This needs more thought, but writing this has helped me to join up a few ideas I was stewing over with my coffee yesterday morning while my son was napping. So I’ll publish this as is, and your thoughts are welcome.
While it’s useful to teach the fundamentals of physics, chemistry and biology in schools, I think what we need to start with and to prioritize is teaching the scientific method, the importance of curiosity and the need to question the answers. As an aside: Question the Answers is also the name of my favourite Bosstones album.
Rather than teaching the latest and best hypotheses, we should be showing kids how science as a whole works. How a community of disparate researchers come to agreement on an idea, and how people continue to challenge that idea as best as possible even when it looks like we’ve answered the question well. The value of a published scientific paper is more than just the text it contains; it’s the fact that it has been offered up for critique by the rest of the world, and it has passed this initial test, at least for now. Until people understand the differing value of the words in a newspaper opinion column and the words in a scientific publication, we will struggle as a society to make sound decisions.
This doesn’t mean everyone has to be a scientist, but ideally everyone would know enough to understand what “scientific consensus” means, and not to be surprised when every other day their favourite newspaper is giving them the latest contradicting health advice from “scientists”. Rather than complaining that “scientists keep changing their mind”, we would instead hear people praising scientists for never really making up their mind (which is much more difficult to do). And in this ideal world, people would know enough to understand what a double-blind controlled clinical trial is before they spend money on alternative medicine (though they should of course be free to take whatever medication they want).
The information people need today to research important issues is widely available online. But without an understanding and appreciation of the value of the real scientific process, it’s easy to get lost in a world of pseudo-science websites trying to sell you fifty shades of crap. It’s also worth noting that the the pseudo-scientists and propagators of urban myths spin a fine yarn, and the scientific world can definitely learn from their methods.
It’s good to see that people are bridging the communication gap between the world of science and the general public, without compromising the integrity of the information provided. And in this world of multi-directional communication, the communication itself gets a form of peer-review if the publisher is doing things properly. Rigorous science can be served up perfectly well alongside animated GIFs and cats in space, though I’m going a bit off track with my thoughts here.
What I was thinking about over coffee was that the future of scientific journals will surely require an open-access model to replace the currently prohibitive subscription models and, as an aside, that covering the cost of publishing these journals would be an amazingly good use of public funds given the value it would offer to society in relation to the cost. It would be interesting to compare what Wikipedia has done in terms of access to information versus the public funds spent on distributing educational content in recent years; especially on a global level.
Even if the scientific journals that exist today don’t change their business/access model, it only needs one challenging system to make the open-access model work, and in turn to make the existing publishers obsolete. Again, think of Wikipedia, and then Encarta and then Encyclopedia Britannica.
I’d like to think the future of peer-reviewed science will look something like Stack Overflow does today, where consensus on best-practice programming (including chunks of computer science) bubble up from constructive public debate, and it becomes easy for a member of the public with a small amount of knowledge and an understanding of the process to find a tried-and-tested answer to their given question. And if the answer fails for them in practice, to feedback into the process.
When people understand the scientific method, we can stop using silly phrases like “climate change debate”, and the media will struggle to profit from their deliberate distortion of scientific discoveries. When the scientific method is understood, it doesn’t really matter if some people want to remove a topic like evolution from their local school syllabus. All the evidence, debate and research children need to read in order to understand why evolution makes so much sense is available online right now. They just have to be curious, connected and aware of how science (as a whole) works. And while children have always been curious, today they are more connected than ever.
If the Stack Overflow of science emerges, peer-review and the scientific process can move from being an abstract concept (which is all they are to most people) into something laypeople can witness, interact with and review first-hand. It may not even need specific teaching in schools. Today, if you want to learn how to program or build websites, you don’t need to enrol in a class, you can just start doing. And the people who do, very quickly find themselves reviewing the discussions and conclusions on Stack Overflow.
So maybe we don’t need to worry about the specific topics on the science syllabus any more, so long as we teach the principles of science. After all, it’s the job of the next generation to prove our theories wrong anyway.