Information Age Education
   Issue Number 152
December, 2014   

This free Information Age Education Newsletter is written by Dave Moursund and Bob Sylwester, and produced by Ken Loge. The newsletter is one component of the Information Age Education (IAE) publications.

All back issues of the newsletter and subscription information are available online. In addition, four free books based on the newsletters are available: Understanding and Mastering Complexity; Consciousness and Morality: Recent Research Developments; Creating an Appropriate 21st Century Education; and Common Core State Standards for Education in America.

This is the 5th IAE Newsletter in a new series on Credibility and Validity of Information.

Credibility and Validity of Information
Part 5: The Natural Sciences

David Moursund
Emeritus Professor of Education
University of Oregon

Information from Previous Newsletters in the Credibility/Validity Series

Credibility focuses on a belief that the person who made an allegation about a phenomenon is believable and can indeed be trusted. It is common to talk about a person and what the person writes and/or says as being credible and believable.

Validity is an important component of research. The word tends to be used in two somewhat different ways:
  1. Validity is the quality of being logically or factually sound. Validity is the extent to which a concept, conclusion, or measurement is well-founded. Results produced by valid research can be tested by others repeating the research. Additional evidence of validity is produced by research designed to find contractions to the results, and that fail to find such contradictions.

  2. In education, a research instrument or test is valid if it accurately measures what it is purported to measure.
In brief summary, one can think of credibility having a subjective base and validity having an objective base. The performance of a gymnast or dancer is determined by subjective methodologies, while mathematics and the sciences use objective methodologies.

Confusing a Child’s Mind

When I was quite young, an adult told me (facetiously, I hope) that the moon is made of green cheese. For me, this was a new piece of information that I didn’t understand very well, and I filed it away in my head. Over a period of years I learned additional “facts” that my mind associated with the green cheese moon. These included the man in the moon, “blue” or moldy cheese, and still later that cheese that has not been aged very long is called green cheese. Still later, I got to watch television as the first man walked on the moon.

How does a young mind handle a steady stream of information with widely varying levels of credibility and validity? Humans have creative minds, and they seek explanations for what they observe in nature. Two thousand years ago, it was widely believed that the earth was flat and that the sun orbited the earth. Children learned these “facts” from their parents and others. Their own observations did not provide obvious contradictions to what they were told.

I find the issue of whether the earth is the center of the universe and the sun orbits the earth to be particularly interesting. As scientists developed the telescope, theory of gravity, and calculus they were able to put together very strong arguments that the earth was not the center of the universe and that the sun did not orbit the earth. This led to major clashes between the established Catholic Church and these scientists.

Scientists eventually prevailed. But, even today many people believe that the sun orbits the earth. That is, it just does not seem credible to them that the earth orbits the sun. A person watches the sun “rise” in the east and “set” in the west. This observational data and vocabulary supports the contention that the sun orbits the earth. A research study funded by the National Science Foundation in 2012 and reported on in 2014 indicated that about a quarter of adults in the United States and a third of adults in Europe believe that the sun orbits the earth (Grossman, 2/16/2014).

Adult minds are also confused by the steady barrage of so-called “facts” that we receive through the media and directly from other people. What do you believe when you hear a politician giving their opinion about the correctness of forecasts of global warming and then telling us what we should do about the situation?

One thing you can do is to make use of the Web to investigate the correctness of the “facts.” My 12/11/2014 Google search of fact checking produced more than 13 million hits. I refined my search to fact checking global warming and got over 270,000 hits.

Of course, we still face the difficulty that a fact-checking person or organization may be strongly biased in their research and reporting efforts. I spent some time exploring the Tampa Bay Times PolitiFact website available at http://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/article/2014/sep/23/10-fact-checks-about-climate-change/. Quoting from the site:

Earlier this year we looked at a detailed video from Louisiana congressional candidate Lenar Whitney, who repeated the assertion that climate change is a hoax. We found—as we have before—that there’s an overwhelming consensus among respected scientists that human-caused global warming is real. In this fact-check, we looked at some of Whitney’s supporting evidence to argue that global warming is a hoax and found that it was weak. We rated her statement Pants on Fire.

Evidently “Pants of Fire” comes from the commonly used children’s expression, “Liar, liar, pants on fire.” Notice the statement, “there’s an overwhelming consensus among respected scientists that human-caused global warming is real.” Does an “overwhelming consensus” contribute to the credibility and validity of natural science research results?

Credibility and Validity in the Natural Sciences

This IAE Newsletter explores how credibility and validity are determined for results developed by researchers in the natural sciences. See Understanding Science (n.d.) for a brief answer to the question, “What is science?” The natural sciences include disciplines such as astronomy, biology, chemistry, computer science, medicine, physics, and so on. Mathematics (discussed in the previous issue of the IAE Newsletter) is usually considered to be a science, but it is not considered to be a natural science.

Natural scientists work to develop very accurate descriptive and predictive patterns, characteristics, and models of our natural world. The goal of researchers in the natural sciences is to discover results that stand the test of time and that others can confidently build upon (Moursund, 2014). For example, the current science of the earth orbiting the sun and the moon orbiting the earth is sufficiently accurate that it allows us to predict the time of sunrise, sunset, eclipses of the sun, and eclipses of the moon very accurately many years in advance.

As illustrated in the incorrect theory about the sun orbiting the earth, some results produced by scientists become widely accepted but eventually are proved to be wrong. Even though today’s natural scientists make extensive use of valid mathematics, this by no means ensures that their pronouncements are always correct.

So, here are two important questions about natural science information:
  1. How is the validity of information from natural science researchers determined?

  2. How does holding a strong belief in and acting on natural science information that has little or no validity affect both the people taking such actions and other people?
The next two sections of this newsletter will briefly address these questions.

Validity of Natural Science Research-based Information

Isaac Newton was one of the most brilliant science and mathematics researchers of all time. Among other things, he developed a theory of gravitation. His theory states that any two objects in the universe that have mass attract each other, and it provides details on the strength of this attraction.

The word conjecture is often used to describe some information or ideas that one believes might be correct. Natural scientists and mathematicians often use the term to describe an idea or belief that they have thought carefully about, but have not produced valid arguments to support their belief.

The term theory is used to describe a conjecture that has been carefully studied and is supported by “strong” evidence that others can examine. This allows others to repeat the research and conduct additional related research.

Newton conjectured that there was a force which we now call gravity and that it applied to every particle of mass in our universe. His research on this topic produced a theory that was very precisely stated as a formula in the notation of mathematical physics. Many years of research efforts to find counter examples to this theory and many findings/discoveries based on use of the theory have led science researchers to believe very strongly in the correctness of Newton’s theory about gravitation.

Scientists use the term law to describe a theory that has undergone such scrutiny for many years—one that has stood the test of time (Physical Laws, n.d.). Newton’s 1687 conjecture became a theory and is now called the Universal Law of Gravitation. This law is certainly not like a law created by a governing body of politicians and enforced by a police force. Moreover, even though it has been carefully tested and applied for hundreds of years, this does not ensure that it is completely, absolutely, for sure valid. Perhaps it is safe to say that it has about the highest level of validity that discoveries in science can have.

However, in the early 1900s, Albert Einstein developed the general theory of relativity. It turns out that Newton’s Universal Law of Gravitation is very close to correct for massive bodies. However, quoting from Universal Gravitation (n.d.):

Newton's law has since been superseded by Einstein's theory of general relativity, but it continues to be used as an excellent approximation of the effects of gravity. Relativity is required only when there is a need for extreme precision, or when dealing with very strong gravitational fields, such as those found near extremely massive and dense objects, or at very close distances (such as Mercury's orbit around the sun).

Einstein’s 1905 formula E=mc2 has served the natural sciences well for over a hundred years. It has not yet achieved the status of being called a law of science. Many attempts to disprove the theory have failed, but this does not mean that eventually someone will succeed in disproving the theory. See, for example, Daniel Stolte’s article on testing Einstein’s theory (1/4/2013).

Acting On or Failing to Act On Natural Science Theories

Medical researchers discovered that the disease called scurvy is caused by a severe lack of vitamin C. Quoting from the Encyclopaedia Britannica:

Although accounts of what was probably scurvy are found in ancient writings, the first clear-cut descriptions appear in the records of the medieval Crusades. Later, toward the end of the 15th century, scurvy became the major cause of disability and mortality among sailors on long sea voyages. In 1753 Scottish naval surgeon James Lind showed that scurvy could be cured and prevented by ingestion of the juice of oranges and lemons.

This is an excellent example of a medical research study leading to widespread use of the findings. It didn’t make any difference whether an individual sailor believed that the research and medical treatment were either credible or valid. The non-believer who avoided getting the necessary vitamin C could become ill, and perhaps die. Fortunately, scurvy was not transmitted from person to person, so those who got scurvy did not infect others.

Now, consider the situation of various diseases that have been well researched and that we now know are spread via bacteria and viruses. Researchers have developed vaccines for some of these diseases, and treatments using antibiotics and antivirals for others. This presents the medical world and all of us with challenges such as:
  • If enough people fail to get vaccinated, they will be at risk of becoming ill, and thereby contributing to spreading the disease. Those at risk include people who did not get vaccinated for personal reasons/beliefs and those did not get vaccinated for medical reasons.

    This topic is much more complex than the previous sentences suggest. Vaccines are not 100% effective. But, a vaccine does not need to be 100% effective to prevent an epidemic spread of a disease. Each person for whom a vaccination proves ineffective is like a person who failed to get vaccinated. It the number of “failures to be effective” and the number “not getting a vaccination” is above some critical level, a disease can rapidly spread and perhaps even go epidemic.

  • Over-use or inappropriate use of the drugs can help facilitate genetic modifications in the bacteria and viruses, and eventually make the drugs ineffective. This puts a great many people at risk.
Two Examples of Current Major Problems in the Natural Sciences

People in our world are routinely faced by science-related problems for which our current knowledge of science cannot provide definitive, “for very, very sure” answers. This short section uses global warming and Ebola to illustrate such challenges.

Global Warming

As noted earlier in this newsletter, a high percentage of scientists who have the scientific and technical knowledge to understand global warming research believe that global warming is occurring and that humans are one of the major causes. Forecasts of the effects that this warming will cause are scary!

Global warming is very complex because it involves so many variables acting over a long period of time. The computer models that have been developed in studying this situation do not have the credibility of Newton’s law of gravitation or Einstein’s theory of relativity. Moreover, weather forecasting is a very complex problem—much more difficult than accurately forecasting the time of tomorrow’s sunrise or sunset at a specified place on the earth’s surface.

There is considerable agreement among researchers that, if we are going to take action to decrease the level of global warming that is likely to occur, we need to be taking action now. However, many individuals and nations do not believe that statements about global warming are credible—they do not accept the credibility of the researchers and/or the validity of the research studies in the field of global warming.

So, from my point of view we have a situation in which:
  1. We have a theory of global warming that is widely believed by “experts” but is disbelieved by many, and has not yet had the time to undergo the scrutiny of researchers over a long period of time.

  2. Failure to take significant actions now may well prove disastrous to hundreds of millions of people over the current century.

  3. We have good evidence of successful worldwide cooperation in medicine—for example, in dealing with smallpox and polio. The world’s record in addressing many other global problems is “spotty.”
At the time I am writing this newsletter, a number of years have passed since leading scientists began to sound the warning (Climate Change, n.d.). Evidently we have passed the point of no return on the melting of some of the polar icecaps. Now, (finally, at last) a number of countries are beginning to show signs of taking action that can mitigate the still worse situations that are on the horizon (Gillis & Chang, 5/12/2014).

Ebola

Ebola is a terrible disease that is spread by contact with bodily fluids. It is very contagious and has a high mortality rate. This disease could potentially kill many millions of people. Evidently a large number of the West Africans who are currently most at risk believe that Ebola is a hoax (McCordic, 8/18 2014). However, the United Nations and a number of countries capable of providing aid are very convinced of the dangers of Ebola and are providing significant amounts of medical and humanitarian aid.

At the time I am writing this IAE Newsletter, it appears that good progress is being made in developing Ebola vaccines that can help prevent Ebola, and drugs that will be effective in treating Ebola. However, even if effective vaccines and drugs are developed, the world still faces the problem of getting widespread acceptance of their use.

Final Remarks

Research and development in the natural sciences have contributed immensely to improvements in quality of life and standard of living in our world. That is one of the driving forces that lead scientists to devote their lives to advancing the frontiers of their fields of study.

However, there are many people who do not understand and/or who do not accept the credibility and validity of results from research in the natural sciences. This is a challenge to our informal and formal educational systems. History suggests that over time, the validity of research in the natural sciences will eventually prevail with a dominant majority of people.

References

Climate change. (n.d.). History of climate change science. Wikipedia. Retrieved 12/1/2014 from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_climate_change_science.

Gillis, J., & Chang, K. (5/12/2014). Scientists warn of rising oceans from polar melt. The New York Times. Retrieved 12/1/2014 from http://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/13/science/earth/collapse-of-parts-of-west-antarctica-ice-sheet-has-begun-scientists-say.html?_r=0.

Grossman, S. (2/16/2014). 1 in 4 Americans apparently unaware the earth orbits the sun. Time. Retrieved 12/1/2014 from http://time.com/7809/1-in-4-americans-thinks-sun-orbits-earth/.

McCordic, C. (8/18/2014). Ebola frontline: Belief in 'Ebola hoax' causes unrest in Liberia and Sierra Leone. Newsweek. Retrieved 12/1/2014 from http://www.newsweek.com/ebola-frontline-belief-ebola-hoax-causes-unrest-liberia-and-sierra-leone-265330.

Moursund, D. (2014). What is science? IAE-pedia. Retrieved 12/1/2014 from http://iae-pedia.org/What_is_Science.

Physical laws (n.d.). Wikipedia. Retrieved 11/28/2014 from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Physical_law.

Stolte, D. (1/4/2013). Testing Einstein's E=mc2 in outer space. Phys.org. Retrieved12/1/2014 from http://phys.org/news/2013-01-einstein-emc2-outer-space.html.

Understanding science (n.d.). What is science? Retrieved 12/3/2014 from http://undsci.berkeley.edu/article/whatisscience_01.

Universal gravitation (n.d.). Newton’s law of universal gravitation. Wikipedia. Retrieved 12/1/2014 from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Newton%27s_law_of_universal_gravitation.

Author

David Moursund earned his doctorate in mathematics from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. A few highlights of his professional career include being the first Chair of the Department of Computer Science at the University of Oregon, founding the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE), serving as ISTE’s executive officer for 19 years, and establishing ISTE’s flagship publication, Learning and Leading with Technology (now named entrsekt). He was a major professor or co-major professor of 82 doctoral students—six in Mathematics and 76 in Education. He has authored or coauthored more than 60 academic books and hundreds of articles. He has presented hundreds of professional talks and workshops.

In 2007, he founded Information Age Education (IAE), a non-profit company dedicated to improving teaching and learning by people of all ages throughout the world. See http://iae-pedia.org/Main_Page#IAE_in_a_Nutshell.

Email: moursund@uoregon.edu.

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Information Age Education is a non-profit organization dedicated to improving education for learners of all ages throughout the world. Current IAE activities and free materials include the IAE-pedia at http://iae-pedia.org, a Website containing free books and articles at http://i-a-e.org/, a Blog at http://i-a-e.org/iae-blog.html, and the free newsletter you are now reading. See all back issues of the Blog at http://iae-pedia.org/IAE_Blog and all back issues of the Newsletter at http://i-a-e.org/iae-newsletter.html.