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"Of course, in practical terms, most of what I know about science -- or what any other layperson knows about science -- is learned from authority. "

I don't think this qualifies as 'from authority', since we're not taking the scientist's word for the results of their experiments.



Uhm? Actually, that's exactly what we're doing... We're taking their word for the results of their experiments. That's what makes us laypeople. The important difference is simply that we don't HAVE to take them on authority, if we have the inclination to perform the experiments ourselves.


One thing we did in science class that I didn't much like but value the lessons learned was the egg drop.

I didn't like it because at the time I was quite the slacker and didn't want to put any effort into it, and the failure of my egg drop was very public.

BUT, looking back I like it even better than the other practical lab stuff we occasionally did in elementary school, because it taught us the value of trying something out, then figuring out where we went wrong and fixing it for ourselves with trial-and-error. A very good exercise in problem solving.

I guess it differs a little from the labs you describe, but it's another bit of science education done right.

Absolutely awesome post.

As an atheist and a scientist I accept absolutely nothing unless there's proof. It doesn't matter what it is, if there is no direct evidence backing it up no matter how obvious I will refuse to believe it.

Reading how someone else did it and how they managed to prove it (as I read in my Discover magazines all the time) is the funnest part of science even if I usually don't understand what it is they're actually doing.

But doing it myself I feel this sort of power. Instead of taking someone else's word for it, even though they were peer-reviewed out the wazzoo and have actually performed more proof than I'd care to imagine, being able to do it myself I have no choice but to accept it as fact.

I don't BELIEVE in evolution, I've read the facts and 100 years of constant tests and proof and SEE that it's true.

I don't BELIEVE Iraq is in a quagmire, I'd read 3 NIEs and a GAO and a SJC report that have all said it's a quagmire.

I don't BELIEVE in anything. I read it, it's facts, and let those determine it. If it's not what I thought, that's great. I'm now more knowledgable. Even Dawkins points this out many times as well in his movies.

Anyway, long enough post from me. Great blog. Great post :)


The problem with high school experiments as I remember them is that they weren't very useful when compared to the theory. Maybe because they focussed on "modern" science -- which is why I like the approach of measuring the earth's curvature a la the ancient Greeks. I think there should be a lot more historical context in science classes because it's lack of context that perpetuates myths.


As a middle school educator, I cannot agree more. We are forced to teach to the test, especially more here in washington. Starting in a few years our kids wont pass high school unless they pass the test, a test that half of them fail right now.

We are fucking ourselves.


I agree wholeheartedly, Greta. In light of this, if I ever have kids, I'll buy the entire Mythbusters collection and get them to watch.

It is not a substitute for doing experiments yourself in class, obviously, but I think the show is valuable in that the Mythbusters get to test things for which there is no "theory" that alreayd has an answer much better than anything you could ever hope to get.

Therefore, I think their epxloits are a good answer to the question we both asked ourselves when we were in school: "What's the point of doing this? I already read the correct answer."

P.S.: Don't feel jealous of the Mythbusters, Greta. If you had a TV show based on this blog, I'd watch it!

Jon Berger

So how does that "I measured it myself" experiment go over with your average evolution-denying theist? I wouldn't really expect it to convince them; the counter-argument is "well, you believe that poles of the same height cast different-sized shadows depending on where they're located because the earth is round; I believe that they cast different-sized shadows depending on where they're located because it's God's will, so there you go, you have your religion and I have mine."

It's really a variant of a logical conundrum that (I think) was first described by Lewis Carroll, or rather his alter ego Charles Dodgson. If you know that A implies B, and you know A, then you know B, right? Well, no, because you have to also know that the proposition "A and (A implies B)" implies B. That is, you have to believe the logical rule which lets you infer B from the conjunction of "A" and "A implies B." But ok, if you know that rule is true, and you know A, then you know B, right? Well, no, because you have to also know that "A and (A implies B) and (A and (A implies B) implies B)" implies B.

In other words, even in the most rigorous logical system, there's always SOMETHING that you have to take on faith, even if it's the rules of logic themselves. And all someone who wants to refute you has to do is find that thing that you're taking on faith and say "ok, that's your religion, mine is the one where I just believe God created it all in six days." It's really an impossible argument to win, because there's guaranteed to be some variation on the Dodgson conundrum that will refute the most logical argument you could possibly make.

(I probably didn't describe that very well, but if you look at the time stamp on this comment, perhaps that will serve as some excuse for a minor degree of incoherence.)

G in INdiana

As a lab geek from way back, if my daughter's teacher didn't do the experiments in the class I made sure it was done at home. We even looked for more experiments and did them ourselves.
As a practical result, my daughter is well able to pursue her dream of being a CSI type police investigator and has a healthy respect for seeing the evidence as it is rather than what others want it to be. The same could be said if she had wanted to write books in the nonfiction genre.
She's also an atheist as are both her parents.

Greta Christina

Jon makes an interesting point. I don't think that this sort of lab/ field experiment will make a dent in a hard- core adult true- believer. As I've written before when I was writing about the "Mistakes Were Made" book, the human capacity to rationalize a belief -- absolutely any belief, no matter how absurd -- is pretty much limitless. And I agree that a lack of respect for the rules of logic is part of the reason for that.

This isn't so much about convincing adult true believers, as it is about teaching children good habits of critical independent thinking. And the tinfoil- hat conspiracy- theory part of me sometimes wonders if that's not part of the reason that it's being set aside in schools in favor of "teaching to the test." Not consciously -- I don't think there's a cabal of cackling men in smoke-filled rooms saying to each other, "Let's stifle an entire generation's ability to find things out for themselves." I just don't think that critical independent thinking is a very high priority of the current administration. To put it mildly.

Oh, and I totally agree with Valhar2000 about Mythbusters. I think they provide an excellent model of critical scientific thinking... especially since, time and time again, they've proven themselves able and willing to be surprised and proven wrong.

Chris Hallquist

I have a blog meme for you, if you choose to accept it:


It wasn't until I saw the Xkcd comic about zombie Feynman that I realized just how good the Mythbusters are in terms of science: they may lack rigour, and soem of their results and procedures may be a bit iffy, but the fact that they actually try things out puts them smack dab in the middle of the scientific method. And, like zombie Feynman, I think they should get some love for that. A lot of love, in fact.

One (slightly parphrased) quote from Adam Savage, from the plane on a treadmill episode, illustrates this perfectly:

"I read hundreds of webpages of vitriolic commentary, but as far as I know no-one has actually put a plane on a treadmill".

The theories they test may be completely inconsequential, but they illustrate the spirit of what scientists actually do, and of what you are supposed to learn from the experiments you do in class.

Greta Christina

Chris, I actually already did this one about a year ago. Is it okay if I just link to that? It came out well, I thought, and I don't thnk a second round will improve on it.

And it may interest you to know that Vladamir Nabokov shared your "alphabet in color" form of synesthesia. There's even a book about it, called, oddly enough, "Alphabet in Color."

the chaplain

"I just don't think that critical independent thinking is a very high priority of the current administration."

I concur. Dubya likes to be surrounded by "yes men." Dissenters are not allowed. Period.

Dennis N

I loved doing lab experiments but man those lab reports...

Anyway, it doesnt matter what test results you get, doesnt Of Pandas and People say that when science and the Bible conflict, you have to accept the Bibile? Isnt Pandas the standard textbook these days?


And, of course, Humean scepticism means that you can't in fact prove that A implies B. Certainly the fact that you got that particular result when you did the experiment doesn't mean that if you did the experiment again you'd get the same answer everybody did the previous 23,000,000,000,000345,000,000,564 times. Worked for Kiekegaard.


Experiments are not only great for the development of critical thinking, they're also fantastic for problem solving skills. I still vividly remember how in high school physics, every time we did some experiment involving electricity, it would almost never work the first time round. We would then have to logically deduce which component(s) were faulty - are the wiring rusty? (We had some pretty old equipment in some cases.) Did the fuse in the voltmeter blow because someone in a previous class connected it wrongly? Are all the settings and connections correct?

I think this intangible "skill" of problem solving is valuable whatever your career, because it's the ability to face a problem and NOT panic, but instead think clearly about the situation, and logically deduce the error/malfunction and, if you can, correct it. Or try to minimise it or work around it. It's certainly not the knee-jerk reaction many people have with technology: "Help! It's not working!" rather than "Oh, wait, maybe I should actually READ the error message and think about what it means? Or maybe turning it ON?"

I think that doing really *cool* experiments can also help kids/teenagers become more interested in science. The pretty colours produced in simple chemistry experiments certainly captivated me! Not to mention the Greatest Lecture Ever, who I had for the electricity topic in phyisics in my first year of university. He did absolutely *every* experiment that was possible (and safe) to do within a limited lecture timeframe, including sheer awesomeness such as lighting a bunsen burner with his finger (actually a spark from his finger after he charged himself up with a van der Graff generator); sticking electrodes, which are wired from a stereo unit into said flame and turning it into speakers (reasonable treble, but terrible bass, due to the small size of the flame); spraying deodourant into a flame (as a warning that you should never do it at home!); testing sheets of plastic and paper for their insulating properties... and watching them get scorched when they're not insulating enough; and etc etc. It's a pity that a lot of schools don't have the resources to do extremely cool and *educational* experiments such as these. I think a lot more people would grow to like science if they had experiences with experiments like I did - they would certainly not call it boring, anyhow.

That said, lab reports were up there with exams and assignments as "necessary evils" of learning. Stringent testing, analysis of the control of variables, and the myriad of uncertainty calculations are not as fun as watching stuff burn, but they're important to learn.


Oops, "Greatest LECTURER Ever". It's nearing 1 am here and I think I should get off the net before my errors multiply...

David Goza

Good times:

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