Why We Need Science | October 2, 2015

Why We Need Science

This summer when Mrs. Caldwell and one of our daughters was driving from Vermont to New Jersey, they saw one of those digital road signs that gives drivers travel information. This one said: "Long delays between Exit 41 and 51." My daughter, who was very eager to get home, said "I'll believe it when I see it." Despite their hope that the sign was wrong, they hit the long delay.

Saying "I'll believe it when I see it" or "I don't believe it" is not an uncommon thing for any of us to say these days even when it comes to well-­‐researched scientific evidence. While in this moment my daughter was not dismissing scientific fact, she was wanting to see evidence for herself because she did not want to believe they would hit traffic just as we do not want to believe inconvenient truths that have scientific support.

This fall many of the freshmen will be reading Plato's Allegory of the Cave and many of you upper classmen have already read it. In this parable, prisoners are chained to a cave, and they mistake shadows and echoes for reality. One of the prisoners breaks free, goes to the outside world, and returns to tell the truth to the prisoners, but the prisoners don't want to know the truth. They are comfortable in their ignorance and even hostile to anyone who tries to change their view of the world. This parable is often considered to be about human ignorance or about people who are unwilling to seek truth or wisdom.

We are in an era when people are questioning reliable scientific evidence and mindlessly believing something to be true when there is no quantitative evidence to prove that belief. Doubt about science has become quite popular due to some bogus research that has been highly publicized. Since we are building a new math/science building, today I wanted to talk a bit about why we need science in our lives and why we need to trust valid research.

I am going to start by asking you to log into my Socrative account and to take a short, simple quiz with 5 questions. Do not worry about getting questions wrong. I am giving you only about ten seconds per question. They are not trick questions. Just give this quiz your very best shot. Our community's response will appear on this screen, but your individual quizzes will not be revealed. We are simply interested in where MBS lands on these questions. Raise your hand when you have successfully logged in through you iPhone or iPad and have the "Waiting for teacher" on your screen.

(At this point the entire assembly took this quiz and the results were instantly posted on the screen on stage)

1. The tongue has regional sensitivities (i.e. sweetness on the tip, bitterness

in the back, and salt and sour on the sides).


2. Smoking cigarettes can make you ill.


3. The sun revolves around the earth.


4. A product called Airborne has been scientifically proven to prevent colds and protect you from germs


5. You can contract Ebola through the air.


OK. So let's read these results.

Question #1. The answer is false! Almost everyone believes in the mythical tongue

map. This belief arose from a 1901 mistranslation of a German physiology textbook. The myth is maintained by repetition rather than experimentation.

Question #2. True! Through the 1930s and 1940s, physicians appeared in advertisements promoting the benefits of smoking, particularly for weight loss. The campaign against smoking—which has been going on for over 50 years-­‐-­‐ is one of the most successful public-­‐interest fact-­‐checking operations in history, which is

why many of you seem to know that cigarettes can cause illness.

Question #3. False! You should know that the scientist-­‐astronomer Galileo was

forced to recant his finding, that the earth revolves around the sun—which today we know to be true-­‐-­‐-­‐and put under house-­‐arrest for the remainder of his life when he openly stated in his book that the earth revolves around the sun.

Question #4: False. Airborne has not been scientifically proven to prevent colds.

Question #5: False. You cannot contract Ebola through the air.

To conclude, we need science in our lives. Science has helped us live longer and

with greater civility, health and comfort. With my opening words in mind, I want to make it clear that I am not telling you not to ask questions. We need questions. We need skepticism. As Marcia McNutt, one of our country's leading scientists says,"Everybody should be questioning. That's the hallmark of a scientist. But then they should use the scientific method-­‐-­‐or trust people using the scientific method-­‐-­‐ to decide which way they fall."

In our science classes this year, we are not going to fill you with facts; we are going

to teach scientific method. We will encourage you to find out as much as you can about the world and make informed conclusions, and we will encourage you to think like a scientist, which means it's OK to change your mind when the evidence demands it.


Firestein, Stuart. Ignorance: How It Drives Science. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.

Achenbach, Joel. "The Age of Disbelief." National Geographic Magazine March 2015.

Konnikova, Maria. "I Don't Want to be Right" The New Yorker May 16, 2014.

McArdle, Megan. "Why We Fall For Bogus Research" Bloomberg View August 31, 2015

"In Science We Trust" Scientific American October 2010


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