Monday, February 10, 2014

Intro to Mad Science Mondays: "What" Is Not Enough

Every Monday or so on my blog will be Mad Science Monday.  On these days my posts will be related to science.

  •  I have mentioned on my Facebook page that I will have a series "Modern Wives' Tales: Examining, Explaining, Debunking or Improving Old Wives' Tales."  
  • I also intend to have small blurbs about the science that occurs in the home arts (I foresee a lot related to cooking, since cooking is mostly chemistry!), like the mentions I have already made in recipes (e.g. why you should bloom your spices before using them in a slow cooker). 
  •  Most importantly, I plan a series of educational activities for children.
To understand why I plan to have these posts (and why they are different from the majority approach of the world), it is helpful to understand some of my philosophy about science and science literacy.

I taught Physics for Elementary Education Majors for a number of years.  Most of my students resented having to be there because they "wouldn't be teaching this stuff to kids".  But I always started the semester with a little motivation.

Science is not about knowing a set of facts.  Science is a way of thinking about the world.

When I was a kid, the only "science" we had in elementary school was identifying things.  We named the clouds.  We named whales.  We named dinosaurs.  This is not science.  This is stamp collecting.

Happily, our education system is changing, and students are learning to focus less and less on "what" and more and more on "how" and "why."  Kids are naturally curious about the world they live in. They observe and test how it works.  They ask "why" (Why? Why? Why? Why? Why?)  It can be really annoying at times!

Somewhere along the line, most people stop doing this.  But when we stop asking why and how, we are less able to critically evaluate the world we live in.  We don't ask how and why about the line a politician is feeding us.  We don't ask how or why about the claims some manufacturer is making about a product.  Every day we are asked to make decisions with our votes and with our pocketbooks and we will be ill-equipped to do so if we don't approach these decisions with a scientific way of thinking (understand, I am not saying cold or unemotional).  As the National Academy of Sciences puts it, in addition to understanding some aspects of science facts (what one might consider "book learnin"), a scientifically literate person can pose and evaluate arguments based on evidence and apply conclusions from such arguments appropriately.  Don't you think an increase in this rational approach, say, in the political arena, would benefit society greatly?

My Mad Science Monday posts are my attempt to infuse science into our daily lives.  It will never be enough to simply observe what happened.  For instance, when I post about what best works to remove the onion funk from your hands, I will never leave it there.  You will know how and why.  I expect to spend hours reading academic journals about the compounds released by the onion, the interaction with the skin, and how to neutralize it.  I will put it in non-scientific terms but I will never dumb it down.  When I post kids' science experiments, it will never end at "see what happened."  Sometimes the parent or guardian won't know the answer. Sometimes the answer is a little too complicated for developing minds. But it isn't science unless you at least think about how and why a thing happens.

Here's an example of when asking how and why can help avoid catastrophic consequences.
 To illustrate why delving into the how and why of a what is important, consider the low birth-weight paradox (an example of the very fascinating Simpson's Paradox). The "what" here is that low-birth weight children born to smoking mothers have lower infant mortality than low-birth-weight children born to non-smoking mothers. If we were to stop here, to not consider the how and why of this observation, we might decide that women who are at risk of delivering low birth-weight babies for other reasons should begin (or continue) smoking through pregnancy. However, because we know that smoking is generally bad for health, we intuit that this makes no sense.
We are right. We have to think of the how and why. Smoking during pregnancy causes increased likelihood of low birth-weight. So the infants born to smoking mothers will represent a whole range of conditions, but most of them will only have low birth-weight and no other health conditions to contend with. The infants born to non-smoking mothers are generally of normal weight. But, of course, at least some of the babies born to non-smoking mothers will still have low birth weight. And these babies will typically be of low birth-weight because they have some other malady that is a much greater risk to their health than low birth-weight alone. By focusing only on the "what" and not the "how" or the "why," we gloss over the proper conclusion to the data: smoking doesn't make low-birth weight infants healthier; it makes generally healthy infants low-birth weight.
Of course, this case seems obvious to us, but if we don't think about why and how, we don't think about what other information we might need to make a decision (here it would be useful to know the relative numbers of low birth-weight to normal birth-weight infants in each group!).

I think that approaching life this way is important because it is empowering.  Of course, there are questions in life that will never have a testable answer (then we get into philosophy and theology), but to understand the mechanisms of the world around you is to be able to influence those mechanisms.  I want that empowerment everyone, especially our children.

*End motivational speech*

If you have some science-y topic you would like to know more about, please let me know.  In the comments, I’d like to hear about your experiences with science in school!  Also, has there been a time when you have been (or wished you were more) empowered by science literacy?


  1. I love it! I was always the one who wanted the "why" because then I could understand the "how." I'm looking forward to your mad science! :)

  2. Hi Lin,
    Thanks for reading. I intend to have very few philosophical wanderings (and wonderings, hmm.) on the blog because I worry people will find them a bit preachy ("Stop trying to change my worldview! Show me how to do ombre wall art!" (sorry, I don't plan to do a post on ombre wall art)).
    But there are topics I feel I need to share with the world and I am so glad you enjoyed this post.

  3. Oh my. I am so excited about this. I have and always will loved/love science. Growing up my chemistry set, microscope, The Magic School Bus, nature and space where my absolute favorite things. Why? should never be a bad question.



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