How Many Hairs Can Dance On The Head Of A Human?

My little contretemps with Iain over the difference between theory and fact, and the nature of epistemology in general, inspires a rant^H^H^H^Hdisquisition on the nature of science and how it’s taught (or not).

Several years ago (probably more than a decade), I saw a special on my local affiliate of the Public Broadcasting System (so named because that’s who pays for it–not, in a manner similar to National “Public” Radio, because it’s necessarily of any particular benefit to them) called something like “The National Science Quiz.”

It consisted of a bunch of multiple-guess questions that were in fact, facts, as opposed to theories. For example, they asked something like, “How many hairs, on average, are on a square inch of the human head?”

I threw something (it’s been too long to remember what, and being a skinflint, and not one to destroy a television that I will have to pay to replace, I’m sure that it was relatively soft) at the TV.

“This is not science!” I yelled at it, ineffectually. “Very few scientists would know the answer to that question (though they would know where to look it up, if it had any relevance to a scientific inquiry). Not only is this not science, but it’s the reason that many people get turned off to science, and it’s why very few people understand anything about science!”

Science is not a compendium of “facts.” Science is about how we turn unrelated, boring facts into useful knowledge. Science is a method, not an encyclopedia. That’s why I get upset when someone says that “evolution is a fact.” Not just because it’s untrue, but because it misses the point entirely.

Science is a means of inquiry. It cannot be learned by simply memorizing a set of dry unconnected facts, but that’s what is implied by the “science quiz” described above, and much of what passes for science education in primary schools (and even more frighteningly, in many colleges and universities).

When I was in college, physics was my favorite subject.


Because I have a lousy memory (one, but by no means the only, reason that I never seriously considered going into medicine). Because I could pass the tests without memorizing a vast compendium of “facts,” (which I couldn’t manage in biology, or even chemistry, which I still don’t consider a true science, but it may become when physical chemistry reaches a sufficient degree of sophistication and maturity–perhaps it already has in the intervening decades). I could pass the tests by simply taking the few basic laws, and applying the basic rules of logic and mathematics to them, even rederiving more advanced laws if necessary, rather than having to memorize them.

What’s my point?

Learning physics wasn’t about remembering what the atomic weight of a given element was, or how many wombats lived in a given state of Australia at a given point in time. Learning physics was about learning some basic principles, and applying them to more general problems. That’s what all science should be about.

But instead science, when it’s taught at all (often by primary-school teachers who don’t understand it themselves), is taught as a body of knowledge, a set of known facts, rather than as a method of inquiry. The emphasis is not on thinking, but on memorization. Science, properly taught, opens the mind to a vast array of topics, even beyond science. Science, as it’s generally taught, is pure drudgery. It’s little wonder that most kids are turned off to the subject by the time they enter high school.

It’s also little wonder that the phrase, “it’s only a theory” has such power when attacking evolution. After all, science is about facts, right? And if evolution is “only a theory,” then it’s not a fact, and we need not believe it.

So those defending evolution must take one of two tacks–to claim (mistakenly, as occurred on the web site that Iain cited) that evolution is a “fact,” or to take the more difficult, but in the long run, much more valuable road, by performing a rectification of names. That is why I kill so many electrons to make this point, in multiple posts.

I just hope that my struggle doesn’t long remain a lonely one.