High school science class was so boring! Remember all those endless experiments involving Bunsen burners and electric light bulbs? Remember all those meaningless equations that we had to cram for the end-year exams? Did we actually come away with anything useful? I think back to those years of high school and I’ve come to realise that as a student, I didn’t learn anything about science in science class.
As students we didn’t realise it, but the stuff we did at school was simply the end product of something greater: it was the product of a method of thinking that involves aspects of reason, hypothesis testing and critical thought. Although we learnt a lot about what science can do, we learnt very little about scientific thought. I wish that we did fewer experiments at school, and learnt more about developing a scientific mindset, a mindset that places emphasis on the pursuit of truth rather than the proclamation of truth.
The historian Richard Carrier writes an interesting article in which he describes a scientific mindset as being:
“. . . a system of beliefs that produces advances in knowledge, including a belief that public evidence and verifiable reason trump all authority in explaining what is and can be, that persuasion by appeal to observable evidence and sound logic is the only valid means of gaining consensus about the truths of this world, that this requires embracing everyone's intellectual freedom to accept, reject, or propose any idea they please, and that it is valuable and good to devote your life in this way to the pursuit of progress in understanding any aspect of nature or existence.” (emphasis added).
Let’s focus on the value of intellectual freedom. All religions have, at one time or another, suppressed intellectual freedom in favour of dogma. Intellectual freedom, the free market-place of ideas and thought, implies that everyone can make up their own minds regarding nature, religion and personal meaning. It is a threat to those institutions, such as religious fundamentalism, that aim to control the thoughts and beliefs of people.
Scientific progress can only be effective if it can operate within the context of intellectual freedom, if it is free to propose and test ideas that might seem blasphemous or heretical to the current status quo. Even now, religious fundamentalism is fighting against current advances and ideas in science. Biological evolution is but one example: the non-scientific approaches that creationists use – such as appealing to faulty arguments and trying to ban the teaching of evolution in schools – is cause for concern. Each time a school board in the United States votes against teaching evolution for religious reasons, I get nightmarish visions of what such actions can lead to if left to spiral out of control: another Dark Age of suppression, extreme censorship and persecution of non-believers?
We have much to learn from the Dark Ages, from what religion can do if it is given too much power. I think science class can be much more effective if it can teach children about the dangers of dogma, fundamentalism, and an unquestioning devotion to one type of paradigm. Reduce the number of textbook experiments; teach a little more about critical thinking and scientific thought. That’s my humble opinion.