Sunday, November 23, 2014

Skepticism and Science

Framing a context for the value of content.

Being a skeptic is for scientist a core state, the value of skepticism is rooted in the need of science to ask questions and on having in mind that whatever model we have now to explain a phenomenon is only temporary an it can, and most likely, change in the future. The interconnectedness between the phenomenon and the surroundings does not allow the invention of models to be separated from the anthropomorphic view of the person creating the model. Therefore it is necessary to see what is the context of the people developing these ideas. Culture in general and language in particular restrict and guide the construction of hypothesis and theories. 

Science education is more than teaching a set of rules given by theories or the transmission of content boxed in a set of models. Science education has to develop the connection with previous experiences in our society. These connections allow the student see how these ideas, hypothesis, and theories were developed and how they apply to our lives. As an example I can mention when teaching and explaining how the periodic table of the elements work I made the connection with my previous research on rare earths (aka Lanthanides) and the noble gases (aka inert gases). Not only teaching the names of these elements but having a story behind their nomenclature and behavior allowed the student get a feeling of discovery and a sense of awe of God’s creation. Knowing becomes an individual's integral status of relationship with his/her own history and environment.

What is necessary to know about the students when teaching science?
These students have gone to the traumatic experience of ‘directed’ education where ‘educators’ have induced in these students indoctrinated thinking void of ‘critical thinking’ which for the context of this writing is scientific skepticism. This scientific skepticism is so much needed in today’s society.

In his book "Think: Why You Should Question Everything" Guy P. Harrison (for a link to his website click here ) warns about the lack of critical thinking in our society and teaches us that thinking like a scientist is the only way to avoid being swindled by crooks, kooks, and demagogues selling all sort of silly, and wrong ideas. Including commercial products that are harmful to us and to our environment. Being critical thinkers is a matter of personal security and wellbeing.

The need to develop critical thinking, i.e. skepticism in my students is what drives me to be critical and skeptical, and to teach with a sense of awe and feelings of discovery at every step even when the topic at hand seems to be old and fully developed like the idea of the periodic table. We know that the periodic table as it is normally presented is not at all perfect and even though is highly useful it need some explanation and adaptation. At the same time students need to know that new ways of presenting the idea of 'periodicity' of the elements (in some cases by the use of a 'table') are currently being developed as this link shows. Click here for the link.
The question now becomes, how the context of an idea can be used to reflect on the value and accuracy of the model proposed by it?

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