26 10 2008

Children start out intellectually curious. Carl Sagan said much on this, and so have many other writers much more eloquent than me. They have disagreed on the extent to which education is responsible compared to the extent to which culture is responsible. I think it’s roughly even between the two, with each making the other worse.

In much of America, culture conveys the message that learning is bad. People who enjoy learning and studying are labeled nerds. If you enjoy reading quietly, you are guilty of unspeakable horrors like introversion. Asking questions too much, whether of parents, teachers, relatives, or other children earns annoyance and sometimes anger. Should you dare to learn more than your peers because you like learning, you are ostracized. This isn’t just very gifted students. Any inquiring child is treated this way, even if she is otherwise completely ordinary.

This shows up very early in childhood. Apart from a few exceptional parents, people who I admire very much for what they do, when a child asks “why?” they are often brushed off, or told “because.” Almost all parents do this routinely rather than explain themselves. Well, I love asking this question, so…why? Even young children are often very smart and, to a large extent, are actually much smarter than they will be when they are older, simply because they haven’t learned to be stupid yet.

I think that many parents just don’t think that explaining themselves is particularly important, but it seems to me that it is one of the most important things for a parent to do. Teaching your kids to always try to understand, to question, and simply to be curious is one of the best things you can do for them. Parents shape their children enormously, and curiosity is one of the most important traits there is. Curiosity drives learning. Questioning protects, because if you do not simply accept what you are told, it is much harder to trick you. The roots of many of our cultural problems, I think, are right there at the start. Parents train their kids not to ask why or how, and so their curiosity fades a little.

If we had to deal with this alone in our culture, I don’t think that we would have such a problem. Unfortunately, I think that is what enables all the rest of it, at least in part. If children were more inquisitive, I think teachers would fall into the habit of accommodating for and even promoting that more often.

Of course, teachers don’t do that. America’s schools are set up in such a way that they at the very best don’t help it, and at worst destroy it. Teachers don’t like overly inquisitive kids because, let’s face it, it’s harder to teach the other twenty kids if one or two are always wanting things explained in detail. Add to that the fact that often the teacher simply doesn’t know the answer (remember, even very young kids are not stupid), and you get a very bad situation. The teacher wants to make sure they can keep the class running for the rest of the students and, unless they are one of the better teachers, they may be a little embarrassed about being asked a question they couldn’t answer.

All this means that the teacher will, often completely unintentionally, treat the more inquisitive children worse than their peers. Like I said, kids aren’t stupid. They will change their behavior to avoid the teacher’s ire. They learn that asking questions makes adults mad at them, and of course they try to avoid that.  Even here, however, the damage in its own right is not fatal. The problem is that it is compounded by the fact that other kids learn to treat questioning and thinking derisively as well. The ones who enjoy thinking are in danger of being ostracized because their teachers have taught their peers to ostracize them. How many 8 year olds will take the principled stance and accept the cost? They aren’t dumb, but they care more about pleasing others, so most conform to fit in. The ones who don’t conform often pay for it throughout their time at school, and often even beyond school.

This chain of problems compounding each other is what shapes our culture. Kids don’t magically change as they get older. The prejudices, sloppy thinking, and incuriosity that they learn in school are still there when they grow up. All that changes is that they become the majority of voters and consumers, the government officials, politicians, and CEOs of America. America has become more and more incurious (not to mention anti intellectual, but that’s another topic in its own right).

Teachers’ problems are made even worse by legislation and district policies. There are tests that must be taught to in order to get high ratings and “maintain a high standard.” The tests do not measure understanding, they measure ability to regurgitate facts.Having delved deeper into a topic won’t help you. The test s only test knowledge of the surface of a subject. A teacher is pushed not to into detail about a topic because they need to give cursory attention to several, always cutting time away from teaching the subject in full. Science is not taught because there isn’t time, only facts are taught. Historical causes aren’t taught, there’s no time! We can only teach the facts! No time for the details, no time for understanding. Facts don’t inspire learning or curiosity.

Science is decaying because of attacks on it, sure, but mostly it is decaying because the drive behind it is fading. Science is done to be applied, yes, but more than anything science is done for its own sake. Scientists didn’t become scientists to make world changing discoveries, although they would love to do that. Mostly, I think, they became scientists simply because they love the understanding that science grants. Through science you may answer so many fundamental questions. How did we come to be? Why do we exist? Where did we come from? Where did anything come from? To be able to answer these, even only in part, is an amazing feeling.

Understanding even a tiny bit of how the universe works is truly awe inspiring. You probably know the feeling I’m talking about. How do you feel when you see the pictures of galaxies hundreds of millions of light years away, or when you see the immense, towering pillars of a nebula? How did you feel when you first understood evolution? That, to my mind, is the root of science.

The love of science and of learning is vanishing. Saving it requires a fundamental shift not just from parents, not just from teachers, not just from schools, and not just from policy makers. It requires all of them to change the way things are done. Parenting in the way most parents do can’t continue, teaching can’t continue to be about the regurgitation of facts, districts can’t mindlessly oppose changes, and policy makers can’t keep trying to measure everything. The changes aren’t easy to decide on, but we need to try something or risk destroying the minds of generations to come.


Science Education in America

16 10 2008

American science education is a mess right now. Part of that is caused by the same factors that are hurting the education system as a whole, but there are also science-specific issues that need to be addressed.

First, the good: despite a few states where it has been a fight, most of the US does teach evolution pretty well. It doesn’t seem like much. It is definitely unfortunate that it seems like a plus to teach it well in most of the country, but it is. After all, if evolution were being attacked in more places, science education could be in a much worse state than it is.

Now, the rather longer bit: the bad.

The first bad bit is that evolution has to fight to be taught without creationism along side it at all. This is a fight that shouldn’t have to be fought at all, because evolution is one of the most well supported and solid theories in science. The forces of ignorance (well intentioned, sure, but that’s no excuse) have sought to stop evolution from being taught because it conflicts with their religious beliefs. They are outside the mainstream of the religious, but not nearly as far outside the mainstream as they should be.

This is made worse because the attack on evolution decreases understanding of evolution (or at the very least impedes it), thereby further perpetuating attacks on evolution. As the quality of biology teaching goes down, fewer kids learn evolution well and accept it. As fewer accept it, more attack it, and so on ad infinitum. This can still be reversed, and is probably the easiest to change because here at least the causes of bad education are fairly clear. In other areas, they are harder to discern.

For example, a second issue: most kids graduating from high school don’t really understand the scientific method. We have a science teacher at some point in school make us memorize the steps, but the reasons behind each step, how it really works, the messiness of the process, and the importance of it are never explained. I know about peer review from my own, independent learning. Nothing is taught about it in school even though peer review is a core part of the scientific method. Most of the kids I know think that the scientific method is a rigid, clean, neat process. As I’m sure any scientist could explain better than I, the process is far from neat or clean, and is rigid only in its demand for transparent methods and evidence.

Why is the scientific method not taught? Honestly, I don’t know. There are no obvious culprits like there are with regard to evolution. This is something I’m still trying to figure out, and since this blog is supposed to be about critical thinking, I guess I should just leave it at that until I find out more. Unfounded speculation would be rather hypocritical, I think.

The third is a more general problem: teacher quality. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of very good teachers in America. Unfortunately, they are rarely rewarded, and poor teachers have no incentive to improve. Whenever a district considers merit based pay, the teachers’ unions fight it. After all, at least as many teachers would lose out from it as would get more. In many places, it is actually cheaper to keep a tenured teacher “working” in a so-called rubber room, being payed to do sit there doing nothing, than it is to go through the legal proceedings to have them removed. On the one hand, tenure exists for a very good reason, but on the other, there is such thing as going overboard.

In addition to the problems with current teachers, we as a society do not encourage people to go into education. Teachers do not command very much respect, and few make much money, especially in public schools. For most intelligent people, it is much better to go into something else even if they like teaching because there are so many benefits to choosing something other than teaching.  How can we get quality teachers like this? We pay the people in whom we place the minds of America’s children less than we pay a retail store manager. Are children’s minds worth so little?

Again, I really don’t know why this has happened. I wish I did.

The case is by no means hopeless, but it is becoming more and more serious. For evolution, all I can really say is that people who care about science need to keep fighting creationism when it tries to pop up in schools. For the rest, all I can say is that we need to try to convince schools to focus more on the scientific method and try to convince school boards and teachers to accept merit bases systems. Those treat the symptoms, though, and really what needs to be done is treat the cause. If we do this, we can still avoid the path we seem to have started down. If we fail to change course, however, the damage to understanding of science in America will be great.

First post, and skepticism

15 10 2008

How do you start a blog? Well, I have no idea, so I guess I’ll have to make up my own way!

I’m hoping to start using this blog to write about science, skepticism, atheism, etc from a high schooler’s perspective. If no one ever reads the blog, well, I get to vent frustrations and maybe think through my ideas more often, and if people do read it, cool! I guess this first post should have a topic, so on to the inaugural topic.

Skepticism isn’t a dogma, a body of knowledge, or even a system. It’s a way of thinking. Skepticism doesn’t mean that you reach a certain conclusion, it means that you arrive at that conclusion a certain way. Most skeptics agree on issues relating to pseudoscience because pseudoscience is about facts, not about values. Skeptics disagree on politics, sometimes religion, and often on how to spread skepticism because those are not based on skeptical thinking, although they can use it. Those are based on your underlying values. Conservatives and liberals arrive at different conclusions not just through different types of thinking, but through disagreeing about what matters most.

The point of skepticism, however, is that if you are shown that your reasoning or evidence are wrong, you will change your position. Christopher Hitchens, for instance, after having himself waterboarded, changed his position and decided that waterboarding was in fact torture. He still has the same political orientation, but he has changed his view on a specific aspect of it based on evidence.

That is why skepticism is important. It allows us to realize when we are wrong. If we accept claims uncritically, we won’t find problems with their evidence or holes in their reasoning. Without skepticism we accept falsehoods not through any willful bias, but simply through lack of the tools to tell the difference between truth and falsehood.

Skepticism is about analyzing our own ideas with the light of reason. It is about identifying our subtle biases and avoiding them. It is about finding the little tricks we play on ourselves so that we don’t see when our logic breaks down, or when our evidence is insufficient. It is not about atheism or theism, it is about how you arrive at atheism or why you believe in a god.

A process relies on its input for its output. Skepticism is only the process. If two people have different values or premises, they will arrive at different conclusions. And part of skepticism recognizing when this happens and just agreeing to disagree.