Thinking Science: do it early, do it often

Science is cool and critical thinking is such a valuable life skill. I’m disappointed it took me so long to discover them. That’s why teaching Miss 5 “how” to think has become a vital part of my parenting philosophy.

I have a little story to share. It all starts with the recent Easter holidays when my family jumped into the car to take a road-trip. Like many people in Australia, there are some vast stretches of road that separate us from our extended relatives, and Miss 5 has become quite use to piling the car high with bags and hitting the open road.

On this particular holiday we drove along the Newell Highway. This was exciting for me. Firstly because the Newell spans a portion of this country that I had never visited before, and secondly because the Parkes Radio Telescope is located within that chunk of country.

NERD-TASTIC!

NERD-TASTIC!

The Parkes Radio Telescope, or the “Dish” as it is fondly referred to, is simply brilliant. In 1969 NASA commissioned the Dish as a prime receiving station for the Apollo 11 mission, didn’t you know? It is still operational today and the CSIRO has set-up a very cool and very interactive science center. If you haven’t been to Parkes, you should. Miss 5 loved it so much that, instead of our initial plan to go home via a different route, we visited again on the return journey. How could we deny her a second stop in when she told us she “wasn’t finished doing ALL the science”?

Here’s the thing that got me thinking as we drove the long, straight, wind-mill dotted highway home; we are all born with such inquiring minds. Miss 5 is so keen to investigate her world, eager to learn how things work and explore nature.

We are all born scientists.

Unfortunately, for so many people, somewhere along the way that scientist gets lost. We see the evidence of anti-scientific thinking in vaccination refusers, in climate change deniers, and in creationists. I see it in own experiences with woo and alternative medicine. How I wish I’d had the thinking skills to save me from being lead down the garden path to unproven and sometimes dangerous beliefs and superstitions. I can’t help but feel that it was my lack of scientific literacy that let me down. I used to have no appreciation for the scientific method, and no concept of peer-review. I was quiet happy to naively believe people’s anecdotes, because they seemed so tangible. I gave the experiences of my friend and family more weight than blinded tests or articles in medical journals. Without science it was so easy to fall into a culture of woo.

Critical thinking and reason are skills which need to be practiced. Logic needs to be exercised. The scientific method is the greatest tool we humans have for understanding the world around us, and it needs to be taught. Children are far more ready to learn about (seemingly complex) scientific concepts than we might imagine. A school in Perth has shown us that 11-year-olds are quite prepared to learn the basics of spacetime. I think this is just marvellous!

It makes me proud when Miss 5 wants to grow vegetables from seeds, or says to Ryanoxide “Dad I’m bored, can we to some maths?”, or she makes us drive home the same way we came just so she can do more science. I’m proud because she is developing her inquisitive mind. As she grows up and forms her own opinions, which will no doubt differ from mine, I’m confident that she will have the skills to produce the evidence that proves just how wrong I am.