Why science teaching may not work – Another message to my Mom

asteroid by Howard Dickins

My mother sent me a link to begin a discussion on science education, and why it is so poor. I offered my theory on why it is so hard to teach people science. Here it is, lightly edited.

One of the ideas I have started examining is the well-documented Fast and Slow thinking researched by Daniel Kahneman. (I’ve written about this several times on my blog. He has written about the paucity of real science in psychological research.).

We use rules of thumb and other fast heuristics much of the time. These also use very little energy (actual calories). We evolved to use this as a major way of dealing with the world. 

We can use much slower forms of thinking to careful evaluate something but this comes at a cost (time and actual calories).

Most adults spend most of their time thinking Fast. That is why denialism is so hard to change and why Cargo Cult World are created. It is very hard for most people to simply drop what they ‘know’ is right. How would they deal with a world where fast thinking did not work? Easier to keep believing the incorrect  results of fast thinking than to tear down an entire world view.

Most spend very little time in slow thinking. Some are different. Some revel in slow thinking (our family has a plethora of such people.) And scientists are trained to think Slow.
But only a few have the time and energy to spend so much time thinking Slow.
This is probably why so few adults really like science in detail. Often science provides very little that can be converted to quick thinking. People need simple things that can be examined with Fast thinking. science often does just the opposite, because the real world is complex and cannot often be reduced to simply stories.
And our media are designed to provide information to support Fast thinking, seldom Slow thinking.
“Cholesterol is bad for you” is an example. It is replaced with “Cholesterol is good for you” in a week.  
Fast is black and white – run from that lion or that root is deadly. Nice, simple narrative. It is Kipling’s Just-So stories. Slow is in the gray. It is a much more complex story. It is quantum mechanics. It is Schrodinger’s cat. It is probability not surety.
Adults simply do not live with much Slow thinking. The best speakers of science (Feynman, Sagan, etc.) have been able to describe science accurately by using simple narratives and metaphors.
For kids growing up, they are doing a lot of Fast thinking but also a lot of thinking amenable to Slow. Because they have not learned very much, they spend much of their time in what we would call slow thinking, forging the underlying basis for their adult fast thinking.
They are trying to put together usable Fast thinking by building a core of Slow thinking. For them, there is really little difference.
They want to know why in ways that facilitate quick thinking.
Thus, it is not surprising to me that when they hit puberty, where they first begin creating adult style social networks,  they also take on more adult modes of thinking, which is quick.
Science and its need for Slow, energy-driven thinking falls by the wayside as they use quick thinking to derive “Jane is a slut” or “Tommy is a nerd”. Teenagers are actually almost all about Fast thinking.
It is easy to engage kids. You cannot engage adults the same way. You have to give adults narratives that can be initially examined by Fast thinking. If done right, the story will create some dissonance between what they ‘know’ from Fast thinking and what they can learn through Slow.
Some people will simply retreat into a Cargo Cult World when this dissonance happens, especially if the narrative is a negative, fear-driven one. Others will engage their Slow thinking, leading to a greater discussion and some possible recalibration of their Fast.
Because we also evolved the ability to change Fast thinking narratives when we had to. Because the world changes and, while Fast thinking works most of the time, it can fail catastrophically is not modified as circumstances change.
That is why I am working on a positive, engaging narrative, a modern just-so story, to help those who will not retreat.
I’m going to have a crowd-funding project expanding on “The Asteroid that Saved Mankind.” I’ll write up a a short, easy to follow story, a foundational article to provide all the facts and then a short-form video making it a nice visual story.