Monday, December 27, 2010

Children learning the scientific method

Biology Letters, a peer-reviewed journal from Britain's prestigious Royal Society, published a report Wednesday conducted and written by a group of 8- to 10-year-olds from an English elementary school investigating the way bumblebees see colors and patterns (see the story on Yahoo). The scientific organization — which is more than three centuries old and includes some of the world's most eminent scientists — said the children reported findings that were a "genuine advance" in the field of insect color and pattern vision. "The experimenters have asked a scientific question and answered it well," neuroscientists Laurence Maloney and Natalie Hempel wrote in commentary alongside the children's report.

I love this story so much: children learning and applying the scientific method. Learning how to make a fact-based argument. And learning that anyone can discover something important. When you use the scientific method, you constantly form and test a hypothesis - and proving your hypothesis wrong is still a positive, because it's lead to the truth -- they learned that lesson too!

I don't care if these children are, or turn into, Atheists, but I do care that they have learned what science and academic research is, and what it is not.

The sad reality is that, even when presented with concrete and irrefutable evidence, there is a growing number religious adults who will still choose belief over facts - that the Sun goes around the Earth and the Earth is only a few thousand years old and all you need is prayer to cure an illness or injury, because that's what's in, or inferred in, the Bible - and who insist that those beliefs are on the same level as science, and should be treated with the same respect. They want those beliefs taught in schools, presented as equal to science, and balk at the idea of having standards for scientific research and scientific reporting. They promote pseudoscience, "a claim, belief, or practice which is presented as scientific, but which does not adhere to a valid scientific methodology, lacks supporting evidence or plausibility, cannot be reliably tested, or otherwise lacks scientific status," and they want such in our classrooms.

Creationism is not a scientific alternative to natural selection any more than the stork "theory" is an alternative to the sexual reproduction "theory" (Hayes, Judith. In God We Trust: But Which One? (Madison Wisconsin: Freedom From Religion Foundation, 1996).

In the essay "In Front of Your Nose," George Orwell wrote, "We are all capable of believing things which we know to be untrue. And then, when we are finally proved wrong, impudently twisting the facts so as to show that we were right. Intellectually, it is possible to carry on this process for an indefinite time: the only check on it is that sooner or later a false belief bumps up against solid reality, usually on a battlefield."

Ofcourse, not all Christians, Muslims and others think their faith is incompatible with science. There are many churches in the USA that celebrate Darwin Day on February 12, for instance.
Many religious people adhere to theistic evolution, such as the Episcopal Church, which has said that the theory of evolution does not conflict with Christian faith: In 2006, the General Convention said, via Resolution A129, that "the theory of evolution provides a fruitful and unifying scientific explanation for the emergence of life on earth, that many theological interpretations of origins can readily embrace an evolutionary outlook, and that an acceptance of evolution is entirely compatible with an authentic and living Christian faith."

There's some great web sites out there where you can download scientific worksheets to use with children to help them learn about science-based investigations. In fact, there is a great web page on how to teach students to debate, to facilitate analytical thinking.

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