Why removing evolution from science textbooks might not really matter

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.

Question the Answers
Question the Answers

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.

This is a consensus, not a debate.

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.

On ‘The Fun Theory’ and Pseudoscience

I’ve had this video sent to me three times this week, which was enough to prompt a reply that I’ll share with you.

On a very basic level, this video is nice. To disrupt the mundane with something that makes people smile is great, but that’s where the good in this video stops. If that was the ultimate aim of this video, I’d give it a big thumbs and share it with enthusiasm, but it’s not as simple as that.

“We believe that the easiest way to change people’s behaviour for the better is by making it fun to do.”

That’s rubbish, and I’ll explain why.

I’m interested in changing people’s behaviour for the better, so I willingly watched the video and was presented with the ‘conclusion’ that “66% more people than normal chose the stairs over the escalator. Fun can obviously change things for the better.” – at the point in the film where this fact is presented, the soundtrack switches from what sounded unsurprisingly like cats walking along a piano (very annoying) to actual piano music that was pleasant to listen to. And at the end of the film, when the tuneless sound of people walking on a piano has been adequately covered up, the occasional footage of the floor shows how filthy it became after just a single day. There is a reason tube station floors aren’t white.

Why this video is rubbish

If this was an actual experiment in behaviour change, rather than a pseudo-scientific exercise in brand marketing, the following tests would have been important:

  1. What happens after 1 week of piano stairs?
    • Do regular commuters still ‘play’ every day? (I suspect not)
    • What state is the floor in? (I suspect filthy and depressing)
  2. Same questions after 2 weeks, 4 weeks, 3 months, 6 months, 1 year
    •  I suspect the results will get continually worse
  3. What happens if this is applied to the stairs at every station
    • Again, I expect decline in use. Possibly below the original baseline.

When a child first discovers a piano, and tries to play, it is endearing to watch. But ask yourself, how long can you listen to that child plonk up and down the keys before it starts to grate. You can try it out now, just loop the video from 0:42 to 1:00, turn up the volume and imagine listening to this on your commute to work, every, single, day. Would it make you more likely to take the stairs? I think it would drive people insane. It wouldn’t be long before the social outrage at the diabolical noise would actually discourage people from taking the stairs. Escalator users would soon be sighing and tutting at the person rushing down the steps to catch their train.

Now imagine yourself using these stairs soon after any of the following:

  1. Bereavement
  2. Redundancy
  3. Divorce

How fun is The Fun Theory sounding right now?

What this video shows is not fun creating change, but the joy of the novel. I’m not opposed to the joy of the novel, and would definitely have taken the piano stairs myself. But as someone who usually takes the stairs, that ‘solution’ is more likely to make me take the escalator in the long run. This is not science, and this is not behaviour change. If anything it’s a new excuse for people who can now blame the mundanity of non-piano stairs each time they take the escalator going forward.

The real goal of this video:

For you to make the subconscious link between the Volkswagen logo and the word Fun. That’s all it is designed to do.

By making the VW logo secondary in the campaign it becomes harder for you to realise you’ve been sent an advert until it is too late and you’ve watched the whole thing, but the clues are there – even the typography adheres to the brand guidelines. As a marketer, I’d say it’s genius. But as a human being, I think this is depressing.

Some words I’d like to see VW live up to:

“This site is dedicated to the thought that something as simple as fun is the easiest way to change people’s behaviour for the better. Be it for yourself, for the environment, or for something entirely different, the only thing that matters is that it’s change for the better.”  src

Maybe, just maybe, if VW actually want to show they care about “change for the better”, it would be easier to NOT SPEND MILLIONS OF POUNDS LOBBYING AGAINST COMMITMENTS TO CUT GREENHOUSE GAS EMMISSIONS, than turning some stairs into a piano and presenting it as science.

Further reading:

If you’re interested in VW’s real commitment to change try: vwdarkside.com
If you’re interested in real behaviour change:  valuesandframes.org

If you just like disrupting the mundanity of the day-to-day, it doesn’t need corporate sponsorship:

If graffiti changed anything...

What would I suggest instead of piano stairs?

If I was running an experiment tasked with encouraging people to walk instead of taking the escalator, I’d slow the speed of the escalator down to a quarter of it’s standard speed. Maybe even slower. You could measure walking-rate against speed across a high enough volume of routes for a long enough period of time to find an optimum speed based on robust science. I reckon that would get people walking, and possibly keep them walking too. Either they’d choose the escalator, then walk if it’s too slow for them, or just switch to the stairs altogether. It wouldn’t make a fun video though, so it’s unlikely the Volkswagen marketing budget would be used to encourage the 17 million+ views the piano stairs idea has had.