Beware what you wish for…

Apropos of my last post on Richard Buggs’ piss-poor efforts to promote Intelligent Design as a scientific theory over at Comment is Free (link in the previous post), one of the many comments on the article raises what I consider to be quite an interesting point.

If we do want to teach children and young people to differentiate between science and bullshit, then surely, so they argue,  we have to give them access to a sample of said bullshit as an aide to understanding the difference.

Now, to me, that actually makes a lot of sense and may well provide the sole reasonable justification for the introduction of the some measure of the study of intelligent design into the science classroom.

So far as one can tell from conversations with my 14 year old son, the general ethos of the teaching of science in schools has not changed substantially since my own days as a callow youth. Science, as taught at both secondary schools and in sixth forms, remains an overwhelming empirical subject. Its still taught now as it was in my day, more or less as a practical discipline in a manner that is heavy on the scientific method – which is no bad thing in itself – but rather too light on such matters as the historical development and philosophy of science.

By that, what I mean is that children may be taught, say, Newton’s first law of motion – a body remains at rest or in motion with a constant velocity unless acted upon by an external force – and, of course, they will be taught both the mathmatical equation that goes with that law (F=ma) and how to apply that equation to the solution of, at GSCE, relatively straightforward mechanical problems.

What they will rarely, if ever, be taught at that level is precisely why and what it is about Newton’s first law that actually makes it a scientific law, as distinct from a scientific theory – in case you’re in any doubt, a scientific law is a simple, general principle that is very well-supported by evidence and, more often than not (in physics), has a mathematical proof. Such distinctions may not be critical to the required level of understanding necessarily to pass a GCSE examination, but conceptually they are very important to the development of well-rounded understanding of science.

It seem to me that, overall, the teaching of science at GCSE and ‘A’ level would benefit considerable from the inclusion of a mandatory ‘module’ that adequately covered such key practical and philosophical concepts; the nature of and difference between scientific laws and scientific theories, the nature of evidence and how it derived by means of the scientific method, basic Aristotelian logic, falsifiabilty, the anthropic principle, cognitive bias, personal construct theory and, I’m sure, a few other key principles besides – the nature and causes of error seems an obvious one.

Not a difficult syllabus to write, you must agree, nor indeed one that would so complex or abstract as to render it beyond the capabilities of at least a reasonably competent 14-16 year old.

And within the context of such a module, there may be conceivably be a sound case for the inclusion of a study of intelligent design. After all, let’s face it, its claims to be scientific theory are so poorly conceived and constructed as to amke it also an optimum case study in the application of basic concepts, not least of which is falsifiability, in drawing distinctions between what might and mignt not reasonably be considered to be science.

One of the core arguments put forward by ID’s supporters is that we should ‘teach the controversy’ – and in the right context, such as that outlined above that may well not be such a bad idea, although it would rule out such a syllabus being written by ID supporter, such as the laughably named Truth is Science.

Mmm… What to do?

If the ID-ers are ruled out as possibly authors of such a syllabus, then where can we possibly turn?

I wonder… do you think that this guy Richard Dawkins might be interested. He seems to know what he’s talking about…

O/T footnote…

I noticed the other day that I missed out on the chance to join in the Carl Sagan memorial blog-a-thon (date already noted for next year – Dec 20th).

I was about the same as age as my son is now when I first discovered Sagan, through his wonderful television series, Cosmos: A Personal Journey, which made Sagan an unlikely but much imitated cult figure at my school thanks to his mellifluous voice and rather curious – to our ears – accent.

It not every scientist who can motivated a bunch of 14 year old lads to practice saying “th’ ooniverse is a wundiful place” for hours on end until the got the phrasing and intonation spot on, but Sagan did it and left a desperate physics teacher wondering quite how the hell he was going to interest his class in something so mundane as Boyles Law, when all they wanted to talk about was cosmology.

That’s impact!

This leave me with but two things to say – why has Cosmos not been repeated, not even on one of the satellite/cable channels (and why is Bronowski’s Ascent of Man not on permanant rotation as well, for that matter) and why is not available on DVD.

Someone, somewhere, needs to pull their finger out.

  • Pete

    If we do want to teach children and young people to differentiate between science and bullshit, then surely, so they argue, we have to give them access to a sample of said bullshit as an aide to understanding the difference.

    Now, to me, that actually makes a lot of sense …

    In fact being able to tell a lousy argument from a good one, and make a good argument, would be a lot more useful to kids than bleedin GCSE Physics. How many can look back on their day and say their school Physics – or any other subject – had been really useful? Rhetoric now – that’s a different matter. Growing up with the confidence to be able to spot bad reasoning from politicians, The Daily Mail or fast talking tossers in general – that really would be useful.
    Thinking like that. If we wanted school to give kids *useful* skills – for work, but not only work, what would the syllabus look like?