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Should Science Education Be About B.S. Detection?

Last month, the White House hosted its first science fair. Innovative middle and high school students from around the country trotted their gadgets, doohickeys, and other wares for solving the problems and inconveniences of the world to present before the American president and get a pat on the back from the commander-in-chief.

But, when it comes to science education, these brilliant youngsters are aberrations. Yes, our science and math education curriculum should endeavor to funnel more people toward projects like the ones these kids worked on, but, as Sharon Begley suggests in her regularly insightful Newsweek science column, more generally, the science we teach in schools should be more practical.

In fact, instead of teaching the vagaries of cellular respiration (how cells make energy from nutrients), kids need to be taught how to show cause and effect. It would help them avoid fad diets, call B.S. on urban legends (like the Sports Illustrated or Madden curses), and stop them from not immunizing their kids (and starting measles outbreaks) because they mistakenly believe that vaccines cause autism.

The most useful skill we could teach is the habit of asking oneself and others, how do you know? If knowledge comes from intuition or anecdote, it is likely wrong. For one thing, the brain stinks at distinguishing patterns from randomness (no wonder people can’t tell that the climate change now underway is not just another turn in the weather cycle). For another, the brain overestimates causality. ... Science is not a collection of facts but a way of interrogating the world. Let’s teach kids to ask smarter questions.

I happen to have a degree in chemical engineering. Seems like a pretty bizarre background for a journalist, right? But, whereas the nuances of fluid mechanics and thermodynamics are long gone from my working memory, the notions of problem-solving and skeptical inquiry are crucial elements to my professional work. In fact, being a skeptic is the intersection between scientific and journalistic inquiry.

I'd imagine there are intersections with nearly any life path or profession one would choose.

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