Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Why is Science Hard to Learn?

One of the movies I'm working on happens to contain a wide variety of the sorts of caricatures of evolution that one would expect from the likes of Kirk Cameron.  From the trailer alone, you can see things like 4-winged flying turtles with sauropod-esque necks, giant ursine carnivores with owl-like heads, gourd-shaped marsupial primates, and a brightly-colored sabre-toothed feliforme that also has tusks.  Compared to this, the infamous crocoduck seems to barely scratch the surface.  But of course, the key difference is that nobody is purporting that The Croods is a documentary anymore than anyone telling a joke sincerely believes that a horse will enter a pub and order a drink.  The main reason such absurdities are even put forth is for sheer entertainment value, and I would hope that much is at least obvious.

Nonetheless, while I think many people would recognize that this is merely entertainment, it's interesting nonetheless that these types of wacky chimeras fall in line with the sort of picture that a lot of people have about evolution.  You have people like Deepak Chopra who can distort quantum mechanics to pretend it has something to do with the soul, and nobody can realize he's full of crap.  You have products out there which claim to emit frequencies in line with the nonexistent ones your body produces, and people swallow this crap.  Why is that?

Oh, if only I could count the ways...

One of the common arguments that I've heard from the likes of Ray Comfort, Ken Ham, and other paragons of human stupidity is that "if evolution was true, then it should be plainly obvious to even little children."  But of course, they are right to say that evolution isn't plainly obvious, even if you are dealing with an accurate representation thereof.  But at the same time, why should it be?  Is any principle of science really that obvious?  Is any theorem of mathematics plainly obvious to just anyone?  Sure, we can derive almost anything given sufficient related knowledge, but that's not available to just anyone, much less to children.  Magic men who make things happen by uttering some incantation, as a concept, is at least accessible to children because it requires not having knowledge, and the statement itself withholds knowledge, so creationism works well in this regard.  So-o-o... because you can be more intellectually lazy about it, that makes it true.  How delightfully dimwitted.

Moreover, if anything and everything that is true necessarily must be plainly obvious, what use would there be for any sort of intellectual rigor?  The ultimate proof of anything is its obviousness!   Hear that, Andrew Wiles?  You wasted your time on an exhaustive proof of Fermat's Last Theorem.  All you had to do was take it to a child, and see if they designate it as self-evident!  But of course, the fact that this is simply not the case is precisely why we have such things as the scientific method.  The most difficult thing to accept about the level of intellectual rigor that the sciences demand is that it is rigorous.  It's not the sort of thing that can be done by common intuition or flashes of inspiration.  Sure, there may be events like those throughout history, but the work never ends there.  It takes massive time and effort and a huge intellectual investment, and people are not very prone to like that.  It's enough to make someone hate it because they simply don't understand why it's important, and you can't make that understanding occur by simply telling them.

I would be foolish, however, to ignore the impact of teaching.  Teaching science is not a straightforward thing, either.  As much as we rationalists might like to harp on the value of the scientific method, we do mislead a bit by focusing on those key steps of hypothesis, testing, conclusion, etc. as if there is a single modus operandi for all scientists, which is something that really isn't true.  There is a good deal of variation on your operating parameters based on the scope and scale of the problem.  Also, we cannot escape the facet of basic research, where you're not so much testing a hypothesis as you are trying to collect new observations from which future hypotheses can be derived.  For all that, we don't really do a good job of teaching kids about how to devise effective testing procedure...  this is often the hardest part, and it's the part where a minor failing is exactly what gets studies and papers rejected in the course of peer review.  But most of all, when it is actually presented to children, we first tend to simply flood them with facts and nuggets of scientific knowledge, kind of in a vacuum, and then later on present the scientific method, and again seemingly without much indication as to why one should even use methodological naturalism.  It also proves disillusioning when kids come into more advanced topics later on and come to realize that much of what they were taught earlier is really not exactly correct.  Sometimes, it's because getting a complete picture requires getting more knowledge.

Least of all, do we train kids into the appropriate attitudes about technical fields.  It's one thing to keep them interested and asking questions, but at the same time, you need to temper the enthusiasm with procedure in order to get anything done, so it's a bit of a catch-22.  How do you do both while still keeping kids interested?

Perspective is often the hardest problem.  It is much easier to teach someone about electricity/magnetism, classical mechanics, optics, chemistry, etc. for a simple reason -- everything is workable in real time.  When doing some sort of chemistry experiment in school, the results come back to you in minutes or even seconds.  You can see everything happen right in front of you, and the scope of study is nicely compartmentalized.  So, sure...  you can easily get someone to understand about acids and bases.  How do you do the same thing for enabling someone to understand the reality of climate change?  The only data that someone has immediate access to, and more importantly, falls easily within our consciousness, is the local weather.  But that doesn't really tell you anything about the entire planet, and how does one even begin to train someone into getting out of their comfortable perspectives?  Every caricature of evolution somehow or other seems to involve modern creatures.  But being able to understand what it means to be a common ancestor between creatures often means you have to think about things that don't exist any longer.  We can see individual creatures, but being able to think about entire populations and the dynamics of entire groups requires an entirely different perspective, and we don't usually have any good way of teaching that.  Whenever you hear creationists in debate arguing back that gravity is "observable, testable science" and evolution is apparently not, what it really points to is a failure of perspective.  What makes gravity apparently testable is the fact you can demonstrate with a single object right in front of anyone at the drop of a hat.  You can't really do that with evolution or climate change.

Related to this is that when we teach math and science and engineering, there's a certain assumption that everything which is foundational must be known to an absolute before you can ever know anything beyond it.  This shows in the sort of "hierarchical" nature in which we teach the basics.  Arithmetic before algebra before geometry before trigonometry before calculus, etc.  In the real world, people tend to remember what they use the most.  Even Nobel laureates are bound to forget some of the most basic principles because they simply don't use them directly.  I think the fact that we can have a game show titled "Are You Smarter than a 5th Grader" where a rocket scientist fails on the very first question, yet a grade school teacher goes all the way to win the million dollars kind of drives that home.  Richard Feynman once made a point about this in one of his Messenger Lectures where he points out that even if we forget something along the way, we have the related knowledge which we didn't forget which allows us to work backwards and derive what we forgot at any moment.  Nobody really tries to teach any of the STEM fields this way.  You can't successfully teach science when you can't even teach how it's actually done in practice.

America ranks very near the bottom of all developed nations when you look at the average performance of its students in STEM fields.  Sure, there are exceptions, but they are nonetheless exceptions, and not the rule.  When you look at it normalized for money spent, though, America comes out dead last.  Now I don't think that somehow there's some secret method of teaching that all the other nations know, but America doesn't understand or has somehow been withheld from us.  I have a feeling that every nation does it pretty badly, but the culture just forces kids to deal with it and come out on top.  Of course, there is the factor that different schools are going to vary in quality, but other countries do make education a lot cheaper, which means high quality education is available to just about anyone.  Politicians, particularly conservatives, are against that in the U.S. because they would rather spend the government dollar on oil subsidies than on the people they're required to represent.

Particularly here in America, religion is pretty overpowering.  Sure, countries like India are definitely more religious, but India also has a culture that is adamantly invested in the development of its intellectual capital...  perhaps even to a fault.  American culture is seemingly more invested in inflating its sense of superiority rather than actually doing something to come out superior.  Well, more than that, the thing is that America does not specifically value intellectual investment as much as it should.  Because science is definitively not the sort of thing that just comes naturally, it cannot be done in complacency.  Due to being well...  human...  we can't be intellectually honest and rigorous without a serious effort and drive to do so, and that means you actually have to give a damn about it.  That's very hard to have when you're subjected to an upbringing which has god-on-the-brain.  This is exactly why Bill Nye famously made his point that creationism is simply not appropriate for children.  But religion usually wins this fight in a culture like that of the U.S., not just because it is so religious to begin with, though.  Religion often wins this fight in our youth because religion is easy.  It requires no depth of thought; it requires no rigor; it requires no statement of greater power than "magic man done it."  It's also highly unambiguous.  God says this, God says that.  Everything is cut and dry for the most part, though sometimes (especially with Hinduism) it can be vague.  Science is most certainly not unambiguous about anything.  It brings to light the reality that the universe is more grey than it ever could be black and white.  Religion is also a lot easier on the parents, who with the word "God" in their repertoire, have a mechanism by which they are evermore freed from the burden of having to explain themselves.  Laziness begets laziness.

Non-scientific and anti-scientific movements are also pretty powerful, and this is a widespread phenomenon.  The anti-vaccine movement is one that gained a lot of steam in recent years due to celebrity endorsement from the likes of Jenny McCarthy and Jim Carrey.  Of course, all science completely and unequivocally refutes everything they have to say, but that rarely matters.  We hear statements from concerned parents who talk about "All I know is that my child was fine before his/her childhood vaccines, and then all of a sudden he/she's autistic!"  While the statement itself exposes the correlation-causation fallacy in the thinking, the power of a statement like this is that the emotional plight and struggle of the parent cannot be ignored.  But anyone who is a serious scientist will know better than to let those types of feelings override the hard evidence.  But as long as people continue to believe in this sort of nonsense, you have more and more of these sorts of personal individual stories pop up, and that is something that necessarily can never hold water, yet it is only natural to be swayed by them.  We identify more closely with the suffering of the individual than with large-scale population statistics.  Truth, however, has nothing to do with how you feel about it, and getting emotionally invested in the question is all but certain to lead you wrong.  I happen to feel that this is one of the most difficult hurdles to overcome.

One thing I've learned in my decades in programming is that solutions rarely ever come because you think at a different level.  It's almost always the way you think that makes all the difference.  We're simply quite prone to think in wrong ways about these things and subject them to horrifyingly erroneous stereotypes.  If not for that, we might already have relegated cancer treatment to a minor inconvenience, religion would be a thing of the past, climate change would have been stabilized, and Californians might be able to drive.  ;-)  Yeah, yeah...  wishful thinking, I know.