When I was a kid, I always got annoyed by the lab portion of my science classes. I guess I've always been more of a theory person than a research person (hence my career as an essayist instead of a journalist). Rolling balls down inclines and measuring the speed; putting nails in different liquids and seeing how fast they rusted; cutting up fetal pigs... it always seemed like a waste of time.
I mean, I never had any problem understanding the theories being taught by the books and the teachers. And I was perfectly happy to believe the books and the teachers. After all, it's not like my measurements of gravity or magnetism or whatever were going to be written up in the science journals. Even at the time, I knew perfectly well that if my numbers didn't come out the way the theory said they should, the discrepancy would, without a doubt, turn out to be caused by my experimental methodology... not the theory.
And it's not like the theories we were learning in second -grade or sixth-grade or tenth-grade science class were on the cutting edge of new scientific thinking. Again, even at the time, I knew that the stuff we were learning was well-established, and had been experimentally verified thousands upon thousands of times... by researchers who were a whole lot more careful than my sixth-grade science class. I knew we weren't really verifying the theories. The theories had been verified, many times over. We were just seeing how they worked for ourselves.
Which I didn't think I needed. I got it. The books and teachers and theories made sense. I didn't need to roll the damn ball down the damn incline to see it for myself.
So it seemed like a waste of time.
But now that I'm an adult, I see the value in it much more clearly. And especially now that I'm so engaged in the skeptical/ rational thinking/ science groupie blogosphere (what I've seen referred to as "the reality-based community"), I value it even more.
I see the value because I think there's an enormous difference between learning something purely by authority -- "it's true because I say it's true, and you can trust me" -- and learning something by seeing it for yourself. And the latter is the core of the skeptical, rational, reality-based approach to life that I think is so very valuable.
Let me give you an example. We'd learned very early on, of course, that the earth was round. But in a high school science class (freshman year, if I remember correctly), we learned how, exactly, the ancient Greeks determined that the earth was round. It had to do with comparing shadows: you measure the shadows of two poles of equal height set, say, a mile apart. You do it at noon, and again an hour later. And you do the math. The difference in the length of the two shadows will be different on a curved surface -- i.e., the earth -- than they would be on a flat surface. You can even figure out, within a crude approximation, how large the curved surface is.
So we learned how exactly this information was acquired. And then we went outside and acquired it ourselves. We did it with sticks set a few feet apart, so of course our measurements weren't super-accurate -- but we got measurable results that weren't that far off the mark.
And so now I know. I know that the earth is round, not because I read it in a book or was taught it by a teacher, but because I measured it myself. And now when I'm in a debate with some theist who says that science is just another religion and my belief that the earth is round is no different from their belief in God, I can say, "Yes, it is different. I know that the earth is round -- because I measured it myself."
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 haven't personally done experiments to see the effectiveness of antibiotics in treating pneumonia; I haven't personally dug up any of the millions upon millions of fossils supporting the theory of evolution. Had I but world enough and time... but I don't, so I'm not going to.
But the difference is that I could. Any smart, dedicated person with access to education can get into epidemiology or paleontology, and find out for themselves whether or not the stuff that the books say about antibiotics or fossils is true.
We can do this because scientific knowledge is transparent, and it's replicable. When researchers publish their findings, they publish not only what their results were, but how exactly they obtained them. They don't keep it an arcane secret, accessible only to those who have achieved the 34th Level of Poobahhood; they don't tell overly- inquisitive students to stop asking so many questions and just accept their teachings on faith. They say, "Here's what we think, and here's why, and here's what we did to find it out, and here's the kind of evidence that would prove us wrong, and here's exactly what you need to do to see it for yourself."
There were other good things about my grade- school and high- school science education. We learned a lot about the scientific method -- even as early as third grade, we were learning about the difference between observation and inference (illustrated with cartoons about wet tricycles on lawns -- the observation is that the tricycle is wet, the inference is that it rained... or that someone turned on the sprinkler). And we started learning very early on about the importance of careful measurements -- we were measuring liquids by reading the meniscus as early as third or fourth grade, and I remember a stern lecture from a science teacher about how screaming and cheering at the hamster running the maze would probably have a negative impact on his learning curve.
But of all the good things in my science education, I think the "see it for yourself" labs were probably the best. As annoying as I found them at the time, I now think that they were some of the most important and influential experiences in all of my early education. Because it taught me not to believe what the teacher told me, just because they were telling me. It taught me that I had the power to find things out for myself.
And it's one of the main reasons I get so upset when I read about the "No Child Left Behind," teaching- to- the- test style education that American public school kids are getting. Science education -- and indeed, all education -- needs to be about more than learning enough facts to let you pass standardized tests. Science education -- and indeed, all education -- needs to teach kids how to learn. It needs to teach kids how to think critically; how to ask questions; how to look things up. And it needs to teach kids that they don't have to believe everything they're told, just because they're told it. It needs to teach kids that they have the power to find things out for themselves.