Scientific Certainty; What’s in a Theory?

Picking out the greatest disservice we do to out students as science-teachers is no easy task; there is quite an impressive list to pick from. Not reflecting or even being aware of this is in itself significant. I think C.S. Pierce put it best when he wrote “Find a scientific man who proposes to get along without any metaphysics [philosophy] . . . and you have found one whose doctrines are thoroughly vitiated by the crude and uncriticised metaphyiscs with which they are packed.”

This year marks the 200th birthday of the birth of Charles Darwin and the 150th birthday of the publication of his famous book On the Origin of Species, so it seems like a good opportunity to address at least one of these issues here, namely the concept of absolute certainty in Science.

Science does not offer absolute proof; it never has and it never will. Science (and scientists, and science teachers) are their own worst enemy here, because for hundreds of years we have been (tacitly or otherwise) giving the impression that Science does offer – and can find – certainty.

A second related contributory factor is the word ‘Theory’. It has two completely different meanings, depending on whether it is being used in a scientific context or in general parlance. So where, in a student’s school science education, do we as teachers address this?
There’s a nice example of this in Richard Dawkins The Root of all Evil; See this in action at 8 minutes 30 seconds into the clip below.



The key here is at the very end.
Interviewee: You say “this is truth, because it’s based on evidence. That’s such a fuddy answer.”
Dawkins: We don’t say that, we say “we’re struggling towards the truth, and as new evidence comes in we refine it”.
Can’t recall ever saying that in my lessons, or indeed ever having heard it from a science teacher either.
Maybe the problem lies with us.

How many of us for that matter would be able to distinguish between the following:
(and for two marks can you put a scientist’s name to each one?)


Our first podcast

I know I should be using podcasting more in my teaching, and part of the reason I stayed away from it is because I figure my voice is just not that interesting (not much of an excuse I know).
Anyway I figure students are much more interesting than I am, so I gave Maeve (Second Year) the dictaphone, and this is what she came up with. Not bad for a first attempt (I need to keep surnames out from now on).
See what you think. All constructive feedback welcome.
This particular clip may not be all that valuable from an educational point of view – it was just to give us all a feel of what could be done.
The nice thing about it is that now that we know we can do this, there is no end to what we can do with it.
I’d like to embed the player on this page, but havn’t been able to figure out that part yet.
Apparently you can subscribe to this in itunes (whatever that means).

Fractals and Dinosaurs

Continuing with the space and dinosaurs theme:
I get my transition years to do a project on absolutely any topic on Science which interests them, preferably something off the beaten track (i.e. not in the textbooks). fortunately this doesn’t seem to be a drawback in the slightest. Almost no aspect of science which interests them is on any science syllabus.
Because I am as likely to be interested in their topic as they are, I suggested I would look for resources also and post them here.

In relation to fractals, the classic video is called The Colours of Infinity. The original DVD and accompanying book is available in the school library.
The problem for anyone doing a project on dinosaurs is sifting through the vast information that is out there. This clip is pitched at about the right level.

The Colours of Infinity:

When Dinosaurs ruled America

Colours from black and white? Say it ain’t so!

We had half a class the other day so we just played around with some equipment left lying about.

One such piece was a cardboard disc with black circles and shapes on a white background. If you spin it quickly you get to see coloured circles! It’s mad I tell you.

Only thing is, because it’s got to be a psychological effect it doesn’t get picked up on the camera.

Hates that.

Free Telescopes for Schools – what a wonderful idea!


A colleague reminded me recently that when you think about it, there are really only two concepts that fascinate young kids; Space and Dinosaurs.
Okay, so this is a gross generalisation, but with work with me here.

Somebody in England has cottoned on to the first part of this.

The Society for Popular Astronomy (SPA), Royal Astronomical Society (RAS) and Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) have teamed up to give free telescopes to 1000 secondary schools.

And in Ireland?
Don’t hold your breath.
But at least both of these topics are on the school syllabus right – especially seen as we seem to want to encourage more young un’s to take up Science?

Welllll . . . Umm . . . Ehhh . . .Hmmmm . . .

Too obvious I suppose.