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Exploring Science as Transactional Inquiry:
A Working Group on Elementary Science Education

A Starting Story/Metaphor for Science/Inquiry
"Thinking/Getting it Less Wrong/Story Telling"
Paul Grobstein
4 November 2006

I've been a scientist all my life. I enjoy it, but have frequently been frustrated and disturbed by how the activity is characterized, by scientists and others. There is, I think, a need, both for science and for culture at large, to come up with a better story about science ....


Somewhere, somehow, we all got it into our heads that thinking isn't a good idea. Some people don't trust it at all, because they think if other people did it, it would make their own jobs harder, and other people sort of like it, but are a little embarrassed about that and think its a luxury, something you should do privately in a corner and then only if you've gotten your real work done first. Almost everybody believes that its dangerous, and risky, and things might go wrong if other people think too much, and maybe even if they think too much.

And you know what? They're right. Thinking IS dangerous, and risky, and lots of the time what you come up with won't be better than what you have already. But that's not the point, unless you're so happy with what you have that you can't imagine it ever being better, and so certain it will never change that you don't even worry about it. And that sure as hell isn't the way I feel ... The point is that thinking, and being able to think, is the only way to make anything BETTER than it is, and sure there's a risk in that but its a hell of a lot better then sitting in one place and trying to hold everything together, particularly when it isn't really quite what you want and you know damned well that its all going to come apart one way or another anyhow. Thinking IS fun, and the only way we have to make anything better, but its ALSO the best way anyone has ever come up with to REDUCE risk. The world wasn't made for people, you know, and we don't understand all about it, and we never will, and there will always be things happening that we didn't expect, and the only way to deal with that is to have people around who know how to think, instead of just doing their particular job the way they were told to do it.

... So what should we do about it? Well, I know what I'm going to do about it. I'm going to spend less time worrying about whether other people think I'm doing my job right, and more time thinking. And I'm going to tell my students that that's what they should be doing too, whether or not they or anybody else think that's what I'm supposed to be telling them. And I'm going to tell my kids to stop trying to get everything right on their worksheets, and instead every once in a while to try something different, to do something differently, just for the hell of it and to see what happens. Yeah, life will be a little more chaotic, and sometimes things will go wrong because of something I did instead of because of things I hadn't yet somehow managed to get under control. And maybe, if it spreads, I might have to work harder to persuade people to do what I want them to do ... I'm pretty sure though that I'll feel a lot safer, and I'm damned sure life will be a lot more fun.


People in our culture, by and large, tend to presume that someone, somewhere knows what is "right," and that each individual's task is either to be that particular someone or to work as hard as they can to learn from that someone what "right" is ... the mindset long predates science as a social activity, but ... science certainly encourages it, and so it is appropriate that science should contribute to correcting it ... In an enormous variety of distinct fields of inquiry the same general pattern is becoming clear: there is no such thing as "right," the very concept needs to be replaced with "progressively less wrong." The difference is far from semantic. "Right" is measured by proximity to some fixed idea, "progressively less wrong" by how far people have gotten from where they started. It is the aspiration to be "right" that leads to rigid hierarchical social organizations of all kinds, including educational systems. Wanting to be "progressively less wrong" takes one (and societies) in quite different directions entirely: it encourages life-long inquiry by every individual, a respect for past wisdom and enthusiasm for contributing to future understanding, and an appreciation of the enormous value of interactions between unique individuals each of whom has unique perspectives to contribute.


Why did things go less wrong this semester? ... it seems to me there are some general themes to hang on to, and maybe even to try and use to be even less wrong in the future. The first, of course, is to begin with the proposition that science does not deal in "truth"; its progress and movement is instead away from ignorance. The second theme, made possible by the first, is to invite students to engage in the process, as opposed to being passive recipients of its product at any given time. And this, in turn, means talking about science that matters, that relates to the questions that are common currency to all human beings, regardless of their background. Underlying all this is the dependence on a new freedom for the faculty teaching introductory science, the freedom to create, to define the field, as cannot reasonably be done by its specialists, in the act of developing and teaching the introductory course.


The brain is not designed to have a single picture of "reality" as an outcome, but rather to explore an infinite variety of candidate pictures. Ambiguity and uncertainty are not (whatever the I-function might think) the ripples of the imperfect glass through which the brain tries to perceive reality. They are instead the fundamental "reality", both the grist and the tool by which the brain (and, hence, all humans, you and I among them) creates all of its paintings [stories].


At its core, science is not only a human activity but a human activity which could come to be seen as the common property of all human beings: the ongoing writing and rewriting of a common story to which the observations and stories of all individuals make valued contributions ... this description helps highlight two additional challenges to completing the task of bridging the "two cultures" gap.

Scientists, like all human beings, have a tendency to "tribalism" - an inclination to share observations and stories only with people who are in some sense "like themselves". The main problem with tribalism isn't so much whether members of a tribe are willing to make their observations and stories available to people outside the tribe (which they frequently are) but whether they are also willing to listen to the observations and stories of others, with the potential that those change their own in turn. The scientific community does not have a distinguished record of this latter kind of engagement, and hence it tends by its own tribalism to encourage tribalism in others. If science is actually to become the common property of humanity, scientists themselves are going to need to learn to transcend their own tribal inclinations, to not only entertain the possibility that the observations and stories of people currently outside the community are relevant, but to begin actively valuing them, to genuinely open the "scientific community" to all comers.

The other challenge to successfully bridging the two cultures by sharing the ongoing writing and rewriting of a common human story is a reluctance to give up the idea of "Truth" and accept in its stead a commitment to an ongoing process of "getting it less wrong". Knowing "Truth" - or at least believing one is on the "right" path to finding it - is a source of comfort and security to many of us, both within and outside the current scientific community. But, differences in conceptions of "Truth", or of whether and how it is to be found, are at the root of the existing "two cultures" gap, as well as of much of human conflict, mistrust, and tension generally. Moreover, science as the collective and ongoing writing and rewriting of stories does not actually need the concept of "Truth", only that of continually modifying old stories in light of new observations. It will not be easy to persuade people to give up "Truth" as a guide and aspiration, and replace it with an appreciation, perhaps even enjoyment, of continuous progressive change. But that is at the core of what science is all about. Helping others come to understand that it is, as best one can tell, what life is all about as well may be the single greatest contribution science can make to the future of humanity.


The story of science as story suggests that science can and should serve three distinctive functions for humanity: providing stories that may increase (but never guarantee) human well-being, serving as a supportive nexus for human exploration and story telling in general, and exemplifying a commitment to skepticism and a resulting open-ended and continuing exploration of what might yet be.


The brain is designed to explore/discover/create
Use it and enjoy it
Help others use it and enjoy it

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