Saturday, July 14, 2012

"Just because..."

One of the first things students notice as they walk into Room B362 is a huge "WHY?" sign on the wall facing them, in bright pink letters, in an odd font designed by the man who cut out the letters. (OK, I was in a rush when I did it...)

It has sparked some debate with the only true professional scientist in the building. He's a large man with a wonderful mane of hair and a leonine voice to go with it:

"Mike...There is no why in science."

So now there's an equally huge sign, also in an original font, in his room, B361: "HOW?"

Dr. Jeff Goldstein is a rock star in science education, the Center Director for our National Center for Earth and Space Science Education, and the guy in this inspirational video:

I know Dr. Goldstein is wild about science and about education--he's one of the good guys.

Twitter is a hard place to exchange ideas, and the blurb above is out of context. Dr. Goldstein took the time to respond to me, and for that I am grateful.

I have a fundamental question about the philosophy of science, one I have been wrestling with ever since the "WHY?" vs. "HOW?" Battle of the Banners at BHS a couple of years ago, one that changed the focus of science education in my classroom.

Is there a point where we have to accept that the observable universe is what it is "Just because..."?

I am not referring to a lame response to a two-year-old child after the 239th question she asked in a short car ride. The answer then is rude, unsatisfactory, and does its intended job, clams the child up (and is harmful in the long run).

Dr. Goldstein was right to take issue with the question in the staccato nature of Twitter discussion--and I suspect we were talking past each other.

Is there a place in science where the answer "just because" makes sense, where it becomes as important as "we do not know"? Is it scientifically possible to find the root causes of the basic laws of the universe?

Or is it just more turtles standing on turtles?


Wm Chamberlain said...

These big picture questions are important because they make us re-examine what we are teaching and whye and how. I don't think students see the distinction between 'we don't know' or 'because' because neither are satisfactory. Probably because we teach as though all questions have answers (usually that can be answered in a sentence or two.)

Perhaps the purpose of philosophy is to allow us to train our minds to accept 'we don't know' or 'because' so that we can move past that problem but still behave in a way that applies what we do know.

doyle said...

Dear William,

Ah, good point--the distinction may be a philosophical one, but I think it may be a critical one.

Children have not teased out science (based on observing natural phenomena) from other forms of thought, and neither have most of the rest of us, including me.

Most of what I got in school was a history of science--facts presented as though carved in stone. The reality is much more interesting.

Twitter was the wrong forum-- it's made for soundbites. In retrospect, I probably should have kept my mouth shut.

Anonymous said...

More importantly, that's a helluva mullet. Billy Ray Cyrus would be jealous of that bad boy.

doyle said...

Dear Anonymous,

Dr. Jeff will likely either love that or hate it. I'll leave it up until he tells me he hates it.

hOMESCHOOLING 2020 COVID-19 said...

one question i have received over and over again is "how do they know that?". my stock answer has always been that scientists are really, REALLY smrt. Then I tell them that scientists are always trying to prove that something (other scientists) is (are) wrong....because if something can't be proved must be right....or at least perceived to be right until it is proved to be wrong.

Science is like high school dating: nobody really knows what they are doing, but they all talk like they know the answers to everything...

doyle said...

Dear Malcolm,

I'd be careful with the "really, really smart" line--kids' ideas about what "smart" means may convince a few of them to ignore science. It has been my experience that some of the brightest kids we have are found slumped in the back in the lowest level classes, at least in high school.

I think we all owe this much to a question like "how do they know that?": spend an hour or two going through how a particular idea develops.

"How do we know how far stars are" lends itself to good discussion.

And you're spot on with the dating analogy--and you may have sparked a new post. I wonder what would happen if elementary teachers "innocently" asked high school science teachers to explain basic phenomena, the kind of stuff kids ask. I bet you'd see a lot of us hide behind stock phrases and sophisticated words.

hOMESCHOOLING 2020 COVID-19 said...

You didn't notice the deliberate SMRT Homer Simpson spelling...not a typo.

doyle said...

Dear Malcolm,


Kathryn J said...

This post really made me think. One of my frustrations with teaching Chemistry is how often the kids have to accept something because of an experiment done somewhere else. We don't have the equipment and even if we did - try explaining to a 10th grader that the squiggles on an NMR represent a specific hydrogen atom configuration. Most of the original experiments were done by boiling gases over mercury - one drop could shut my building down for days.

As I plan for next year, I am going to use this Why? and How? debate to frame my planning. I want my students to be able to observe it and believe it because they have observed it. I'm not even sure it's possible but it needs to be part of my planning.

My major objective for next year is to get them to ask questions. Too often there are none.

doyle said...

Dear Kathryn,

A lot of experiments you cannot demo, for obvious reasons, but I think a key to grasping chemistry is for kids to get a handle on models.

(Every year I try to get kids to contemplate how Rutherford came up with his model, and every year I fail miserably, but less miserably than I did the year before. They need to have a less concrete view of atoms, and given how "real" atoms are in our culture, it's an uphill battle.)

Getting them to ask questions requires patience--took me a long time to grasp how different their schema are from mine, though not so different than mine was back when I first started taking chemistry.)

Shawn Cornally said...

This question gets raised a lot in my high school. My school has a strange confluence of doctors', professors', and farmers' kids. For as white as we are, we get an astounding amount of philosophical diversity. For instance, I once saw a Darwin fish emblazoned car parked outside of the right-to-life club meeting, and they weren't protesting, they were in the club.

All that to say, my students want to grapple with "Why?" vs. "How?" because their friends make them do so. In general, our science department describes science as a series of shovels. As technology and discovery inexorably march forward, we get higher-powered and ever-smaller shovels.

I have "Why Electrons?" above my board.

doyle said...

Dear Shawn,

I'm stealing the "Why electrons?"--it gets to the heart of what we know, and what we do not.