January 5th, 2007

tesla

Critical Thought, Logic, Reason

The greatest evolutionary advantage that humans have been gifted with is the power of thought. We are an incredibly powerful computing device capable of doing the incredible- identifying patterns and making sense of a senseless Universe. We can trace the development of this intelligence through the process of evolution, starting with the very instant of biogenesis.

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The important thing, the thing that defines humanity, is our capacity to analyze and infer. That capacity allows the tool-using nature that permits civilization to occur. What makes us human is the ability of critical thought.

The point I'm making with this long prologue is that critical thought, analysis, logic, reason, etc. are the core of what makes us human. All humans possess that capacity. But "capacity" and "achievement" are very different things. All fully-functional humans possess the capacity to run- but vanishingly few (out of the total number) run marathons. And those that attempt it just can't decide to start running one day and complete a marathon. It takes training. The body has to be conditioned. Just because we have the capacity doesn't mean that we can assume that it will develop all by itself.
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The scientific method is an incredible advancement that allows us to make sense out of the world and to improve our understanding as our tools and experience improve. The fact that we can honestly say that Newton was wrong about gravitation isn't to disparage his achievement- because he wasn't wrong exactly- just inaccurate. In most cases, his formulae work perfectly well- but in special cases they break down and Relativity takes over. We improve our understanding. Scientific theories are nothing more than approximations that work. The famous e=mc2 is a representation of an observed phenomenon; it is not a statement about reality, it is a statement about how reality works. As Carl Sagan said, Science isn't a collection of dry facts to be learned by rote, it is a way of thinking about the world.

We teach science wrong. We teach it as facts, and occasionally, we give the kids a whiz-bang "experiment" which isn't an experiment at all- a baking-soda/vinegar volcano isn't an experiment, it's a toy. Making a diorama of the layers of the Earth or a model of the solar system out of styrofoam balls isn't science education- it's handicrafts.

Scientific thinking is a skill, and it is a skill that can be taught. Like any skill however, it's easiest to learn if you start young. We need to give children the tools to think critically and rationally at a young age, and let them develop with those tools at hand. This is why I advocate teaching children to program as soon as they're able to read and write- because it teaches them to take a structured approach to thinking about the world. Planning, problem solving, critical and scientific thinking all depend on that. Children should be given the opportunity to put the scientific method to work for them as soon as they're capable of speech. They're going to ask "why" as soon as they're able because that curiosity is a hard-wired survival trait built out of our rational thinking apparatus. Instead of putting them off or spoon-feeding them answers (or worse, lies (I'm lookin' at you stork))- let's start giving them the opportunity to experiment. Instead of just showing them or having them play with vinegar and baking soda, let's actually do an experiment- what happens when I mix vinegar and flour? What about lemon juice and banking soda? What about water and baking soda? Why does the reaction happen sometimes, and not others? Let's make a guess, and find out if that guess is right!
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