Tuesday, September 27, 2016

The scientific method is crap: Teman Cooke at TEDxLancaster

the scientific method sucks
now by that I don't mean that science sucks as a physicist I believe that
science has had countless benefits for Humanity
but when I was in eighth grade I learned about this thing called the scientific
method and since then i have done science
i have worked with other scientists and I've taught science to college students
to K through 12 teachers and two seventh graders middle schoolers and from these
experiences i've come to the conclusion that the scientific method sucks
if it's been a while for you as it has been for me since middle school
let me run through it real quick for you first of all
step one identify a problem step to do some research
step 3 form a hypothesis step 4 do an experiment with some independent
dependent variables to test your hypothesis that five analyze data
step 6 draw a conclusion it sounds good right
it certainly matches what we see on TV and in movies and what we see on the
unfortunately it completely misrepresents what scientists do and
what science is all about and this manifest in four main ways
first of all it's incredibly linear we start with a problem statement and we
end with a conclusion
this implies that science is something that's once and done fixed for all time
secondly it's not very intuitive
how do I choose a problem what do i do with my conclusion when i'm done if I
have no idea what should or even could happen
how do i come up with a hypothesis this makes the process intimidating and
three there's a focus on conclusion reaching the conclusion on getting a
well what happens when the information changes what happens when facts change
how does this process can
sure that and finally the focus on experimentation
now don't get me wrong i'm a big fan of teaching students to control for
whatever random variables they can but there's been a lot of really good
science that's been done without being able to control for a while
anything for a moment I'd like for you to imagine what budget
it would take to create a laboratory here on earth to study the interior of
Jupiter or 24 much star from scratch or to study the galaxies development
you want your tax dollars to go toward that
now you may be thinking oh it's probably not that bad at all
we've trained generations of scientists using the scientific method myself
surely i'm exaggerating
well let me walk through a few statistics with you
sixty-five percent of Americans have little to no idea what scientists do on
a day-to-day basis
fifty percent of them however have considered it
whatever it is dangerous thirty-two percent of middle schoolers of 8th
graders score at or above proficient see in science in 2011
the good news is that's up from thirty percent in 2009
the bad news is that implies that sixty-eight percent two-thirds middle
schoolers score below proficiency
thirty percent of elementary school teachers Phil well prepared to teach
now that's compared to fifty two percent you feel well prepared to teach social
sixty-six percent who you're well prepared to teach mathematics and
seventy-seven percent who feel well prepared to teach reading and language
arts but here's my favorite statistic of all the one I find most telling of two
thousand parents surveyed in the UK fifty percent said that they feared
answering their children's questions about science questions like why is the
sky blue
and why is the moon out during the daytime
twenty percent one in five said that in response to such questions
they said no one knows or made something up
this concerns me as a culture as a civilization we fear science-y well I
believe there are three main sources of that first of all that working we're
obsessed with right answers we're obsessed with conclusions and as we go
further and further we learn more and more stuff we can't keep track of it all
in addition the fact those conclusions change
let me give you an example if you're like me when you were growing up there
were nine planets in the solar system in 2006 one of these things was eliminated
which brings me to my third point why
we don't understand how these decisions get made
we don't understand the thought process behind it now all of these problems
possibly don't lie of the feet of the scientific method but it's not helping
there is however a better way
let me introduce you to the cycle of scientific thinking this starts with
interesting observations
what counts is interesting well if you find yourself asking the question what
happened there
why did that occur what's going on
it's probably interested in the face of such questions
the human brain does an amazing thing it tries to come up with an answer
a story an explanation of what's going on
now a lot of people are perfectly happy to have an answer but scientists and
this is what makes scientists different from other people scientists want to
know if their answer is right and the way they do that is by saying well if my
explanation is true it is correct then I should also see this
they make a prediction and once you have a prediction the only thing left to do
is to go make-up observations to see if you are right and if you are but if
you're not if you're truly lucky and you got it wrong then that's going to bring
up more questions questions that require more explanation which leads to new
predictions and so on and so on and so on
no why
is this better well first of all it actually represents what scientists do
in fact postgraduate education and science is all about teaching people how
to take interesting observations ask pertinent questions and then develop
explanations that lead to observable predictions
this is science but secondly and more importantly it's much more intuitive and
much more engaging the power is in your hands
once you have an interesting question do you want to go to the library and read
up on other people's answers or do you want to skip all that and come up with
an answer of your own and see if you can make a prediction and test it
it's up to you that makes it much less intimidating from this as well it
becomes much more obvious how examples how explanations change over time
in fact there are only three possible things that can happen to a scientific
it makes the right predictions in which case it becomes stronger over time it
makes a few wrong predictions in which case it is modified over time or it
makes completely wrong predictions in which case it will be abandoned
over time the last great thing about this model is that it also eliminates
something that's very dear to my heart
the idea that any explanation must be able to be proven false and to explain
this i want to start with what would it take for me to show that my explanation
of the phenomenon is true with a capital T if it's true then every prediction it
makes should match the observations
how do i check that I have to check every observation
that's not every observation that i can make with my current budget that's not
every observation that i can make here in this amount of time that I have
it's every observation everywhere every win
it's not possible in order to prove
an explanation false however all i have to do is find out that it makes the
wrong predictions and then make sure that I didn't make a mistake
the way I think of this is to say if you give me a model that consistently
predicts the wrong thing i can say with certainty your model is wrong if you
give me a model that consistently predicts the right thing i can say with
certainty that your model is not wrong yet
let me give you an example in 1781
we found the planet Uranus but it did this really weird thing at certain
points in its orbit
it was further along than we expected based upon our models are understanding
of gravity and the other point in its orbit it hadn't traveled far enough
it was almost as if it was traveling too fast at some point and not fast enough
at other points astronomers looked at this and they said you know it looks a
lot like something is pulling it pulling it a little bit faster or a little bit
slower depending on where it is in its orbit
maybe there's a planet out there
maybe there's something interacting with it gravitationally and so they did the
calculations they found out where the planet should be and they pointed their
telescopes in the sky at that location
the planet they found we call Neptune today
now this was awesome to be able to do this and there were still discrepancies
in your illnesses orbit so they did calculations they said maybe there's
another planet out there
Planet X they did the calculations they figured out where that point it should
be and they point their telescopes into the sky at that point and they looked
and they found nothing
and this was a problem and they said okay but they continue to look and
eventually they saw something and it wasn't where they expected and it wasn't
really the size they expected but they said we found something and it's a
planet and we're going to call that thing
pluta fast-forward 60 years astronomers continue looking continued taking
observations and another one popped up
same size same composition
same location and then another one and another one and another one and another
an astronomer said that oh this is not looking so much like the other planets
this is looking like the asteroid belt a collection of objects that all share the
same orbit but aren't really planets not what we think of as planets and as the
evidence as the observations continue to build a stronger is ended up having to
abandon this explanation of Pluto is being a planet
it didn't fit in the same way we need to abandon the scientific model
it doesn't fit instead embrace the cycle of scientific thinking
you don't have to be an expert to do science
you don't have to know everything to answer your kids questions about science
even if the answer is I don't know what do you think
observe explain predict
that's enough it's good enough together as parents as educators and as
scientists we can prepare our kids our students our schools and our country for
the challenges of the 21st century and beyond
if we can learn to think differently about science
over time thank you very much

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