Thoughts on Science, Learning, and Being Wrong

After giving my midterm thesis presentation, I’ve been mulling over my motivation, the reason I care so much about this, and why I feel that even in this world of STEAM education everywhere, we need a more subtle look at why science is so valuable. What does it say that while there are more maker programs in school than ever before, we’re at a point where reason seems to be failing us?  Can we really just wait til the next generation grows up and pray that reason will make a triumphant comeback?  What’s the true motivation of STEAM education? Is it to produce more engineers so that people are ready for jobs of the future?  Is it an economic consideration, rather than a philosophical one?  That’s often how the rhetoric feels. Narrow. Single-minded. So I’ve been pondering the following – why science?

“Why does it matter to me?”
“I can barely pay my bills, why the hell should I think about the universe?”
“Science gave us the atomic bomb and nerve gas”
“Shouldn’t we be solving social problems rather than looking at the stars?”
“When am I ever going to use math or science in my life, other than counting change?”

I read this amazing speech by Richard Feynman, and found it revelatory. He posits 3 specific values that science produces:
1. Science enables us to make things (This, in my view, is the crux of the STEAM push)
2. Science can provide a great deal of intellectual enjoyment
3. Science teaches not only comfort with doubt, ignorance, and uncertainty, but relishes it, embraces it, and finds power in it.

I’d like to address these points in order ->
1. The first point is obviously compelling, but conceptually the least interesting. We know that applied science is powerful, we deal with it every day. It’s responsible for the push towards STEAM education. The model fits snugly into our capitalistic way of thinking. However, it does nothing to bridge the gap between people who view themselves as technical and those who don’t.

2. The next point is easy to see as trivial or superfluous. The hypothetical questions posed above are often used to discredit the value of this point. There’s also assumption many that people do not feel the intellectual enjoyment that Feynman is talking about when confronted with a scientific or philosophical conundrum. There’s no doubt, however, that these same people do find intellectual enjoyment in something. It’s natural that we enjoy exploring what we know, whether it be the intricacies of a football game or the inner workings of the universe. But try to show a football lover, who is capable of complex, strategic thinking, that their mode of thinking is not far from science, and that they can indeed get it. I’d argue that the largest factor contributing to the lack of enthusiasm towards science is not an incapability of understanding or some sort of intrinsic aversion, but a lack of context and a failure to achieve a basic vocabulary and system of thinking that allows people to unlock the intellectual joys that science can provide. What does it mean to ponder our own existence? To question consciousness? To imagine warping time? What does it mean to look into our own mind? These questions will, no doubt, fascinate most people. However when engaged further, the thought may become overwhelming or downright scary. Why is that?

3. The last point is perhaps the most salient. It provides an answer for number two. It’s so valuable that I’d like to put Feynman’s words here: “I would now like to turn to a third value that science has. It is a little more indirect, but not much. The scientist has a lot of experience with ignorance and doubt and uncertainty, and this experience is of very great importance, I think. When a scientist doesn’t know the answer to a problem, he is ignorant. When he has a hunch as to what the result is, he is uncertain. And when he is pretty darn sure of what the result is going to be, he is in some doubt. We have found it of paramount importance that in order to progress we must recognize the ignorance and leave room for doubt. Scientific knowledge is a body of statements of varying degrees of certainty – some most unsure, some nearly sure, none absolutely certain.”

Feynman understands the point of uncertainty. He knows that what pushes science forward is not success, but failure. He understands that there is no absolute knowledge, and that to be 100% certain in not only foolish but counterproductive. This is a stark contrast to the rhetoric we hear on the news, where people expound their certainty unflaggingly.

So where does this all fit into my project?
I love science particularly because of Feynman’s second point – intellectual joy. But what allows me to stay engaged with that joy is exclusively his third point – being comfortable with uncertainty. By focusing only on making stuff (that is, STEM education to fill the jobs of the future), we lose the joy that science brings us. And this joy is not superfluous. It infects us at every level. We become more open, more experimental. More comfortable with being wrong. In today’s world, being wrong is an insult to be thrown, not a position to celebrate. That’s why this matters. That’s why we need to encourage intellectual joy, and comfort with uncertainty.

Again, with all the push towards STEAM, we still ask students to be right all the time. We literally teach that failure is bad. If you’re wrong, you fail. Only if you’re “right” do you succeed. Failure is not an option. When students are “wrong” in the context of a test, they start to believe that they are stupid, or incapable of understanding. Their joy is crushed, their experimentation repressed. They are fundamentally removed from the world of intellectual joy, through no fault of their own, but through a system and tools that focus on the wrong things. I’m not suggesting that teachers are all doing the wrong thing, but I experienced this throughout my entire education, and I didn’t think twice about it because I was usually on the “successful” end of things. I did well on tests. School did not teach me to be okay with uncertainty. That was a hard fought battle on my own. I had a natural inclination towards debate and being contrarian, which forced me into the position of being wrong more often than my peers, who were more interested in just joking around all the time and not talking about things that confronted their views. School failed me in that sense. I do not claim to be “better”, I only claim to be “slightly different”.

SETA will aim to encourage play, encourage failure, encourage experimentation, and bring joy back to science. Only once students develop an intuition for physics can they be confronted with mathematics. While formalism in physics is imperative, it’s often the first thing that students see when they are introduced to physics. Is it more convincing to understand why a bowling ball and a feather fall at the same speed by showing the equation F = ma or showing a digital example and letting students play with air friction? Students need intuition. Seta will aim to provide that intuition.

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