Science has been in the news a lot lately. And misunderstanding about science has me taking action this week. You may not know that my education and even my training as a psychologist centered much more on doing and analyzing research then it did on clinical practice. In fact, my job in graduate school was coordinating clinical drug trials.
In this article, I’m going to use what I know about science to share three principles our kids must learn while they are in our homeschools. If they don’t, they can be seriously misled, even if they do well on their college entrance exams.
Speaking of college entrance exams, I want to make it clear that this post isn’t about helping kids do well on them. Many homeschoolers believe that they must teach their kids science information in order for them to do well on the ACT and SAT. The SAT does not have a science section, however, and the ACT’s science section is not a test of knowledge as much as it is a test of nonfiction reading comprehension speed. Your student will have to pick out information from tables and graphs and text that is all new.
I include science vocabulary and nonfiction reading comprehension in grammar galaxy elementary language arts curriculum because learning these concepts is important. My newly released volume blue Star is a great place to look for these lessons. You can still use code podcast to save 15% on your grammar galaxy order. To see if it is right for your students, go to GrammarGalaxyBooks.com/samples.
What does your homeschooler need to know about science?
#1 Science isn’t just facts.
The first thing your student needs to know is that science isn’t just a collection of facts. While it is useful to know that water boils at 212°F / 100 degrees Celsius and interesting to know that Neutron stars can spin 600 times per second, science isn’t just a body of knowledge. This notion of science as fact is what leads to labeling of people as science deniers and the popular sign platitude “science is real.” If science is established fact, we must believe it or be ignorant threats to society.
But science is not just a body of knowledge. An online dictionary defines science this way: “the systematic study of the structure and behaviour of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment.” In other words, science is a method of inquiry by which we seek to understand ourselves and our world. The study is ongoing and is not one and done.
I invited my friend and evolution researcher Dr. Carl Warner to join me on The Homeschool Sanity Show. His research is convincing that macro-evolution is not settled science that belongs in the body of knowledge category. I was just reading an astronomy paper that described the dilemma of dating a star that appears to be older than the universe. Even evolutionary scientists have to reappraise what they consider to be facts.
#2 Science is not opinion.
The second principle we must teach our children about science is that it is not opinion. When it comes to mask mandates in the midst of a pandemic, I have heard people say we must follow the science. Science cannot give us a mask mandate, nor can it tell us that we should not have one. Instead, people have to give us their opinion of the research that has been done.
A variety of studies have been conducted on the effectiveness of mask wearing. Some are studies of health care workers. Some are comparisons of infection rates in areas with mask mandates and those without. Still other studies are conducted only in the lab, with no way of knowing if the results translate into decreased infection rates in everyday life.
Research papers accepted for publication generally begin with a review of research in that area of study that leads to the investigators’ hypothesis about what results they will obtain. After the data are presented, the study authors give their opinion on what the results mean. Researchers generally admit to the flaws in their study design and call for further research in other settings and populations to determine if their results hold up.
But this is not the type of scientific opinion we get in the media. One lab study on masks I read concluded with the opinion that mask wearing might prevent sick people from spreading infection. This opinion would likely be rewritten for the media as “masks work” when that wasn’t the researchers stance.
When I have shared my contention that science isn’t opinion, a few people have said, “So you’re saying that you don’t believe masks work.” My response is, “No, I’m saying we don’t know.” Science is ongoing investigation. We need a lot more types of study in a variety of settings and populations to feel confident in giving an opinion. Of course, that hasn’t kept a number of professionals and politicians from confidently giving an opinion. You and I may already have an opinion, but that opinion is not science.
#3 Science requires validation
The third principle we must teach our children about science is the need for validation. I have mentioned previously that I participate in Caveday, a Zoom accountability meeting for productivity. Last week one of the leaders said that she had the unusual ability to put and keep her hands together, with the middle knuckles bent, while being able to separate her ring fingers. I was easily able to do this and said so in the chat. She asked me to show her, so I did. She pointed out, much to my embarrassment, that I had to keep my middle fingers touching at the knuckles. Then I couldn’t do it. I’ll demonstrate on a Facebook Live soon, so you can see what I mean and try it yourself.
My point in telling you this is that I could have gone around saying that I had experimented to discover that I had this unique ability, but my experiment had no validity. I wasn’t measuring the right thing and couldn’t replicate or repeat my results.
Let’s talk about tests for COVID-19 in terms of validity. To be sure that the tests work, we have to have a number of people who are known (via electron microscope image of blood samples) to have significant quantities of the virus in their systems that is also responsible for their symptoms. No other microbe should be present that can explain their illness. Then the test (using a sample from a patient) should be positive only for those people who have a COVID-19 infection. It should be negative for those who don’t. The test should be sensitive enough to pick up true infections in sick people but not so sensitive that it picks up traces of virus that either aren’t related to COVID-19 or aren’t a risk to the patient or others they come into contact with. As with any medical test, data has to be collected and analyzed for a long period of time (typically years) in various settings to determine how accurate the test is. We are continuing to get data on COVID test validity.
The need for validity is important for more than just testing. One of the ways researchers establish validity is through the randomized, double-blind controlled trial. These trials attempt to minimize bias and the placebo effect. We know that our beliefs can easily affect results, whether we are the researcher or the patient. For example, my young children believed that bandages were pain relievers. As soon as the bandage was applied, the tears stopped. Of course, bandages have no analgesic properties. But my kids’ experience would tell me that they do.
A randomized, controlled trial attempts to keep both subjects and researchers in the dark as to who is really getting a vaccine or taking a medication. The problems with doing this with respect to mask wearing should be obvious. But using placebos in drug trials can be just as problematic. The experience of certain side effects can clue both patient and researcher in to a patient taking a drug and not a placebo. In some trials, there is also the ethical dilemma of not giving all patients a treatment that could save their lives.
There has been quite a bit of controversy over the effectiveness of HCQ in treating and preventing COVID-19. You’ve no doubt heard officials argue that randomly controlled trials have not proven its effectiveness. Meanwhile, some physicians have argued that they have case studies (that are not random or blinded) that show it works. They have also suggested that HCQ works when patients aren’t already critically ill and when it’s combined with zinc and an antibiotic. Who is right? You and I no doubt have an opinion on that, but again science is not opinion. Continued study will be required to have confidence in recommendations.
Related to validity is the principle that correlation is not causation. Correlation means that two events or characteristics co-occur at higher rates than would be expected by chance. I have no data on this, but in the early years of my homeschooling, I noted a large number of mini-vans at homeschooling events. My guess is that data collection would have shown that there was a modest correlation between homeschooling and driving a minivan. But a correlation is not causation. When a family decided to homeschool, they wouldn’t feel compelled to buy a minivan, nor would anyone gift them one. There are other variables that can explain why homeschoolers drove minivans more often than other families. One of those variables is likely family size. If we looked more closely at the data, we might see that homeschoolers who have more than three kids drove minivans at a higher rate than those with smaller families. In addition, we would likely find larger families in homeschooling communities than in the population at large.
Confusion of correlation with causation causes us all kinds of grief. This is why people who have panic attacks can develop agoraphobia. If a person has a panic attack at a shopping mall, the mall is subconsciously assumed to be the cause of the attack. Malls must be avoided. When the next attack occurs at the grocery store, they are avoided, too.
Let’s apply this concept to data about health and people groups. If one group of people has poorer outcomes when contracting COVID-19, does that mean that their race, diagnosis, or mask laws are responsible? Not necessarily. A number of variables could explain that association. Medical professionals, politicians, and your neighbors may tell you that a specific correlation is why some people are getting sicker and are even dying as a result of COVID-19, but that’s an opinion and not science. We need a lot more study to inform opinion and that study takes time.
In teaching your children that science isn’t just facts, that it’s not opinion, and that it requires validation, I hope they’ll be confident responding to labels of science denier and assertions that science is real. They will understand, as many do not, that science is ongoing study. Expert opinion will change as we gather more data.
My personal confidence is in Christ. I believe that my days are numbered. If the Lord chooses to call me home via a COVID infection, I know it’s not only the right thing, but there is nothing I can do to change His plan. By the same token, I know that if the Lord chooses to keep me here ministering to my family and others, I have nothing to fear. If you need help trusting God, read the year-long series I did on this topic.