Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Students and BS detecting

For years I've admired Sharon Begley, a science writer lured from the Wall Street Journal to Newsweek several years ago - perhaps when she saw the writing on the wall about where the Journal's ownership was heading. Newsweek gives her a weekly column in which she can raise some neccessary questions.

One of her interests is science education. After all, studies keep showing that American kids keep falling farther and farther short of other nation's kids in their science and math skills. In a recent column, Begley says that the main problem is that K-12 schools aren't doing well teaching students to recognize BS, or "bad science."

Rather than concentrating only on all the facts of the various sciences - memorizing the structural formulas for alkanes, for instance - kids should learn the first, most important principle of science. And obviously, judging from grownups, they're not learning it. This principle is this, she says: "the most useful skill we could teach is the habit of asking oneself and others, how do you know? If knowledge comes from intuition or anecdote, it is likely wrong."

This is obvious, except to the human brain. For instance, it can't tell randomness from real patterns of data (climate warming, say), and it wants to assign causality to weak data in order to confirm it's own beliefs. The brain is a really cool thing, but it can really be dumb, too.

Science classes obviously have to teach the science - trig, the Krebs cycle, Ohm's law, mass equals the speed of light squared - but foremost, Begley says, it needs to teach kids that "science is not a collection of facts but a way of interrogating the world."

Not to mention, and she didn't, interrogating politicians, whose BS stands not just for bad science.

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