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In Defense of Scientific Methodology

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In a recent piece titled "The Scientific Method: An Educational Train Wreck?" Dr. Larry Dossey made a number of statements so factually inaccurate, so misrepresentative of the nature of science, that it reads like some ill-conceived parody gone awry, something meant for The Onion rather than The Huffington Post.

The rot begins with his first sentence. Dossey accuses scheming educators of trying "to inculcate children with the scientific method." As someone who has taught college-level earth sciences for over a decade, I plead guilty. There is great value in "inculcating"--or "teaching," to use the technical term--students about scientific methodology and nature of science, and there are wonderful websites, such as undsci.berkeley.edu, to help students understand these important topics.

What does Dossey have against teaching students about the methodology of science? "The way science is currently defined and taught," he contends, "is a profound violation of how today's youngsters ... see the world." So what?

Students come to the classroom with a host of misconceptions about the world. If you ask first-year college students a few basic questions about the natural world, you will quickly discover pervasive ignorance. What causes the seasons? Most students think summer is caused by the Earth being closer to the Sun. Why is the sky blue? A very small percentage of students can answer in terms of wavelengths of light. Which falls faster, a heavy weight or a light weight? Most think the heavier object falls faster.

It is the proper job of science educators to help these student see the world as it really is, rather than to reinforce their prejudices. Biology students should learn that the theory of evolution is correct and that vaccines do not cause autism; astronomy students should learn the world will not end in 2012; chemistry students should understand why homeopathic claims about "water memory" are not true. Science education can--and should--help students understand reality.

Yet Dossey believes "the way kids are taught science these days constitutes a form of child abuse." He compares forcing children to learn scientific methodology to an "infliction of a false identity," and compares this to Native American children in white-run schools being forced to give up their culture.

Nothing could be further from the truth. As Carl Sagan memorably argued in his essay "The Wind Makes Dust," science in an inherently human endeavor, part of all cultures. Hunter-gatherers relied on deep knowledge about the natural world; in order to hunt, they had to recognize, from careful study and experience, the tracks of certain animals, and to judge how much time had passed since those tracks were made. A scientific understanding of the world brings food to the table--especially if you have to hunt that food.

And it's not just hunter-gatherers who benefit from scientific methodology. Although Dossey thinks the scientific method is the "main legacy of traditional science," I can point to another legacy: the millions upon millions of people alive right now because of medical advances made possible through scientific discoveries. From vaccines to anesthesia, science has reduced human suffering and needless deaths, and produced longer and better lives. It is hard to imagine why anyone would be against such a legacy.

Dossey posits that one reason "many young people see themselves as foreigners in the world of science" is the "separateness, distance, and aloofness required to do science." What in the world is he talking about?

The misconception of scientists as cold, remote individuals comes from movies and television, not reality. The scientists I know have the same personality quirks as people in any other profession.The unemotional Spock was the Enterprise's chief science officer, but science fiction is a poor basis for characterizing all scientists. This is like concluding that all doctors are wise-cracking cynics, on the basis of watching an episode of House.

Dossey goes on to challenge the "image of science as an individual, solitary endeavor," claiming the "science community seems to go out of its way to conceal the collaborative, cooperative, team approach." Indeed, he claims that science is skewed toward the individual because the Nobel Prize is not awarded to teams. This might come as a surprise to the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change team, which in 2007 won the Nobel Prize.

Some scientific discoveries are made by solitary individuals, and some are made by teams. Generalizing about this is almost meaningless. It is hard to picture why this would, in any event, be a problem for science education, since some science students will be drawn toward solitary work, others toward collaborative efforts. There is a place for everyone in science.

Dossey concludes his essay by deploring the underrepresentation of women in the sciences. In my discipline--geology--there are roughly equal numbers of men and women, so this stereotype of science as a male-only domain is not universally true. It is correct, and unfortunate, that women are underrepresented in the sciences overall, but this can hardly be laid at the door of science--women are underrepresented in the financial sector and the military and politics, too. More to the point, though, gender equality has nothing to do with the validity of scientific methodology or the importance of having students learn about the natural world.

Dossey's essay misrepresents science, scientists, educators, and students. It is Dossey, not science, who has jumped the rails.

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