Why science definitions matter: a response to the NCSE’s Misconception Mondays

Dear fellow scientists and science educators: may I suggest the time has come to work together to standardize the major terminology of our field?  I don’t mean the terminology of specific disciplines, I am getting at the fundamentals here: what is science, and how do we effectively and efficiently communicate what a hypothesis, law, and theory are?

I am writing this post because I read with some dismay the recent National Center for Science Education’s blog Misconception Mondays: Hypotheses, Theories, and Laws, Oh My! by Stephanie Keep.  I encourage my readers to read her blog post and form your own opinions.  I want to be clear from the beginning that this is nothing personal about Stephanie Keep — her post simply caught my attention and serves as a spring board for discussing what I read and hear all too often from many of my colleagues.

The take home message from Keep’s post is this: it doesn’t matter what labels we give concepts in science, so long as science is being taught.  In essence, don’t get bogged down in semantics and lose the forest for the trees — it is more important that students understand the science.  At face value, this seems reasonable: don’t be pedantic be practical.

On deeper reflection, however, this attitude (an attitude shared by many in the sciences) is troublesome, because definitions and the meanings we attach to words do matter, especially for students and the public who vote on science issues.  Keep says:

People—especially scientists—like firm definitions. Science is full of technical terms that we learn to master (or learn to quickly look up on the Internet), and thanks to a mixture of precedent and state standards, many teachers keep making kids learn definitions for theory, law, and hypothesis in the introductory weeks of a new class. I’m not suggesting that kids shouldn’t learn what a hypothesis is—of course they should! Forming and testing hypotheses are fundamental parts of any scientific endeavor. But I am suggesting that we be willing to admit that there is often no good reason why something is called a law vs. a theory, or a hypothesis vs. a theory—and that’s okay.

But therein lies the fundamental problem with this approach — not just Keep’s approach, but, I would argue, the approach so many of us have been taught to take.  How can you teach a student how to test a hypothesis if you simultaneously tell them that we can’t tell if it’s a hypothesis or a theory?  These definitions do matter.

Something else is troublesome in Keep’s statement that, “many teachers keep making kids learn definitions for theory, law, and hypothesis in the introductory weeks of a new class.”  In any discipline, you learn what it is and how it works in the beginning so that you have a common language through which to teach and make sense of the core material.

If we are charged with doing science and with educating the public about science, shouldn’t we able to say: here is what science is, here are it’s limits, and here’s how the toolkit works?  Especially at the beginning of a class?  As scientists and science educators, we seem on the whole to be so circumspect about this because, I suspect, we appreciate that science is not about certainty but about probability.  Therefore, we are loathe to say we have a concrete definition because we fear that what we convey is an absolutism rather than messy reality.  Believe me — I understand and appreciate wanting to avoid teaching our students that science = unassailable truth.  But if this is a fear of looking too authoritarian, in my opinion, it has led to much confusion both among ourselves and the public at a time when science is under attack.

Dear scientists and science educators: it is okay to have firm definitions that define and describe what we do, and we need to give ourselves permission to be okay with that.  It is no longer okay for us to say to students, in essence, we can’t really describe or define what it is we do precisely, but you’ll know it when you see it.

It would be arrogant and presumptuous on my part to suggest I have the definitive answer or definitions for what we do, nor do any of us work and teach in a vacuum — much of what I teach my students is cobbled together from what I have found works for me as an instructor (borrowed and morphed from many gifted individuals), particularly the approach of a former graduate mentor, Dr. Ron Toth at Northern Illinois University.

But I would like to start a conversation about fundamentals.  Surely, science as a discipline is not an amorphous thing.  I suspect most of us would define it as a tool for understanding the natural world.  Many of us test hypotheses – these are predictive statements that can be tested and falsified which guide our research.  We often test our hypotheses under an explanatory umbrella we call a theory.  As an example, a paleontologist might test the relationships of various dinosaurs (a hypothesis called a phylogeny) using data collected from fossils, working under the explanation that they are closely or distantly related through common ancestry (a theory called biological evolution).

Laws, I will admit, often stick in many of our craws.  I have come to see scientific laws as testable descriptions of repeatable phenomena or processes.  If we define scientific laws in this way, we are now more clear about what should qualify.  For example, in her essay, Keep says,

Have you ever noticed that most of the “laws” in science tend to be in the physical sciences and astronomy? There aren’t a lot of “laws” in biology—in fact, I can’t think of any aside from Mendel’s Laws. Why is that? Is it because biology is a “soft science” while physics and astronomy are “hard sciences”? Not at all. It’s because people in those fields really liked the term “law.” No, really. That’s pretty much it.

I would argue that we do have laws in all the branches of science, we just don’t always call them that.  If a scientific law is a repeatable phenomenon or process, Genetic Dogma (DNA is transcribed and translated by RNA into proteins) is a law — it happens continuously in all living things, always the same — a repeatable phenomenon or process.  Natural Selection is a Law — all individuals vary, more individuals in a population are born than can survive, and those with variable traits that allow them reproduce viable offspring are “selected.”  Look at any population in the living world, and this process is on-going and repeatable.  How about calling the Cell Theory, the Cell Law?  After all, that living things are made of cells is pretty much a repeatably observable phenomenon.

This works for me and for teaching my students, but I am not suggesting I have the market cornered on this definition.  Rather, my point here is that when we have a clear definition, we can more easily comprehend what we are communicating to one another and to our students.  If I am testing a hypothesis, you and others know I am probably working under an explanation, a theory.  If I am testing a law, you and others know that if I find variation or the phenomenon does not repeat, I may be in a position to reject or modify that law.

We need to have this conversation because definitions do matter in science.  What you call something does matter, especially when you need it to convey a particular set of qualities.  True, there will always be exceptions to the definitions and the natural world is messy, but don’t let perfection be the enemy of progressScience is and should be definable — we don’t just know it when we see it.

I welcome any constructive feedback and ideas from all of my colleagues as to how we can and should move forward.  I want to thank Stephanie Keep for sparking this conversation.

For those who don’t know and who might be interested, I have outlined and explained my own approaching to teaching science and evolution.

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Why I Believe Bill Nye Should Not Debate Creationism

If you are not already aware, Bill Nye (the Science Guy) and Ken Ham (founder of the Creation Museum) are scheduled to have a debate at the Creation Museum on February 4, 2014.

This debate was apparently triggered by a video posted by Bill Nye entitled, “Creationism is Not Appropriate For Children” on YouTube.  Not to be undone, Ken Ham posted his own response with embedded links to two other Ph.D.s who amplify his belief that evolution, not Creationism, is damaging to children.

If the goal is science education, then I believe this debate is a poor way to improve the reception of science education in the general public.  Why do I feel this way?

There is a poor or nebulous definition of evolution and science by both parties.

In his video, Bill Nye states, “Evolution is the fundamental idea in all of biology.”  I really like Bill Nye, but I’m sorry, Bill.  Evolution is not an idea.  It is a scientific theory.  If you’re going to have a debate about science, definitions become hugely important.  A scientific theory is a testable, falsifiable, and predictable explanation of natural phenomena.  If you couch evolution as an idea, you open the door to a debate about ideology, not science.

Of course, Ken Ham has science wrong as well. He says, “Science means knowledge – you can divide science into historical science … and observational science.”  No on both fronts.  First, science as it is practiced is not a definition but a method — specifically methodological naturalism.  It is the tool by which we understand the natural world — a narrow discipline, in fact, that seeks to pose answerable questions about nature.  Second, science is science.  All science is based on observations at some level — the dinosaur bones may not “come with labels on them,” but they are observable data that can measured, studied, and so forth.  So, there is not observable versus historical science — it’s all the same thing.

A scientist works under a theory, an explanation for some type of phenomenon in the natural world, to test hypotheses.  If you work on chemistry, you are working under (among other theories) the atomic theory which states that all matter is made of atoms with specific properties.  Until recently, chemists have done a bang up job of testing and predicting chemical reactions and their consequences without seeing directly into atoms.  That’s because the testable explanation (atomic theory) was effective for inferring what should occur.  So, to say that evolution is “historical science” which is “beliefs about the past” is a gross misconstruction of how science works.

When Ken Ham says, “If evolution were true … it would be so obvious to the kids …” he is ignoring the fact that many applicable theories of science are weird and not obvious.  For example, the theories of general and special relativity predict that time is experienced differently by different objects at different speeds and in different gravitational fields.  If you use satellite technology, those satellites whizzing in orbit around the earth have clocks that quickly go out of synch with those on earth (which is explained by the theories of relativity) and thus we have to take special measures to synchronize them with our devices on the earth (GPS comes to mind).  That is good science but not something particularly obvious to kids.

In a nutshell, science is like the honey badger of internet lore — it doesn’t care about your beliefs or opinions.  Data drives what is accepted and rejected.

We are again fighting a metaphysical clash of civilizations.

Based both on what Bill Nye and Ken Ham say, this debate is not about data.  A scientific debate would be about data.  Instead, we have what amounts to, in my mind, another metaphysical clash of civilizations.  Ken Ham and his organization are very clear on this.  He is not concerned about data, but rather showing that “Creationism teaches children that they’re special, that they’re made in the image of God.”  In that one statement, you have what is actually being debated spelled out: whether or not you believe in a particular deity in a particular way.  This is why Ken Ham, his organizations, and others like him make the leap from teaching evolution to teaching kids they’re “just animals” to gay marriage and so forth.

However, Bill Nye is not doing anyone a favor by saying, “In a couple of centuries that world view [creationism] will not exist … there’s no evidence for it.”  Nye has basically indicated that, yes, evolution is a world view, but it is supported by evidence.  And if that is true, then it follows that in this metaphysical clash of civilizations you have to pick a side.  At least, if you follow Ken Ham and his compatriots, that is likely what you are led to believe from such statements.

There is No Clear Distinction About Faith and Creationism

I have said this before, but it bears repeating – there is no conflict between science and faith.  Yet, that is precisely what this debate is already boiling down to.  Science is not faith – it is a tool for understanding the natural world.  Faith is a deeply personal set of beliefs that often cannot be demonstrated scientifically, but that makes them no less valid to the individuals that hold them.  This is not my idea, not by a long shot, but to rephrase the words of many who have come before me, science and faith are after separate goals.  You don’t scientifically test faith, and you don’t apply faith where science works well (the natural world).  This is why they can and should coexist — they serve different purposes, often to the betterment of us all by people with noble intentions.

But the Creationism of Ken Ham and the Creation Museum is not mainstream Christianity.  Many Christians from many faith traditions accept science and evolutionary theory while maintaining their faith.  Ken Ham wants you to conflate his narrow concept of Christianity (a fundamental, literal interpretation of a particular version of the Bible) with Christianity as it actually exists in the world.  But that conflation works to his advantage, because if we are choosing camps, and you identify as a Christian, you cannot “believe” evolution because a humanist (whatever that may mean to you), Bill Nye, is coming after your faith.

A Plea and Some Thoughts

No one person holds all the keys to our problems, so I would never be so bold as to say I have the answer.  Here, then, is my plea and a few thoughts.

I think what many scientists, myself included, are troubled by is hucksterism and charlatanism — snake oil salesmen dressed in religious or authoritarian garb using ignorance to fund their own ambitions and power.  But it is vitally important that we do not conflate that clear and present danger with faith overall.  Given that a majority of Americans identify as people of faith, broadly lumping them in with extremists serves no one and is very damaging.  My plea to my scientific colleagues is, stop doing that.  This is just as damaging as saying that people with no religious beliefs are evil, wrong-headed, and trying to subvert American culture.

As I have said before, fear, not data, is the bottom line here.  People are afraid that their faith is being attacked — once you are afraid, data (the currency of scientists) doesn’t really matter.  What scares people about science?  What scares them about evolution?  How, as scientists, do we work with the majority of people who can see the benefits of science as a tool but are afraid to compromise their spirituality?  That, to me, is the challenge of our time.

You will not convince those with extreme convictions to self-reflect and re-evaluate.  You can bring oceans of data and heaps of observations, but it will do you no good, because the debate is not really about science but about fear and emotion.  So, if Ken Ham and his followers are convinced they are right, having a debate only ever further convinces them that they are.  Do you really think Ken Ham would ever take the results of the debate as anything but a win if not just great publicity?

My last thought or plea: don’t debate Ken Ham and other so-called Creationists.  There are people convinced to their core that the world is flat – no amount of data and debate will sway them, and nothing much will be accomplished.  But they, like Ken Ham, do not represent the majority.  The majority is who we desperately need to reach.  Certainly, when such extremist views threaten to undermine science education, we should and must push back as the National Center for Science Education has admirably done.  That is very different, however, from going out of one’s way to have what will amount mostly to spectacle and the reinforcing of deeply held convictions on both sides.

Again, I like and respect Bill Nye a lot, and I think he has done wonders for science education in the United States. To Bill Nye and any other well-meaning scientists out there who want to improve science education, please do not debate Creationists — this is not the way to accomplish what we all want.