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A thought experiment

November 2, 2013

Schrodingers_cat_web
The importance of separating facts from ideology was perhaps the most important lesson from my fellowship in DC. It stems from the basic belief that there is an objective world with objective facts, and we shouldn’t confuse values for science. You oppose action on climate change? Go ahead. But don’t say you’re doing it because of the evidence. Have the guts to admit you don’t like regulation or you’re okay with risk. Scientists have no problem with disagreement. But we can’t stand it when people disagree because they think their subjective beliefs are scientific.

With that in mind, consider this thought experiment:

There are two identical groups of high school freshmen. They have the same distribution of IQ, socioeconomic status, parental level of education, books in their homes, and number of words they heard as infants. Corresponding students in both groups took identical vacations, worked the same summer jobs, and played the same sports growing up. These groups are completely identical.

In 9th grade, both groups take freshman biology. During the unit on evolution (let’s say it’s 3 weeks long), group 1 reads a short paragraph about how evolution is a contested scientific theory and intelligent design is a valid alternative. This single paragraph read 15 times (every weekday over three weeks) is the only difference between the groups through ninth grade. After their freshmen year the controls are released and the two groups grow “naturally.”

What happens to group 1? Does reading this paragraph lower their IQ? Undermine their ability to operate a microscope or write software? Will they have lower grades as sophomores? Lower college graduation rates? More problems holding a job? Will they have difficulty analyzing graphical data? How about understanding climate change? How precisely will reading this paragraph affect group 1 in the short and long run?

I posed a variation of this thought experiment twice in my class. No one thought the students in group 1 would really be affected. Until now, I  haven’t met anyone who believes they would. And yet, every scientist I know still believes reading that  paragraph is a bad, bad, bad thing to do. In public we go so far as to brand it dangerous and harmful.

We are clearly incorporating subjective values in our definitions of dangerous and harmful. But we don’t admit that, and instead pretend our beliefs are wholly scientific. Why should we expect the public to do otherwise?
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One Comment leave one →
  1. Geremy Heitz permalink
    November 6, 2013 5:38 am

    I think my problem with the paragraph is the slippery slope it might lead to in the future. There’s value in bright lines about what belongs and doesn’t belong in a Science classroom because it protects against future encroachment of ideology so that you don’t have to fight every battle as it comes up.

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