When will I use science?

http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/01/24/us-usa-neanderthal-cloning-idUSBRE90N05720130124

Previously I wrote a blog piece on Algebra as it is the fundamental and critical aspect of education which allows one to most ‘likely’ excel.  Algebra is the quintessential  beginning of abstract thinking with which students move on to a more open, questioning mind.  Math is the language of science…..

With common core standards coming down the pike in the U.S. public education system, it behooves us to think about how one will use science knowledge, which is based on the language of maths. I would like to broadly apply how science benefits us and assists in a life well lived. Above and beyond, I would like to put the kibosh on some of the ardor people find in misconstruing hypothesis for theory for fact and calling it knowledge, an abhorrence to even novice scientists.

Daily I use the most basic concepts of hypothesis vs. theory vs. fact vs. opinion when I listen to the news. I am not so naive to believe there is anything as perfect as flawless journalism and keep my mind open – to reasonable ideas. Some things which come across me in conversation, computer, newspaper, etc. are just ridiculous and make me pause to wonder who amongst people I know or am acquainted with might be a ‘believer’  (see URL above).  I pause as the actual thought in my brain is something along the lines of, “Did you complete Algebra?” and I need to restrain myself from saying what is making me smile.

If we are to actually ‘arrive’ in the 21st Century, we will need to start thinking as though we are in the 21st Century and stop relying on misguided beliefs which brought us The Salem Witch Trials, The Scopes Monkey Trial and the five (or ten or 60 ) second rule which was recently clarified by Jillian Clarke at University of Illinois, Urbana -Champaign.   In each instance, people wished to ‘believe’ something not only on the limited knowledge they had on hand at the time, the bigger issue was the lack of continuing to ASK QUESTIONS, which is what all good/great scientists do.

Those who are unwilling to experiment are not ready to accept science as science RARELY calls something a fact:

Just as in philosophy, the scientific concept of fact sometimes referred to as empirical evidence is central to building scientific theories and fundamental questions regarding the natural phenomena of Naturescientific method, scope and validity of scientific reasoning.

In the most basic sense, a scientific fact is an objective and verifiable observation, in contrast with a hypothesis or theory, which is intended to explain or interpret facts.

Various scholars have offered significant refinements to this basic formulation (details below). Also, rigorous scientific use of the term “fact” is careful to distinguish: 1) states of affairs in the external world; from 2) assertions of fact that may be considered relevant in scientific analysis. The term is used in both senses in the philosophy of science.   http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fact#Fact_in_science

Being closed-minded is limiting ones ability to be creative, ask important questions and think through various ideas (Shrodinger’s Cat). Closing off the power to think is the antithesis to what anyone would wish to do if they wanted self efficacy, empowerment and a better world.

Examples where understanding and using scientific knowledge abound. I will select a few to think about and digest so the conversation can not be waylaid into something other than improving science education and scientific thought in the U.S.

There are many people who are hateful of GMO foods. If you ask these people to compare/contrast the technology used to create gene therapies for people with medical conditions, they are in favor of genetic manipulation. When asked to have discussion/dialogue on these two different yet related  concepts, most people are unable to have said conversation as they lack the basic understanding of genetics and epigenetics although they are sure anything with genetic manipulation must be bad…..unless it cures a health condition.  This should then lead into a conversation on ethics which is every part as necessary since the ability to perform a genetic change/alteration is not permission to do so (even though Der Spiegel felt a certain scientist must be running around looking for a womb to implant Neanderthal DNA recently inserted into an ova….).

As health care changes and improves, people should be allowed more and stronger input into their end of life.  In fact, people should be able to select and elect how they wish to die. Being able to understand the choices requires some degree of science knowledge and ones own risk tolerance. An example is when some one has cancer and is given options of treatment: surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, nothing. Each choice has a set of risks and rewards and contains a certain determination regarding how ones life will end from cancer. Some people choose to do surgery if it is clear the doctor feels they can get the tumor out with good margin, they are young enough that anesthesia will not unduly harm them, the surgery can be life-sustaining for a period of time. Some people choose not  to do something so invasive and opt for chemo or radiation. Some people opt for all three until they can no longer take the side effects. Some people do ‘none of the above’. In each case, each person should get to decide for themselves what they feel is best for their quality of life. This is difficult if some one does not understand how the various factors come into play AND know each choice is equally valid and depends upon the person.  The misconstruction of this conversation, where  a doctor and/or medical team educates a patient so they can advocate for their end of life is known as a death panel in some circles…….

We should all be able to make decisions as to the quality of life we live. In this case, we should get to choose if we would like to be able to live long lives where we are healthy and relatively disease free  OR  would  we like a shorter life with more indulgence or even something in between. In order to make the choices, we do need to know what the various activities we do or choose not to do have to do with actuarial tables (those things insurance companies use for so much of their decision-making on risk).  An example would be nutrition. Since both diabetes and obesity are on the upswing, understanding the underlying genetic propensity AND epigenetic factors would help us to some degree in choosing what we eat as living with diabetes is not pleasant.  If we were to actually know the food groups – protein, fats and carbohydrates, we could do better in evaluating information on food packaging which is listed in this format.  We have spent at least my life time talking about milk, meat, vegetables, fruit, beans, legumes, plant, animal, fat……without really ever putting it into a context of what is fat for, what is protein for, simple vs. complex sugars in our diet and how vitamins help us process nutrients. It is difficult to tell some one not to drink soda when they do not understand how the body uses sugar.  Why is this so? Look at a school text-book, which is how most science is taught. You will note sugar (if it is even referred to as carbohydrate) is for energy. This seems logical if you don’t know better and leads to thinking a soda will help a person get through the day, not what the body has to do to process the sugar.

We have created a nation of people taught to read a science book, answer a few questions and move through life. When Harvard University began studying science misconceptions in education, they put together The Private Universe Project. One film was quite telling – it included interviews of Harvard and MIT grads on graduation day in the 1980’s NOT being able to  explain photosynthesis   http://www.learner.org/vod/vod_window.html?pid=77      You watch the movie and immediately understand science has to be something more important and less of a ‘special’ activity.  If we are to get past people thinking we can just go out and find a womb to implant a Neanderthal, we might do well just to learn photosynthesis.

We can do better – we have to leave the books and multiple choice testing behind.  If Algebra is a gateway…..science most definitely is the road we need to walk.

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