Teaching Philosophy of Science in High School

Speaking (again) of vaccines and autism...Jenny McCarthy is the self-appointed spokesperson for the vaccine-autism link, criticized here and many, many places elsewhere for presuming to know more than do scientists, doctors, etc.

I've always quite liked Jenny McCarthy, because she mixes funny and sexy. Sexy too often takes itself Very Seriously, and it's been nice to have something of a Mae West figure again. I recently bought the book McCarthy wrote on pregnancy, which is jaw-droppingly and very disarmingly honest, vividly scatological, and (as it happens) quite funny. You can't quite believe someone would admit such truths to her own doctor, much less the world at large.

What comes across very clearly in this book is that this is a woman who LOVES her son. Who really dotes on him. Perhaps even unusually so, for the world at large and most likely for former Playboy models.

I don't defend what she did, because I do think it has led to a lot of harm with people avoiding vaccines. But I sympathize with it on a gut level. She is a very loving mom who is searching for explanations, hasn't found any, and hasn't been given a reason why to trust the scientific process. She also seems to think her kid has improved.

Most importantly, I think there's a way of avoiding people pulling Jenny McCarthys in the future. What we can do is not simply tell students in schools that smart people trust scientists, and looking up stuff on the web on your own is for bimbos. Anyone who watches the news is provided frequently with counterexamples that show scientists are not always right. Most people have had the experience of being told to trust their doctor, and their doctor turned out to be wrong about something. If you are told just to trust scientists and doctors, but you have not learned anything about the scientific method....why would you then continue to trust scientists and doctors? Presumably you were told to trust them because they know more and are correct. So when they aren't...of course it would get anyone to wondering whether they really do know more. This seems perfectly reasonable to me. If someone has been introduced as having much expertise, and she turns out to have made a significant mistake in the field of expertise, it would certaily get me wondering.

But, of course, we don't simply trust doctors and scientists because they know more. It's part of it, but not all of it. It's because we believe in the use of scientific method. It might be more valuable to teach a little philosophy of science in our high schools. Explain how the scientific method was developed, and, most importantly, how it is to be preferred to wild conjecture even though scientists sometimes get it wrong. Teach what constitutes good evidence, and why it does. Teach why we still think what scientists do is valuable, even if mistakes have been made. My guess is that had Jenny McCarthy and others of her ilk had learned this stuff (she's no idiot, even if she's not a Rhodes Scholar), and learned it well, rather than simply being asked to have a blind faith in the scientific community, much fewer of them would be challenging the scientific community.


  1. I totally agree with this. I actually have some residual fondness for McCarthy, simply because she really did a good job (if one can view it as such) of wrangling the various meatheads that appeared on "Singled Out." (Which, considering some of MTV's current offerings, feels like "I, Claudius" in comparison.)

    I don't expect people to bow down to some monolithic entity called "SCIENCE." I probably assume (faultily) that everyone knows how science works. Part of the reason I have gotten so worked up about the whole autism/vaccine question is that science has taken the question very, very seriously. The medical community hasn't just dismissed the complaints out of hand, but has sought to discern any connection between the two. I think, if more people knew what "science" means, they would feel less adversarial about it.

    Oh, and while other doctors may occasionally be wrong, I never am.

  2. In my experience, most people don't understand science or statistics. Our evolutionary history gives us the instincts of lizards when it comes to physics and probability. That's why movies show such crazy stuff like bullets following curved paths due to motion of the gun. Our instincts are a bit misleading when it comes to Newtonian physics. And don't even start with quantum mechanics or general relativity...

    I think we need to teach different levels of What Science Is in schools. The top third (half?), say, ought to be exposed to the full monty, starting with probability and statistics, then the scientific method whys and hows, history of Science, and hands on "do it yourself" conjecture, experimentation, analysis and refinement, plus the faults, such as publication bias. Bottom third (half?) gets basic probability/statistics, history of science and the scientific method (including what preceded it and why it didn't work as well), and a bit of guided experimentation. Not everyone can learn what makes good Science, but I think everyone can learn to detect bullshitake when they hear it.

  3. Oopsie! That parenthetical comment on the history of explanations of nature prior to the scientific method ought to have been in the upper third/half, not the lower. Small edit boxes, feh.