Saturday, May 23, 2015

Right-brained science, again: the myth of the finches

Behold Albert Einstein: not the tidy young patent clerk, working through his most groundbreaking theories, but the scraggly eccentric of his later years. This image speaks volumes about our conception of scientific geniuses. We view those we most admire more as crazy, intuition-driven, mold-breaking, wild-haired artists than as meticulous researchers and rigorous analyzers. We imagine their greatest mathematical and scientific breakthroughs occurring not at desks or in laboratories; instead, we see Archimedes in his bathtub, Newton under and apple tree, and Franklin in a storm with his kite. 
From an early draft of Raising a Left Brain Child in a Right Brain World, then called "Out in Left Field in a Right Brain World."

I regretted eliminating this section; it didn't fit in with the publisher's reconception of my project as a parent-oriented advice book rather than as a broader cultural critique. But the more I think about it, the more I think that this right-brained conception of science and scientists has contributed to the demise of science education in ways that specifically shortchange left-brained, scientific minds.

--The notion that the way you get kids interested in science is to showcase the epiphanies rather than the puzzle solving--downplaying the importance, and the fun, of solving hard puzzles.

--The notion that the way to prepare kids for science careers is to promote "creativity" and "out of the box thinking" rather than the analytical and mathematical skills that scientific competence depends on.

So it was nice to see physicist Leonard Mlodinow's Op Ed in Sunday's New York Times. As soon as I read the first two paragraphs,  I knew just what he was getting at:
The other week I was working in my garage office when my 14-year-old daughter, Olivia, came in to tell me about Charles Darwin. Did I know that he discovered the theory of evolution after studying finches on the Gal├ípagos Islands? I was steeped in what felt like the 37th draft of my new book, which is on the development of scientific ideas, and she was proud to contribute this tidbit of history that she had just learned in class. 
Sadly, like many stories of scientific discovery, that commonly recounted tale, repeated in her biology textbook, is not true.
Noting that "The popular history of science is full of such falsehoods," Mlodinow writes:
The myth of the finches obscures the qualities that were really responsible for Darwin’s success: the grit to formulate his theory and gather evidence for it; the creativity to seek signs of evolution in existing animals, rather than, as others did, in the fossil record; and the open-mindedness to drop his belief in creationism when the evidence against it piled up.

The mythical stories we tell about our heroes are always more romantic and often more palatable than the truth. But in science, at least, they are destructive, in that they promote false conceptions of the evolution of scientific thought.

Of the tale of Newton and the apple, the historian Richard S. Westfall wrote, “The story vulgarizes universal gravitation by treating it as a bright idea ... A bright idea cannot shape a scientific tradition.” Science is just not that simple and it is not that easy.
Perhaps most compelling is Mlodinow's critique of the recent Steven Hawking movie
In the film “The Theory of Everything,” Stephen Hawking is seen staring at glowing embers in a fireplace when he has a vision of black holes emitting heat. In the next scene he is announcing to an astonished audience that, contrary to prior theory, black holes will leak particles, shrink and then explode. But that is not how his discovery happened.
In reality, Mr. Hawking had been inspired not by glowing embers, but by the work of two Russian physicists. 
According to their theory, rotating black holes would give off energy, slowing their rotation until they eventually stopped. To investigate this, Mr. Hawking had to perform difficult mathematical calculations that carefully combined the relevant elements of quantum theory and Einstein’s theory of gravity — two mainstays of physics that, in certain respects, are known to contradict each other. Mr. Hawking’s calculations showed, to his “surprise and annoyance,” that stationary black holes also leak.
Not glowing embers; difficult mathematical calculations.

Mlodinow notes that "the oversimplification of discovery makes science appear far less rich and complex than it really is." He also touches on broader consequences:
Even if we are not scientists, every day we are challenged to make judgments and decisions about technical matters like vaccinations, financial investments, diet supplements and, of course, global warming. If our discourse on such topics is to be intelligent and productive, we need to dip below the surface and grapple with the complex underlying issues. The myths can seduce one into believing there is an easier path, one that doesn’t require such hard work.
To see this in action, one need look no further than the education world--including, of course, the subworld of science education.


Anonymous said...

I am a scientist turned homeschooler (who has also had kids in school). I can't stand the K-12 focus on having students become "little scientists" at the expense of teaching real science content.

IMO, the best way to prepare kids for STEM careers is to give them four things.

(1) A solid math education that stresses problem solving *and* automaticity

(2) An ability to read difficult, complex text

(3) An ability to detect rhetorical arguments and restate them clearly as well as an ability to form clear arguments in response

(4) A content rich education across all disciplines

Anonymous said...

It seems like many homeschooling science curriculums assume the parents want lots of projects in elementary school. They don't seem like an efficient use of time to me. Maybe I'm missing something, but my 3rd grader and I have learned a lot from library books and middle school level science textbooks.

Anonymous said...

Exactly, Anonymous @ 7:03.

This idea that K-12 science must be predominantly hands on, where students play with materials, and make wild guesses about outcomes, is at best a waste of time and more likely counterproductive.

It takes *a lot* of background knowledge--background knowledge that is *not* acquired by playing with materials--to become a real scientist. Most lab work, frankly, should only come to dominate a scientist in training's time in graduate school.

Anonymous said...

And it's not just homeschool science programs that do that. The school district here uses Foss kits, which assume that hands on, anything goes science is good science.

Auntie Ann said...

Here's an earlier thread on schools and labwork:

momof4 said...

"It's not an efficient use of time" - three cheers and amen! I've posted this before, but I've not seen any sign that the edworld is even aware of the concept of efficiency, let alone any appreciation for it. Even if the "little scientist" stuff (or any kind of group/discovery) works - and I don't think it does - it wastes huge amounts of time. Kids need to learn lots of academic content, in all subjects, and wasting time means they learn less of it.

Anonymous said...

I think one of the problems is that the people who make the decisions about how science is taught in K-8 especially don't actually know anything about what it takes to be a scientist and in fact, have probably been avoiding science (and math) because they found it difficult or boring (or likely both) in school.

In fact, my sense is that most education majors have never had to learn anything that is not, at its core, intuitive for them. They have never had to wrestle with anything that derives its order from something outside of the human mind. Sure, scientific models are really just human constructs to allow us to understand the universe, but what scientific models are attempting to describe is something that is fundamentally non-human, and for most people, that makes much of science non-intuitive. Since these people have never had to fully understand science before, they don't realize that applying a discovery approach in K-8 (and probably K-12, or even K-16 if a nonscience major) is not only a total waste of time but that it also makes a mockery of the scientific method.

Far better than creating "little scientists" would be to have the goal of developing *science literacy* in all students.

Anonymous said...

The hands-on elementary science activities I remember weren't true experiments, but demonstrations of concepts that aren't intuitively obvious, like taking a flashlight to a globe to show how day and night happen, etc. (which, I should add, my parents did with me, not something we did in school.)

As for actual experimenting, baking seems like a better real-world, hands-on activity than trying to be a "real" scientist. My mom (who had studied food science in college, so I think baking can be real science) allowed me to try making cookies without flour, baking soda, etc... The results were predictably inedible. Of course, between using ovens, tasting something with raw eggs, and the actual mess and clean-up, I doubt most teachers would want to deal with real experimenting... And, of course, the lesson I learned was that the people who write cookie recipes know what they're talking about, and I shouldn't waste my time trying to make major changes, at least not until I had at least an undergraduate-level knowledge of food science...


Auntie Ann said...

There is one math experiment I'm sort of shocked doesn't get done. All it takes is a gym with the right paint on the floor, some string, and something to measure length (if a gym floor isn't available, teachers can probably do it with chalk on the playground). I suggested it at our school, but they didn't do it.

Have the kids go to the gym with some string. Have them lay the string around the big circles on the floor (usually, there is one near the center line and two more around the free-throw lines.) Mark or cut the string to the length of the perimeter of the circle, then measure the length of the string to find the circumference. Use a measuring tape or another length of string to measure the diameter of the circle. Divide the circumference by the diameter to calculate pi.

The big circles make it easy to get quite accurate results. I did this once with our kid using a car tire, and we calculated it to within a couple hundreths, something in the 3.12-3.15 range, I think. The tire was really a messy way to do it, and the bigger the circle, the more accurate the measurement will be.

You could also use it as a statistics exercise, averaging the results across the classroom and among classes to improve accuracy and teach how redoing an experiment repeatedly improves the results.