Saturday, February 7, 2009

What makes science true?

Teachers in various departments had a rare chance to sit together at a conference at Bloomfield High School this week.

We are diving into "Understanding by Design"--Dr. Grant Wiggins has developed a nice cottage industry for himself called Authentic Education. He's managed to grab the state's ear (and a good chunk of its money), and he put the sexay back into the synthesis/evaluation steps in Bloom's taxonomy. I'm not sure he's created anything spectacularly new, but it's a well-crafted program that gives teachers some control over lesson design, and our district has bought (psychically and fiscally) into the program.

During the workshop, different departments were asked to develop essential questions. The language arts crew came out with a question I misheard as "What makes a story true?"

I don't remember the original question, but I like my mangled version, and I'm running with it.

High schools have fiefdoms called departments--our kids spend 48" a day in each fiefdom. Exactly 48 minutes.

We teach our units in chunks, each fiefdom on a schedule independent of the others.

The kids get that literature requires imagination, but they do not get that truly great fiction is always true. To be fair, there is no way to understand most of what matters when you're just a few years beyond embryohood.

Science also requires imagination, and more importantly, is a special kind of fiction. The kids see science as the Truth. More than once I have heard a high school junior scientist type sniff "I love science because it's real, unlike fiction," often a child with a poor grasp of his native tongue.

"Truth" in science is squirrely--it never quite stays in the same place. A great work of literature remains true for as long as a culture exists (and even beyond); a scientific truth changes over time. Turns out science is a special kind of story-telling.

Scientists (attempt to) explain why things in the natural world behave as they do. "Natural world" is the world we can sense directly or indirectly, and requires the faith that what happens here and now would happen then and there if the conditions are the same. (Miracles are excluded by definition.) Science gives us tremendous power because it allows us to predict and manipulate natural events.

Take the story of the electron. You cannot see an electron. We have indirect evidence for its existence, but any visual image for it falls short. Scientists create sophisticated models helping us to understand why the electron (itself a slippery concept) behaves as it does, but understanding an electron beyond the story makes no sense. It does not exist. (This is not to say something does not exist--clearly something does--but our concept of the electron is just that--a concept, not the electron itself.)

Ask a child to draw an atom--she will draw the Bohr model, the one that looks like planets spinning around the sun. Her parents will draw the same model. Quite a few teachers will also do the same. It's a cultural icon, though it's almost useless now in science.

Electrons exist, but not as "things". Atoms exist but not as particles, at least not in the solid sense. An atom is almost completely empty space.

Electrons have no dimensions. At least that's how we understand them today. How we understand them today is more "true" than how we understood them yesterday; tomorrow we will have a more "true" understanding than we do today.

Most of our culture does not get this--we worship science because it gives us neat stuff; many of us avoid great literature because it gives us pain.

What makes anything true? Not sure I can find it in science. Not sure I can find it in literature, either, but I bet I have a better shot at it there.

I love Robert Frost. Here's a piece of "The Black Cottage"--should souls survive independent of their bodies (and in Genesis it says otherwise), I hope Mr. Frost can forgive me for slicing his work.
For, dear me, why abandon a belief
Merely because it ceases to be true.
Cling to it long enough, and not a doubt
It will turn true again, for so it goes.
Most of the change we think we see in life
Is due to truths being in and out of favour.
As I sit here, and oftentimes, I wish
I could be monarch of a desert land
I could devote and dedicate forever
To the truths we keep coming back and back to.

(Hey, I love Beethoven, too--I'm a ragged collection of clich├ęd loves. What do you expect from a science teacher?)


Blogger In Middle-earth said...

Kia ora Michael!

What makes Science true? Ha!

Science isn't made true. It's the looking FOR the truth that IS Science. I firmly believe this.

One of the first things I learnt when I began to realise what Science is really about was that truth is illusive.

Goethe knew this. So did Einstein.

Goethe said (in German) that the biggest barrier to finding the truth is believing that you've found it. Think about that.

You find the truth. Right?

How do you know it's the truth? You believe that it is the truth.

Well believe again. That's what Goethe said.

He also said that "if you go looking for evidence to support your claim, you are sure to find it." This conundrum defines the position of truth.

Robert Frost? Great poet. Just read the Wood Pile. Man, that's some poem.


The Woodpile
Robert Frost

Out walking in the frozen swamp one grey day
I paused and said, "I will turn back from here.
No, I will go on farther-and we shall see."
The hard snow held me, save where now and then
One foot went down. The view was all in lines
Straight up and down of tall slim trees
Too much alike to mark or name a place by
So as to say for certain I was here
Or somewhere else: I was just far from home.
A small bird flew before me. He was careful
To put a tree between us when he lighted,
And say no word to tell me who he was
Who was so foolish as to think what he thought.
He thought that I was after him for a feather--
The white one in his tail; like one who takes
Everything said as personal to himself.
One flight out sideways would have undeceived him.
And then there was a pile of wood for which
I forgot him and let his little fear
Carry him off the way I might have gone,
Without so much as wishing him good-night.
He went behind it to make his last stand.
It was a cord of maple, cut and split
And piled--and measured, four by four by eight.
And not another like it could I see.
No runner tracks in this year's snow looped near it.
And it was older sure than this year's cutting,
Or even last year's or the year's before.
The wood was grey and the bark warping off it
And the pile somewhat sunken. Clematis
Had wound strings round and round it like a bundle.
What held it though on one side was a tree
Still growing, and on one a stake and prop,
These latter about to fall. I thought that only
Someone who lived in turning to fresh tasks
Could so forget his handiwork on which
He spent himself, the labour of his axe,
And leave it there far from a useful fireplace
To warm the frozen swamp as best it could
With the slow smokeless burning of decay.


Catchya later
from Middle-earth

Anonymous said...

Ahh Michael, I get such pleasure from reading your posts, and each timeI read them I think I ought to tell you, or at least contribute something to the comment thread so that you are reminded of how much your insight is valued.

The science and truth thing reminded me of Illich on The Demythologization of Science (but then everything reminds me of Illich this week) so you may not agree

"This term has come to mean an institutional enterprise rather than a personal activity, the solving of puzzles rather than the unpredictably creative activity of individual people."

"Overconfidence in "better knowledge" becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. People first cease to trust their own judgment and then want to be told the truth about what they know."

And thank you for slicing Frost - I am off to explore more

doyle said...

Good morning, Ken!

I love that poem. If I ever get a handle on this craft called teaching, I hope I could use this as part of a final exam in biology.

Science indeed looks for truth of a sort, but has limits in its methods. Einstein, of course, did not limit his thoughts to logic:

"Man tries to make for himself in the fashion that suits him best a simplified and intelligible picture of the world; he then tries to some extent to substitute this cosmos of his for the world of experience, and thus to overcome it. This is what the painter, the poet, the speculative philosopher, and the natural scientists do, each in his own fashion. Each makes this cosmos and its construction the pivot of his emotional life,in order to find in this way peace and security which he can not find in the narrow whirlpool of personal experience."

Dear Artichoke,

Thanks for the kind words--your blog was the first one that showed me what kinds of posts are possible--and I have since discovered many others.

Illich rings true--I have been playing with a post that sounds similar, but he says in a few words what I have spent hours mangling. I may lead it off with that quote.

In the States, the National Defense Education Act back in 1958 confounded science and technology, and now we are in a national frenzy to teach "science" without grasping what science means.

Getting a man to the moon was an "institutional enterprise"--the science had been done already, years before.

(On second thought, "the science had been done already" is an absurd statement. Technology gets done, science happens.)

Anonymous said...

Hi Michael -
I like your mangled sense of the Language Arts folks essential question. What makes a story true? I teach (have taught -past tense) a class on the memoir as a genre, and we look at this question in our own writing and the writing of others. The essential question in one of my favorite books Haroun and the Sea of Stories by Salman Rushdie is: what's the use of stories that aren't even true.
Once I began to understand a little bit about quantum physics and determining the location of something by knowing where it ISN'T, I can see how the strong ties to reality in science are fuzzy. We had a loud discussion at dinner last night about Plato's Allegory of the Cave and the turning of the soul toward understanding.
But whose understanding? Whose reality? argued my 15 year old.
So we agree! I said.
No way!
(and this "discussion" was triggered by facebook).

Inger said...

To me science creates models of the natural world, models that represent the natural world in a more or less accurate way. What disturbs me is what you're pointing at, politicians and journalists and regular people taking science for truth, and the natural world for being known through science, and making decisions based on that assumption.

When science tells me one things and firsthand experience something else, I would consider rethinking my model.

doyle said...

Good morning Kate,

(Aren't those kinds of discussions fun?)

I love that question: "What's the use of stories that aren't even true?" There isn't any I can think of, so no sense wasting time on them.

As a 10 year old, I thought that meant avoiding fiction. I mistook the word fiction for "not true"--true is a slippery word.

Sounds like your daughter is years ahead of many of the adults in my neck of the woods.

Hi, Inger,

Exactly. I love your last sentence-- "When science tells me one things and firsthand experience something else, I would consider rethinking my model."

You don't give up on a process, nor do you immediately give up on a good model, especially on limited experience. You consider rethinking the model.

I like that so much I may steal it for class.

Anonymous said...

Oh, Michael - you have no idea how often my daughter is way ahead of me! She's a force to be reckoned with and I'm just hoping not to mess up this parent thing. (A part of me breathed a sigh at the birth of her two sisters - one little baby would have been powerless to fend off her auteurist streak.)

Nice to see your writing on the site. Is that making you happy or nervous?

doyle said...

Dear Kate,

You made it this far with her--you're just about done with the rudder, and the trim tabs will need adjusting until the day we die.

The makes me happy--it's Clay, so I see it as just Clay and me continuing the nonsense we shared on his blog Beyond School. I enjoy his banter, he enjoys mine.

(My audience is Leslie. That's enough, and will be long after this blog is done.)

Super Science Fair Projects said...

Great point about searching for the truth being the foundation of what science IS, as opposed to assuming that what is known about a topic is the truth. This is the foundation of scientific inquiry and the scientific method. After all even when data supports the prediction in the hypothesis of a science project the hypothesis is assumed to be probable but not absolute. Students need to keep this in mind when drawing their conclusions.