I once met a senior professor who wrote everything on a chalk board during class because he thought that the act of writing on the board had a positive effect on student learning. He was a professor of science who, when it came to teaching, believed in magic. The world of education is full of untested beliefs implemented by teachers and, on a larger scale, by politicians and administrators. In previous blog entries I have described the magical belief in the use of technology alone to transform education.
Definitions of science are often split between science as a body of knowledge and science as a process for discovering and evaluating knowledge (the scientific method). The scientific method should not be compartmentalized as applying only to the traditional areas of science knowledge (physics, biology and chemistry); rather, it can apply to all areas of knowledge. It requires much more creativity but no less rigor when applied to the nontraditional areas.
The lack of application of scientific method to education is explored in this article: “Why Can’t a Teacher Be More Like a Scientist? Science, Pseudoscience and the Art of Teaching” (Mark Carter, Kevin Wheldall, Australasian Journal of Special Education, Vol. 32, Iss. 1, 2008).
The possibility that individuals are predisposed to believe in way-out explanations instead of applying scientific method is covered entertainingly in this TED talk by Michael Shermer, “Why People Believe Weird Things”:
There are many areas, not just education, where scientific method is underemphasized and untested beliefs take hold. The media often plays a negative role in this by reporting on a single study showing that people doing X had a greater risk of Y (where Y is something bad) (see Ransonhoff D., Ransonhoff R. 2001 for a discussion of this issue). This creates two problems. First, a single study proves nothing. There must be a large weight of evidence (many studies) supporting a theory before it can be accepted as equivalent to fact. Second, correlation of two things does not mean there is a causal relationship. When discussing science as a process, I always ask ask my students who is wearing size 10.5 shoes. I then tell them that if they are male they should change their shoes immediately, since more men die wearing 10.5 size shoes than any other size. This helps them view studies that report correlations with a more critical perspective.
Until we all do a better job of integrating the scientific method into education and promoting it to the general public, untested beliefs will continue have more influence than they should.
Ransonhoff D, Ransonhoff R. Sensationalism in the media: when scientists and journalists may be complicit collaborators. Eff Clin Pract.2001;4:185-188.
This video contains a reasonable summary of the scientific method.