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Twilight of Science?

NOTE: This is a guest post by Steve Fleischman, deputy executive officer at Education Northwest, a nonprofit headquartered in Portland, Ore., that conducts research, evaluation, technical assistance, training, and strategic communications activities to promote evidence-informed education policy and practice.


Our family vacation this past summer included a visit to the Hoh Rain Forest on Washington's Olympic Peninsula. If you haven't been, go. But, expect to pass through the Twilight zone. More precisely, you will likely drive through the town of Forks, where the Twilight series takes place. Before you go be sure to consult the Forks Chamber of Commerce website so you don't miss points of interest such as the gas station/subway shop that is "Home of the Twilight Sandwich," the drive-in that is "Home of the Bella Burger" (make mine well done, thank you), and nearly a dozen Twilight-themed souvenir shops.

If you're not up on popular culture you should know that the Twilight saga, recounting young vampire love, has sold more than 100 million books and that the related series of four movies have so far grossed nearly $2 billion worldwide. The latest in the series, Breaking Dawn, has brought in more than $200 million since it opened earlier this month.

It's not just Twilight. True Blood, the HBO series about vampires, is in its fourth season and averages more than 12.5 million viewers per episode. More vampire shows are on the way.

What's the fascination with vampires and the supernatural? As I thought about this, I wondered how the viewership for vampire shows compares to the one for the final launch of the Space Shuttle. Is our nation becoming increasingly uninterested in science and perhaps even anti-scientific? Maybe not, a recent study finds American adults scoring higher on an index of scientific literacy than they did two decades ago. Or, maybe yes, since a 2009 national survey reports, for example, that "only 53 percent of adults know how long it takes for the Earth to revolve around the Sun." (Duh. About a year?)

It will be hard to build a culture that supports research and innovation as the way forward in education until we value science as a guide to improvement. With that in mind, it's worth repeating some fundamental premises of science laid out by Richard Feynman, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist. In the mid-1960s he talked about the bedrock principles of science:

The first is the matter of judging evidence--well, the first thing really is, before you begin you must not know the answer. . . The question of doubt and uncertainty is what is necessary to begin; for if you already know the answer there is no need to gather any evidence about it. Well, being uncertain, the next thing is to look for evidence, and the scientific method is to begin with trials. But another way . . . is to put together ideas to try to enforce a logical consistency among various things that you know. . . After we look for evidence we have to judge the evidence. There are the usual rules about judging evidence; it's not right to pick only what you like, but to take all of the evidence, to try to maintain some objectivity . . . As long as it's possible, we should disregard authority whenever the observations disagree with it. And finally, the recording of results should . . . not [be] reported in such a way as to try to influence the reader into an idea that's different than what the evidence indicates. (Source: Feyman, R.P. (1999). The pleasure of finding things out. Cambridge, MA: Basic Books. (pp. 103-104).

These are simple, but powerful, principles. If we follow them consistently in making and carrying out educational policy and practice we will get much closer to achieving the improvements we desire.

Fork.JPG
Photo Source: http://www.forkswa.com/twilight

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