5 steps toward teaching science in an irrational (i.e., human) society

We begin today’s discussion with an observation by Robert Kaplan:

“The world as it exists often rejects rationality, spare narratives, even truth. If we have learned anything during this age of speedier and increasingly numerous interactions between peoples with different historical experiences, it is that facts matter less than perceptions, especially perceptions informed by raw emotions. It is what people believe that is crucial, not what they actually know. What is needed, therefore, beyond guiding philosophical principles, is a vivid appreciation or just what’s out there, in the form of the myths, passions, and irrationalities that in any age are central to decision making and, in a larger sense, to the human spirit itself. Romance, rather than being antithetical to realism, is a necessary component of it.”A historian for our time, Atlantic Magazine Jan/Feb p. 80.

My takehome arises from two observations:

1) Folks attracted to the sciences are a subset of the human condition.

2) Your audience (folks reading your letter to the editor, an Intro Bio class in the heartland, your Mom’s side of the family at the annual reunion) have different skill sets that allow them to learn differently, as well as different hard-won prejudices.

3) Teaching involves providing the maximum number of your audience the highest likelihood of understanding at the deepest possible level the concepts and facts you are trying to convey.

My fives on the break.

1) Leave dogmatism at the door. Are you a hard core scientific rationalist? Congratulations. You likely represent less than 1% of the human population. Despite the obvious truth of your position (snark) if you start your lecture by stating your worldview, a good fraction of your audience will turn you off like a light switch. Note I am not advocating lying to your students; but it is perfectly acceptable to have a firewall between your personal beliefs and your teaching persona.

2) Understand the metaphors of your audience. There is a reason to keep plugged in to popular culture (besides the fact that it’s a hoot). Knowing the current buzz comes in handy when you’re struggling on the fly to explain, say, positive feedback loops. Imagine Brittany Spears mistakes the accelerator for the brake pedal as she’s driving along Highway 1…… Moreover, if you live in a part of the world that is 50% fundamentalist Christian but don’t know even the basic narrative of the gospels, you are probably missing teaching opportunities. I’m not saying that you quote Bible and verse (tho there is a great applied Genetics problem in Genesis 30). But if your student comes up after class and says “Hey, the scales fell from my eyes”, or (more problematically) “Get thee behind me Satan”, it would be nice to know the context.

3) Teach science. It never ceases to amaze how little we scientists pay attention to the process of science as an integral part of teaching science. More the pity, because many undergrads love a spirited discussion as to how we know what we know. One good place to start is Carl Sagan’s The Fine Art of Baloney Detection from his book The Demon Haunted World. More basically, put yourself in the shoes of an undergrad and spend a little time reading and thinking about the various ways that your students come to know what is true. Epistemology can be fun! (I’ll write a post on this exercise sometime soon.)

4) Teach failed hypotheses. Science is a process in which we delight in proving things wrong and careers are made in overthrowing the status quo. This is a pretty radical concept to the nonscientist who thinks of science as the progressive accumulation of facts. So give Lamarkism its day in court, show why it failed. Talk about the audacity of the Central Dogma and the delight molecular biologists have had of late trashing it. One of the most important things for layfolks to understand about science are the hypotheses we throw away. And this is a good thing!

5) Teach nonscience. I teach Intelligent Design in my Intro Biology class. There, I’ve said it. My gosh, how could you not? What better way to get across what science is and isn’t? For the same reasons, I also teach the Great Chain of Being, astrology, and various claims of quack medicine. One of the most powerful ways of teaching what science is, and why it is valuable, is to demonstrate the failings of sham science.

So to sum up, I’m reminded of an argument you often hear in faculty meetings. It goes something like this:

Our students aren’t learning enough XYZ before they enroll in college!

But they need to know XYZ for them to understand your lectures!

Absolutely right. But my job is to teach at a college level. And I’m teaching my assigned material fine; the students just aren’t learning it!

The irrational world places all of us in peril. But perhaps, just perhaps, one reason we live in an irrational world is that we teachers don’t nurture the empathy required to get in the minds of our irrational audience. This, I think, is what Kaplan was talking about in our opening quote: two closed minds talking to each other usually doesn’t accomplish a whole lot.

The floor is open…


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