Science Book Reviews : The Unnatural Nature of Science , by Lewis Wolpert

General Science Education - Scientific Misconceptions - Scientific Method

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Lewis Wolpert, The Unnatural Nature of Science

            We are surrounded by ambivalence toward science. Many people admire what science can do, particularly if technology can save their lives or provide them with leisure and luxury.

            However, it is common to hear people say that science is reductionistic and dehumanizing. Frankenstein and Brave New World are examples of fear of science. Few people understand the mysterious "scientific method." The vast scales of time and space, such as the age of the earth, bewilder people. It seems that every discussion of biotechnology soon has someone warning against "playing God". Approximately half the U.S. population say they "don't believe in evolution." Pseudo-science (Wolpert calls it "non-science"), such as astrology, is popular. Science teachers struggle with students' misconceptions, particularly in the area of mechanics.

            A major source of the problem is that science proponents have insisted that "common sense" assist them, failing to realize that scientific thinking is a particular "way of thinking" that must discard, not employ, common sense. From magic to the flat earth, they are usually misconceptions that use common sense. People see correlations where none exist (washing your car causes it to rain). There is interesting evidence that "... people judge frequency according to examples that are easier to think of....", for example, ".... most people believe that there are more words beginning with the letter R than there are words that have R as the third letter...." People also estimate irrationally ("...they give a much lower estimate for 1 X 2 X 3 X 4 X 5 X 6 X 7 X 8 than for 8 X 7 X 6 X 5 X 4 X 3 X 2 X 1 ....") and they make quick estimates that are grossly inaccurate (most people guess that the product in the previous example is around 500, rather than a value close to the true answer, which is 40,320). Even Aristotle, who saw the need for classification and logic, never realized the need for experimentation.

            When we understand our weaknesses in this area, the origins of all sorts of false "knowledge", from astrology to racism, are easier to analyze.

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