Science, Education and Politics

Science is one of those wonderful tools that man has developed in order to determine how things work and put structure around how we expand our base of knowledge. It is a tool, a method if you will. It is not political, sort of. It is a way of determining facts and theories in the search for truth. It has the built in feature of having to change the way we thing about things as more is learned. If it isn’t changing, then it really isn’t science. This is fundamentally different from learning via dogma or other authoritarian means. Because it is always changing it can be threatening to those “in charge”.

Let’s review what the scientific method consists of:

  1. observe a phenomenon
  2. develop a hypothesis as to the cause
  3. make a prediction based on the hypothesis
  4. perform a controlled experiment to test the prediction
  5. analyze the data and compare to results predicted by hypothesis
    1. if the results match, the hypothesis can be promoted to a working theory
    2. if the results do not match, revise the hypothesis and return to #2

A problem that I have with the politicization of science is that it co-opts a method of learning things, and in doing so often gets away from learning about truth. This often results in starting with #4 and working backwards towards #2, or fitting the experimental results to fit the desired result. This is no longer science.

Science should determine facts and theories that match the evidence; what politicians do with that information is outside of science. If there is a good reason to go against the truth as determined by science, that may be a reasonable course of action, depending on the circumstances. What I find abhorrent is when the science is manipulated to fit a political agenda. This diminishes the value of science by creating confusion about what we know and how we know it.

Let me use an example: peak oil. When the oil that we are dependent upon will run out is a very political topic for obvious reasons. There are legitimate scientific means to develop estimates with regard to how much oil is available, where this oil is located, estimates on how much it will cost to recover the oil based on where it is located, etc. All of this information could be agreed upon. The question then becomes what to do with that information: do we develop alternate means of generating energy? do we drill for oil in ANWR? do we drill in the Gulf of Mexico? All of these questions are political, the answers should be based in part on the scientific information, but not entirely. The emotional and political factors must also be taken into account, but the science should be agreed upon facts. We should not use the politics or emotion to alter what the science says. There will still be disputes and competing theories as to the actual scientific data, but there are processes built into the scientific method to develop the best theory and modify this theory as more data becomes available.

What does this have to do with education? Everything. We are teaching our children in our schools about the scientific method. If we confuse them about what is science and how science works, then we are doing them and our country a great disservice. If we teach our children that science is arbitrary and can be manipulated to change the truth then we are not teaching them science, we are teaching them politics. We owe much of the progress over the past two centuries directly to science and the scientific method. We cannot expect to maintain our dominance in science and engineering if we are not teaching our children the right things.