The great tragedy of science [is] the slaying of a beautiful hypothesis by an ugly fact.
The monument to Nicolaus Copernicus in Warsaw, Poland. He was among the first to challenge the dogma of the Catholic Church, and to practice critical thinking – the ability to change one’s views in light of new information.
Why Learn Science?
In 1633, a frail 69 year old university professor at the University of Pisa, Italy, was summoned to a court of non-secular law, found guilty of heresy, and sentenced to life imprisonment. Sure, it would only be house arrest, but from a Court of Inquisition, that would prove to be a fine distinction indeed. One of his best friends – a benefactor, in fact – was behind the verdict.
The professor had raised the ire of the religious establishment of the time by pronouncing that Earth was not in fact the centre of the Universe, and that heavenly bodies (mostly) revolved around the Sun (he’d also discovered some some bodies seemed to revolve around planets too!).
This was the so-called heliocentric or Copernican model.
Such a belief conflicted with the official Catholic dogma of the time, and although his good friend the Pope was willing to overlook some things, the professor was, in addition to his heresies, a thoroughly undiplomatic and impolitic proponent; the charges were confirmed by Urban VIII himself.
House arrest wasn’t all that bad in the broad scheme of things. His contemporary, Giordano Bruni, was similarly inquisitioned, and for the same heresy; he was burned at the stake. What might have been worse was this order:
“… to abstain altogether from teaching or defending this opinion and doctrine [of heliocentrism], and even from discussing it.
The old man was, of course, Galileo Galilei, and his exploits are, even if (perhaps) a bit apocryphal, at least generally recognized as being one of the most important conflicts between science and organized religion.
To Galileo, the order to be quiet, to not communicate findings would, as a scientist, been even more painnful than death. Eppur si muove.
Preserve in everything freedom of mind.
Never spare a thought for what men may
think, but always keep your mind so free
inwardly that you could always do
St. Ignatus Loyola, Spiritual Exercises, 1548
Of course, this idea (that heavenly bodies revolve around the Sun) wasn’t a new one; it had been around for centuries, beginning with the ancient Greek philosophers. What made his case more compelling was that Galileo had evidence. Personal evidence, based on observations that he had made with a newfangled instrument imported form Holland.
To this point, knowledge about such heady issues as the nature of the heavens came from religious experts. They had gained their understanding through ” divine revelation” or through interpretation of scripture – the Bible.
The great gift of Galileo was not that he discovered heliocentrism or invented the telescope (both of which are widely reported, but untrue), but rather that he dared to allow his mind to be open to alternatives ways of thinking about the natural world. Galileo had identified inconsistencies based on detailed observation, and then proceeded to try to explain them, and to communicate them.
To open other minds.
In short, he was a free thinker. A critical thinker, and an empiricist to boot. But the point is, he valued observational data over ideology.
Which brings me to why we learn science.
The lesson of Galileo’s experience is that knowledge, in and of itself, is neither good, bad nor terribly useful (knowledge, even scientific knowledge, can, after all, be wrong, and is always subject to modification).
What we need to be able to do is look at competing viewpoints, including our own personal beliefs, and then consider the facts and make decisions based on the best evidence available. This is generally called critical thinking. It’s what Galileo did, and it’s a key message that we educators try to get across to our students.
For most things, we shouldn’t have to rely on the experts to tell us what is or isn’t so. And for the complicated things, we really should have a good enough grasp of how things work so that we can quickly identify the nonsense that sometimes disguises itself as science (what Sagan called the Baloney Detection Kit).
But some things are complicated. Although we should have some basic understanding of how the world works, we ought to more generally have a collection of skills and techniques to deconstruct the world, if only in a limited way, and ask “does this make sense?”.
This is what Science allows us to do. Science gives us a toolbox of methods with which we may look at the natural world, consider the contradictions, and formulate a sense of why things are the way they are.
And more importantly, to be able to question the extraordinary.
Science is more than just knowledge. Science is a way of looking at the world and trying to understand how things relate to each other, and of understanding our place in the universe.
So why do we insist that children learn science?
Well I don’t believe that we teach Science because the information is necessarily important to know (although it often is) or that there is practical value to it all (which there often isn’t much of).
Students need science because it gives them the tools to think critically, the ability consider the information, and the competence to discard, or at least question, the ridiculous or extraordinary.
Science allows students to begin making informed choices for themselves.
Galileo’s was the age of the renaissance – an era in which freedom of thought and the spread of information allowed humanity to progress out of the dark ages. We have science to thank for this. Not for the information or knowledge it has given us, but for the process.
Process allows us to think for ourselves, and to eschew authority.
That’s why we learn science.
For the past 16 years, I have been a science teacher. Inn a previous life I was a research biologist. My discipline is ecology, and my research was in the field of rapid bioassessment protocols.
As part of my current practice, I am revisiting some of the central tenets of my profession, including what we as teachers do, why, and how we do it. Part of that is also understanding this endeavour we call science.
Because if we don’t know what science is – both what it’s good for, and it’s limitations – we cannot even reasonably hope to teach it.