Today’s S.F Chronicle, reporting on new research about insect aerodynamics from Cal Tech and UNLV, unintentionally raises an issue that goes to the heart of American science and technical education woes, and perhaps larger discontents.
Most people would think that when someone announces a belief that contradicts the patent evidence of everyday life, he is operating in the regime of religion, not science, and if it’s offered as a scientific explanation, that he simply doesn’t understand what science is about. Among my ‘favorite’ examples of this confusion is the story most educated people offer to explain how an airplane flies; it usually begins by drawing an airfoil that is fatter on the top than the bottom, a phrase like “the air has to go faster over the top than the bottom to keep up” and some invocation of the Bernoulli relationship between pressure and velocity.
Of course this theory, especially the centrality of the airfoil shape, is wrong but what’s interesting is that the story can be confidently recited by people who have seen a kite (which is round on the bottom, not the top) or an airplane flying upside down, or a paper airplane.
In the Chronicle piece, Prof. Michael Dickinson is quoted explaining (correctly) that insect flight mechanisms are special, but does so by mischaracterizing “…conventional (airplane) aerodynamics, where the shape of the wing is everything.” Dickinson certainly knows how an airfoil works, probably that aerobatic aircraft have wings that are symmetrical top and bottom, and has met the Navier-Stokes equations needed to properly describe lift forces, so it’s notable that in talking to a reporter, he would fall into offering a piece of ‘science’ that is not only wrong but obviously, patently, wrong on the basis of everyday experience. (Of course lots of everyday experience is misleading; any fool can plainly see the earth is flat just by looking around. But the phenomenon of a kite is not misleading; the kite is really up there, rounded on the bottom, flying happily. Obvious phenomena need to be investigated to see if they are deceptive or incorrectly perceived, but that’s not the problem here.)
I must emphasize that my point here is not that people know a lot of wrong science. It’s that people know a lot of science wrong: that science education has taught people to recite recipes and ‘facts’ provided to them by what is at bottom a sort of priestly activity of lecturing and textbook memorization and to do so as though that stuff is completely disconnected with the real world. True, many important phenomena are invisible to ordinary experience; without a microscope you just can’t see bacteria. But Jenner was able to discover vaccination against a virus, which is invisible even with an optical microscope, by attending seriously to what he could see and respecting reality. The relationship between phenomena and inference in science is what should be central to science education, but we have undermined it by widely substituting recitable content–exactly what Galileo showed us to suspect and test–for learning habits of mind.
The result of substituting obedience and recitation for real scientific thinking has practical consequences of modest importance, such as the common habit of turning a thermostat extra high to make a house warm up faster. But it has more damaging and more widespread costs in social science and public policymaking, where (for example) my colleague Robert Frank has argued, economic thinking is made so discouraging by assertive and didactic pedagogy that people just throw up their hands and [say they] believe arrant nonsense that offers the illusion of comfort.
And by the way, I don’t think theology is properly an exercise in recitation and obedience either. I don’t mean by this that science should trump faith; I mean that theology should be carried on by using, not jettisoning, rationality. The fundamental rule applies here as well: at least one of two things that can’t both be true isn’t, even if considerable authorities are putting them forward; contradictions deserve to be examined and resolved. Indeed, it’s impious, possibly blasphemous, to treat knowledge of God as though it doesn’t deserve the application of the highest human rational capacities.