There have been lots of brilliantly written and well presented Science shows for kids, Magic Schoolbus and Bill Nye the Science Guy being particularly loved among my generation. For what it's worth though, I think the greatest kids Science show was Scooby Doo.
As it says in the quotation at the top of this blog, Science is more than a body of knowledge, it’s a way of thinking. Science isn’t just a bunch of facts we've learned about the world. It’s also the method we use to figure them out. And a lot of people miss that.
It’s no surprise of course because this is the way we often have to teach Science in schools (I’m guilty of it myself). In an effort to cram through the syllabus and get students prepared for exams we often reel off a bunch of facts about the world. Interesting facts for sure, but it’s putting emphasis on the wrong thing.
We don’t tell enough stories about how the facts are arrived at. Science teachers are often in danger of becoming preachers of knowledge rather than trainers of minds. And it's a real shame. I don't pretend to have a solution to this problem (although it's one of the reasons I write this blog) but I'm always grateful when media outlets get the message of Science right.
Most science shows, whether aimed at kids or adults, focus on how interesting the world is. Don’t get me wrong, that’s fantastic, it’s a great way to show people what Science has achieved. There’s just a lack of programs that emphasise the methods of Science and the values it champions.
Skepticism, reasoned argument, falsifiable claims, emphasis on evidence, checking and validating theories, following the evidence trail whether you like it or not, acknowledging human mistakes, understanding occam’s razor, confessing ignorance, ignoring opinion and so on.
The two versions of the TV show Cosmos are, in this writer’s humble opinion, the greatest Science shows ever produced, because they managed to mix the stories of how discoveries were made with the fascinating facts themselves. But they aren’t shows for young kids. The grand delivery of Carl Sagan and the enthusiastic clarity of Niel deGrasse Tyson are inspirations to me as a Science teacher, but they leave younger children bored. Preschool kids want fun adventures, colourful characters and ideally a talking dog.
For my money, the best Scientific show for young-uns was Scooby-Doo. It didn’t really teach much in the way of facts, other than what dogs would sound like if they could talk, but it did teach the method of Science. And it did a good job of it too!
The plot of every Scooby Doo episode is the same. Without fail. Some guy is cleaning out/closing up some public building on his own, late at night. When, rather annoyingly, he sees a ghost/dinosaur/squid-monster creature. He freaks out and calls the Mystery Machine: a team comprised of a mental delinquent, his three carers, and his dog. Who he thinks can talk.
They arrive at the scene and begin investigating. They look into the history of the place, interview people and try to find the ghost, who always reveals itself to the delinquent character, who has to then run away from it, with his dog while shouting "Zoinks!".
Then, the geeky girl of the group gets a suspicion about something but doesn’t reveal it. Instead, she and the handsome young man set a trap for the ghost using the delinquent as bait. The ghost arrives, is caught in a trap designed by said handsome jock, and then all is revealed: it’s not a ghost at all, but a person in some sort of costume, using technology to fool people.
Turns out the person was in desperate need of some money. So the obvious logical business solution was to don a bigfoot costume and growl at strangers (makes you wonder if Donald Trump would try the same business tactic...unless that IS his costume?) The team get in their van and drive on to the next adventure, having foiled the villain who would have gotten away with it too if it hadn't been for these meddling kids and their pesky dog!
Although the plots of Scooby Doo episodes are so methodical you could set a metronome to them, they teach kids several valuable lessons. Think of how many shows are out there teach kids about monsters hiding in the forests, fairies at the bottom of the garden and the power of magic.
Now think how many shows teach kids the message: supernatural phenomena need to be investigated and there’s probably a rational explanation for them. I can't think of a single one other than Scooby Doo.
Scooby Doo’s heroes arrive on a scene and they investigate. They are skeptical of the ghost claims, so they test it, come up with ways of checking, do experiments and always expose the mysticism as charlatanry.
That’s another good message to teach kids. That every time a supernatural or mystical claim has actually been investigated properly, there has always (without exception) turned out to be completely natural and straightforward explanation. There are no documented cases of genuine spookiness in history, ever.
Now I should be clear, there is nothing wrong with stories about magic, wizards, witches, angels, demons, goblins, fairies and monsters under the bed. But, as James Randi points out “Enjoy the fantasy, the thought, the story, but make sure that there’s a clear sharp line drawn on the floor. To do otherwise is to embrace madness.”
There’s nothing wrong with the story of magic. After all, let’s not forget J.K. Rowling managed to make reading popular among kids in an age when the internet and video games compete constantly for their attention by telling stories about wizards and witches. Magical stories are great. I just think it’s good to have grounded stories as well, reminding kids that you can be scared by the idea of ghosts, but that doesn’t make them real.
Scooby Doo was a show about the Scientific method. Although Scooby himself was not actually that necessary. If you removed the fact that they travel around with a talking dog, every episode plays out identically. And the star of the show was not Shaggy (who’s real name was Norville Roberts, fun fact) but Velma. No surprise that the geeky Scientist character would be my favourite.
Velma was what you’d call, in literary theory, the protagonist; the character without whom there would be no story. She was the one who asked the questions, did the research, came up with the hypothesis and tested it. Without Velma the story goes like this: spooky ghosts, people run, everyone is scared. Basically the same as every other fantasy horror.
The character of Velma raises Scooby Doo into another floor entirely. Because of her the show encourages kids to put down the Scooby snacks and question what they’re being told, particularly when it’s something out of the ordinary. It teaches kids that monsters under the bed can be explained away with Science. It teaches kids that investigating and looking for evidence is the route to truth. And so I rest my case, Scooby Doo was the greatest kids show about Science ever and I applaud its very existence.
Except Scrappy Doo. He can burn in hell.
As a teacher you’re always in front of people who are figuring out what they think about the world. You want to teach them, but you don’t want to brainwash them. In all the teacher-training I was given, the advice was therefore not to give away too much about yourself in the classroom.
There’s some sense in that, but I think it can be taken too far. Teenagers are quite capable of disagreeing with someone and are quite capable of hearing opinions from friends, parents, teachers and politicians without being persuaded. Teenagers aren’t fragile or mindless drones we need to shelter and protect from “other people’s views,” they can make their own minds up.
Sometimes teenagers will listen to the wrong advice and draw bad conclusions, but I’ve never seen any reason to think adults are any better. I don't think "making bad choices" is a function of being a teenager, I think it's a function of being a human.
Besides, if we want people to grow up with independent views and the ability to discuss things sensibly, it's important to encourage debate and discussion in the classroom. Sometimes I will express my opinion in front of a class and ask what they think. Sometimes I go off topic and tell stories about something I’ve seen or noticed. Sometimes it will relate to the lesson directly, sometimes it won’t. Often I just have an idea on my mind and want to see what my students think.
Most of my students know bits and pieces about my life story; they know why I became a teacher, what I did my research on, what my favourite band is etc. But there is one issue I deliberately keep quiet. That subject is religion.
I have occasionally discussed my beliefs with one or two students but as a general rule I keep it quiet and try to show that I understand both sides of the argument, even though I myself fall very firmly on one side of it. There aren't many other things I tend to be quite so secretive about...
There are many reasons I tend to keep my religious views discrete, but the most obvious is that I want every student to feel they can learn from me. In an ideal world my religious stance wouldn’t matter. But, in an ideal world, everyone I taught would come to each lesson fresh as a daisy, cheery as a sunbeam and eager to learn. The real world and the real classroom is full of people (something else to remember if you’re training to be a teacher…your students are people, not “learners”).
A person’s religion is often a core part of their identity. People tend to see everything and, therefore, everyone, through the optics of their religious conviction. Much of the time this doesn’t cause a problem but, more than you might expect, people will make assumptions about you based on what your beliefs are.
Religious arguments also have a way of getting sour very quickly. For some reason this issue, more than most others, can stir the blood. Differences in religious opinion really do matter. They matter in government, they matter in day-to-day life, they matter in relationships and they matter in the classroom. Which is why I keep myself out of the debate entirely; not because I have no view on the matter, but because I have a very strong one.
Either side of the fence
Atheists often see religious people as wooly-minded fantasists who can’t face reality. Tragically self-deceiving, the religious person can seem (to an atheist) as someone incapable of crticial thinking, someone who must be brought to reason.
By contrast, religious people often see atheists as arrogant and closed-minded. People who refuse to accept even the possibility there might be more to life than the concrete. They worship Science as a dogma and reject God because they can’t accept not being the head of their own universe.
People on both sides of this argument see the other side as bigoted and unwilling to change. If someone is on the opposite side of the fence to you, it can be difficult to take what they say seriously. This is a problem if your job is getting people to believe what you’re telling them about reality.
As a Science teacher, my job is telling people how things are. If I talk about my religious beliefs, I am potentially sending the message that, as part of my knowledge about the world, I have come to "conclusion X". That would be irresponsible. As I say, I can be persuaded to discuss my beliefs very occasionally if I am convinced it won't affect the teacher/student dynamic but usually I stay quiet about it. Gossip spreads and I don't want to lose whole chunks of classes due to a difference in metaphysical ideology.
So, I am hoping most people aren’t exactly sure what my religious beliefs are. I keep them ambiguous online, discuss it with few members of staff and even fewer students. I would like to keep it that way (for the time being at least) not out of a desire to spread mystery about myself, but because I think it makes things run smoother. Perhaps one day I will weigh in on the discussion, at present I feel I can get more people to learn from me if they don’t see me as belonging to any particular group.
Science and religion are complicated. Whatever your views are, you are entitled to them as you are entitled to challenge other people on theirs. But there is one, crucial, all-important rule when talking about religion.
Don’t. Be. Mean.
For one thing, being mean never actually helps get your point across. If you want someone to see things from your perspective, you need to remember they obviously don’t see the world in your colours (well, freakin, obviously!) making them feel stupid won’t get you anywhere.
I mean, what are you trying to achieve? Are you trying to score points in an argument or are you trying to help them see things from your side? What approach is really going to help that happen, making snide comments or starting off from a position of understanding?
Have you ever noticed that after you’ve had an argument you always feel bad about it? Even if you won the argument you still feel you’ve somehow lost? That’s because arguments don't settle anything.
There’s healthy debate (where two people who respect each other discuss ideas and try to reach a conclusion), a dialectic (where both people start off from total ignorance and try to work things out together), an argument (where both people are confrontational) and a row (where people get mean). If you want to feel good about yourself, have a dialectic or a debate. Don’t be mean.
For another thing, if you want to bring someone around to your point of view, you need to start by considering theirs. Consider why they believe what they believe, what led them to that stance and why they don't accept your belief. And saying “because they’re stupid and ignorant and don’t want to see the truth” doesn’t cut the theological mustard or help either of you.
As I pointed out in a previous blog post: people aren’t stupid - they're just bad at thinking carefully...and guess what, so are you.
When you ask someone “do you believe in God?” there’s dozens of different things you could be asking them. Are you asking about a deistic God? Are you asking about a theistic God? Are you asking if they believe in the Christian God? The Islamic? The Jewish? Are you asking if they have faith in God or whether they have evidence for it? Are you asking if they are a member of a religion or just a non-denominational believer?
These questions are complex because the words mean different things to different people. You might ask a person one question and they end up answering a different one without realising it. For example, someone who believes in a creator God who established the Universe and set up the laws of nature but doesn't interact with human affairs is, technically speaking, an atheist. (A-theism meaning "no belief in a theistic being" which is precisely what this person believes). This is an atheist who believes in God.
So when you are talking to someone about one of the most philosophically dense and complicated ideas in philosophy, one which the greatest minds have wrestled with and failed to settle, maybe don’t poke fun, mock, make jibes and trivialise their position.
Richard Dawkins is a witty guy. He’s very clever, very well read and makes pithy, poignant remarks. But has anyone honestly been brought to atheism because of his acerbic attacks on religion? Do we really think that approach works?
Contrast that with the far more common but less televised people who stand in streets preaching at passers-by. They tell people they will go to hell for not believing and I even heard one of them threaten people’s children with damnation. I ask again: has anyone honestly been brought to religion because of these hellfire and brimstone tirades? Does that approach really work?
When you engage with someone on this topic...and you will...try to remember they are humans. They have feelings and they are probably just as confident in their beliefs as you are in yours. Remember they will have a reason for believing what they do, even if you don’t consider it to be a good one. Getting in their face isn't going to make them listen.
Yes call them out on bad thinking, yes challenge them, yes ask questions, yes scrutinise their claim. But don’t demean or degrade them.
Don’t be mean.
I love science, let me tell you why.