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Why do we want to teach our children science?

By Barry Desborough, former head of maths in a state school.

Apart from the obvious, materialistic and mundane reasons, what might we hope to impart to our children, even if they never go into science and science-related careers?

We are all surrounded by people wanting us to believe what they are telling us. From the relatively trivial, such as the astrology pages and the claims of fringe medicine, through the clamour of the advertising industry and the appeals of politicians, right up to the ranting of the fanatic and the outright (one could almost say honest) fraud of the con man - at least the con artist is not interested in leaving us with permanent illusions. All these people, for their own motives, want us to persuade us to believe what they have to say, sometimes in the belief that they are doing it for our own benefit. But we require the means of evaluating what they have to say for ourselves.

How then, are we to equip our children with the critical faculties required for this sort of evaluation? Good scholarship is a feature of all subjects when they are taught well, but science is the epitome of subjects in which the appeal to authority, "Take my word for it", has no final say. Neither is the final say granted to the armchair philosopher, the clever rhetorician, the appealer to emotion or the snake-oil salesman. Instead, we demand, "Show me!"

Unfortunately, it's not so simple in practice. No school student can test the entire contents of the science curriculum. We have to ensure that the scientific method, with its peer-review process and its principles of repeatability, falsifiability, parsimony and consilience has been applied to what is being taught. We have to be able to know that our scientists and science teachers are faithful to these methods. Only then are our teachers able to impart the heart of science - the attitude of "Show me!" Only then can our children be equipped to reflexively raise an eyebrow to claims such as, "This crystal energy will heal you", "You can trust me with your vote", and "This is the sure way to Paradise."


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