The House at Pooh Corner (pg 93-94)
In Which Pooh Invents a New Game and Eeyore Joins In
… One day, when Pooh was walking towards this bridge, he was trying to make up a piece of poetry about fir-cones… So he picked a fir-cone up and looked at it, and said to himself, “This is a very good fir-cone and something ought to rhyme to it.” ... he had just come to the bridge, and not looking where he was going, he tripped over something, and the fir-cone jerked out of his paw into the river… then he thought he would just look at the river instead… and it slipped away slowly beneath him… and suddenly, there was his fir-cone slipping away, too.
“That’s funny,” said Pooh. “I dropped it on the other side,” said Pooh, “and it came out on this side! I wonder if it would do it again?” [my emphasis]
It did. And it kept on doing it….
…So the next time he dropped one big one and one little one, and the big one came out first, which was what he had said it would do, and the little one came out last, which was what he said it would do, so he had won twice … and when he went home for tea, he had won thirty-six and lost twenty-eight, which meant that he was – that he had – well, you take twenty-eight from thirty-six, and that’s what he was. Instead of the other way round.
Thank you for indulging me.
And thank you A. A. Milne, the brilliant creator of the Hundred Acre Wood!
And... Thank you, Dr. Joseph O’Reilly, my Research Methodologies teacher at the University of Hawaii. Thank you for sharing this beautiful, charming story with us in your class. And thank you for the unforgettable lesson that went with it.
Dr. O’Reilly taught Research Methodologies as a required course for all undergraduates in the College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources at UH (they called it CTAHR). The “tropical agriculture” part of it was science. Real science. Like, data – and statistics and stuff. They had classes like Animal Science and Agricultural Resource Economics and Entomology. The “human resources” part had classes like Family Planning, and Fashion Merchandising and, while I am in no way trying to be judgmental, those classes didn’t have the same ‘rigor’ that the science classes had. Many of these majors didn’t really think much about science.
What this meant was that Dr. O’Reilly had a pedagogical challenge to teach a diverse range of mindsets useful and important things about how to conduct scientific research. And he was brilliant at it! I would love to tell lots of stories of some of the memorable projects we did in his class, but this Pooh thing has molded so much of my ‘scientific philosophy,’ that it nicely introduces the topic of “scientific literacy.”
Few people in our society today have a clear understanding of scientific thought. Many people think ‘science is hard… waaaa….’ I have actually heard (often) people say, “I hate Biology.” Think about that.. I hate the study of life. Are you kidding me?! Well, okay, sometimes science class has challenges, yeah – it can be hard. But it doesn’t have to be. And, on its face, it is not hard at all. Heck, a Bear of Very Little Brain can do it!
In the story summarized above, Pooh Observes a natural phenomenon, asks a Question, Tests his question, attempts to Analyze his results but finds a flaw in his methods (I left out the part about him dropping two cones the same size the first time and being unable to figure out which one won), Refines his methods, Collects data, Analyzes his data, and draws a Conclusion (you take twenty-eight from thirty-six, and that’s what he was…)
This is the classic Scientific Method! Brilliant!
Pooh went on to use the insight he gained to predict this event would happen most times you dropped something in the river and it lead to them making the game Poohsticks.
(okay, okay, I know, enough with the Pooh already… alright, I think I made that point!)
The key to ‘real’ science is that it is predictive.
When I was a high school biology teacher, I made my students write in their (not-supposed-to-be-written-in) science textbooks. I have yet to find a textbook – or dictionary for that matter- that has the complete and correct definition of “science.” Most say something like:
Main Entry: sci•ence
Etymology: Middle English, from Anglo-French, from Latin scientia, from scient-, scienshaving knowledge, from present participle of scire to know; perhaps akin to Sanskrit chyati he cuts off, Latin scindere to split — more at SHED
Date: 14th century
1 : the state of knowing : knowledge as distinguished from ignorance or misunderstanding
2 a : a department of systematized knowledge as an object of study <the science of theology>b : something (as a sport or technique) that may be studied or learned like systematized knowledge <have it down to a science>
3 a : knowledge or a system of knowledge covering general truths or the operation of general laws especially as obtained and tested through scientific method b : such knowledge or such a system of knowledge concerned with the physical world and its phenomena : NATURAL SCIENCE
4 : a system or method reconciling practical ends with scientific laws <cooking is both a science and an art>
Well, you don't always get that! – I looked up ‘science’ at Webster.com – the Merriam Webster Dictionary online, and got that obtuse thing! Most say something like ‘… a systematic accumulation of facts about the natural world…’ or something. Sort of like Webster’s 3-a above.
But I have yet to find a printed definition of “science” that includes the most important part – science is predictive. This huge accumulation of data and facts and analyses can be used to make respectful decisions about future events, since the foundation for respect is understanding. The better we understand something, be better we can predict how our actions will affect it.
Asking useful questions, carefully compiling and analyzing useful data, and thinking, allows us to make predictions about future events with evidence-based reliability and actually measured certainty (though scientists, in the humility of the discipline, usually measure the uncertainty).
There are many qualifications for “scientific literacy.” School districts, education researchers, teachers and other interested people have their own ideas about it. I wonder how many would maintain that Pooh is scientifically literate. He is!
The basic layout for the nine-month-ish school year science curriculum was developed around the turn of the century – the 20th Century! (You know, when we went from the 1800s to the 1900s) Obviously, we hadn’t discovered DNA or knew how it worked. Obviously there was much about medicine and geology and … heck, just about everything … that we couldn’t even ask questions about. As human cultures accumulated scientific knowledge over the generations, we added it to the basic curriculum where it fit. And then we learned more… much more. Present-day science curriculums remind me a little of the joke, you can’t have everything – where would you put it?!
Nowadays, you could pick almost any chapter in a modern Science Text and make an entire year-long course out of it – and not waste anybody’s time. Computers, going to the moon, smashing – for that matter visualizing atoms, understanding hormones… the list goes on and on… wedge them in there!
School science (with notable exceptions… you know who you are) has become more of a History class – the History of Science – focused on what other scientists had discovered, instead of developing a sensibility for good prediction-making. I don’t want to sound too harsh, but some of the implications are subtle.
A large proportion of the population is scientifically illiterate in a fundamental, essential aspect of science – predictability. Even really, really smart people can be heard saying: “Scientific studies have proven…” When my poor, tortured Biology students would write something like, “… this proves my hypothesis is correct….” Oh – I would scratch a hole in their paper crossing it out!
Science doesn’t prove anything. Rather, it provides systematically collected and carefully analyzed data that allow us to make predictions about future events.
Listen, that is a very important point. When someone wants to argue about the relative merits of some scientific theory, it is important they understand what a scientific theory is. You have probably heard this before… a scientific theory isn’t like when someone “has a theory” about something. It is the result of a pretty well established collection of data that has been scrutinized over and over and not been refuted. Is it a fact? Not really. Do we know it’s true and always holds? No, not at all.
Can it be disproven?
It is critical that a question posed scientifically be disprovable. Good science is done by people asking questions about something they believe may be true until they are proven wrong. For example:
If I put an ice cube in the Sun, will it melt?
You know if you put an ice cube out in the Sun it will melt. You probably believe this would happen every time. Every time you have done it so far, or seen or heard about anyone else doing it, it melted. However, you do not know for certain that the next ice cube you put in the Sun will melt, too. Until you put every ice cube in the Sun, you’ll never know for certain. You cannot say you proved that ice cubes in the Sun always melt.
But you can predict it will, under conditions similar to the ones you are familiar with.
But, if you were to put an ice cube in the Sun one time and it didn’t melt, you will have disproved the hypothesis (or theory, if it’s backed up with enough evidence) that ice cubes melt in the Sun.
Could it happen that the ice cube wouldn’t melt? Heck, I don’t know. I would imagine in certain places it Is so cold that the ice cube wouldn’t melt. But that’s just my prediction! We can test it to try to find out. If it wasn’t disprovable, we’d have no way to test it.
So, can Science ever disprove the existence of God? Hah!
The existence of God is not a scientific theory. It is not a scientifically posed problem because it cannot be disproven!
Can a scientifically literate approach disprove a hypothesis (not backed with overwhelming evidence) like Creationism, or (the sheep’s clothing-clad wolf) Intelligent Design? You bet it can.
Was Pooh a Creationist? Probably. His accumulated knowledge was limited to the scope of Christopher Robin and A.A. Milne. He was a Bear of Very Little Brain.
But, I contend that Pooh would have real objections were he to apply his brand of the Scientific Method to many of the tenets of the Creationist line of thinking. He would scratch his fluffy head and say, “Well, yeah, but where did that come from…?”
“I wonder if it would do it again?”
Science is investigation. Science is discovery. Science is exploration. Science is taking risks. Science is being wrong.
Science is questions – not answers.