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The Sciences

What people should know


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The immediate purpose of this post is tell search engines where to point when they're asked about intelligent design. Steve Smith of the National Center for Science Education (a great organization, devoted to defending the teaching of evolution in schools) has sent around an email mentioning a surge of interest in the subject, seen for example in the list of top searches on Technorati (right now it's the most popular search). So he suggests that people with a web page point to this article on Intelligent Design at the NCSE website; we physicists here at CV are happy to help out, as we know that we're next once the forces of pseudo-science finish off our friends in the squishy sciences. It's an embarassment that something as empty as intelligent design gets taken at all seriously by so many people. Here's an important feature of real scientists: they don't try to win acceptance for their ideas by forcing people to teach them in high schools. They publish papers, give seminars, argue with other scientists at conferences. IDers don't do this, because they have nothing scientific to offer. They don't explain anything, they don't make predictions, they don't advance our understanding of the workings of nature. It's religio-political dogma, so of course they pick battles with school boards instead of scientists. In the discussion about the post on doctors below, some commenters pointed out that doctors aren't really scientists at all. But the point was never that doctors are scientists; it was simply that they were people who went to college, where presumably they even took some biology courses. How is it possible for people to go through college and come out not appreciating enough about how science works that they can't appreciate the metaphysical distinction between science and propaganda? But much of this is our fault, where by "us" I refer to college science professors. We do an awful job at teaching science to non-scientists. I presume (and would love to hear otherwise if I'm wrong) that most U.S. colleges ask their students to take about one year's worth of natural science (either physics, biology, astronomy, or chemistry) in order to graduate. But more often than not these courses don't teach what they should. For some reason or another, we most often create intro courses for non-scientists by taking our intro courses for science majors and removing the hard parts. This is completely the wrong paradigm. What we should be doing is taking an entire professional scientific education (undergrad and grad school, including research) and squeeze the most important parts into courses for non-scientists. If someone only takes one physics course in college, they should certainly hear at least something about relativity and quantum mechanics. If someone takes only one biology course, they should certainly hear at least something about evolution and genetics. Instead we (often, anyway) bore them to death with inclined planes and memorizing anatomical parts. (Truth in advertising compels me to mention that, as an astronomy major, I made it through college without taking any courses in either biology or chemistry.) And, most importantly of all: they should absolutely learn something about the practice of science. They should have some introduction to how theories are really proposed, experiments are performed, and choices are made between competing models. They should be told something about the criteria by which scientists choose one idea over another. It should be impressed upon them that science is a perpetually unfinished subject, where the real fun is at the edges of our ignorance where we don't know all the answers -- but that there are also well-established results that we have established beyond reasonable doubt, at least within their well-understood domains of validity. Wouldn't you like to take a science course like that? I don't know, maybe my experiences have been atypical and there are a lot of people teaching courses in just that way. If so, let me know.

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