Saturday, June 21, 2008

Science teaching: The peril in the big questions

Physicist Brian Greene urges a soldier in Iraq, "Put a little science in your life"in a recent New York Times article (June 1, 2008).

The soldier had written him to say that

in that hostile and lonely environment, a book I’d written had become a kind of lifeline. As the book is about science — one that traces physicists’ search for nature’s deepest laws — the soldier’s letter might strike you as, well, odd.

But it’s not. Rather, it speaks to the powerful role science can play in giving life context and meaning.
Greene feels that the way science is taught today robs it of that context and meaning. Students, he says, are taught the technical details, in the belief that they must master A before moving on to B. But, he believes,

In fact, many students I’ve spoken to have little sense of the big questions those technical details collectively try to answer: Where did the universe come from? How did life originate? How does the brain give rise to consciousness? Like a music curriculum that requires its students to practice scales while rarely if ever inspiring them by playing the great masterpieces, this way of teaching science squanders the chance to make students sit up in their chairs and say, “Wow, that’s science?”
Okay, but here's the problem, Brian: Wow. That's NOT science.

If I understand Big Bang cosmology (the accepted view) correctly, the universe didn't come "from" anywhere. There was no From to come from.

True, many current cosmologists are flirting with time before the Big Bang, but that's for young science geniuses, not for the average student, who - when hearing far-flung theories - won't be able to distinguish science from science fiction. Nor can I, in many cases.

Look, half the time, teachers can't get across basic concepts of gravity, like why objects fall into orbit around the Earth. The reason that speculations about time before the Big Bang would interest students is precisely because they distract from the main classroom business of becoming familiar with non-intuitive information and trying to grasp counterintuitive concepts at a much lower level.

And with respect to the origin of life, not only does no one know how life originated, it may never be possible to find out. The best we can really do is construct a model via intelligent design. Then we can only say, it might have happened this way.

Of course, we could then go on to enforce, as a dogma that it did happen this way and declare the problem solved. Presumably, to judge from his other comments, Dr. Greene would not want that outcome. But I bet many others do, because it enables them to declare a problem that is likely unsolveable solved.

And with respect to - for example - how the brain gives rise to consciousness (a key topic of The Spiritual Brain), current neuroscience is wedded to an unworkable approach as a matter of materialist dogma. Again, one unworkable model may briefly triumph and become a dogma, justifying the forays of its fanatics into the persecution of dissenters.

Hello? Did someone mention Darwinian evolution? No, Greene wisely doesn't. What I thought was him mentioning Darwinian evolution was just another Darwin mob thundering by, trundling an increasingly shabby Icon of the Peacock's Tail.

Essentially, Greene means well but science teachers can only do what he wants by turning science into a sort of religion. The new religion may inspire people, of course, but - especially in science - the devil lurks in the details. In this case, the details that will not be properly learned, which are necessary for proper evaluation of the claims made.
Note: The image above is NASA's all-sky map frm the COBE Explorer.