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Science as Getting It Less Wrong:
Perspectives of High School Students

June 2006

Following a discussion of Science as Story Telling with Paul Grobstein, a group of high school juniors and seniors in the Bryn Mawr College Science for College program were asked to record their thoughts about science as "getting it less wrong" and its relation to the movie "And the Band Plays On" about AIDS research. The following comments were collected by Paul Burgmayer, director of the program, and are made available here as a contribution to thinking more about how science is, and should be, taught (see Science as Story Telling in Action).

I like the idea of "getting it less wrong". Personally, sometimes I don't get things right the first time around, so having the idea of making things right as a process makes it better. It also appears to embrace getting things wrong, which is a common occurrence for many people.

Getting science less and less wrong implies that there will always be something that will remain incorrect. I think that that leaves open-ended questions, which increase certainty and also increase a want for knowledge. This sounds kind of weird, but the less I know, the more I want to find out. This comes from a fascination with the unknown and a want to be certain and not leave any grey areas where the knowledge is unknown.

This idea relates to "And the Band Played On" in many ways. As the scientists from the CDC attempted to find out why so many people (both gay and straight) were dying from this unknown disease, they continued to make baby steps towards the "right" answer. They were beginning to get the idea of AIDS less and less wrong. In other words, as they began to discover more, they were able to undo their mistakes and move towards the final picture. Also, as the French and Gallo worked together (in a sense, although not directly. And as it turns out, Gallo attempted to steal the French's whole scientific project, they still got to see a final product in the works), they began to get it less wrong. Gallo thought it was one of his previously discovered viruses, while the French were convinced that it was something completely different. While the two groups were not working together, both used their scientific knowledge to get their ideas less wrong and work towards certainty.

All in all, I believe that the idea of science "getting it less wrong" is a wonderful concept. It gives hope to people who often do not get science right the first time around, and gives confidence and praise to those who work hard to prove their points.

Some people believe that science isn't about being right or wrong; to them, science is about developing ideas and observations that are less wrong. Because the things that scientists conjecture about cannot be completely proven, these people maintain that facts that are accepted as universal truths- such as the world being round, and the horizon sinking everyday in the morning as the sun climbs higher in the sky. This whole idea bothers me. Why? Because saying there is no truth sounds exactly like something out of The Matrix. Just like most other human beings, I search for meaning in life- and there cannot be meaning unless you can establish several truths to make up that meaning. For instance, Christian religions rely on the truth that God does exist. If all you said was that the idea that God exists is less wrong than some other idea, than people are going to be more reluctant to follow that faith- a faith where, apparently, they can tell you nothing for certain.

This whole idea of being 'less wrong' can relate to the movie "And the Band Played On" because in the movie, the scientists continued developing ideas about HIV/AIDS, and each one was less wrong than the last. Now, I prefer to think that one day, those ideas will come to a point when there is nothing more to learn about HIV/AIDS, and there will be truths about the disease that are undeniable. The idea of being 'less wrong' suggests otherwise- it suggests that we will never know everything, and will always being searching for more. Although perhaps that theory makes sense, it's disturbing because it means we have no control over our life, over our bodies, over anything at all!

According to Dr. G. science is never definite and nothing can ever be found as truth, rather there is only the idea of getting things less wrong. When scientists are performing an experiment to test their hypothesis, even if their predictions are supported by the experiment that doesn't necessarily mean that the results are conclusive. Scientists are constantly developing new questions about their hypothesis, trying to find a situation where it doesn't withstand the experiment. There are always knew questions to be asked and therefore new results. This continuous cycle makes any answer that a scientist gets from the experiment less wrong than before.

This idea of "less wrong" is part of the ongoing process of science, where new observations and new summaries are developed constantly, makes sense. However, it is a dramatic difference than what I experienced at school. In science class and other subjects the teacher would tell you something about the characteristics of an element and the students would have to take it as truth. He/she would explain that there was so and so experiments done to prove this and everyone would just memorize such facts for exams throughout the year. The idea is just one that I would have to learn to get used to, and it only bothers me in the fact that it is something totally different and I will have to get used to it.

In the movie, "And the Band Played On," the group of scientists a CDC were constantly revisiting their hypotheses, when knew information about the virus was discovered. They started with what they knew and what they think and could prove in order to develop a first hypothesis about how the virus is transmitted. Throughout the movie, revisions to the original idea, that the virus was being transmitted via sexual conduct in homosexuals, radically changed to it were transmitted through blood and other fluids. However, the summaries following the movie, indicated that scientist continue to experiment to find out more about the virus.

Yesterday, Dr. Grobstein explained to us the idea that in science, things shouldn't be considered right, rather they should be considered less wrong. In reality, one cannot prove things to be completely true because no matter what, he or she does not know that his or her findings are the truth. Therefore, since nothing is considered the absolute truth, nothing can be considered correct. The idea of getting something less wrong rather than right, supports the idea that science is stable yet subject to change. Scientists are always working to refine laws and theories, and come closer to the "truth"—which would be less wrong than the assumption previously held.

This idea makes sense to me. No one really knows whether one's findings are correct or wrong—they just are. And they are open to interpretation. Finding something less wrong, opens it up to be improved upon even further; instead of assuming something is correct. I have always learned not to assume things, because generally assumptions are false. The idea of getting something less wrong is present in the movie "And the Band Played On.." because throughout the struggle to find out what AIDS is, the scientists kept on eliminating possibilities as well as refining their knowledge. For example, it was figured out that AIDS is sexually transmitted, and after a while the figured out that it is also transferred through blood. Therefore, when they realized that AIDS is transferred through blood also, they were less wrong than they were before, when they thought there was only one means of transmission.

In science, it is basically impossible to indefinitely prove anything when using the scientific method because the process is never-ending. When a scientist has created a hypothesis based on a summary of their observations, or things that they have seen, heard, for example, they then try to uncover a new observation that supports there idea through an experiment. However, this idea cannot ever be completely proved true, so what scientists do is try to make the idea "less wrong", by adjusting their hypotheses and performing new experiments. Nothing is ever completely definite.

At first, this idea was confusing to me; in school we had always been taught that the point of science was to find a truth, and that after doing an experiment, if you yielded results that supported your initial thought, it was automatically deemed a true statement. However, I think I like the idea that science is indefinite better than the concrete way. It helps to show that the world as we know it is always changing. It makes perfect sense to me now; scientists always question old discoveries and rework them, and as technology improves it becomes even more necessary to fix old hypotheses. The process is always ongoing; even the discoveries that we make today will eventually be made 'less wrong" by scientists in the future. Even though it is a little bit frustrating that we can never have a definite answer, this way to look at science really makes sense in the real world.

This idea of "getting it less wrong" applies to the movie we watched, And the Band Played On. The people at the Center for Disease Control were always reworking their ideas in order to account for new evidence that disproved their original hypothesis. For example, they realized that AIDS was not only transmitted in gay men when cases emerged in women and young babies based on blood transfusion. While the scientists in the movie never uncovered the complete truth about the disease, they were able to made their idea "less wrong" and use their knowledge of the illness to work to treat it.

The idea of getting it less wrong concerns the fact that nothing is a definite true in science - you cannot say for certain that something is true. Therefore, scientists often prefer when you prove something wrong because that can be definite, and it gives the scientist the chance to discover something new about his theory and revise it, so it is less wrong. Even if after many tests you find that your statement has not changed you still have to do more because science is a "loopy" process and nothing can be proven true it can only be shown to be less wrong. This theory does annoy me a bit because I usually like to know if I'm right or wrong so I can just move onto the next thing. This theory implies that you could be stuck on one idea for the rest of your life, which is a bit boggling to think about. But I do like the idea that it is better to get something wrong so you can fix it and try another way. I only wish we could do something like that at our school where all the "experiments" are really just activities because you already know what the outcome should be so there is no indefinite.

How it relates to "And the Band Played On" is that there was a lot of back and forth in the process of discovering the cause of the AIDS virus and no one knew for sure what really caused it. The movie showed the process as very "loopy" with a lot of guess work and testing to see if that guess work was true.

In science there is no correct answer or absolute truth. You can only "get it less wrong." Science is an on going process of "getting it less wrong" because science isn't about truth. In science conflict is a positive thing, so an observation that differentiates from a previous observation can lead to new findings or possibilities. Since you can never prove something 100% correct or true the closes you can do is "get it less wrong."

This makes sense because there will never be a complete solution in science. Questions are always being asked and discoveries are always being made. It is impossible for the science of our world to be solved completely. Conflicting observations are bound to appear in science, and that is what leads to getting it less wrong, because there is no correct answer.

Yes, the fact that there is no correct answer or the best someone can do is get something less wrong is bothersome. It is frustrating that people work so hard for an answer but the answer is bound to be disproved or adjusted.

In the movie "And the Band Played on" the scientist were continuously "getting it less wrong." They never solved the mystery of AIDS completely, and they haven't even developed a cure. In the movie the scientist did work hard to "get it less wrong" by researching and testing theories. An example of this would be when it was assumed AIDS was a disease only gay men were diagnosed with. This was proven wrong when the disease began showing up in woman and heterosexual men. The scientists "got it less wrong" by finding cases that conflicted the theory. They never can solve AIDS completely, but they can do their best to "get it less wrong."

When first presented with the notion that science is not the stereotypical black and white, right and wrong subject that had been presented to me in school for the past so many years of my schooling career I was taken aback. The first thought that came to my mind was why all my science teachers over the years had not presented it as such, for I do not believe that they would ever lie to their students.

As the discussion progressed it started occurring to me how much sense the concept that there really is no truth in science made to me. Although I admit I found it somewhat frustrating that there is no real clean cut answer and while we all swear up and down that the world is not flat but in fact round, in reality it all depends upon the range of observations you are trying to make sense of. In the realm of the everyday we actually apply the flat earth theory. For the ground is flat when we walk across it, but on a larger scale, pictures from space shuttles show us the earth in its spherical state.

This relates with the movie "And the Band played on ... " with considerable ease. When Don discovered that the test originally used to find Hepatitis B when applied to seeking out those infected with AIDS was 80% effective. Although there would still be 20% of those tested who had contracted the virus that the test did not detect it would be much preferred to the absence of a test as a whole.

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