Teaching disconcerting scientific ideas

Explaining the scientific process will help the public understand why scientists trust their own conclusions.  


Strange scientific ideas 

• Matter is composed of atoms, which are mostly empty space. 
• The universe emerged out of nothing (about 13,700,000,000 years ago). 
• There are billions of galaxies, each containing billions of stars. 
• Time and space are not distinct. 
• All organisms are built from similar building blocks called cells. 
• All cells are derived from pre-existing cells in a continual lineage that extends back about 3,500,000,000 years. 
• The heavier atoms in our bodies were formed within stars or exploding stars. 
• Matter and energy are different versions of the same thing. 
• The universe is running down yet expanding at a faster and faster rate. 
• Random noise can produce complex structures. 
• At the molecular level, everything is reversible. 
• A collection of cells can, by itself, produce a self-conscious entity that thinks it is more than a collection of cells. 

Over the years, scientists have come to accept some deeply weird ideas, many with uncomfortable ramifications (see sidebar). They accept these ideas because of the scientific process, a process that is not well appreciated by the general public. A lack of understanding of how science actually works has significant implications when it comes to teaching and the role of science in economic, political and personal decisions. Efforts like the recent bill to allow teachers to teach controversial topics such as biological evolution (1) do as much to befuddle students as they do to make religious zealots appear to be either fools, ignoramuses or charlatans. Unlike religions, which are based on what amounts to personal revelations, and which many come to or are forced to accept through threat of ostracism, torture or even death (2), science is a voluntary communal activity. It is, in theory at least, accessible to all (unlike religious revelation). New observations, provided that they can be repeated and extended by others, can lead to the revision of past ideas without violence. There are few, if any (sane) scientific fundamentalists, devoutly defending a small, static, young and geocentric universe, a nonatomic model of matter, a phlogiston model of heat, a nonevolutionary model of terrestrial life or a supernatural (soul-based) model of consciousness. Reproducible data coupled with dispassionate, rational and skeptical inquiry leads to conditional, albeit empirically supported and highly accurate, conclusions about the world. These are ideas that are difficult to dismiss no matter how hard they may be to believe. 

While science occurs within societies, many individuals are not willing or able to accept some of the most well-founded scientific ideas and their implications (3). In part, this is because these ideas, while not directly ruling out the supernatural, certainly are difficult to reconcile with the existence of an all-knowing, all-powerful and all-good God. It has been suggested that “Science and religion are not in conflict, for their teachings occupy distinctly different domains” (4), but this ignores the fact that many well-established scientific ideas (such as big bang cosmology, biological evolution, atomic theory, plate tectonics, the laws of thermodynamics and the physicochemical nature of the mind) can, when taken seriously, provoke a spiritual vertigo that, in the view of some members of the religious community, has highly undesirable and corrosive effects. As an example, the response by religious fundamentalists to human (biological) evolution focuses largely on the premise that evolutionary mechanisms, driven as they are by random events and selection, demean humans by viewing them as just animals, sharing the same nature as other animals. This implies that there is no more meaning associated with being human than there is with being a trichoplax: Both are the product of a mindless (godless) process. Given that calling someone an animal rarely is viewed as a compliment, we can understand their objections, even though from a scientific perspective, they are irrelevant.

As scientists and educators, our challenge is to stay true to the ideals and implications of a scientifically established world view while not gratuitously alienating some of the very people we expect to pay for our work. While some scientists and scientific writers have gone so far as to claim that science has disproven the existence of God (5 – 7), this is, on its face, a silly and totally nonscientific claim. Science cannot disprove God’s existence but can render it essentially irrelevant. Consider the earth’s place in the universe as illustrated by the “Known Universe” video developed by the American Museum of Natural History. Two points emerge: how unimaginably tiny the earth is in the context of the known universe and, given the limits to the speed of travel, how completely inaccessible and irrelevant this universe is to our day-to-day existence. We must be content to rely on poorly constrained speculation when it comes to models for the origins of life or its prevalence in the universe, notwithstanding often exaggerated scientific claims to the contrary. As scientists and science educators, we need to recognize and explicitly address how current scientific ideas influence our daily lives: where they are useful or irrelevant, and where they might leave us disoriented and alienated.

  
 “This implies that there is no more meaning associated with being human than there is with being a trichoplax: Both are the product of a mindless (godless) process.” Image courtesy of Oliver Voigt.

Science works because it eschews (and actively questions) personal authority; it relies on logic and the assumption that the only authority that matters is that provided by the repeated testing of ideas against a disinterested reality. As such, it provides a bulwark against vested interests, prejudices, superstitions and comforting but unwarranted assumptions. Science and other skeptical and evidence-based positions often are viewed as threatening (think Socrates) and actively suppressed by totalitarian regimes of the (largely secular) left and the (often religious) right (8). Activists who uncritically oppose new technologies or actively back pseudoscientific positions can end up condemning millions to poverty, disease and death (9, 10): Witness the effects of irrational and myopic opposition to vaccines, pesticides, genetically modified organisms and (well-regulated) nuclear power plants. 

The key is an explicit return to Enlightenment values in the science classroom. Scientific ideas need to be presented in all of their weirdness so that their implications as well as their limitations are recognized. There is little to fear from such an approach, since, even when dealing with superficially controversial topics such as evolution by natural selection, the scientific evidence is overwhelming. We would do well to follow the spirit of Tom Paine, who said, “You will do me the justice to remember, that I have always strenuously supported the right of every man to his own opinion, however different that opinion might be to mine. He who denies to another this right, makes a slave of himself to his present opinion, because he precludes himself the right of changing it. The most formidable weapon against errors of every kind is Reason,” and by extension a humble, circumspect, but explicit and rigorous devotion to scientific ideals. Explaining the scientific process will help the public understand why scientists trust their conclusions: that evolution has shaped us, that vaccines are safe and that genetically modified organisms may help much more than harm.

References 

1. Reardon, S. Bill Allowing Teachers to Challenge Evolution Passes Tennessee House. ScienceInsider, April 7, 2011.
2. Paine, T. (1794) The Age of Reason: Being an investigation of true and fabulous theology. Barriois, London.
3. Berkman, M. B., and Plutzer, E. (2011) Defeating creationism in the courtroom, but not in the classroom. Science 331, 404 – 405.
4. Gould, S. J. (1997) Nonoverlapping magisteria. Natural History 106, 16 – 22.
5. Dawkins, R. (2006) The God Delusion. Bantam Books, London.
6. Hawking, S., and Mlodinow, L. (2010) The grand design. Bantam Books, New York.
7. Stenger, V. J. (2007) God: The failed hypothesis, how science shows that god does not exist. Prometheus Books, New York.
8. Ferris, T. (2010) The science of liberty: Democracy, reason, and the laws of nature. HarperCollins, New York.
9. Gray, J. (2010) The man that saved a billion lives: Norman Borlaug and GMOs. The Toronto Globalist.
10. Ridley, M. (2010) The Rational Optimist. Harper, New York.

Mike Klymkowsky (michael.klymkowsky@colorado.edu) is a professor of molecular, cellular and developmental biology and co-director of CU Teach at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

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