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Is Teaching the Scientific Method a form of Child Abuse?

May 4, 2010

When I started this blog, I set out to disperse facts and information, not a bunch of rants.  But sometimes, a girl just has to rant.  So here goes. . .

Teaching the scientific method is a form of (or equivalent to) child abuse

That’s the view expressed in this Huffington Post article.  I am not making this up.  The author of the article, Dr. Larry Dossey*, MD, argues that  “. . . the way kids are taught science these days constitutes a form of child abuse.  It involves the forced infliction of a false identity.”  He declares that children today are too “relational, embedded [and] networked” to be comfortable with the emotional distance required to learn via the scientific method, and that this unnatural way of learning is what is turning kids off to science.

Am I the only one here who thinks this is a load of crap???

No, thank goodness.  There is a rebuttal by Steven Newton also on HuffPo, and the comments sections for both articles are filled with people who think that the original article (and much of the “science” writing on HuffPo) are a bunch of anti-science fluff-puff nonsense.   Is that going to stop me from putting in my two cents?  No.  Lucky you, right?

First of all let me say that I think the scientific method is the most natural way of learning the world has to offer.  Hang around with any human old enough to engage the world and you will see the question and answer observation style of the scientific method in action.  Babies want to touch everything and put it in their mouth.  What does this taste like?  What does that feel like?  Then they get a little older and want to know “what does Mom do when I drop this off the high chair?” “What happens if I do it again?”  A little older and they graduate to the famous “why?” and “what’s that?” over and over and over again.  At what point science starts to turn kids away probably has more to do with their natural attraction to science and math than anything else.  Let’s face it, not all children are going to like science, just like not all children are artistic or athletic.  But this doesn’t mean that we should give up teaching science or the scientific method.  Our society is ever more dependent on science and technology, shouldn’t our kids at least know how science works?

(Ed. 5/6/10 – Thanks to commenter, fellow blogger and high school science teacher Sandra for the link to her great post on teaching scientific methodology).

Scientist, the Other White Male

After a little more argument about how unnatural, sterile and aloof the scientific method is, Dr. Dossey argues that “we as a culture do a very bad job of telling our children what scientists do.”  I would agree with him, but unfortunately the rest of his argument seemed to confuse what scientists do with who they are.  Dr. Dossey talks about how the image of science as a solitary endeavor, done by “wild haired, eccentric, old [white?] men” turns off many would-be young scientists, particularly young women. But who does he blame for the perpetuation of this stereotype?  Not the media or pop culture, but scientists themselves!  He claims that “the science community seems to go out of its way to conceal the collaborative, cooperative, team approach.” Yes, Dr. Dossey, the reason we did labs in groups in high school wasn’t so we could share ideas and spark creativity, it was so kids like you could mooch off kids like me and get a good grade for your med school applications.  Please.

The claim that scientists live up to the stereotypes that society places on them is utter nonsense. Speaking for myself, I am young (ish), female, and have lovely red hair that is usually up in a neat ponytail or headband.  Oh, and I would not be caught dead in one of those polyester horrors called lab coats #.   I know lots of scientists of all shapes, sizes and colors, and I would be happy to introduce you to any of them, if you want to hazard a conversation.  If you are not in the Chicagoland area, call your local chapter of the Association for Women in Science.  I’m sure they would be happy to help you out.

And for my Last Trick. . .

In its last half, Dr. Dossey’s article morphs into a repetition of the tired old rant about how there needs to be more women and minorities in science.  Because Heaven forbid the article be criticized for not talking about something “serious” that “scientists can actually agree with.”  (That last part is not a quote from the article, it represents an air quote.  Yes, the kind you do with your fingers.  I never said I wasn’t a dork).  Aside from the fact that I think that dragging out and beating this particular dead horse should really constitute cruelty to animals, I agree with the sentiment that Dr. Dossey is trying to express.  Or at least the sentiment I will give him credit for trying to express **.

Is there a problem with minority representation in the sciences?  Yes, but no more so than in many areas requiring higher education.  That’s a complicated problem that is not limited to science and one that will not be solved by science alone.  Is there a problem with the representation of women in the sciences?  Yes and no.  Women represent more than half of all graduates from Biology Bachelor’s degree programs, but less than 10% of tenured faculty in Biological Sciences departments. Is this a problem?  Yes.  But again, is this a problem limited to the sciences?  No.  Just have a look at Congress.  There are 96 women serving in the current session of the US Congress.  That’s more than ever before, but still just 17% of the 537 members.

Is the fix for this to keep vilifying Lawrence Summers for his inane comment on women and their natural abilities, as Dr. Dossey does in his article?  No.  That’s another dead horse that needs to go away.  The fix is to get people in science out of their labs to help children and adults of all shapes and sizes interested in science.  The fix is to get better working conditions (work-life balance, pay, choice of career tracks, opportunities for advancement) in science.  And the main fix is to get back for science the respect it deserves from the general public.


*Dr. Dossey is listed as Former Chief of Staff of Medical City Dallas Hospital and author of a book called “The Power of Premonitions.” Interesting resume, if I do say so myself.

# Anyone who regularly wears a lab coat in an actual science lab is either a great big giant dork or an MD trying to show off.  The three times it is acceptable to wear a lab coat are: 1. you are cold and your lab sweater is at home in the wash (fairly common, Universities love to keep their buildings at sub-zero temperatures year round and that sweater has to go home sometime) 2. you are working with icky chemicals and/or wearing nice clothes and don’t want to get anything on yourself (rare, given that scientists are a jeans and sneakers crowd)  3. you are naked because you ignored situation #2 and got something icky on yourself (also rare, but it does happen).

**Sarcasm – its another one of our services.

  1. Excellent post and awesome blog. Keep fighting the good fight!

  2. @astrowright – I thought you had another comment on this post, but it disappeared. If I did something to make this happen, I apologize. It was an accident, nothing personal.

  3. Excellent post! You are definitely not the only one, it’s just that most science “teachers” are not scientists and don’t get it. I rant at my poor high school students every year about how they have been taught a bunch of baloney. It’s the textbooks and publishers faults really, misleading the children the way they do.

    I am going to add a link to your post on my rant post.

    • Thank you Mrs. McCarron! I agree with you that many science teachers haven’t done scientific research and are therefore not well-prepared to talk about the scientific method beyond what’s in the textbook. I wanted to include some stats on how many science teachers actually have experience as science researchers, but couldn’t find anything coherent from the 21st century.

      Your rant is spot on about the message many science teachers and textbooks send to students about science learning and I added it as a link in the original article.

      Love your blogs! Keep up the fight for quality science education.

  4. Tavi Greiner permalink

    I am a homeschooling mother of three children; ages 7, 12, and 17; and I can tell you, without any hesitation, that the “scientific approach” is the most natural way for children to learn. Fascinatingly, with some basic introductory facts, this is even true of non-science curricula, such as reading and writing (as opposed to the traditional rote and phonics methods.)

    I am continuously amazed at what my children have learned, through their own guided exploration, compared to what traditionally-schooled children have spent countless hours being “told.”

    • I agree Tavi, guided exploration is a great way to learn any subject. By letting them hold on to and satisfy their natural curiosity, I think you are giving your children the most valuable lesson of all: the importance of thinking critically and for themselves.

      There are so many teachers out there who wish they had the freedom you have to let their students explore rather than follow district-set curricula and take standardized tests.

      I wish you and your family all the best!

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