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Let’s teach doubt and skepticism about science

March 18, 2015


Lawrence Krauss wants schools to cultivate doubt:

Doubt about one’s most cherished beliefs is, of course, central to science: the physicist Richard Feynman stressed that the easiest person to fool is oneself. But doubt is also important to non-scientists. It’s good to be skeptical, especially about ideas you learn from perceived authority figures. Recent studies even suggest that being taught to doubt at a young age could make people better lifelong learners. That, in turn, means that doubters—people who base their views on evidence, rather than faith—are likely to be better citizens.

These sentiments are fine as far as platitudes go. The problem is that writers like Krauss rarely apply them outside of religion. But doubt and skepticism are relevant to many topics, including science.

For example, why shouldn’t we consider Krauss himself a perceived authority figure to be skeptical about? Why, exactly, should I trust him? The way I see it, Krauss’s research represents an infinitesimal fraction of the over 1 million peer reviewed papers published every year. His expertise is also in cosmology, something explicitly funded for long-term growth that has very little relevance to people’s daily lives. If we’re going to speak to scientists about how to help the world, why not ask those who work in international development? It’s not that Krauss cannot offer insight. It’s that there are scientists much more qualified to do so and we should be skeptical about his authority.

While we’re at it, let’s cultivate doubt on whether science is always a force for good. If that’s not a cherished belief I don’t know what is. I wonder if Krauss would endorse teaching “from a young age” about science’s support for eugenics, racism, and sexism. Perhaps students should also learn that scientists often exaggerate the benefits of basic research, that the pressure to publish may be corrupting science, and a lot of scientific research might be wrong.

Let’s also “shape identities” so children know scientists will often grossly oversimplify the history of science. And surely we must “start early” fostering skepticism when scientists discuss Galileo and Giordano Bruno–because the real story often isn’t what they say it is. And don’t forget to doubt what many scientists, including Krauss, say about the dangers of creationism. Because, again, the real story is more complicated.

I’m all for promoting “the central tenet of science that nothing is sacred.” We should work hard to prevent “myth and prejudice from enduring.” But science itself cannot be exempt from these commands. Science too is not sacred and foments myth and prejudice. Doubters–people who realize science is just a tool and nothing more–are likely to be better citizens. So let’s teach doubt and skepticism about science.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Agellius permalink
    March 19, 2015 4:38 pm

    Your link on the words “may be corrupting science” may be bad — it only links to a Google search, not a specific post or article.

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