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‘The good thing about science,” the bumper sticker began, “is that even if you don’t believe it, it’s still true.”
Aristotle could have written that, if there were cars with bumpers in his day.
Aristotle came upon a group of men engaged in heated argument. Upon his inquiry, they reported the disagreement involved the number of teeth in a horse’s mouth. To which he replied, “Let’s go find a horse and count them.”
As Mason Williams confessed in the last line of his lyrics for “The Exciting Accident,” “this is not a true tale, but who needs truth if it’s dull.”
Like professional journalists in search of truth, scholars repeat similar versions of the story — as a parable — while disagreeing about the who, what, where and when it was first told.
I like the Aristotle version because he relied on personal observation in much of his writing, including “The History of Animals” in which he reported the number of teeth in horses.
Upon hearing Kellyanne Conway’s concept of “alternative facts,” Aristotle would have sided with Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who famously said, “Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but they're not entitled to their own facts.”
Sadly, what seemed obvious to Aristotle over 2,300 years ago, and to the research scientists among us today, has not been internalized by large percentages of our Homo sapiens species.
High school and college courses in physics, chemistry, biology, and other sciences necessarily require some awareness of the vocabulary and current knowledge base of these sciences.
Some students develop a passion for science. Some avoid these courses. Others take them but leave school singing Sam Cooke’s lyrics, “Don't know much biology/Don't know much about science book.”
But what the National Science Teaching Association headlines is, “Science classes enable students in grades 9-12 to develop the critical-thinking skills required to make informed decisions about public policy, evaluate claims made in the media, talk to their doctors, and navigate an increasingly technological world.”
These are lifetime skills that can be taught in any course and utilized by all of us every day.
In 1946, James B. Conant, among many other roles a chemist and one-time president of Harvard University, spun his Yale Terry Lectures into a little book called, “On Understanding Science: An Historical Approach.” He was suggesting, in effect, to understand science first understand scientists, what they do, how and why they do it, and the language they use to talk about it.
Framing answerable questions that suggest how they might be answered. Recording observations. Revising hypotheses and theories as necessary.
We’ve been telling each other stories for millenniums — often as lessons for children — from Aesop’s Fables around 600 BC to Watty Piper’s “The Little Engine That Could” in 1930.
Nothing wrong with that — unless we’re unable to see the difference between a fact and a phony, a story and a science-derived statistic.
And what’s that difference? American COVID deaths approaching 800,000.
Nicholas Johnson is former co-director of the Institute for Health, Behavior and Environmental Policy. email@example.com