Monday, November 28, 2011

Teaching Science to the Unbelievers

I was sitting here thinking about how to write about my cousin who thinks infrared light is as unlikely as levitation, when my friend Miriam sent me this link:


http://motherjones.com/politics/2011/03/denial-science-chris-mooney


I teach science and as part of my ongoing propaganda to lure my grandchildren to the science side of the political debates in this country, I prepare simple scientific demonstrations for each of my visits.  For Thanksgiving, we had two nights of celebration, so I prepared two demonstrations.  


The first night, we made icosahedrons (20-sided rounded shapes) using 20 construction paper circles and glue sticks.  My cousin wasn’t there that night or perhaps he’d have thrown the paper circles in the air and insisted that there is no point in making spheres because the world is flat.


But he was there the second night, when I demonstrated that he human body makes infrared heat.


The Mother Jones article says, “we have other important goals besides accuracy—including identity affirmation and protecting one's sense of self—and often those make us highly resistant to changing our beliefs when the facts say we should.”


I’m not sure what sense of self my cousin has about infrared heat.  I once tried to teach a young woman that when she got into the bathtub, her body took up space and makes the water rise, just like when she puts dishes in the sink to wash them. She insisted that the water does not rise when she gets in the tub.  She was a slender young woman, but nobody is that skinny.  My cousin’s handshake is cool, but it’s not room temperature.


This youtube video shows how useful infrared light can be and detected as heat: 


http://youtu.be/2--0q0XlQJ0


My demonstration asked my grandchildren (and anyone else who wanted to participate) to shake their hands until they feel puffy. When they put their warmed hands about ½ an inch apart, each hand can feel the heat of the other hand, without touching.  


My cousin refused to participate and insisted we were all imagining things.   I asked him to put out one of his hands and put my hands about ½ an inch away from his on both sides.  He insisted he couldn’t feel anything and then pretended I was levitating him and stood up.


Then he told my grandchildren that they go to a science emphasis school and they shouldn’t believe anything I tell them.


The Mother Jones article quotes Leon Festinger, "A MAN WITH A CONVICTION is a hard man to change. Tell him you disagree and he turns away. Show him facts or figures and he questions your sources. Appeal to logic and he fails to see your point."  


No wonder we have debates about vaccines and global warming whether the Earth is a sphere.


Most of the issues of scientific debate don’t affect our daily lives.  No decisions I make would vary if the Earth were flat, or if life as we know it is a result evolution or creationism.  But the mindset of experiment and discovery has inherent value.  I’d like to pass that on to my grandchildren. The question is – how do I interest my cousin, and in parallel, the adult population?

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