down, to let that happen. I’ve spent hours working on extremely fragile and difficult computer programs, which I tested extremely carefully, afraid they would be wrong. Then my friend, an experienced programmer, would come up and deliberately try to sabotage the program with harmful and erroneous input, just to see how well it worked. I’ve since learned to be more critical of the code that I write. I’ve learned that there’s no point thinking you’ve solved a problem when deep down you know you probably haven’t. So as a scientist, when you get an idea, your purpose is then to try to disprove it as thoroughly as possible. As philosopher Karl Popper noted, there are only two kinds of theories; those which have been disproven and those which are in the process of being disproven. As students learn in statistics, you can never accept the null hypothesis, only fail to reject it.

Politicians right now could definitely make use of some scientific thinking – the US is currently headed into defaulting on its debt because a bunch of selfish politicians are so convinced that they and they alone know what’s best for the country that they refuse to submit their ideas to neutral criticism (and are unable to receive any kind of neutral feedback, anyways) and are refusing to change their mind altogether. We need a new Franklin Roosevelt (the only open-minded American president in modern history) and a new era of “bold experimentation” where politicians are actually willing and able to modify their stances without appearing weak and flip-floppish, but rather strong, intelligent, and thoughtful. In other words, we need scientists.

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2 Responses to “Why do we have to know this?”

  1. Elisa Michelle says:

    Interesting. I admit I was one of those kids in class who asked why we were bothering with science, mostly because I was an English nerd and wanted to spend more time writing. But I do see the need for science. I have a friend in the UK and we often joke about the American education system (not that theirs is super better than ours). He is two years younger than I am and constantly schools me when it comes to scientific knowledge. It’s almost painful sometimes, and he always chalks it up to my American-ness, haha.

    What scares me sometimes is I’m considered one of the more scientific and studied persons in my group — and, to be honest, science baffles me. Chemistry was torture and I am dreading my college science classes because it’s so hard to comprehend. However, at the same time, once I do comprehend it, the concepts are fun and I feel smart.

    Our politicians could definitely stand to be more scientific, or at least less rigid with one another. There should be room for trial and error or else we’re going to get ourselves stuck in a trap. Oh, wait. We already did that, didn’t we?

    Sorry for the long and rambling comment, but this topic is interesting to me.

    • ltakacsi17 says:

      No problem, and sorry for taking so long to reply! Like you, I’m not really all that interested in “hard science” – I’m interested in a number of theories, like evolutionary biology, and cognitive science, but I intensely dislike lab-work.

      On the other hand, I love science for its philosophy and its implications on human thought – something I use this blog to spread, sometimes. People (especially politicians) are overly attached to their beliefs and don’t critically examine and revise them. So even if you don’t like chemistry (I don’t really, either) you should consider that mindset! =]

      Oh and if you think grade inflation is bad in the US, it’s waaayyy worse in the UK.

      Keep up your writing!

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