Fakery, wackery and tragedy aids science teaching

26th February 2010 at 00:00
Conspiracy theories, creationism and 911 can help children to evaluate evidence, expert argues

Original paper headline: Fakery, wackery and tragedy: all grist to the mill in science teaching

Internet conspiracy theories and the controversy over creationism should be embraced as opportunities to engage pupils in scientific theory and critical thinking, according to a leading science educationalist.

Anu Ojha, head of education at the National Space Centre in Leicester, argues that the tactic is the best way to "guide our children through the labyrinth of information, misinformation, claim and counterclaim which characterises scientific discourse in the media and online".

He says that the internet is the main source for scientific, societal and political information for the new generation of "21st century citizens", born from 1995 onwards.

That leaves them susceptible to unsubstantiated claims such as the idea that the moon landings were faked - believed by a quarter of the British population, according to a poll last year - and that the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Centre were a Western conspiracy.

Mr Ojha, who taught secondary science for 13 years, says teachers should tackle these theories head on and show pupils how scientific knowledge can be used to discredit them.

Delivering the annual Tribal education lecture last week, he cited three arguments used to support a 911 conspiracy theory (see box).

By pulling them apart using science, teachers could both deliver the curriculum and give pupils the crucial "critical thinking skills that they're going to need to navigate this turbulent information ocean in which they find themselves adrift", he said.

Teachers should also be prepared to tackle the debate over creationism, he said.

"It's fantastic for evaluating degrees of evidence, highlighting the crucial difference between dogma and evidence-based scientific theory," Mr Ojha said in the lecture.

Afterwards he told The TES: "It is not about opening the floodgates to creationism in the classroom. It is about being confident enough in having the levels of evidence to back up the scientific point of view."

Peter Main, Institute of Physics director of education and science, said: "There will inevitably be cases where a pupil raises topics such as creationism.

"A good science teacher may choose to use the question to illustrate why the particular theory is not scientific," he said.

`True' but wrong: Countering 911 conspiracy

Mr Ojha said the 911 conspiracy theorists' three key points (see below) are "absolutely true", but science could still be used to show that they did not add up to a conspiracy.

The World Trade Centre was designed to survive an airliner strike

It was only designed to survive a strike from a much smaller airliner coming in to a New York airport, not a Boeing 767 travelling at 400mph. A kinetic energy equation could be used to demonstrate the different effect the two scenarios would have.

The burning fuel was not hot enough to melt steel

"Those of you who teach A-level physics will know Young's modulus, that tells you you do not need to get to the melting point of steel before it dramatically weakens."

The collapse looked like a controlled demolition

"If you have half a million tons of material being supported by big girders that suddenly lose all their structural strength, everything will just collapse into free fall," said Mr Ojha. "So yes, it did look like a controlled demolition."

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