Thursday, March 05, 2009

A scientific temper

Jawaharlal Nehru, for all his numerous follies, strongly believed in two wonderful concepts; freedom of speech, and a concept he had coined, a nation with a “scientific temper”. That term, a “scientific temper” is a wonderfully succinct way to describe a broad concept. By speaking of a nation with a “scientific temper”, he wanted to speak of the people of a nation who would be able to think independently, understand and practice the scientific method in their daily lives, analyse and not take statements at their face value, and avoid simplistic reasoning. Of course, it has been easier said than done to create that atmosphere in a nation where superstition, religion, rumor, myth and innumerable beliefs abound. Interestingly, I was reminded of the concept of a “scientific temper” by an unlikely source.

One of the pioneering biochemists, science advocates and science policy advisors of our time, Bruce Alberts talked about this concept in a talk of his recently. While talking about science policy, research and much more, he also talked a bit about some of his efforts with City Science, an effort to improve science education in schools in San Francisco, which he hoped would not just improve science education, but would get kids to think about everything. Now, this effort isn’t just about getting kids to learn their science books better, but it is about bringing about a fundamental change in their way of thinking, enabling them to question, analyse and reason better in all aspects of their everyday lives, making the scientific method a part of it. He used a simple example of just one of the types of lessons that the kids learnt which illustrated the concept beautifully. I thought it would be just the kind of story to share on this blog.

This was a lesson for five year old kids in kindergarden, showing how this concept can be inculcated in kids very early in life. A bunch of five year olds were allowed to run around and play in their schoolyards wearing clean white socks. When they returned, each kid was told to collect all the little black and brown bits of dirt, grass, seeds and whatever else from their socks. The kids were then asked to sort out the dirt, separating the seeds from the dirt. At this age of course, the kids knew that seeds were something plants grew from, but couldn’t easily tell seeds from just regular, largish specks of dirt. But they were allowed to come up with their own ideas of what would be a seed and what would be dirt, and they created their own little piles of “seed” or “dirt”. Now, at this stage, you would think the teacher would just come in and correct the kids. But no, the exercise was taken further. First, the kids were asked to look at their seeds and dirt under a 5$ “microscope”, where they could get a clear idea of the shape and dimensions of their dirt or seeds. Then they could draw out the different patterns they saw, making their own guesses for dirt or seed from this, and perhaps intuitively looking for a regular pattern into which all seeds could fall into. Finally, in order to prove their hypothesis, the kids were asked to plant their “seeds” or “dirt” in seed free earth, keeping a record of what they planted, with a small drawing of what each speck planted looked like. If their separation was correct, the dirt would never grow into grass or a plant, but a majority of the seeds would grow in a few days into grass or sprouting plants. Then, the kids could see for themselves which specks were dirt, and which were seeds. So, with this fun little experiment, the kids were introduced to the concept of forming a hypothesis, and then testing the hypothesis. They could easily have just been shown seeds, and dirt, and told which was what, ending the lesson. But by allowing them to go through this process, it enabled them to understand that just an idea, however appealing it might sound, wasn’t necessarily true. It inculcated the idea of the “testability” of a hypothesis, and the concept that a statement that couldn’t be verified or tested wouldn’t fall under the scientific domain. It also showed them something about “falsifiability”, the fact that if something convincingly failed the test (say all pieces of dirt classified as “seed” not growing into plants) could suggest then that the idea could be false. Of course, this didn’t go into the limits of falsifiability and suchlike, but this is pretty good for five year olds isn’t it?

The broader idea here is that by doing this early in a child’s life, it would enable the child to understand the scientific method better, better enable the child to question simplistic statements or “theories” (thereby differentiating scientific theories from popular “theories”), and would help the child grow up into someone more rational and someone less likely to be swayed purely by emotion or passion.

So, coming back to Nehru’s scientific temper, I think these are the type of initiatives that we need, starting with kids at a very young age. There certainly are small efforts here and there, by wonderful NGOs or other organizations, but most of the efforts are few and far between. With education in India itself, most of the effort (or argument) appears to be for better colleges or research institutes or more IITs, but the biggest hole lies in our schools. It is a white elephant no one wants to touch. But only when that hole is plugged will terms like a nation with a scientific temper mean anything.

15 comments:

Akshay S Dinesh said...

If there is at least one good teacher, parent or a distant relative, with some knowledge of how the world should've been, along with every kid, then there wouldn't have the need for an educational reform.

For, then the children would themselves reform their textbooks into sources of theories to thrash.

Yayaver said...

wonderful look at the concept of 'scientific temper' through example. Our academics much focus on data [subjects] than information [Interpretation and In cooperation]. Scientific Temper is not in the scene of study.The system focus on learning without understanding or blind faith on authority. The white elephant is the one whom no wants to see in making their amendments of education policy.

L said...

It's good to see a post that talks about this. I have been trying to drum up support for this idea that children as young as you like, but definitely by middle school, should be taught the skill of thinking critically about everything. Everything from 'should I take my raincoat to school today' to 'do I really want to be an engineer'. Understanding the situation one is in ,weighing pros and cons and then taking a decision is simply a form of scientific thinking and an essential life skill. Critical thinking is not just for scientists. Everyone needs to do so.

Aniket said...

Sunil,

I agree with you that we need to start at the beginning. Playing Devil's advocate- when we do science, we certainly follow these practices, but we are always pushed in directions that would lead to high profile publications (in some cases, any publications) and not necessarily in the scientific directions. So, aren't we going to let these people down after years of such education?

Aniket

Aniket said...

Sorry I meant in the "best" scientific directions.
Aniket

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Sunil said...

thanks for all the comments. L......I agree with you completely, and I try to keep that persepctive in all the posts on this blog. A "scientific temper" has to be a way of life.

Aniket...are you saying that you don't use the scientific method while trying to publish in high profile journals? I don't think I've ever encountered that before.....though there are times when people have stretched the limits of their interpretations, I haven't seen anything that goes beyond the scientific method. Have you? And wouldn't "best" scientific directions be relative? Would love to have you elaborate more on this.

Aniket said...

Sunil,

Sorry I did not mean to say that the scientific method is not practiced- we use the method to find directions that are most interesting. And the most interesting directions are naturally the ones that find their way into good journals. So, we always let observation guide us, but in directions that are fruitful. So, my comment is innocuous. Also, my perspective may be biased- it is not easy to believe anything in neuroscience, because of the nature of the work and the difficulty reproducing the work. So, anatomy is not hard to reproduce, but physiology, especially hypothesis driven physiology is.

Aniket

Aniket said...

Hi Sunil,

I was waiting to see your comment.

Aniket

graffitimyhrt said...

I think it is time that the entire education system should be restructured. The current belief among teachers is that if a topic is taught loudly, if students are asked to take notes and rewrite them again in "classwork notebooks", memorised all equations and theory, then a student has "learned" and he is "thorough" with the concept. All such education tests is our short term memory. Further, the main aim of education here seems to be gaining marks and gaining employment, when it ought to be gaining knowledge. Here, education prevents you from the actual learning - the ultimate irony.

Umasankar said...

The topic and discussions are interesting and close to my heart. I agree that scientif temper need to be developed in all walks of life, education system need to be totally restructured etc. But how? The predominant ideas in the society is to have money and education is one of the means. The idea of universal education and inculcating scientific temper in this curriculum may take long time. Another question arises whether any time existed when the socity has possessed it or only individuals possessed it. Can we think on how we can bring it!

Sunil said...

Aniket...you do make some good points, and this actually leads to a discussion on the types of research. Research, particularly more qualitative research has this huge fuzzy area it works in. I think that is material for a whole new post/discussion.

Graffitimyhrt....a lot of people, even in India, are thinking about the education "system". I'm in complete agreement with you though on what education means, and how learning is different from "education" as it is now practiced. Another topic for a new discussion.

Umasankar.....I don't know if the idea of universal education will remain only an utopian idea. But much can be done to change the existing education system. There is a bit of a chicken and egg problem here though.....education changes with society, and society changes with education. And I don't know if society as a whole has been rational or scientific....there is much evidence to think that that is against human nature/evolution....and there's this constant tug of war going on. It just needs to be pulled more in one direction than another.

Nagesh said...

The topic and discussions are interesting and close to my heart. I agree that scientif temper need to be developed in all walks of every one's life.

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