Guest Post: Science Fail

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6517253983_629eb83cb2_oWhen I was in 4th grade, my teacher gave everyone in class an ice cube. Our task, she said, was to keep it from melting for as long as possible. In a room full of 10 year olds, that task turned into a heated competition. But I wasn’t worried. I’d had a stroke of insight: I knew the ice cube needed to stay cold, and it just so happened there was a sink in the back of the classroom with a limitless supply of cold water.

So I ran back to the sink, held my ice cube under the cold running water … and … watched in horror as it melted away in a matter of minutes. In fact, my ice cube was the first to melt. Even the kid who had just left his on the desk in front of him outlasted me.

That experience recently popped into my now 41-year-old head thanks to a book by Stuart Firestein, professor of neuroscience at Columbia University. It’s called “Failure.” It’s sort of a follow up to his previous book, “Ignorance,” which Michelle Nijhuis wrote about on this blog.

By title alone, Firestein’s book might be mistaken for something from the self-help or success-in-business genre, entreating us to brush ourselves off and get back in the game, to learn from our mistakes so we can do it right the next time. But in fact, this book offers a more nuanced thought: When it comes to the task of trying to understand the world around you, failure is actually success. Firestein talks about failure in the history of science, in the practice of experimentation, and argues that science makes progress most often when things go wrong, not right.

Firestein devotes a chapter in his book to the issue of how to get science education to better reflect the process of actual science. And he offers some wise counsel. We need to give up trying to cover all the facts, we need share historical narratives (which are rife with failures and wrong ideas), and we need to help students understand the process of inquiry, full of mistakes and wrong turns and questions we never knew we needed to ask.

I’ve been working in some way or another on the public understanding of science for about 20 years now, first in the world of formal science education, then in science journalism, now at Radiolab. And what continues to trouble me is the astonishing number of people who shudder just at the word science, who immediately tune out as soon as they sniff what we (science journalists) are selling.

Here’s why I think that happens: If you ever get a chance to peek into an elementary school science classroom, you will see a messy chaotic adventure — simple questions about the world, wild (and often wildly wrong) answers. You’ll see play and curiosity, and discovery, in pure form.

I think we all loved science in elementary school. And then we went to middle school. And science was suddenly about getting the right answer, saying the right words, about following the “scientific method.” I know there are plenty of people who enjoyed high school science, but many of us, too many of us, just shut down. We let the smart kid next to us give all the answers and ace all the tests and we decided: I can’t do this. I’m not good enough. It’s not for me.

I believe that the sting of those experiences stick with us still. That is one of the great tragedies of our education system. And that’s what I find interesting about Firestein’s book. He shows us how science as a process, done right, looks much more like the chaos of a elementary school classroom than the carefully scripted high school “experiment” designed to lead you to the right answer.

One of the many reasons we’ve made so little progress in changing the way science is taught is because our tests, which excel at assessing whether students have retained a certain set of facts and vocabulary, are utterly useless at determining whether students have the habits of mind that can turn failure into insight.

But science journalists and science communicators don’t have to teach to the test. We have editorial freedom. It isn’t our job to teach science, but I do think it’s our job to reach the people who otherwise wouldn’t care about science. And especially the people who still feel the sting of not being good enough at middle school science. And it makes me wonder, what if we could find a way to embrace the failures in science rather than just reporting the successes.

If we focused a little more on the excitement scientists feel about the things we don’t yet know, maybe we could make people see that science is more than a list of facts. It’s a way of thinking that really is available to all of us, to the curious daring flailing — and often failing — little kid in all of us.

And on a personal note, I like to thank Stuart Firestein for giving me a rationale for adding my ice cube moment to a long and storied list of scientific insights, even if it was only a personal one. Now I think of that failure as a success, a precursor to my ongoing love of trying to figure out how the world actually works and bring other people along for the ride.

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Image courtesy of Robert Hruzek via Flickr

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5 thoughts on “Guest Post: Science Fail

  1. Of course, teaching science at all would also be an excellent start. At a recent tour of an elementary school in San Francisco, we were informed that they didn’t teach much science because science wasn’t tested in grades 1 – 6.

  2. You know what my least favorite class was in high school? Biology. You know what my profession was after college? Biology. Soren, you are absolutely right. Certainly I didn’t get to see the real nature of science until I went to a small college that taught me about the side of biology that didn’t involve memorizing cell organelles. Sadly, it’s hard to imagine how such a curriculum might fit in with modern public schools.

  3. My Dad is a scientist and the moment — and I can time it to almost the exact minute — when I turned off science for pretty much forever was when, after a a very deep spiritual experience of God (basically an NDE without me being anywhere near death) he dismissed it as “all teenagers get religion” and then his amusement when I began to say grace before meals. In his worldview (and in almost all scientists I’ve known) no such experience can ‘really’ exist and therefore needs to be ‘explained away’ (even if it is the explanation that ‘well we don’t know everything’ and then go back to studying quarks, for eg.,). Science was just over for me because I understood scientists didn’t really care about something that changed my life and which had resulted in me thinking to myself “wow! I’d had no idea — no idea — that existed — why does no one talk about it?” I knew better too to talk about it with science teacher. They’re too rational for reality — whatever.

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