Assigning Blame for Public Science Skepticism

I’ve been thinking a lot about public skepticism for science, perhaps a result of the present tense political climate. The depth of public skepticism is reflected in observations ranging from US presidential doubts about climate change to celebrity doubts that the Earth is in fact a sphere (NBA star Kyrie Irving’s claim back in February 2017). I am left to wonder, how can anyone think that the world is flat or that climate isn’t changing? Who’s to blame for such a failure of the public education system?

Teachers of course.

I coauthored an article in the Spring 2017 newsletter of the Minnesota Science Teachers’ Association accepting a type of blame on us teachers. The blame, though, rests not so much with failure to expose students to ‘true’ science as with failure to teach science in a way that compels trust in the results. We tend to teach our students to know and explain the theories rather than to understand the observational and investigative underpinnings of them, a problem that my coauthor and I examine in our recently published book, Learning to Read the Earth and Sky. If we teachers give our students the theories, but don’t engage them in the practices of science that allow them to test those theories, why shouldn’t we expect public skepticism?

If skepticism originates in the divorcement of science theory from observation and reason, then it occurs to me that science fiction writers can take part of the blame as well. Modern science fiction has very little science in it, that is, it contains a lot of ‘magical’ technology, weird jargon, and mystical properties of the universe rather than investigation based on observation and reasoning. Of course, science fiction is fiction after all. What should we expect? But when there is little effort to connect the ‘in theory’ statements in science fiction to observation and reasoning within the story, it leaves the subtle impression that science is just a different form of magic to be accepted on faith. Or not.

Something to think about.

Dr C.

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Putting Science back in Science Fiction

I was talking to my son this past weekend. My son teaches physics at Santa Fe College in Gainesville Florida, and our conversation turned to science education.   It’s such a delight to get to know my son as a professional colleague and to hear him expound on ideas—and expand on ideas—that I have grappled with for a lifetime.

At this point in the term, his class has left behind the ideas of force-acceleration-momentum and forged into less familiar concepts. He told about tutoring a student who was frustrated at not being able to find the right equation for a particular problem in the book. My son explained to him that the goal is not to memorize a basket of equations—or look them up in the book—but rather to understand basic principles from which the equations can be inferred and constructed.

I asked my son if the student believed that.   “Well, yes, I think he believed me, but I’m not sure he understood.”

Learning is a complex endeavor. My son and I agreed that each student has to figure things out on their own—they can’t just memorize the equations or accept the theories and models from the teacher. We agreed that there are many different ways to figure things out, many ways to put the pieces together in your own mind, but all the different ways of constructing understanding share one thing in common; when you finally figure it out, all the confusing mess of equations, laws, and strange observations come together in a coherent whole that makes perfect sense.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we had science portrayed that way in fiction—as a way to make sense of observations, as a way to figure things out—rather than as a basket of cool facts or weird events that happen like magic, defended by the story’s ‘science experts’ who claim that impossible events might happen ‘in theory?’

The problem is, our society, including science fiction readers and writers, appear to have lost interest in explanations and reasoning, limiting science to cool facts, wild technologies, and ‘theories’ that amount to little more than speculation. It’s not surprising that the general public adopts this view of what science—and science education—is all about.

A few years back in one of my earth science classes, I had students engaged in a debate about the age of the Earth. Students were free to use any type of evidence or line of reasoning to argue for either a ‘young’ Earth or an ‘old’ Earth.

One student made a particularly enlightening argument: “The problem with you scientists is that you try to explain things.”

I had no response. Explaining is, indeed, at the core of science. Trying to explain and understand what all the myriad observations of the world are telling us, to explain what they mean, is something I’ve given much of my life to doing. Although the student and I shared a deeply spiritual outlook, it had never occurred to me that some spiritual people might consider explaining things to be a net negative and in conflict with their worldview.

I realized that the ‘explaining things’ part of science sometimes comes into conflict with a part of our psyche that likes magical thinking. It’s no accident that fantasy fiction has gained precedence over science fiction in recent years.

Take Star Wars for example. Most people would view this as more fantasy than science fiction I think. However, when George Lucas tried to introduce a truly scientific element into the story—explaining the origin of the seemingly magical ‘force’—everyone hated it. The Midichlorians are no one’s favorite. Yet, the Midichlorians were an explicit effort to bring the story out of the realm of magic and into the realm of science fiction. The Midichlorians provided an observable and measurable correlation that offered an explanation for the power of the force. Correlation is a key element of science that allows us to make connections between observation and theory.

Given this negative reaction, it’s probably not surprising that there is little effort in science fiction to take observations and, like a mystery story, try to figure out what they mean. There is little effort to include the real process of science—asking questions, making observations, and constructing a mental model of what the observations tell us.

I would like to see more real science in science fiction. I’m not sure what that might look like in my field of earth science. Perhaps using cross-cutting relationships and stratigraphic principles to reconstruct past sequences of events critical to the plot of the story? Perhaps using experiment and reasoning to figure out the meaning of a series of strange events that are actually plausible? Perhaps showing characters engaged in real scientific research that leads unexpectedly into adventure, like the discoveries in the 1977 book Inherit the Stars (which came out the year I graduated from high school and may have set my expectations too high for science explanation in science fiction)?

More real science in science fiction; I don’t know for sure how to do it and still keep readers engaged. But I’d definitely like to see more of it.

Dr. C.

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Reviving my blog: Adventure in Science Fiction

Sorry for not blogging for so long—I’ve been writing a non-fiction book called Learning to Read the Earth and Sky, a book for teachers, or anyone else, who thinks about the nature of science and what teaching science is all about. Writing a book is a serious endeavor, and it takes serious commitment to complete it. For me, ‘serious commitment’ meant not maintaining my blog for two and a half years! Given my day job, which with research and teaching is rather consuming, and my other side projects, like gardening and writing science fiction novels, I didn’t have time to blog.

However, my coauthor and I sent our proofs back to the publisher this past week—it felt like sending my baby off to college—and so I can turn my mind to blogging. I’ve written a cross-over blog that picks up on the thread of adventure in fiction which I introduced in my last blog entry two years ago—”The Mars One Initiative–Is it Real?” Does our declining interest in adventure have an impact on our understanding of how to teach science? Check it out at “The Teachers Corner” — Teaching Science and the Lost Adventure Story.

Dr. C.

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New Earth Science Story with Teacher Resources

Our latest short story for the Earth Science Classroom (with teacher resources) is up at Issues in Earth Science – along with a great essay on the importance of asking questions–not just accepting the theories.

Cassie Morant loves puzzles, but can she put together the planetary geology clues fast enough to save the landing team from execution? Find out in Jigsaw by Douglas Smith.

Our Topic for Debate for Issue 4 is Theory in the Classroom.  Science teacher Patrick Schuette considers the importance of questioning theories in Hypothesis, Theory, and Law.

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Landscape and Science Fiction

Weird and wonderful landscapes are an important part of science fiction and fantasy stories.  As a geologist, I sometimes wonder, is that landscape even possible within the laws of nature as we know them?

Please comment on your favorite landscape and whether it makes sense taking into account the concepts of base level, erosion, and deposition and various river, shoreline, glacial, karst, wind, and other processes on landscape formation.

For my online class students, the specific story we’re looking at is ‘Boneyards’ by Kristine Kathryn Rusch and the landscape on the planet Treffet.

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The Core–The Geoscience

In saving the Earth from a core that has stopped spinning, the heroes of the movie ‘The Core’ encounter a cave deep in the Earth’s mantle.  Does this make sense in terms of the properties of earth materials?  Please include your view on how much that science fiction can bend reality before it enters the realm of fantasy. This discussion is part of the course “Earth Science Essentials for the Science Fiction Writer” but please feel free to contribute whether you are part of the course or not!

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The Day After Tomorrow–The Geoscience

Have you seen the movie “The Day After Tomorrow?”  Helicopter fuel freezing in seconds as cold air from the upper troposphere descends to the surface.  Humans freezing into statues where they stand.  Does this make meteorological sense?  Is it even possible?

This is intended as a discussion area for the college course “Earth Science Essentials for the Science Fiction Writer”.  Please, everyone make comments!

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Energy imbalances in popular SF

One doesn’t have to look far in popular science fiction to discover earth science processes whose energy balance simply doesn’t work in the real world.  Impossible storms, instantaneous climate change, volcanos spurred by ‘magnetic forces’, and many other forms of complete nonsense.

 So, find one!  Post your thoughts about it.

Part of the Online Course “Earth Science Essentials for the Science Fiction Writer.”

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Geological History in World-Building

World-building is an important part of science fiction writing.  You can’t make a world without geographical setting, political environment, socio-historical backdrop, and so on.  What about the geological history of a planet or region?  Back in the 1800s, the discovery of a past that included Ice Ages, Dinosaurs, and pre-life epochs and eons captured world imagination.  But do such discoveries impact modern day stories or events?

 Write a few words on how some component of geological history might be a significant element of a science fiction story. 

This is intended as a discussion area for the college course “Earth Science Essentials for the Science Fiction Writer”, beginning in Spring 2016, but, please, post some thoughts for the students to consider!


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Despicable Me–The Geoscience

In the Movie, Despicable Me 2, Gru shrinks the Moon down the the size of an orange causing surfers waves to suddenly collapse.  Let’s comment on the geology of this phenomenon, including considerations of metamorphic reactions with the shrinking Moon, how that might affect the Moon’s mass and density, and how this would affect waves (tides?) on Earth!  This is intended as a discussion area for the college course “Earth Science Essentials for the Science Fiction Writer” but, please, others are strongly encouraged to participate!

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