Teaching the Scientific Method

I was going to write about Teaching Assistants this time but I’ve postponed that for next week. In the meantime, this article in Scientific American about parents’ reluctance to expose their children to injections of any kind, vitamin K in this case but also vaccines, grabbed my attention and got me thinking about other things. That’s the thing about education; it’s endlessly fascinating. It’s the interdisciplinarity of it that makes it so appealing. It’s a wonderful mix of everything from cognitive science to psychology to economics to sociology to neuroscience and philosophy. Throw in a good dollop of ideology and the potential for discussion and argument is boundless.

Anyway, I have to say that this reluctance by increasing numbers to embrace scientific medicine drives me nuts. And, when I hear people advocating alternative medical treatments for which there is absolutely no evidence other than the odd rather dubious anecdote, I go into rant mode. (Mind you, pathologically ‘optimistic’ biomedical researchers engaging in ‘spin’ or wishful thinking affect me in a similar way. Going from basic research in genomics to ‘personalised’ medicine is an enormous leap that may not even be possible. Nature is inevitably much more complicated that we predict.)

The mere mention of homeopathy turns me into a ranting maniac. But it’s not just homeopathy, which is clearly ridiculous; there are many ‘cures’ and potions and ‘treatments’ and diets around and there is absolutely no evidence for their efficacy. But sensible, often ‘scientifically trained’ people still succumb to the charms (an appropriate word) of copper bracelets (for joints), amber necklaces (to aid sleep!), and rings (to prevent snoring!!).

But frustrating as it might be, the continued belief in pseudoscience or a lack of confidence in science itself is interesting and I think it might have something to do with the idea that humans seem to have evolved to be religious; thinking scientifically does not seem to come naturally to us as a species. If one thinks of religion in the broad sense, believing in pseudoscience or seeing science as just another worldview is not much different from religion – it’s a belief in the mysterious, the magical. It is why otherwise sensible people can believe in something as ludicrous as homeopathy or an anti-snoring ring. Indeed, on the well-known ‘intellectual’ website www.edge.org, University of Michigan psychiatrist, Randolph Neese, has said “I am pretty sure that people gain a selective advantage from believing in things they can’t prove. People who are sometimes consumed by false beliefs do better than those who insist on evidence before they believe and act. People who are sometimes swept away by emotions do better in life than those who calculate every move. These advantages have, I believe, shaped mental capacities for intense emotion and passionate beliefs because they give a selective advantage in certain situations.” I’m not sure I buy that particular argument but it strikes me that the persistence of what might be termed ‘irrationality’ is interesting and does require explanation, perhaps using arguments based on the role that shared religious belief plays in determining the survival of groups rather than individuals alone.

Regardless, it does seem a bit disappointing that in this scientific and technological age, the idea of seeking evidence, of being sceptical, of understanding the importance of data, has not become more of an instinctive response by people when being encouraged to use new products or to adopt new lifestyles or even to embrace new ways of learning. The “it worked for me!” argument is used a little too often.

Indeed, the absence of a true evidence-based approach to policy-making is a serious deficit in our political system. We see this all the time in the education and research spheres where policies are typically introduced on the basis of plausibility rather than real evidence. Mind you, gathering evidence in these areas is not easy.

Sadly, despite all the rhetoric about critical thinking and, now, ‘21st century skills’, the education system has failed to instill a culture of sceptical inquiry in the population. A population that is non-questioning, or that does not appreciate the importance of evidence, is a vulnerable population, as Carl Sagan has said more eloquently than I ever could.

I think those of us involved in education, not just STEM education, need to pay more attention to educating our students in the philosophy (with small ‘p’) of science; what it is, what it aspires to do and what it cannot do. I think we also need to teach students about the culture of science, how it works, who pays, who benefits and who loses. I think they might find these things interesting, perhaps more interesting than the science itself!

We cannot expect our students to become sceptical inquirers by just teaching them facts and training them in scientific skills, and then expecting them to become real scientific thinkers by osmosis. We need to actively encourage them to think about what they are doing.

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About Greg Foley

A lecturer in Biotechnology in Dublin City University for more than 25 years. Trained as a Chemical Engineer in UCD (BE and PhD) and Cornell (MS). Does research on analysis and design of membrane filtration systems.
This entry was posted in 21st century, education, Research. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Teaching the Scientific Method

  1. Pingback: Ninth Level Ireland » Blog Archive » Teaching the Scientific Method

  2. Fizolas says:

    Understanding the scientific method should not cloud one’s intelligence. Medical research tends to be very bad science. Medical journals are littered with too many cringeworthy results by “scientists” who believe that SPSS is a synonym with probability, and who are functional innumerates. In the meantime, while they try to make their subject a real science, I will pass on sticking a needle with vitamin k into the brain of my newborns.

  3. Greg Foley says:

    I’ve no strong opinion on the Vit K thing – I don’t know enough about it to make a worthwhile judgement. The interesting thing though about the article I mentioned was that it reported that people who didn’t take the vit K option were also more likely to be anti-vaccine and indeed anti-injections of all kinds. This suggested a certain type of mindset rather than being about vit K per se.

    • Fizolas says:

      Even with vaccines, it is far too simplistic to reject them or accept them as a whole. The vaccination principles are good. But clearly not all vaccines are born equal or for the same reasons (Ebola vaccination, anyone?).

      • Greg Foley says:

        I suppose my point is that there are people who’s mindset is in fact to reject maybe not all forms of vaccination but many of the critical ones that have been proven to have a huge effect of public health.

  4. cormac says:

    Good post, but I think the main target should not be science students, but those who never get the opportunity to discover how science is done. I never tire of pointing out that Boyle and the gang would have been horrified to discover that, centuries later, only the privileged few are aware of the methods of science, i.e., how we find out about the natural world.
    No wonder it is so easy for vested interests and right wing media to misrepresent the conduct of scientists and their findings…

    • Greg Foley says:

      I agree that everyone should understand how science works but I would include science and engineering students. They could do with a module or two at least think about what it is that they are being trained in. I think there are plenty of areas of science that pose all sorts of ethical and social questions (the biological sciences especially) and I think it would be useful if they had some exposure to issues beyond the technicalities of their subject.

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